Phenomenal People

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Originally written for Exeunt.

We need to tell different stories. It’s a need that I’m reminded of every day, as I flick past the same narratives written and dominated by the same people, usually attempting to sell readers something in the process. Most of the stories that have been handed down to us represent only a tiny proportion of those who encounter them, or where we are represented it is in pale, limited colours – a faded watercolour version of who we really are.

Phenomenal People is, in a small but important way, attempting to shift that. The project from theatre producers Fuel is aimed at celebrating the stories of women in a world crowded with male narratives. And by women they mean all women, from Emily Davidson to your nan. It primarily exists online as a collection of profiles, uploaded by Fuel and by anyone who chooses to nominate their own phenomenal person, but it is also appearing in a series of live incarnations around the country, including at Camden People’s Theatre over the weekend.

This live version of the project sits somewhere between installation, performance and immersive experience. Immersive because designer Lizzie Clachan has created a gorgeous, enveloping indoor garden in the basement of Camden People’s Theatre, entirely transforming the space. Real grass – or so host Nic Green assures me – lines the floor, while trees appear at every turn. This lush, comforting cocoon in the middle of the city is completed by soothing lighting from Natasha Chivers and a sound design by Melanie Wilson that blends music (by women, of course) with snippets of female voices, all burbling away in the background like a distant brook.

At tables dotted around the space, visitors can browse the growing online catalogue of extraordinary women on iPad screens, as well as adding their own. And punctuating the green tranquillity are performances from a range of women, each celebrating their own phenomenal person through the medium of art. We get poetry from Malika Booker, an entertaining, breakneck Powerpoint presentation from Rachel Mars and a puppet show from Akiya Henry. Melanie Pappenheim lends her voice to the latest women to be nominated, curling her improvised sounds around their names, while Jenny Sealey joyously closes the afternoon with a signed rendition of “I Will Survive”.

In the spaces between performances, I find myself thinking about all the phenomenal women who have inspired me. The teachers who insisted that I had something to say. The incredible writers – Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Solnit – who fed and continue to feed my imagination. The voices that help to define the soundtrack of my life: Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, Regina Spektor, Debbie Harry, Nina Simone. My mum. My grandmothers. My astonishing great aunt, who just jumped out of a plane aged 80 to raise money for charity. Countless others whose art and words and acts comfort and motivate me.

It is this continuing proliferation of narratives that feels more important than the live event itself. In this form, Phenomenal People is a celebration and a spur, allowing us to toast the women who have been nominated so far and offering fuel (pardon the pun) for visitors to go away and celebrate the women who have inspired them. As an event it’s not perfect – the digital and sound elements don’t feel as smoothly integrated into the whole as they might be, and some performances are more fully formed than others – but as a project it is intensely hopeful and galvanising. And I challenge anyone to find a better way of ending the week than attempting to sign and dance along to “I Will Survive” with a room full of generous, talented and helplessly laughing women.

Nominate your own phenomenal person at www.phenomenalpeople.org.uk.

Open dialogue

Colchester 24.4.13 Theatre Arts Society and Frequency Theatre ViTW Reception 2 (2)

Originally written for The Stage.

The post-show discussion does not have the best of reputations. What should be an opportunity to share thoughts and gain artistic insights often becomes a stilted Q&A, a one-sided stream of anecdotes, or an unspoken contest to see who can ask the most intelligent question. But what about a post-show discussion for people who hate post-show discussions?

One of those people – by her own admission – is Lily Einhorn, project manager of the Young Vic’s Two Boroughs community engagement scheme. The project offers free tickets to residents of the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, many of whom Einhorn noticed were attending the theatre on their own. Recognising the lack of opportunity these theatregoers might have to discuss the work they were seeing, and acknowledging that the usual post-show format might alienate or intimidate them, Einhorn set about creating an alternative.

The Two Boroughs Theatre Club is modelled on the book club format: rather than being plunged straight into discussion immediately following a show, recipients of Two Boroughs free tickets are invited back after they have all had a chance to watch and reflect on a production. And just as a book club would never dream of inviting the author, Einhorn is firm that no members of the artistic team should be present for the discussion facilitated by the Theatre Club.

“I thought it would be really nice to have a group where the creative team are strictly not allowed,” Einhorn explains, “because I wanted it to be a comfortable atmosphere where people felt like they could say anything they wanted without fear of offending anyone, but also without fear of feeling like they’re stupid.” She continues, “it’s about unlocking something in them and saying: ‘your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s opinions’”.

Einhorn’s brainchild has been run in partnership with Guardian writer and Dialogue co-creator Maddy Costa, who has similar reservations about the traditional post-show format. “We all kind of hate the post-show discussion where everyone’s trying to ask the most interesting question,” she says. “So Lily and I both agreed that we don’t even go to those things; what we wanted to create was something different.” Their Theatre Club is designed to be as welcoming as possible, doing away with the hierarchies that usually characterise post-show events and creating a space that allows for relaxed, open discussion. The response has been enthusiastic, prompting Costa to try it out at other theatres, both through Dialogue and in association with theatre producers Fuel.

Einhorn and Costa are not the only ones seeking alternative models to the post-show Q&A. Camden People’s Theatre, for instance, has created a format it calls Talk Show Club, in which discussion is led by another theatre-maker who has not been involved with the show in question. China Plate, meanwhile, has adapted the post-show events surrounding its latest tour of Mess to suit the specific needs of both production and audience. Caroline Horton’s show is based on her own experiences of anorexia, opening up numerous issues around eating disorders. In recognition of this, China Plate are currently touring the show in association with the charity BEAT, taking it into schools and colleges as well as theatres and running a tailored series of discussions and workshops designed with psychiatrists from Kings College Hospital.

While numerous practitioners are currently experimenting with different formats, the idea of a model that eschews the post-show set-up of questions and answers is not entirely new. The National Theatre’s Platforms programme, which has been running almost as long as the theatre itself, is decidedly not post-show. Instead, the building runs regular events in the slot before its evening shows, ranging from straightforward discussions about the productions in the current repertoire to conversations that address the programme more obliquely. In the past, for example, Platforms have hosted numerous comedians and politicians, as well as a memorable encounter between atheist writer Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“It isn’t about being immediately reactive, audience wise, to what you’ve just seen,” says Platforms programmer Angus MacKechnie. “It’s either about making a choice to learn more about what you have seen on a previous occasion or coming to prepare yourself in advance of seeing it, usually on that night.” As a result, MacKechnie suggests that “it’s a different kind of commitment from audiences and we get a different kind of relationship with the audiences”. Because of the absence of an educational focus, MacKechnie explains that these events also offer audience members the opportunity to ask questions that they might not normally voice.

The desire to make critical conversations around theatre more inclusive and accessible is a feature that many of these initiatives share. The Theatre Club discussions might be guided by Costa, but the principle is that everyone in the room is equal and free to share their thoughts. “I am not the person with all the answers,” Costa makes clear, “I go in with as many questions as anyone else.” In line with this approach, Fuel’s co-directors Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell make it clear that the Theatre Club events represent “one of the key ways that we are building new audiences and making our work more accessible”. Lorna Rees, one of Fuel’s local engagement specialists and a regular organiser of post-show events, puts her attitude simply: “for me there are no ‘silly questions’”.

Crucially, all of these events are about contact and conversation. MacKechnie insists that at the National Theatre “we don’t just drop the curtain and that’s it, you haven’t got any more contact with us”, while for Einhorn the Two Boroughs Theatre Club is about “prolonging and enriching” the theatregoing experiences of its participants. The conversation itself, meanwhile, is one in which exclusive, specialist vocabulary is exchanged for straightforward, honest expression. For Costa, it all comes down to a simple but vital distinction: “Theatre Club is a place where we don’t ‘speak’ theatre, we talk about theatre, and those are two very, very different things”.

Conversation Starters

  • Maddy Costa and Fuel have found that offering refreshments instantly shifts the mood of a post-show event, transforming it into a welcoming social context. As Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell put it, “you don’t have to spend a lot on hospitality, but you do have to be hospitable”.
  • It can also help to move the discussion out of the theatre space. While the National Theatre’s Platforms have successfully used the stage, Lorna Rees suggests that sometimes the auditorium “can be quite intimidating and not conducive to discussion”.
  • Involving the audience does not have to be difficult or complicated. Costa explains, “I always start by just getting a quick show of hands, did you like it, did you not like it, something very simple like that”.
  • Angus MacKechnie recommends experimenting with the format and fitting it to the context of discussion. “In terms of format, form should follow function,” he says.
  • Fuel point out that it must be clear where and how the event is taking place, so they recommend sending out invitations, putting up flyers and making sure box office staff are fully briefed.

Photo: The Lakeside Theatre, Colchester.

Long-distance relationships

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Originally written for The Stage.

Look at the programme of any regional receiving house and the line-up is typically scattered with popular musicals, famous faces and hits touring out of or into the West End. But beyond these crowd-drawing headliners, touring is often difficult for other areas of the UK theatre industry.

For those artists and companies working slightly below the radar, without big names or familiar shows to pull in audiences, touring is becoming an increasingly challenging and expensive activity. As everyone feels the squeeze on their funding, touring companies get hit twice, as struggling venues can no longer afford to pay guarantees and instead shift the risk onto those bringing in the work. It is difficult to build a relationship with audiences where engagement is often shallow and fleeting, while theatregoers with shrinking budgets are leaving it later and later to book tickets.

As I discovered in the process of researching a report for theatre producer Fuel, challenges faced by the non-commercial touring sector are manifold, but one particular area of difficulty is around the notion of collaboration – or lack thereof. Many touring companies express frustration about the reluctance of venues to cooperate on marketing strategies and share information about local audiences, with the level of collaboration varying wildly from theatre to theatre. At the ITC’s conference in February of this year, meanwhile, the difficulty of accessing audience data was identified as one of the key barriers for UK touring.

“We don’t always have access to audience data from all the venues,” explains Hanna Streeter, an assistant producer with Paines Plough, “so it makes it difficult for us to build relationships with those audiences.” This same frustration is shared by Jo Crowley, the producer of theatre company 1927, who identifies “how tricky it is as a company to access information around your audience” as one of the primary challenges of touring. Somewhere along the line, relationships between companies and venues are breaking down.

There are, however, those working towards a solution to these problems. Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project, one of a number of initiatives funded through the Arts Council’s new Strategic Touring Programme, offers one possible model. As part of their aim to strengthen relationships with audiences on tour, the theatre producers are hiring local engagement specialists in each of the areas they visit, who then act as Fuel’s main presence in that region.

These individuals, chosen for their knowledge of the local community and its arts ecology, can serve as a central point to bring together more collaborative relations between Fuel and the venues they work with. In the project’s assessment, this approach and the “camaraderie” it created was identified as one of the key achievements of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood’s initial six-month research phase, shifting the way in which the way in which the venues in question work with visiting companies.

Going hand in hand with the need for audience data, a number of producers stress the importance of trusting in venues’ knowledge about those who attend their performances. For English Touring Theatre, who are also being funded by the Arts Council’s Strategic Touring Programme to support the roll-out of quality large-scale dramas to regional receiving houses, this is central to the success of their scheme. “Issues with touring, I think, come down to the fact that you’re dealing with such different venues,” says associate producer Caroline Dyott. “It is not the case that one size fits all and so we just slightly have to acknowledge that and trust venues to know their audiences.”

Streeter agrees, explaining that Paines Plough are using their Strategic Touring grant from the Arts Council to build a sustainable base for small-scale touring in close partnership with venues. “It’s a challenge for a touring company to understand the audiences in all of the different places that they’re going to,” she acknowledges. “That’s where the collaboration with the venue is really important, so we don’t just feel like we turn up, we do a show, we leave; we want to have a relationship with the audiences in all the places that we’re going to.”

This sharing with theatres can go both ways, as Crowley suggests: “There’s a huge intelligence and resource that touring companies have that would be really interesting to share.” Instead of acting like competitors, venues and companies might be able to learn more about their respective audiences from one another. Crowley adds: “There needs to be a better conversation between venues and funders and companies about how we work better to collect the information we need and to nurture our audience collectively.”

As Crowley points out, central to the success of these collaborations is a shift in attitude to view the audience as a shared audience. In many cases, this is a shift that is already taking place. Streeter explains, “we’re working with the venues on how we can support them and help them to grow audiences, not just for Paines Plough, but for other touring companies and for the venue and for new work in general.”

Fuel’s co-director Louise Blackwell agrees, expressing her hope that the work Fuel are doing will provide benefits “not only for what we produce but for the wider theatre landscape”. Through closer collaboration and a recognition that venues and companies are ultimately working towards the same goal, perhaps the challenges posed by touring can be collectively overcome.

Photo: Lizzy Watts in the Paines Plough production of Wasted. Richard Davenport.

Touring theatre: a risky business for audiences too?

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Originally written for the Guardian Culture Professionals Network.

Risk is a word that regularly gets aired in arguments about the arts. We talk a lot about risky work, about venues and companies taking risks, about the current economic environment making many organisations risk averse – but it’s rare that this vocabulary is used in discussions aboutaudiences. At a time of punishing austerity and squeezed budgets, what do theatremakers ask audiences to risk when persuading them to buy tickets to their shows?

This question is particularly pertinent for touring companies, many of whom are struggling to reach and engage with audiences through the current touring model. As lots of these theatremakers recognise, touring is challenging, not least because of the limited time spent in each of the areas they visit. Without the time and resources to build a deeper engagement with local audiences, touring companies demand even more risk on the part of the audience than their building-based counterparts.

However, as a number of new initiatives funded by Arts Council England’s strategic touring programme are exploring, there might be ways for these companies to reduce the risk involved for their audiences without having to become artistically conservative.

One method is that of the tried and tested. “The things that are doing well anecdotally are things which have known writers and known faces,” explains Caroline Dyott, associate producer at English Touring Theatre (ETT), who also notes that audiences are “booking later so that they can take less of a risk on something”.

Picking up on this trend, what ETT hopes to do through its National Touring Group is to offer audiences large-scale, ambitious work that has already been successful elsewhere. Instead of offering famous names, it is saying to audiences: “Look at all these quotes and star reviews; this is taking away this element of risk for you.”

There is also room for improvement in the ways in which theatremakers connect and communicate with their audiences. This can be as simple as ensuring that the work is being taken to the right people. Ed Collier, a producer at China Plate, says that “touring and making for us are always completely intertwined … right from the start of the making process we’re already thinking about the audience and how we’ll reach them, through whatever dissemination or touring model that might be.”

As well as targeting appropriate audiences, another way of breaking down the sense of risk is to adjust the way in which work is discussed and marketed. “There are some pretty simple things we can do, like looking at the language we use,” suggests Gavin Stride, director ofFarnham Maltings and a key figure behind touring consortium House. “What [companies] might think makes their show sound esoteric and clever in their world isn’t necessarily the same language that needs to be used to get a show to an audience.”

Reducing perceived risk for audiences can be as simple as building familiarity through return visits. “Most of the venues that we talked to said that returning companies do better,” notes Hanna Streeter, an assistant producer with touring company Paines Plough. “It’s about building that relationship up with the audience and returning, which is what we’re trying to do.”

Taking this one step further, Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is reaching out to form deeper connections with each of the areas it visits. The idea is to establish a relationship with the producers, allowing audiences to take risks on new work because they trust that Fuel will give them a good night at the theatre.

As co-director Louise Blackwell explains: “When we return to each of these places, we hope that people there will have made a connection and will maybe have been to see one of the shows and say, ‘that’s by Fuel, I don’t know this new artist that they’re bringing, but I’m going to go because it’s a Fuel produced event’.”

The approaches differ, but it is all about building a sustainable audience base for future work. “It’s got to be about audiences,” says Collier, “so it’s got to be about finding ways of making theatre more popular.” Streeter stresses that Paines Plough’s work is essentially about “trying to develop audiences’ taste for new work”, while Dyott agrees that ETT’s key aim is to create an audience that will outlive the length of this project.

As Fuel is keen to emphasise, the fruits of this labour could offer benefits for the whole theatre ecology. Speaking about the company’s aim to grow a wide community of audiences who trust and return to the Fuel brand, Blackwell adds: “We hope that by having a deeper engagement with the people that live in these places that will be possible, not only for what we produce, but for the wider theatre landscape.”