Archive for January, 2011

The Challenge of Touring

January 8, 2011

It seems abundantly clear to me that small arts organisations are facing a real battle at the moment, by which I mean organisations small in terms of infrastructure, not in terms of ambition, profile or achievement. Organisations which aren’t building-based risk being less visible in the public consciousness, and we only need to look at the rationale of how local authorities are implementing their budget reductions to realise that it’s the organisations with smaller infrastructures which will suffer the greatest impact over the next few years. Having spent most of my career working in touring theatre on the small and middle scale, I’ve been turning my attention recently to the challenges touring is going to face over the coming year or so, and wondering if it might be time to think of some new ideas and experiment with some new models.

As far as the obvious challenge of finance and fundraising goes, suffice to say that of course there are vitally important conversations for every touring company to be having around the topical pressures which the UK’s mixed economy funding model is going to come under in our more straitened times. I think these conversations need to include the level of reliance on public subsidy; the concept and realities of philanthropy; and possibilities for diversifying income or embracing a spirit of entrepreneurialism that don’t threaten the primacy of the company’s artistic purpose. I’m sure each and every company worth their salt will be using the next year to interrogate these conversations thoroughly and honestly and to design a long-term strategy for securing their financial future beyond 2012 in the context of whatever Arts Council decisions are handed down at the end of March.

Easier said than done, no doubt, but while impossible to ignore, the challenge of money isn’t the only one touring companies are facing.

For me, the most important challenge for a touring company right now is simply: how do we remain brave and artistically adventurous?

Of course a large part of this will be down to the artistic choices the company makes, but I think there is scope for an organisation’s whole culture playing a part in rising to this challenge. As I see it, every decision a small arts organisation makes is made within a context of risk and in support of the artistic programme, and for me the real challenge for producers, general managers and executive directors is to cultivate a positive culture of ambitious risk-taking which doesn’t jeopardise the things rightly regarded as too precious to risk losing. Being able to decipher and articulate what those all-too-precious non-negotiables are feels like a crucial process for touring companies, whether it be the ability to have an artist-led infrastructure, for example, or the scope to commission work on an international platform. I certainly think that knowing what you’re not prepared to give up liberates you when it comes to reconsidering everything else. I know that I want to work in organisations which manage to achieve a congruence between the sense of bravery and spirit of adventure of the work on stage and the way they work as a team off-stage, and I think this is easier to achieve when there’s a collective understanding of what you’re protecting at all costs, and what you’re bold enough to re-examine.

The second challenge for me is about partnerships: how do we find the best partners and how do we best nurture our relationships with them?

I don’t think it’s at all contentious to suggest that one of the keys to success for arts organisations now and in the future will be the strength and authenticity of their partnerships. I think the conundrum about collaboration is how you reconcile inevitable challenges of ownership, voice and compromise as you go about the often tricky process of translating hopeful theory about partnership working into the reality of practice. The danger as I see it is that, as collaboration becomes as much a necessity as a choice, incipient relationships can be hurried along too enthusiastically for the sake of short term benefit, before a genuine symbiosis has established itself organically between the artists or organisations in question. That for me is both the risk and the challenge: of being open to new partnership opportunities but always allowing the demands of the work to remain the primary stimulus of those relationships, rather than the sheer convenience of what each partner can bring to the table.

The final challenge I’ve been thinking about is the challenge at the heart of touring: how do touring companies connect meaningfully with audiences?

All touring companies face the inevitable challenge of, by definition, being absent from most of their audience for most of the year. Unlike building-based organisations the focus of their attention is forever split: they both need to connect with their neighbouring communities in their year-round base, and also with their audiences distributed further afield. The challenge for a company with touring at its core is to be as open to engaging with those geographically distant audiences as it is with those in its immediate locality.

I think that the time is ripe to re-examine the status quo of the touring model, to look at different patterns of working both with artists and with theatres, and there’s a great opportunity for a bold company to lead the thinking in this area. Just as venues are teaming up with resident companies and sharing certain costs or functions, might there, for example, be scope for a squad of touring companies to team up and provide a selection of shows in repertoire, sharing subsistence and travel costs as they travel the country alongside each other…?

Touring will always be the best platform for sharing artists’ work and I believe it is crucial for the health of the sector as a whole, but I think it’s going to have to work harder and become more flexible and imaginative in its structures in order to continue to serve as the backbone of a healthy business model for small organisations.