Two weeks ago, in partnership with ITC, PANDA and Manchester Royal Exchange, we hosted a symposium to explore the future of small scale touring. The responses to a survey we conducted in 2013 highlighted a uniformity of issues amongst companies, artists and venues throughout the sector, including audiences taking less risk on new work, an unsustainable financial model and challenges in maintaining consistently high production values.
We invited producers, artists, venue programmers and touring companies to discuss the ways in which we can meet these challenges head on with inventive and strategic solutions.The day was split into three sections; New Touring Models and Approaches to Tourbooking, Data and Audiences, and Working in Partnership; and each section was delivered through a series of TED style talks, which shared practical and applicable ideas.
Opening the event, Louise Blackwell and Kate McGrath from Fuel, presented New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood and highlighted their use of local “Theatre Adventurers” as a way to start conversations with local audiences. Their speech concluded with a call to arms: “when you get back to your towns and cities invite three new key members of your community to see a show in your favourite venue and meet them for a drink before or after the show and ask them what they thought”.
‘Conversation’ was a recurring theme throughout the day, instigated by key note speaker Vikki Heywood. She asked: “how much are we talking to our audiences about what they want?”
The need for local ambassadors to encourage and broker these conversations with audiences was then echoed by BAC‘s Katie Roberts and Fevered Sleep‘s Sophie Eustace, both of whom create touring work to reach new and young audiences. Sophie said “we’re making meaningful touring partnerships rather than just asking venues to present the work. So there is a shared ownership of the project and an excitement and belief in the work.”
Paines Plough joint Artistic Director George Perrin discussed similar consultative relationships with venues through Paines Plough’s small-scale network and the development of a portable small-scale in-the-round auditorium, which will embed itself in local communities and lend its space to local artists, as well as playing a repertory of new plays on tour.
On taking work out of traditional theatre spaces, Chris O’Connell from the Shop Front Theatre said “being at the shop has helped us make a point of having conversations with our audiences and understanding what they can afford, what they like, and what they can pay. We’re not retailers like other shop keepers, but we welcome people at the door, we trade experiences, build relationships with our audiences and have conversations.”
On touring in rural Scotland, Neil Murray of NTS asked “how can we change the demographic of audiences?” and introduced Five Minute Theatre – plays by anyone, for anyone – as their means to bridge an ever widening social gap.
Contact Theatre‘s Artistic Director Mat Fenton presented the need for internal collaboration through multiple programmers and artistic visions, to enable a socially diverse programme of work.
Sam Eccles introduced the The Touring Network, an on-line tool to enable more efficient rural tour booking in Scotland. A similar database to that of partnership touring network HOUSE, which Mark Makin presented while emphasising a fundamental need for shared risk between venues and touring companies.
This financial sharing of risk was later reaffirmed by ITC‘s Charlotte Jones, who in reference the #illshowyoumine campaign said “we cannot keep pretending it’s acceptable to work for nothing,” and suggested that the Arts Council help level the playing field, calling for re-distribution of funding across the UK.
But it wasn’t all about money. Warwick Arts Centre‘s Matt Burnham and Marine Theatre‘s Tim Bell and Harry Long spoke passionately about artist collaboration and development through their offerings of space and time resource. As well as their R&D by the Sea, Tim and Harry celebrated breaking down exclusion zones by working with neighbouring venues on programming.
Throughout the day, we were reminded of Arts Council England’s recent announcement to enforce the sharing of audience data amongst NPOs. As explained by Nick Bareham from Au Insights, to use this data effectively we must provide a value exchange which calls for transparency with our audiences and again, conversation. Jo Taylor of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre also said “if we understand what someone wants to get out of the experiences we offer, we are best placed to fulfill them.”
Speakers from the wider industry also offered interesting provocations. Sholeh Johnston from Julie’s Bicycle noted that rural touring is 30% more sustainable than bringing a theatre full of people into a city, and likewise, the emissions from a theatre production are less than if the audience were to stay at home and watch TV.
As the day drew to an end and delegates descended on the Royal Exchange bar to continue their discussions, we at Paines Plough left Manchester abuzz with ideas on how we can implement this sharing into our own touring models, and in particular how we can create more meaningful relationships with our audiences and partners. For all the challenges we face as a touring theatre sector, the reasons for collaboratively finding a way of securing its future feel more urgent than ever.
As we move forward and continue discussions on the development of touring, we’ll be adding all interesting contributions, so if you have anything you think might add to the discussion then, please tweet @futuretouring with #fsst and a link to the material.