The Old Vic’s community theatre projects may be uneconomic and time-consuming, but Steve Winter and Alexander Ferris believe they make a valuable contribution to the theatre’s output.
Guilherme Zühlke O´Connor
As yet another round of cuts come to bear on theatres across the UK, many theatre managers will be looking for areas that they can scale back without compromising the business. Unfortunately it is often the community work that is the first to go. After all, this work is expensive as it takes a lot of time and resources to possibly end up engaging one or two individuals. The work is never going to be directly ‘profit-making’; its results are sometimes barely perceptible and its successes difficult to articulate. Sometimes the decision is so tied up with specific funding, say from local councils, that the decision to cut it is taken out of the theatre’s hands (as with Hampstead Theatre, Newcastle Theatre Royal and many others across the country).
At The Old Vic we are in the unusual position of not receiving regular government subsidy so we are under no financial obligation to deliver community work. It is only thanks to the management of the theatre, our generous supporters and not least the leadership of Artistic Director Kevin Spacey that we have been able to approach this area of work with such confidence and ambition since 2006. Through Old Vic New Voices (OVNV) we engage over 8,000 people every year and a sizeable chunk of that is through our OVNV community strand which reaches out to Londoners aged 16 or over from all walks of life. We see the greatest impact on these individuals in the large-scale productions that are created by and for the community.
Our community productions offer the chance to diversify the artistic output of the organisation and build new audiences without the risk you would find in the main house
For each production we identify a topic that we know will resonate, such as consumerism, what it means to be a Londoner, obesity or mental illness. We consult our community through workshops across London to find out what that issue means to them. We interview experts in the field. We gather research materials, images and books. This process can take up to three months without any visible output, but it is a vital component of creating a truly reflective piece of theatre. During this time we also identify those individuals who may have never heard of us and begin to build relationships. We then commission a professional writer to produce a script that not only responds to the research materials but can also accommodate a company of 100 to 200 individuals in an accessible, contemporary story.
Once that script is delivered, we hold open auditions, normally meeting up to 1,000 people from every background and profession imaginable. Once the final company is selected we rehearse on evenings and weekends for six weeks. The productions are presented in an external venue and all tickets are offered for free, often bringing well over 50% of new audiences to the work.
Though the productions may take place outside the building, we work very hard to ensure that the connection to The Old Vic is maintained. In-house production staff approach the work with the same level of professionalism as the main house; the marketing of the productions maintain the house style; top-level creatives are employed; and participants are invited to see the main stage shows and vice versa. After all, OVNV community productions are often the biggest new script commissions of the year. Investing in the work in this way reaps dividends for both the organisation and the individuals taking part.
For participants the status given to the work builds their confidence and raises their aspirations; many participants have described their experience as ‘life-changing’. For the theatre there is a public-facing demonstration of its inclusive role in the community as well as enhancing advocacy at a grassroots level.
But to only consider these results is reductive. It can impact on core business objectives too. We rely heavily on ticket sales as our primary source of income and therefore we are not in a position to present riskier work in the main house programme without some sort of guaranteed box office return. Our community productions offer the chance to diversify the artistic output of the organisation and build new audiences without the risk you would find in the main house. Audiences are seeking something surprising and more radical in addition to their mainstream options. Our community theatre productions deliver a different experience in that the locations can vary and the artistic form can be more fluid. The people are real and the open auditions give us a chance to present a truly reflective picture of what London looks like. The model allows us to tackle issues that really matter and should be in the mainstream but are often sidelined because they are too thorny. Presenting this work as part of the wider artistic vision sends out a strong statement: The Old Vic is a theatre for you, whoever you are.
This year we have launched The Old Vic Community Company to enhance the community connection to the building and to enable us to present more bold and ambitious works. This three-year project will see us reaching out further both geographically and demographically, delivering pop-up performances across the capital and recruiting fresh, new writers to take part. It will operate very much like a company-in-residence, engaging a new audience and taking the risks where the main house work cannot.
When it comes to community theatre work, ‘bang for your buck’ style economics do not work. We know that we invest more in the individual participants than we will see returned in ticket sales, but we also know that this is an investment in the future, building passionate and loyal supporters, offering a platform to and building an audience for more experimental or ‘risky’ work and expanding the portfolio of outputs to potential supporters. These points, alongside the social imperative as a business to bring a benefit to the area in which you operate, make the argument for retaining the community work at a time of financial hardship even stronger. It is difficult but we have found that by making community work part of our key business objectives, we have reaped the benefits from increased advocacy in the local area and deepened engagement with supporters to enhanced staff morale. It takes time and dedication to make the work as effective and impressive as it can be. A genuine commitment from the Artistic Director who likes the work and sees its value is vital. Making community theatre part of our core business aims has improved the work we deliver, enhanced the relationship between participants and the theatre and benefitted the business in a myriad of ways. A community programme that can deliver these aims is worth its weight in gold.
Steve Winter is Director of Old Vic New Voices and Alexander Ferris is Head of Community.