Features Published 7 March 2016

Making Connections

As 'German Skerries' opens at Orange Tree Theatre, Barney Norris reflects on its status as the theatre's first touring production – and why seeking new audiences, not consolidating existing ones, is the way to go.
Barney Norris
'German Skerries', an Up In Arms production.

‘German Skerries’, an Up In Arms production.

For the first time, my company Up In Arms are producing a play by another writer. Robert Holman’s German Skerries, first (and last) seen at the Bush Theatre in 1977, returns to the London conversation in co-production with the Orange Tree Theatre, and makes its maiden voyage out on the road in association with Reading Rep on a tour that also takes in Scarborough, Lancaster and Hull.

It’s a project full of new adventures. For Up In Arms, never having ventured beyond the landscape of my own writing till now, this production will do as much to express our taste and our values as anything we’ve previously undertaken. The first time you choose a project out of the blue, rather than just going to work on your co-artistic director’s next play, you say a lot about yourself and what you stand for. We stand for images that remind audiences all life is extraordinary, and we’ve been lucky. Many companies don’t get their hands on the one play they want to make right now so early in their development, but German Skerries is that play for us. By bringing it back to the light, we have a chance to set a north star in our sky we’ll be able to steer by for years to come.

For the Orange Tree, this is the first production to take to the road. That’s extraordinary, really, for a theatre with such a rich and storied history, but it’s symptomatic of that organisation’s new vitality, and it’s the future of theatre production. Theatres aren’t going to consolidate their audiences any more, not the way the ecology of the sector is developing. For a show to deserve its slot in the cultural conversation it will need to be dynamic, to seek new audiences, to speak for new people. There’s a step-change happening all across the theatre which is visible primarily as a proliferation of co-production relationships, but at a more fundamental level is a whole new way of thinking about playmaking previously adopted only by the outriders, the exceptional. When I was growing up, the world’s best work was made by touring companies which evolved symbiotic, production-specific partnerships with co-producing buildings to make their shows. Up In Arms developed to emulate that model. Now, increasingly, it’s going to be the first reflex of any producer to wonder who they can collaborate with in order enrich their work.

That’s partly the accidental legacy of the last recession – a diminution of funds has led to more innovative thinking. It’s partly the result of a reimagining of how plays are made in the UK, led, I think, by the reinvention of the National Theatre Studio, which emphasises the value of collaborative partnerships in developing excellent, ground-breaking work. And it’s also a response to a sea change in the way the theatre’s speaking and seeing. When I started working in this trade seven years ago, most plays read like they were written by the same people, about the same people, and aimed at the same people. Now, wherever you look, that’s changed: a new generation of artistic directors is committed to documenting how big the world is. In service of that goal, drawing on the expertise of others in order to speak to and for more of the world becomes a basic necessity, and collaborative practice must occupy an ever more central position in the trade. The Orange Tree are perfect examples of the energy that’s being injected into the work being made right now as a result – collaborations are emerging all the time with Sheffield Theatres, the National Theatre, Snapdragon Productions, Up In Arms and next with English Touring Theatre, and the impact of what the Orange Tree does is felt ever further as a result.

For Reading Rep, German Skerries is a first visiting production for a company which has made all its shows in-house to date. Part of the same new generation of producers as Up In Arms, Reading represents the future of how theatres are going to ensure they serve a meaningful social function. Situated in the heart of a community that wants more art, Reading Rep is a learning and training centre, offering BTec qualifications to dozens of local young people. I’ll be working with them once the show is open to explore new ways of community-focused play development. The idea of collecting your stories from the people you make them for is thrilling to me, as it seems to offer the possibility of a more complete engagement between a play and its audience.

Engagement, above all, is the keynote of this production. What we’re trying to advocate at every level of the work we’re making is the act of connection as centrally important, crucially valuable – connection with the story and the community it stages, connection between the people who share the same experience by watching this play, connection between the companies whose shared value are putting German Skerries on stage. That’s the project the next generation of theatremakers are going to be engaged in – not only the creation of images, but the creation of links.

German Skerries is on at Orange Tree Theatre until April 2nd. Book tickets here, or visit the Up in Arms website for details of the production’s full tour. 

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Barney Norris is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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