Back in September last year, I wrote a column reflecting on the frequent lack of connection between theatre and its surroundings. One of the major issues I identified at that time was to do with touring, which produces a structure in which “London is frequently either the source or the desired end point for work, generating an influx of shows geared towards the capital and casually indifferent to their location”. The difficulty that touring theatre always faces is the fleeting nature of its presence – here today, gone tomorrow.
Since then, I’ve been following an initiative which is attempting to solve just that problem. Funded through the Arts Council’s Strategic Touring Programme, Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood (NTiYN) project aims to forge more meaningful links between the theatre producers, the work they tour and the places that work visits. In Fuel’s words: “we want to create a following for our work: one that is sustainable, growing and ever-changing”. The neighbour analogy is key; Fuel want to build a relationship in which they might not see audiences in a certain area all the time, but whenever they do get together they can be sure of a good time.
Eventually, the aim is for Fuel to commission work from its artists that directly responds to each of the areas it visits, cementing a genuine connection between audience and production. In the initial six-month research phase that I was involved with, however, the emphasis was very much on establishing links and learning lessons to take forward into the future life of the project. Fuel visited six areas – Poole, Preston, Stockton, Colchester and Malvern – in which it worked to develop audiences in partnership with a Local Engagement Specialist (LES) hired for their knowledge of the local community.
Alongside my observations from this process, I spoke to a range of different companies, venues and producers involved with touring theatre in the UK. The most striking thing about these conversations was the frustrations that keep recurring again and again. The phrase “parachuting in and out” was particularly popular, while nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned the lack of cooperation that touring companies often meet from venues. There are also, unsurprisingly, financial challenges, as budgets are squeezed across the board and money-conscious theatregoers are waiting later and later to book. Some producers suggested that the way theatremakers attempt to speak to their audiences needs to be improved, while the question of how to get the right show to the right audience was another persistent one.
It struck me, however, that the first step towards overcoming these many barriers might be achieved through the simple effort of collaboration. Of course, while it’s simple as an idea, it can often be less so in practice. As neither a member of a touring company nor a venue manager, I can’t speak for the structures that inhibit successful cooperation and I’m not privy to all the competing factors that no doubt get in the way. But in theory, the act of just working together seems like a vital start.
Through closer partnerships between companies and programmers, schedules might be coordinated in order to successfully reach the right audiences and support the work with an appropriate series of workshops and events. By linking up different arts organisations in an area, crossover interests could be used to the advantage of all by marketing at relevant local cultural events. After all, different art forms hardly constitute mutually exclusive interests. Most importantly, perhaps an understanding of the audience as a shared audience, rather than one to be fought over by competing companies and venues, could begin to build that audience base for everyone. Just because someone enters a theatre to attend one event doesn’t mean that they won’t then attend another, different event (provided, of course, that they didn’t have a horrendous experience; the quality of the work itself always remains important).
I also wonder if there’s something to be said about talking. The theatre industry is often accused of all talk and no action (witness, for instance, the criticisms thrown at Devoted & Disgruntled year after year), but in this instance communication could make a huge difference. Fuel is not the only company exploring new ways of touring through the Arts Council’s Strategic Touring Programme – far from it. While each of these initiatives will be specific to the needs of the organisation in question, its audiences and the work it produces, there are surely some shared lessons. By discussing these, organisations might be able to collectively learn and move forward, rather than repeating the same experiments and mistakes that others have already made.
This is integral to what Fuel hopes to achieve through NTiYN and the sharing of its findings. As co-director Louise Blackwell puts it: “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’. And 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.” It sounds a little utopian, but perhaps by working together and starting a conversation, in the end everyone can benefit. At the very least, it seems worth a try.