At the end of a three-year project touring contemporary theatre to small venues in the north east of England, Annabel Turpin and Kate Sanderson share the lessons they have learned.
Four years ago Arts Council England hosted an event exploring why more contemporary work didn’t tour to the north east of England. There were few answers in the room although someone did suggest it might be the weather.
REACH enabled venues to broaden the spectrum of work on their stages, experiment with work they would not ordinarily be able to programme
But the provocation set us thinking, and subsequently we talked to colleagues in some smaller venues across the region. It became clear to us that the main issues were around knowledge and confidence. Most north east venues weren’t on the ‘touring map’, so didn’t get approached by companies. And if they did, they weren’t confident to book the work as it was unknown to them and their audiences.
The REACH project
In response to this meeting, Stockton Arts Centre ARC and Leeds-based theatre and dance producers Dep Arts, which specialises in contemporary and new work, initiated a three-year project called REACH. It ran from April 2014 to December 2016, and toured nine high-quality, contemporary theatre productions to eight venues across the north east, as well as to ARC itself. The venues ranged from a small community-run theatre in Saltburn, to more established arts centres in small towns such as Alnwick and Hexham.
For many of the venues this was their first experience of receiving work of this kind, so the project also supported venue staff to build the skills and confidence they needed in terms of programming, audience development, marketing and technical know-how.
We have learned five lessons from the project that we think the sector needs to know.
1. Small venues do it differently
Small venues are often encouraged to ‘buddy up’ with larger venues to develop their skills, expertise and knowledge. This can lead to an erosion of confidence, implying that small venues are somehow inferior and need help or advice. Small venues operate differently from larger ones, in that they manage their resources extremely well and develop a close understanding of and relationships with their audiences in ways that larger-scale organisations sometimes find difficult to achieve.
Celebrating these differences and encouraging all scales of venues to learn from each other would make a significant contribution to the sector and the confidence of those working in it.
2. People in the right place
REACH highlighted the challenges that small venues and small companies face trying to communicate with one another. With hands-on venue staff and project-based companies they struggled to find time to talk to each other. By deploying a small amount of resource with the right people and at the right time, REACH made a big difference and helped both sides feel more confident in their ability to deliver high-quality experiences to audiences.
The key areas of this were around audience development and technical support. We employed a full-time audience development co-ordinator to enable much more effective communication between venues and companies; and a production coordinator to liaise between venues and companies so that equipment, skills and expertise were in place for each of the shows in plenty of time.
“We feel a more professional venue now, enriched by our experience of participating in REACH” – Alnwick Playhouse
“[I have gained] a relationship with other programmers in the region who I can now go to for advice or to discuss arranging dates for touring companies to make it more financially viable, which then allows us to bring in more work from outside the region” – Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre
“Before REACH we didn’t have any new work programmed so we have been able to tap into a new audience” – Saltburn Community & Arts Association
“I rarely get the time to see work and to be able to have seen a snippet of so many in one day was fantastic” – Audience member
3. Networking is vital
In a small venue work is undertaken as part of a small team which can lead to a sense of isolation. While region-wide networks did exist, most of the REACH venues weren’t actively engaged in these prior to the project. REACH created a vital network specifically for smaller venues, reflecting their needs and priorities and helping to build confidence and knowledge based on shared information.
4. Showcases bring companies and venues together
Enabling programmers to see work by different companies is a challenge at all scales. This is especially so in small venues where staff have crucial operational roles making it difficult for them to be away from their venues in the evening.
A ‘Go and See’ fund is often used as a solution, but in reality we know many struggle to make this work. REACH found a different solution. By creating a showcase event, we brought programmers and other staff from nine venues together with 12 companies, offering them opportunities to see excerpts of shows, share artistic policies and discuss the work with peers. The feedback from both venues and companies was hugely positive, and has resulted in bookings being made.
5. New work for new audiences
Diversifying audiences and reaching new people is a major priority. REACH enabled venues to broaden the spectrum of work on their stages, experiment with work they would not ordinarily be able to programme and engage with audiences in their region in a much more meaningful way.
Our audience development work focused on reaching new audiences in communities across the region and on researching and building relationships with groups, organisations and individuals that will have a legacy well beyond REACH.
This active, creative approach to building audiences, backed up by a programme of relevant, new and interesting work on stage, meant that REACH both strengthened the relationships venues had with their existing audiences and helped them reach out to new ones.
Possibly our biggest learning point from the project is that financial resources are vital. All touring companies highlighted a willingness to visit REACH venues again in the future, but only if it was financially viable. Ideally this would require a longer-term approach to funding touring in the north east of England rather than a project-by-project approach, and this is a conversation we are looking forward to having with Arts Council England and others.
To read the report click here.