The North East Children’s Theatre Consortium ensures that fantastic theatre for children and young people remains centre-stage. Miranda Thain explains its origins and role.

Photo of young children at a theatre performance
Young children at a Hullaballoo Theatre performance

For those of us who make theatre for children and young people and believe them to be the most exciting and deserving of audiences, it can be a bit deflating to realise that not everyone shares our view. Even some of our most respected regional theatres are guilty of placing their children’s programming with the learning and participation team on a Saturday morning when the artistic director is rarely seen. This is partly to do with confidence – the belief that theatre for children and young people is somehow different, requiring a different set of criteria to judge its quality, and also sadly that both the work and its young audience are a poor relation of the adult audience that pays higher ticket prices and drinks at the bar.

This is not the case for all and many programmers are passionate and knowledgeable about theatre for young audiences, but running a cross-artform venue in the North East of England has never been an easy job and in the context of cuts and beleaguered local authorities, programme ambition in any field might seem to be a luxury that we cannot afford.

Without the ingredients to make the venues welcoming to families we are on a hiding to nothing

Until July 2012 Theatre Hullabaloo had been well-cushioned from these realities. Based at Darlington Arts Centre, a huge, rambling building which housed artists and community arts organisations as well as a studio with an ambitious and enviable theatre programme for young audiences, we took for granted that young people in Darlington were frequent and engaged theatre-goers able to access fantastic work from across the UK. Our own annual TakeOff Festival of Theatre for Children and Young People meant that local schools and nurseries could access exciting international work too. Sadly, local authority cuts meant that Darlington Arts Centre was forced to close last summer leaving us with the problem of finding a new home and the greater challenge of championing theatre for young audiences regionally without the support and resources of like-minded folk in Darlington.

Determined not to let down our audiences, we invited programmers from across the North East to meet and chew over the issue of how we might collaborate to raise the quality and profile of the work. At the first meeting all we promised was lots of cake, the chance to see what we had programmed for our TakeOff Festival with a view to extending those opportunities regionally, and time to share what each other’s programmes looked like. The meeting was massively oversubscribed: a brilliant mix of rural touring schemes, festivals, local authority venues and others, all coming together to see what might be possible. For many venues, their only offer for families was a pantomime, while others had only participatory work or the big commercial shows. Very few knew anything about their young audiences and a lack of resources meant that communications to families and schools were random and generic. But while there was no lack of enthusiasm, the barriers seemed to be twofold: programmers not having the contacts or feeling confident to programme better quality work and, depressingly for many local authority-run venues, programming budgets of any description being a thing of the past meaning that events had to be commercially viable.

It became clear that we would need to take a lead, bringing our expertise and contacts to the table and it would require resources to underpin not just programming but collaborative marketing, evaluation and the development of venues to make them welcoming to children and families. And so the North East Children’s Theatre Consortium (NECTC) was born.

Led by Theatre Hullabaloo and made up of seven venues that serve Middlesbrough, Stockton, Darlington, Durham, Stanley, Hartlepool and Washington, we secured support in the first round of Arts Council England’s strategic touring applications for a three-year project. The venues vary greatly in size, character and resources, which presents challenges and varying criteria for success, so a key part of the project is a piece of action research by Teesside University to track the journeys of each of the partners. In addition, each venue partner is working closely alongside Lisa Baxter of the Experience Business to identify their own audience development and family-friendly priorities. For some of the more experienced venues this might mean targeting a new audience segment, while for others it is about ensuring that the wording in the brochure does not discourage families from coming into the theatre. Our meetings are now full of talk of bottle warmers, booster seats, child-friendly menus and play spaces, based on a collective understanding that however good the work is, without the ingredients to make the venues welcoming to families, we are on a hiding to nothing. We hope to dispel the ‘poor relation’ mentality and position the programme for children and young people centrally in the organisation’s work.

When we set out on this three-year journey we had high hopes for what might be achieved. With the consortium ‘underwriting’ the costs of the companies’ fees in return for 70% of the box office, we hoped to encourage venues to book riskier work. We hoped to share the opportunities and contacts of an organisation like mine with a group of multi-artform programmers and give them the confidence to recognise quality work and offer it to the group. We hoped that organisations would see the artistic and outreach opportunities of a young audience and feel empowered to address that creatively. Fundamentally, we hoped that we could establish this as a model whereby organisations like ours advised similar consortia across the country. In this way we will unlock a large part of the question of how we raise the quality and profile of the theatre received by children and young people in their local theatres.

And what have we learned after eight months? We have learned that bringing people together to talk about the work and their audiences is hugely enriching and a necessary morale boost in otherwise pretty grim times. We have learned that a small amount of creative support can result in huge leaps forwards in terms of the ‘family friendliness’ of an organisation. We have learned that together we can attract great companies to tour in the North East and that this works well financially for everyone. By facilitating opportunities that would otherwise never be available to these audiences, we are communicating to our children and young people that they deserve nothing less than the best.

Miranda Thain is Creative Producer of Theatre Hullabaloo.

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