Features Published 10 March 2021

Alphabetti Theatre: A new model for small-scale theatre

Ali Pritchard explains how lockdown gave Newcastle’s Alphabetti Theatre time to reflect, and build a new model that works better for both artists and local communities.

Ali Pritchard

The Alphabetti theatre sign goes up in September 2017

Small scale theatre is a beast unto itself – held together by duct tape and powered by coffee. Artists and staff work tirelessly to ensure that venues stay open. We are used to living on a financial knife edge, being adaptable and forever ready to show initiative, to ensure that great art can be made and seen. It’s an exciting place where careers are started; a space to experiment, evolve and discover excellence for artist and audience. It survives with hard work and can-do attitude.

In 2012, some friends and I started Alphabetti Theatre. First it was in a room above a pub, where we had to clean pig’s brain and blood out of the nooks and crannies following an over-excited metal gig before we could open. Then it was in a basement of a disused office block that previously had been a Berlin-esque illegal nightclub. Then in 2017, after support from the incredible New Diorama Theatre, we became a charity. With help from artists, the local community and the Newcastle college construction course, on a shoestring budget, we converted an old rubber stamp factory into an intimate 80-seater artist-led independent theatre.

The new decade started well for us at Alphabetti. In the previous year, we’d held 300 performances, worked with 1,700 artists and had 13,000 audience members through our doors. In January 2020 we were runners up for Fringe Theatre of The Year 2020 at The Stage Awards; apparently we were the first theatre outside of London to be shortlisted. We then produced Rocket Girl by Steve Byron, funded by Arts Council England and Community Foundation. This production brought over 700 children and families to the theatre over 5 days, and provided a free creative workshop designed around STEM themes in the show. Shortly after, we had a two-week run of the excellent LGBTQ+ show Fitting by Matt Miller and Peader Kirk, a production Alphabetti had been supporting since 2016.

And then, on 16/03/2020, we stopped.

With ADHD, I am not good at stopping. However, this forced break gave me and the rest of the Alphabetti team time to think, reflect and evaluate.

We’ve started again, and this been our thinking. The work that is made in the North East is incredible. The quality and quantity is astounding. Yet rarely it gets out of the region, or is seen by enough people in the region. For bookers/programmers it was often far and expensive to travel, which meant that they requested videos of work (which is another expense and won’t do the real thing justice).  For audiences there are barriers in terms of access, finance and hearing about it in time. This isn’t for a lack of desire for people to experience their work, but a lack of time and resources. And finally for artists, it felt like a revolving door. Here one day and gone the next, with time, money and space a constant worry.

In my early years, when I set up Alphabetti, I would get paid last. Often, if the funds weren’t there it meant that I wouldn’t get paid. This led to me working six part-time jobs as well as running a theatre, and still getting rejected by Wonga for a paycheck loan! Now six years on from that time, I have been able to build Alphabetti into a more stable organisation. I don’t ever want artists to feel as desperate as I was. 

Alphabetti Theatre’s bar during 2019’s Moving Parts Puppetry Festival

So, with our new programming model, we’ve tried to create time, money and space for our artists. Rather than working with thousands of artists over a year, we’re reducing that number to 15 odd companies, we’re focusing our limited resources and pooling them with our artists, to try and achieve the biggest and best result for our audiences.

Alphabetti is now a co-producer on all the productions that we’re working on, which means that we’re able to offset the cost of rehearsal room hire, through a charitable tax rebate – in short, we can provide artists with as much free space as they need / is available. We’ll also manage the budget and cashflow, meaning that an artist doesn’t have to bankroll a production until their funding or box office income comes in.

This shift inevitably means programming fewer productions. Rather than working with 2,000 odd artists over 12 months, we’re now working with 11-15 productions in a year – offering each production a long run (between 2 – 3 weeks). We’re going to program those productions at least eight months in advance, so we can work with the artists to plan and adequately fundraise. This means that our tireless and brilliant part-time staff can work with artists on their marketing, community engagement and access plan, thinking about how both parties can juggle their time. This move has been championed by my board of trustees, particularly the wonderful David Byrne who is New Diorama’s Artistic / Executive Director. New Diorama moved to longer running shows as a small-scale space a few years ago and it’s been an excellent decision for them.

We have been able to fundraise to bring in freelance access consultants, who Alphabetti will pay to advise artists in creating accessible work. That fund has also enabled us to purchase captioning and audio description units, and training for our technical coordinator on these devices. Having a more concentrated program means that our technical coordinator can spend time to ensure the show is captioned and audio-described, something they couldn’t do when they have 30 different performances over one month, and are only paid a part-time contract. According to Difference North, 24% of the North East is disabled, which means that up to a quarter of the region previously could not experience the majority of small-scale theatre. One of the attractions that helped us decide upon our venue was that the main entrance is step-free, meaning that is it is wheelchair accessible – although unfortunately one of the fire exits isn’t step free so we are still limited to the amount of wheelchair users we can have in the building at any one time.

According to the indices of deprivation, Alphabetti is located in one of the 10% most deprived areas in the UK. As part of our new model, we’ve also committed to offering Pay What You Feel performances until 22nd September. By removing the financial barrier of a ticket price, it means that so many more people can watch theatre if they want to. This is something we’ve dabbled in for the past four years, but by devoting our model to it, we can cover the financial risk. It’s been a measured decision, as we know that by working with the artists for an extended period, we’ll be able to open their work up to more people. Pay What You Feel is anonymous and reliant on the audience’s honesty; they pay what they feel they can afford at the end of the performance. If they’re skint but loved the show, we hope they champion the work in other ways. If they’re flush, we ask they put in a little more for those who can’t. I first came across this model with through Slung Low’s Hub in Leeds, since I have learnt from the incredible Annabel Turpin from Arc Stockton – I was recently ecstatic to see that Tarek Iskander at BAC has committed all of their theatre shows as Pay What You Can as well.

I originally started Alphabetti as I wanted a platform to perform my own work. This then led to the realisation that there were lots of artists also needing that platform. One of the negatives to this model change is that we’ll be saying ‘no’ a lot more. Still, since I started Alphabetti, the ecology has changed in the region, meaning that there are more spaces for artists to perform. Additionally, we are looking to seek further funding for artists wanting to experiment and try something new (they may be emerging, they may not) providing a stage for new work as a wraparound, themed to our main production.

These changes are a huge risk for Alphabetti, but so is creating a piece of work. Artists are expected to offer a piece of their soul on stage and then also cover the financial risk as well. Our new model is our way of creating a real partnership between artist and venue, and hopefully taking some of that fear and trepidation away, which hopefully will lead to even better work.     

Alphabetti Theatre announced our new season on Thursday 4th March 2021, we really hope you can experience it with us. For more information visit www.alphabettitheatre.co.uk 

Advertisement


Ali Pritchard

Ali Pritchard is artistic director Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle Upon Tyne.