Over recent years, Oxford Playhouse has steadily increased its touring output. Tish Francis explains why.
When Oxford Playhouse re-opened its doors in 1991, it inherited the legacy of a theatre with a noble history of producing. While the early years of its new era were focused on rebuilding, it was always our ambition to make space in our presented programme for Playhouse-originated work. This aim was fuelled not only by creative needs, but by an awareness of gaps in the touring repertoire available at that time and by the desire to have more control over the work we were bringing to our stage.
Twelve years ago, when we began to plan our first Playhouse production, we saw a need for more contemporary classics with calibre casting; there was also a chronic shortage of good quality theatre for the very young. Thus, the two earliest Playhouse productions were Oxfordshire-based John Mortimers Voyage Round My Father and Rose and Jims Big Theatre Adventure.
In more recent years notably since receiving a funding uplift from Arts Council England (ACE) a regular pattern of producing and touring more challenging contemporary pieces has begun to emerge, including Pinters The Dumb Waiter and other pieces in 2004 and Albees Three Tall Women in 2006. The 2000 production of Spots Birthday Party toured twice and built on the success and audience of the Playhouses annual Christmas pantomime. We also always felt keen to bring international theatre to the region and, through touring, beyond. The South African company Farber Foundrys SeZar and Amajuba were brought to the Playhouse before touring nationally. Collaborations with several international artists and companies have flourished and enhanced our presented programme since.
This year we are producing four shows, which have to slot into the years programme of some 6070 other productions. The choice of work has sometimes been led by an artist we want to work with and at others by the play we want to stage. The shared factor is the standard and impact of performance we are striving to achieve. It will take a number of years to get the right balance, in terms of sustaining the producing and touring alongside what has always been a distinctive and successful presenting operation. Although we would not have been able to advance this strand without the uplift in core funding, several of the shows mentioned here have required and attracted additional funding certainly the longer tours. In 2005, we decided to add a summer show to this mix, a popular title designed to work for families, summer visitors and less frequent patrons, as well as our core drama audience. The productions of The Importance of Being Earnest and Oxfords own Charleys Aunt ran for four weeks with the aim of breaking even. This is a tall order so we plan to tour next years production in September and October to extend its life and to share the fruits of our labours.
This blend of produced and touring work provides a stimulating mix of theatre for our audiences, here in Oxford and on the road. It makes a strong statement about the character and aspirations of Oxford Playhouse, whilst letting us develop shows tailor made for our space. Though the message takes time to get through particularly to the national press we see it begin to raise our profile nationally and regionally, and invite more interest from artists, directors, actors, and visiting and producing partners. It is also something that has attracted the interest and support of our donors and sponsors.
Touring work does help to fill gaps in provision and it does help us to amortise costs. Producing also enables staff to engage more deeply with the creative process and to develop and utilise additional skills across all areas, including production and tour management, design, education and marketing. For those who have been with us a long time, it is a great opportunity for professional development and a chance to keep skills fresh, visiting other venues and stepping outside the usual busy pattern of weekly receiving. We really enjoy being able to tailor-make our marketing campaigns, our education work, and our sets and costumes. Ownership of the marketing for a campaign is a particular treat we can bring to bear years of experience of what works and what doesnt; tweaking it for home and on tour. We also have the pleasure of assembling our creative teams. Through weekly presenting, weve got to know so many directors, designers, lighting and sound designers, as well as stage managers, costume supervisors and production managers, that we are well-placed to bring together fresh and interesting partnerships.
Equally, the partnerships created with our international colleagues both result in and are gained from touring co-productions. From seeing The Farber Foundrys version of Julius Caesar, SeZaR in Grahamstown, we brought the show to Oxford before remounting it the following year for an ACE supported tour. The same pattern followed for Amajuba, which also enjoyed a high profile tour supported by ACE, including dates at the Barbican and at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004. It went on to enjoy a West End run and is still touring around the world, endorsing our belief that Amajuba was a show that deserved to be seen and was not replicating existing provision of UK touring work.
We have now worked in conjunction with ACE on three tours, all of which needed additional financial support to offset unusual costs. The rewards have been great both for Oxford Playhouses team and audiences as well as for those who were able to experience the work in other venues. We very much hope to be able to continue a similar programme into 2007/08 but with resources more stretched this year our ability to do so will, as ever, depend on new ways of sharing and spreading costs.
Tish Francis is Director of Oxford Playhouse.
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For more information about Oxford Playhouse productions, contact Michelle Dickson.
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