Posts Tagged ‘Theatre’

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.

West Midlands theatrical goings on in 2010

January 1, 2010

I can’t claim credit for this brilliant picture – it was taken by a friend of mine on New Year’s Eve.

Following on from signing up to the West Midlands Theatre Pledge initiated by James Yarker from Stan’s Cafe (see earlier blog post), I have been thinking about what shows I’ll be attending in 2010 to fulfill this commitment. Turns out, it’s nothing like as hard as you’d think to find 12 regional shows that sound intriguing and exciting and I’ve been booking tickets like there’s no tomorrow. So, here’s what I’ll be showing up at over the coming months in the West Midlands area:

I kick off next week with the wacky sounding Ringside at Birmingham’s Town Hall, performed by Mem Morrison and presented by the brilliant triumverate of Fierce, Arts Admin and Birmingham Rep.

Following hard on its heels are two slightly alternative events: Foursight Theatre’s Education & Outreach department’s The Corner Shop Schools Project – a site-specific piece devised by Wolverhampton pupils and performed in their school; and a screening of You, The Living by a new arthouse and world cinema club in my home town of Worcester (not theatre, I know, but a cultural initiative I’m keen to support) at the city’s small subterranean Arts Workshop.

In late January I’ll be heading to Birmingham’s Custard Factory for a promenade performance of Measure for Measure by Rogue Play Theatre, a company I’ve been introduced to via the Stan’s Cafe’s blog. Never seen their work before so this one will be a first for me.

I then embark on a series of outings to Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre where I’m currently shadowing the Executive Director as part of my Clore fellowship. Their new season includes some promising shows, and on my hitlist is the trilogy of Neil LaBute plays in the studio, plus Medea (a Northern Broadsides production) and Behud on the main stage.

Also in Coventry, I’ll be heading down the road to the City Arcade shopping centre where Theatre Absolute are leaseholders of a streetside unit for the next year or so, in which they’ll be performing their new show Breathe in the spring.

My former colleagues at Foursight Theatre will be touring their co-production with the ever inventive and charismatic Talking Birds in the spring – a full tour list isn’t yet posted online anywhere that I can see, but I happen to know that West Midlands performances of the cabaret-style show, Forever In Your Debt, include outings at the Arena Theatre Wolverhampton, The Courtyard Hereford and Warwick Arts Centre, so I’ll definitely make it along to one of those.

Talking Birds have got a couple of other projects in the pipeline for 2010 which I’ve also made a note in my diary about: Project 42 at the soon-to-be-reopened mac looks great, as does We Love You City, their autumn show at the Belgrade Theatre about Coventry City Football Club’s winning of the FA Cup way back when.

At Warwick Arts Centre I’ll be taking in Filter’s production of The Three Sisters and attending the Bite Size Festival in March, at which I’m especially looking forward to the premiere of Untied Artists‘ show Al Bowlly’s Croon Manifesto.

Not strictly relevant to the pledge – as it’s taking place at London’s Hampstead Theatre – but care of the creative team at Stratford’s RSC, is the premiere of Dunsinane. Directed by another Clore fellow Roxana Silbert and written by David Greig, I’ll be going along to support.

Other highlights on my radar but slightly off-message as far as West Midlands’ work goes include Bristol Old Vic’s production Juliet and her Romeo, ENO’s production of Satyagraha, a brave and unusual collaboration with Improbable, and Trilogy at BAC, one of the hits of 2009’s Edinburgh Festival I didn’t manage to see.

So, that should keep me busy for a few months and get me started on fulfilling my pledge. Any other suggestions most welcome of course.

Taking the Pledge

December 3, 2009

Last week, at the invitation of the Arts Council West Midlands’ Theatre Officer, I attended an Open Space discussion entitled The Challenge of Change – How can we create a better future for theatre in the West Midlands? It was something of a call to arms for the sector in the region and demonstrated a very positive collective will from the 80 or so theatre makers who attended to address the challenges we all identified through a series of conversations over the two day event.

This morning I was visiting the Stan’s Cafe website to book my tickets for their latest show (The Just Price of Flowers – on until Saturday at their A.E.Harris factory site in Birmingham; well worth a look!) and I came across a blog post from their director James Yarker on his thoughts following the event. He has come up with a series of pledges that he’s encouraging all of us to take to ensure the conversation results in us all ‘doing’ as well as ‘talking’. I think he’s on to something so I’ve decided to join him and take up the pledge too. Do spread the word and, just maybe, this will begin to make a difference.

The West Midlands Theatre Pledge

1: Attend 12 theatre shows in the next 12 months, 4 by West Midlands writers/artists/companies you haven’t seen before, 1 in a West Midlands Venue you’ve never been to before.

2: Take 12 people who have never been, rarely go, or don’t ‘do’ Independent Theatre to a show. Share transport.

3: Host a meal/party for 8 people 4 of which you barely know.

4: Write 12 comments/reviews/blog entries about theatre on other people’s sites.

5: Attend 1 mid*point or return to the next Open Space event.

A new chapter

May 24, 2009

Well, having begun this blog a couple of weeks ago in the wake of my participation in Fierce Earth’s social media course, I have been struggling to figure out what I have to say or comment on that might be of interest if made public, hence the infrequency of posts since the first flurry of enthusiasm. Partly I think this is me getting used to the idea of blogging, getting over any reservations about appearing narcissistic, and accepting that those that are uninterested can easily move on to another corner of the wonderful world wide web.

However, events of the last 48 hours have been significant enough to have had me obsessing about them ever since, so it feels like a strong enough topic to share with anyone out there who’s reading, or listening. (Blogs feel more like speaking than writing, to me, and therefore the most relevant verb for the receiving action at the other end would seem to be listening, rather than reading, but I accept that that may well be a matter for debate.)

On Friday afternoon I found out that I have been offered a Clore fellowship for 2009-10 and, whilst it still hasn’t quite sunk in, I am absolutely over-the-moon-delighted to have been given this amazing opportunity: a year of funded professional training, research and development; a chance to immerse myself in my chosen field and reinforce my passion for what I do.
[More info here.]

I cannot wait to get started, and yet, I am so determined not to waste a second of this opportunity that I also want to be as prepared as possible, and September feels awfully soon – by when I need to have figured out my aims, goals and focus for the coming year. I imagine there are very few instances in someone’s working life when an event of professional significance also feels like an event of personal significance – I can call to mind only a few instances so far for which I would say that is true for me – but I feel the news of this opportunity is certainly one of those. I see it as a chance to develop holistically and deeply, to understand and hone my understanding and opinions about the cultural field I work in, and to explore thoroughly some of the areas of my professional interest about which I am also personally passionate.

I am going to begin this cultural, professional and personal journey by ensuring my brain is well exercised and up-to-date by the time I embark on the first part of the fellowhip in mid-September, so have set myself the task of designing a reading list for myself. I feel committing this to ‘paper’, well, virtual paper, anyway, will encourage me to apply myself to the task, so I’ll start with the following titles, all of which I have been meaning to get around to reading for some time:

The Empty Space – Peter Brook: I know, shameful that anyone working in theatre hasn’t read this, but hands up, I haven’t yet, even though I purchased a dog-eared copy from a Hay-on-Wye secondhand shop many years back. So, this must be the first gap in my knowledge to fill.

State of the Nation – Michael Billington

A Cultural History of Latin America – Leslie Bethell (ed.): I am thinking about how my interest in South America and its culture might become a part of the focus of my Clore year, and since my knowledge of the continent’s cultural history has so far been compiled in a rather piecemeal fashion – primarily through absorbing information somewhat haphazardly on my travels each year – I feel it is time to acquiant myself with a more structured overview of the continent’s history.

That feels like a good start; any other suggestions most welcome!