Small ways to make things better

In a climate of cuts to public subsidy, and demand that the arts justify their existence economically, it’s really easy to view the audience engagement programme Fuel are testing with NTiYN as a straightforward exercise in putting bums on seats. Things are going well when auditoriums are busy, less so when audiences are sparse. But – even before the commissioning phase begins, in which Fuel artists create new work for and with the collaborating towns and cities – NTiYN is about much more than that. Tucked in the comments on a previous post of mine here is a lovely story from Lorna Rees, local engagement specialist in Poole, about two teenage boys whom she coaxed in to the Lighthouse to see Inua Ellams’ The 14th Tale. They would never have come to see it of their own accord, but they came, and they loved it – and when Inua is next in town, they might even go back. What they saw on stage was a story they could recognise – one that illuminated their own stories, and the world they are growing up in. This, surely, is the key argument for the arts – not whether those boys buy a drink in a local shop or sandwiches from the nearby Subway.

I was in Poole last week for Will Adamsdale’s new show, The Victorian in the Wall, and to attend Lorna’s post-show Theatre Salon. This event was an experiment, building on the Theatre Clubs I’ve been hosting in London with Dialogue at BAC, and with the Two Boroughs Project at the Young Vic, but also trying to incorporate elements of the traditional post-show Q&A. It could have been an uncomfortable disaster: instead, everything about it was delightful. In the gallery at the Lighthouse, currently showing an exhibition of prints by local artists, Lorna had set up a treats table, with wine, olives, flapjacks and tiny Tunnocks-style teacakes. Chairs were gathered around the table for the Q&A, and this circular arrangement took away the stilted formality that might have infected the conversation if we’d stayed in the raked theatre space, making it feel more open and light. After 20 minutes or so, the Q&A ended but the cast stayed in the room and mingled: the atmosphere was more like a party than anything else.

Did we talk about theatre? Yes, and where people live, and the effort they make to come to the Lighthouse, and how they love engaging with art because they don’t feel creative themselves, and the singing that their children do in choirs, and their bemusement that friends would rather spend £15 buying beer in a pub than seeing a story on stage. In a quiet moment, I marvelled at this space Lorna had created, where it didn’t matter what your involvement was with theatre: as long as you had some feeling for it, you had a place in the conversation.

It made me think back to a discussion I co-hosted (with Dialogue) at BAC last autumn, thinking about the relationships between theatre-makers, critics and audiences. We talked quite a lot about the discomfort of press nights, how false and tense they feel, and David Jubb, artistic director at BAC, said something that I’ve wanted to hold on to ever since: it feels so peculiar to him that his theatre should make such a fuss over critics, giving them free wine, the best seats, wanting to be sure they’re having a good time – when the people he really wants to make a fuss over are his audiences, particularly the loyal punters who love BAC and love the adventures it takes them on. In setting up her Salon, giving her audiences a drink and a bite to eat, initiating a friendly conversation with the makers of the work, then gently opening that conversation up to take in the Lighthouse, other work, life itself, Lorna did exactly the thing David Jubb was talking about: made her audiences feel special. One couple I spoke to, aged (at a guess) in their early 50s, told me they never usually stayed for post-show events, because they always assumed the talk would go over their heads. This, though, they had been glad to attend.

So these are the thoughts I’ll be taking with me to Stockton next week, on my first visit to ARC. I’m a little apprehensive, because Stockton is a mystery to me: I know it through local blogs, through the picture of it painted by Louise Blackwell elsewhere on this blog, and, more recently, through the impassioned writing of Daniel Bye, someone I know a little bit and admire a lot, who wrote a terrific blog post in the days following the death of Margaret Thatcher about her deleterious effect on Stockton-on-Tees – indeed, everywhere-on-Tees:

I feel tremendous pride in and love for my home region. The trouble is, I always find it that little bit harder to maintain this when I’m actually here. That business park is nothing to inspire pride and Stockton’s once thriving Georgian High Street is now a mix of charity shops, pound shops and betting shops. Some of the most beautiful Georgian buildings were knocked down in 1971 for a shopping centre, to widespread public fury. This street, where the friction match was invented, within sight of the terminus of the first-ever passenger railway journey, is dying. Not much more than five minutes out of town is a housing estate suspended mid-demolition, with a few scattered houses obstinately surviving the project’s having run out of money. Meeting people to gather material for this project I find an enormous amount of inspiring history, but keep running up against a lack of hope in the present.

From what Daniel says about that project (Story Hunt, at ARC on June 26) elsewhere on his blog, I get the impression it might offer a quiet reminder to its audience-participants that politics, history, the things that change or characterise a community, aren’t just imposed on people: they are made by people, by us, and we all can contribute to the change we want to see. There is something of that spirit in Uninvited Guests’ Make Better Please, the show I’m going to Stockton to see again and discuss with audiences. Make Better Please starts with the audience in groups, reading and talking about the day’s news: this becomes the material for a ritual that gradually transforms into an exorcism. It ends with a flare of hope, an invitation to think about the little (and sometimes big) acts of generosity that make life better, friendlier, more caring. I loved it when I first saw it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds a year ago: it felt furious and thrillingly alive; above all, it felt inspiring to me – it made me want to go out and look for ways to create change, to contribute to my community. I hope audiences in Stockton feel the same.

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Artists and audiences: a two way street

by Catherine Love
“It depends on the nature of the work and your long term aims.” Inua Ellams’ response to my question about engaging with audiences, asked after the first of his two performances of The 14th Tale at the Continental in Preston, all of a sudden prompts me to think about what we’re doing from a slightly different angle. For all the talking that has gone on elsewhere, this is the first time I’ve had a proper conversation about New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood with one of the artists involved. I realise, with a sharp prick of guilt, that in thinking so much about audiences I’ve been thinking less about the work.

Other than taking it to more people, what does a deeper engagement with the audience do for a piece like The 14th Tale? It’s a show that’s now been going for a number of years, playing at venues including the National Theatre and touring all around the country. While it charts Inua’s own journey from Nigeria to London by way of Dublin, the piece is less about place than about people; about Inua’s cheeky, mischief-making younger self, a trouble-maker from a long line of trouble-makers. At its heart this is a sharing of stories, a theatrical form with deep and wide-stretching roots, and a form that invites us to think about our own stories, our own memories and anecdotes. In every place it visits, every community it encounters, those stories will be different.

My conversation with Inua follows a disappointing turn out at the Continental, dampening an encouragingly positive reaction from those who did attend. Christina puts it nicely when she describes the night’s audience as “small but perfectly formed”. Sadly aware of the depleted audience, and with the aims of this particular project in mind, I ask Inua if he finds the current touring structure frustrating. In part, I suppose I’m asking because I know I would be frustrated. But Inua seems surprised by the question. “I don’t know anything else,” he shrugs. For him, the focus is on the work, and touring simply provides a vehicle for it to reach and connect with more people.

This conversation is followed by others the following Thursday, as a number of Fuel’s artists are brought together for FuelFest at the Bristol Old Vic. After the first ever performance of Victorian in the Wall, which will be visiting Malvern, Colchester and Poole during its tour as part of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, company member Chris Branch chats to me briefly about his experiences of touring. He sees touring as an ideal way of developing a show over its life, particularly in the case of devised and ever-evolving work such as The Victorian in the Wall. The dynamic can be tested with different audiences, gauging different reactions in different places and feeding that wealth of audience response into the piece as they go. It sounds – to reluctantly use a word that the show itself would probably ridicule – sort of organic.

I’m brought back to these thoughts a few days later, at a post-show discussion as part of Sprint Festival at Camden People’s Theatre. Following a work-in-progress showing of Made In China’s new show Gym Party, a line-up of programmers and producers are discussing a new initiative that has seen four different festivals – Sprint, Sampled, Mayfest and Pulse – collaborate in order to commission the piece. The driving idea behind this joint commission is that it will allow the work to mature over the four festivals, all spaced out across spring and summer, providing opportunities for increasingly developed work-in-progress showings in front of a range of audiences.

While this is a very different proposition to New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood – it’s festival based, it’s supporting just the one show, and the focus is on the artists rather than the audience – it offers a striking model for developing work in partnership with audiences around the country. Although much of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is about forming more meaningful connections with audiences, connections – like conversations – go both ways. The positive impact that these deepening encounters might have on the theatre involved during its lifetime and constant evolution must surely be part of any improved model for touring, creating an improved structure for both audiences and artists.