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What can be done to create better links between a touring company and the communities where it tours? Catherine Love offers some suggestions.

Photo of Lakeside Theatre in Colchester
The Lakeside Theatre in Colchester

At Devoted and Disgruntled earlier this year, in the midst of a weekend grappling with countless challenges currently faced by theatre, one question inspired a particularly frustrated discussion: “What can we do about touring?” The consensus seemed to be that touring theatre in the UK is facing something of a crisis, while answers to the central question were not forthcoming. From the increasing financial strain of taking a show on tour, to the feeling that relationships with audiences are often fleeting and shallow, the message was that something is not working.

When I listened to these increasingly animated conversations, I was already involved with a project hoping to address some of the very frustrations that I heard being expressed. Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood (NTiYN) initiative aims to forge better links between Fuel, the work it tours and the communities it tours to, offering an improved and more sustainable touring experience for everyone involved. For the first six months of the project, I followed and documented its progress, with the purpose of writing a report that would situate NTiYN within the wider touring landscape and share its findings with the industry.

The challenges faced by touring, as I soon discovered, are manifold:

  • Companies and artists are perceived to be taking a greater share of the risk than regional venues.
  • Fewer resources are available, meaning that the marketing of a show and its engagement with local audiences is limited.
  • Theatregoers are booking later, contributing towards a general aversion to risk.
  • Touring theatre companies are often denied access to audience data at the venues they visit.

Speaking to numerous venues, producers and touring companies, the frustrations were strikingly similar. In response to these frustrations, NTiYN is attempting to establish a dialogue with venues and audiences, both new and existing. Fuel’s Co-Director Louise Blackwell describes the initiative as “a pilot research project run by Fuel in order to find new ways of engaging with more and more diverse audiences through touring really exciting and innovative new work”. The initial six-month phase, funded through Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, focused on establishing links with partner venues and developing audiences in these areas.

Touring theatre companies are often denied access to audience data at the venues they visit

The emphasis at this stage was on research and exploration, generating findings that could be taken forward into the project’s future life. The ultimate aim is to create trust in Fuel as producers, building a relationship that establishes confidence on the part of audiences and encourages them to experience new work. The project also involves work eventually being commissioned specifically for particular localities, cementing the link between the cultural event and the area in which it is taking place, with Fuel sitting at the nexus of these relationships.

The five venues involved in the first phase of NTiYN were The Lighthouse in Poole, The Continental in Preston, ARC in Stockton, the Lakeside Theatre in Colchester and the Malvern Theatres. Each of these venues received one or more of the five Fuel shows included in the initiative: Uninvited Guests’ 'Love Letters Straight From Your Heart' and 'Make Better Please', Inua Ellams’ 'The 14th Tale', Will Adamsdale’s 'The Victorian in the Wall', and Clod Ensemble’s 'Zero'.

Alongside presenting these shows, each venue was also involved in research and audience development work carried out in partnership with a local engagement specialist hired by Fuel for their knowledge of the local community. This model was designed to provide Fuel with additional networks and contacts in each of the different locations, as well as supporting the desire to establish a deeper connection with the areas that they visit.

The audience development work undertaken at each of the venues by the local engagement specialist spanned a wide range of activities, including workshops held by the visiting artists, engagement with local schools and universities, communication with existing arts and community networks, ticket offers and discounts, and the promotion of Fuel’s work at other arts events. Fuel also worked with Maddy Costa of Dialogue, who ran theatre club events at a number of the venues. These informal post-show discussions are modelled on the format of a book club and offer an open space for anyone who has attended to share their thoughts.

The results of NTiYN’s early attempts to engage new audiences were largely successful. According to the Audience Agency’s evaluation, at least 25% of those attending a NTiYN show were new to the venue they visited, while Fuel attracted at least 10% new audiences to every show on the tour. NTiYN was also shown to engage with some particularly hard-to-reach groups for the first time, and the direct feedback from audiences was overwhelmingly positive.

Although there were some stumbling blocks – which, given the exploratory nature of the first six months of the project, is to be expected – there are a number of areas in which NTiYN has achieved encouraging outcomes. The most successful aspects of Fuel’s work included the collaboration led by the local engagement specialists and the more personal approach to audience engagement that was enabled by working with a team member based within the local community.

Following the publication of my report, NTiYN has moved on to the next phase of its development. A number of artists are now visiting the areas where Fuel has established relationships, with the aim of developing work specifically for these communities. The report itself, meanwhile, is just the start of a conversation geared towards sharing what Fuel and others are learning about touring.

One platform for this knowledge-sharing is the NTiYN blog, which is sharing findings from elsewhere as well as from Fuel’s project. Other projects that are part of that conversation include Battersea Arts Centre’s Collaborative Touring Network, aimed at sharing work more creatively between London and the rest of the country, and house, a touring and audience engagement initiative supporting work across south east and eastern England. As Louise Blackwell explains, the hope is that Fuel’s work might offer long-term, sustainable engagement with touring theatre “not only for what we produce, but for the wider theatre landscape”.

Catherine Love is a freelance arts journalist.

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Image of Catherine Love