Reinventing the C Word

A Midsummer Night's Dream Full company - Credit Simon Annand (2)

Originally written for Prompt.

Something quietly extraordinary is happening in Bristol. While around the rest of the country stories flood in about the plight of precarious arts organisations and the cuts being passed down by local authorities, here there is a genuine conversation taking place between the arts community and local government about how they might move forward together in the face of reduced funding. In Bristol, the ‘c’ word is not cuts, but collaboration.

The healthy discussion that is currently taking place around the arts in Bristol is largely driven by the passionate commitment of new Mayor George Ferguson. Bringing with him experience from a range of architectural regeneration projects and a personal history of heavy involvement with the arts and cultural scene in Bristol, Ferguson has taken on the role with a firm belief in the importance of the arts to the city and its ongoing revitalization. He is keen to emphasise that he is “absolutely determined that I work with the arts to defend them as much as possible at a time when money is extremely tight”.

While the primary focus of concern might be on squeezed central funding from the Arts Council, money from local authorities also forms a vital part of theatres’ financial make-up. As councils everywhere face slashes to their budgets, the arts are one of the areas up for review in local government spending. One need only look at examples such as Newcastle Council’s widely publicised proposal to make a 100% cut to arts funding in the city and now Westminster’s decision to do the same by 2015 to understand the difficulties that theatres are currently facing.

“Like everywhere else in the country, the landscape is pretty bleak in terms of support for the arts in Bristol and particularly in the region around Bristol,” says the Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris, acknowledging that the city is no exception in terms of funding decreases. “But the exciting thing – and for me the completely new thing – is that in Bristol there is a way of thinking about arts provision and the cultural life of the city which is holistic.”

In marked contrast with the attitude of many other local authorities, Bristol City Council views the arts as a vital component in the life of the area. As Morris puts it, “the premise that the cultural life of the city is an irremovable part of what makes it viable, an irreducible ingredient in its ongoing success, is already made here”. Comparing Bristol to other cities across the UK, Ferguson adds, “maybe we’re the least apologetic of all the cities about the importance of investment in the arts”.

To illustrate his argument about the regenerative power of the arts, Ferguson points to the example of the Tobacco Factory, a once derelict and abandoned industrial building that he took over and renovated 15 years ago. Replacing the old tobacco industry with a hub of cultural activity, the Tobacco Factory is now home to a thriving theatre and has helped to revive the surrounding area, providing economic stimulus in the form of bars, restaurants and other businesses. As Ferguson observes, “it’s a completely different place to the one that I found 15 years ago”. He is also emphatic about the financial value of the city’s culture, suggesting that “every pound that goes into the arts is probably resulting in £10 of regeneration benefit within the greater community”.

But this focus on the arts as a key element in the regeneration of an area is more than a simple economic argument. While there is proof that a flourishing arts scene stimulates economic activity, it is also an attraction for people to move to the area and therefore sustain it going forward. Morris argues that this is something that arts organisations need to recognise just as much as local authorities. “The arts need to be part of a holistic conversation,” he insists. “There isn’t a separate conversation about the arts; there’s a conversation about the health and regeneration and growth of the whole city, which includes the arts.”

One current example from Bristol effectively demonstrates what can be achieved when the arts become an integral part of wider considerations about an urban area. Following the success of last year’s production of Treasure Island on an outdoor ship, the Bristol Old Vic is once again taking to the streets of the city for its summer family show, creating an ambitious open-air woodland set. Meanwhile, as part of an entirely separate initiative, the Mayor is introducing traffic-free Sundays in the city centre. Thanks to the atmosphere of open discussion, these two projects have been able to link up, benefitting all parties involved.

In order for these holistic conversations to take place, however, arts organisations need to work together. Rather than competing for a decreasing pot of funding, Morris suggests that the arts community has the best chance of survival when venues join forces. He provides the example of the Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory Theatre: “We’ve discovered that both of our cases for funding are stronger if we’re collaborating in how we strategise them. That’s not necessarily an easy position to get to, but it’s really vital.”

Speaking about the need for collaboration, Ferguson positions the local authority at the heart of such relationships. “It’s a four-way partnership between the arts organisation, local government, the Arts Council and business,” he explains, stressing the urgent need to bring business into this equation as government funding contracts. “I think the local authority can be the enabler that helps those four-way partnerships to happen,” he adds.

This enabling might take the form of making introductions to local businesses, initiating discussions between the various different parties, or simply ensuring that the arts remain part of the overall conversation about an area. What Ferguson makes clear, however, is that the relationship between arts organisations and their local authority cannot be about funding alone.

“We don’t want to hear that they want loads of money throwing at them, because that is the scarcest resource at the moment,” he says, injecting a stark note of realism. “But we do want to hear that they would like to work in partnership with us in order to seek maybe a more social-entrepreneurial way of proceeding.” Returning to that notion of collaboration, Ferguson continues, “it’s not a patronising partnership, it’s a partnership of equals, in that we both have the common interest of drawing audience activity and investment”.

Bristol is not entirely alone in this collaborative attitude. Further north, where cuts to local authority funding are even deeper, there are also positive stories. While the threat to arts funding in Newcastle rightfully received much media attention, below the radar other councils are working productively with arts organisations to weather the challenging financial environment. In Bolton, for instance, the local council has worked hard to maintain standstill funding to the Octagon Theatre since 2009, despite reductions in overall budgets. The theatre is unequivocal about the importance of this support.

“Since I arrived in Bolton a year ago the support of the town has been remarkable,” says chief executive Roddy Gauld. “During my first meeting with the Council Chief Executive he said he was proud that Bolton had three things: a major football club, a university and a producing theatre.”

As well as protecting funding as far as possible, Bolton Council has worked collaboratively with the Octagon in other ways. The theatre has recently received a £50,000 grant, for example, which will go towards refurbishing the theatre’s cafe and bar this summer. Beyond financial assistance, the council has also been able to think more creatively about alternative ways in which to support the Octagon, offering practical help such as IT and property services. According to Gauld, this all stands as proof of Bolton Council’s recognition of the role that the theatre plays in attracting visitors to the town.

Once again, the example of Bolton has as much to do with a valued relationship between the theatre and its local community as it has to do with money. “I think the Council is totally aware of the value the theatre brings to Bolton,” says Gauld. “It’s obviously important to them as an asset, and of course there’s the social and economic impact we make, but they also see and feel the town’s sense of pride and affection for the Octagon.”

Commenting on the similar sense of pride that people in Bristol hold for the arts in their city, Morris talks about the “character” of a place and the need for local government to understand the individual character of its local area. It is ultimately this understanding that is key to any relationship between local authorities and the arts. “In significantly different ways, cultural activity is a really important part of the character of every city,” Morris argues. “There’s a lesson to be learn from looking at a city, trying to work out what its particular cultural character might be, and then trying to invest in that.”

Photo: Bristol Old Vic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Simon Annand.

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Originally written for Prompt Magazine.

“In the spirit of trying to capture something, you’re trying not to affect or change it.” These words from Digital Theatre’s co-founder Robert Delamere are something of a manifesto for the company, which has been attempting to faithfully capture the theatrical experience on film since 2009. Through its online library of downloadable recordings, Digital Theatre offers audiences the opportunity to engage with productions without needing to be in the same room – or even the same country – as the performers on stage. The initial aim, as Delamere and founding partner Tom Shaw tell me, was to capture live performance in the best way possible.

“It had been done before, but usually very poorly,” Delamere says, his frustration palpable. Shaw agrees, observing that video recordings of theatre often insert a damaging distance between viewer and performance, with all the action taking place “over there” and being filmed by just one or two cameras. The solution that Delamere and Shaw applied to this problem was to bring film language into the theatre, using multiple cameras and shots to create a recording that they claim is “a very true representation of the performance”.

These questions of proximity, quality and fidelity to the live experience are ones that have dogged recent developments of videoing techniques in British theatre. Inspired by the success of the Metropolitan Opera’s use of live-streaming, which it first launched in 2006, over the last few years the recording of performances has become more than just a matter of archival documentation. Increasingly, theatres and companies are viewing video as a vehicle for reaching and expanding audiences. How to grow these audiences without compromising the quality of the content, however, has proved to be a persistent issue.

“You’re trying to capture the connection between audience and performer,” Delamere explains, identifying the central difficulty that video recording faces. “There is something very tangible and alive about that.” Alongside Digital Theatre’s application of film language, a process of discussion and collaboration with the creative teams involved in the productions they are filming has been key to the way they have approached this difficulty. “I think if you address something by working with the intentions of the performers and the whole creative team, you can’t exactly replicate it, but you can get quite close to the spirit of it,” Shaw suggests.

I receive a similar response from George Bruell, Head of Commercial Development at Glyndebourne. The Festival has been among the most forward looking performing arts organisations in this area, having first streamed its operas live to cinema audiences back in 2007. In 2013 it will be streaming the entire Festival for the first time, making this content available both in cinemas and online through the Guardian website. For Glyndebourne, quality is everything.

“It’s very easy, even if you’ve got the best quality material on stage, to not do justice to it unless you’ve got the best people filming it and it’s done in a collaborative way with the creative team,” says Bruell, placing a heavy emphasis on artistic collaboration. Decisions about which operas to film will be made months in advance, he tells me, and the teams filming the performances will be involved throughout the rehearsal process. While Bruell identifies audience growth as a major impetus behind Glyndebourne’s decision to stream its operas, he asserts that this is “secondary to the quality of the experience”.

Assessing whether the audience growth that is at the heart of these projects has actually been achieved forms a large part of their ongoing development. While the audience research currently available is limited, the numbers seem to suggest that an audience is there and that it is expanding. Digital Theatre, for instance, records between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors to its website each month, while Glyndebourne’s 2012 season was viewed online by over 100,000 people through the Guardian website. Another significant player in this field is National Theatre Live, which at the beginning of its fourth season of live cinema streamings boasted a global audience of one million who had seen its broadcasts.

Other than total viewing figures, the audience insight that these companies have managed to gain is largely anecdotal, but the early signs are encouraging. Delamere and Shaw are insistent that there is an “amazing appetite” for the content that Digital Theatre is providing, speaking of the many emails they have received from users of the site. Glyndebourne, meanwhile, has found that audiences are just as keen as the Festival organisers to authentically replicate the live experience. Bruell recalls one particularly memorable photograph sent in by an audience member showing a table set for two with champagne and candles in front of a laptop playing the live opera broadcast. “Whoever sent in that picture had, in their own little way, been trying to recapture some of the magic they’d be getting at Glyndebourne.”

Part of the “magic” that Bruell talks about also comes down to the choice of material to live stream or make available to download. As he explains, “a lot of thought goes into the make-up of the Festival; our artistic colleagues are thinking about the balance and mix, so that people coming to Glyndebourne can have a choice between different periods of history or different styles of production”. This process of selection is no different for online or cinema audiences, and for the 2013 Festival a large part of the artistic consideration has involved selecting the range of operas with these audiences in mind as much as those physically attending at Glyndebourne.

Similarly, the choice of productions to film and make available formed a major part of the early decision making behind Digital Theatre. “We were very keen to ensure that what we were doing was a mirror of the living theatre,” says Delamere, “that it wasn’t just the most commercial piece of work out there or what was coming from the biggest producing houses.” In line with this aim, their selection of recordings range from the acclaimed West End production of All My Sons to Clare Bayley’s The Container, a claustrophobic performance for an audience of just 28 inside a shipping container. “We’ve talked to a lot of producing houses all across the UK trying to find the right kind of content,” Delamere continues, describing it as “a very egalitarian principle”.

Throughout this decision making process, Digital Theatre’s relationships with theatres and companies have been key to its strategy. Shaw emphasises that “from the very beginning it was going to be built in conjunction with theatres and in conjunction with the industry”. This is reflected in the company’s initial range of partners, which included the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court and the English Touring Theatre. “It’s about trust really,” Shaw continues, “it’s about them letting us into their space. It’s very much a collaboration.”

Digital Theatre is now working to extend these relationships, as it provides a platform for quality content from theatres such as Shakespeare’s Globe through its new Collections catalogue and begins to seek out more collaborative working models. “We have started to go into co-producing partnerships where there is some sort of investment from the producing house,” Delamere explains, suggesting that such an approach creates “a potentially more interesting deal and a more engaged experience” for theatres.

For now, these developments primarily offer theatres an opportunity in terms of audience reach rather than in terms of profitability. National Theatre Live, for example, is just beginning to turn a profit on some of its broadcasts after substantial internal investment alongside funding and sponsorship from sources such as the Arts Council, NESTA and Aviva. Where the potential to make a profit from these ventures might lie, however, is in the growth of live as well as online audiences. Far from the cannibalisation of live theatre that was feared might come as a consequence of digital video streaming, both Digital Theatre and Glyndebourne point to evidence that the availability of this material online and in cinemas is in fact attracting new audiences to experience the productions first-hand.

Digital Theatre has come to realise that, rather than thinking of video recording as a substitution for or threat to theatre and live performance, it might occupy a different category entirely. “One of the things we asked was ‘what is this?’” says Shaw, speaking about the audience research they have conducted at recent screenings of their recordings. “Is it film or is it theatre? The majority of people said it’s neither, it’s something in between.”

Although this new category may widen access and attract new audiences, none of the emerging players in this field are suggesting that the opportunities afforded by digital are about to supplant traditional theatregoing. As Bruell is keen to emphasise, whatever the developments enabled in this area by advances in technology, it is never going to be a true substitute for the live experience. “It will always play second string to the experience of the auditorium.”