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Presenting theatre in pubs and social clubs can help breathe life into communities and engage non-arts audiences. Rod Dixon explains how Red Ladder has created a touring model dependent on local promoters.

Photo of actor with three men with backs turned
A scaled-down production of 'The Damned United'

Malcolm Johnson

In 2014, Red Ladder Theatre Company was unsuccessful in renewing its national portfolio organisation status with Arts Council England (ACE). Nothing focuses an organisational mindset better than the threat of closure, and so big questions were asked: What is our purpose? Who do we want to reach? Do we deserve to survive?

We want people to enjoy quality art in their own social spaces, regardless of whether they’ll ever visit a formal theatre

Red Ladder exists to make theatre about and for people whose voices aren’t represented. After losing our funding, a remarkable £30,000 was donated through crowdfunding by our audiences and peers, making it clear this work is of vital importance.

Local touring

It also presented an opportunity for us to apply for ACE Strategic Touring funding. The aim was to initiate a programme aimed at a non-theatre-going audience by taking plays to non-traditional venues such as miner’s welfares, pubs and community centres.

The ACE subsidy is essential as there is virtually nil return – a £3 ticket with a beer voucher produces a tiny yield. But funding barely scratches the surface of what is needed to maintain a non-traditional touring circuit.

In our 50th year, we now have six shows in our Red Ladder Local programme and the management of this stretches us to capacity. We’re working with 12 venues, all in areas of very low engagement and usually highly economically deprived. In some cases, the local working men’s club or community hall is in danger of closing down. Communities thrive when they socialise together and supporting these social centres to thrive – and not just survive – is a core aim.

Finding the right venue starts with who the promoter is and how enthusiastic they are for building an audience for theatre. They are essential as they often sell the show by word of mouth or over the bar. Low engaged audiences tend to be risk-averse but they’re looking to be entertained, so we commission and select plays that are likely to interest them, from stories about sport (The Damned United) to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.

Getting booked is in some respects the easy part. Getting local people to buy tickets and walk over the threshold is the next challenge. The even greater challenge is persuading that same audience to return again for another show. This is where mentoring plays a vital role.

Support and mentoring

We have funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to increase the representation of working-class people in theatre by training promotors of these small venues.

First, we made the decision to form partnerships with the main receiving house as a hub in each of the areas we’re working in. Barnsley Civic Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Doncaster Cast and Theatre Royal Wakefield are all partnering us. This is not in the naïve belief that audiences will see the logo on the flyers, change the habit of a lifetime and start buying tickets for shows in those organisations. It legitimises the venture, like a kitemark of quality, and they provide venues with box office and marketing support.

Second, mentoring is not solely about providing practical support. Most importantly, it’s about creating trust. We build trust with the promoter so they can be confident we will recommend the right shows for their audience. Host venues are asking their regulars to try something new, and then to trust them further to return and see other, completely different shows. Trust needs nurturing between promoters and other theatre companies, so that the legacy of our work is a network of local venues that are astute bookers of theatre.

It’s trickier to pin down this aspect of mentoring. It needs time and effort. We meet promotors personally to start the relationship and then provide help by phone after that. We turn up to all the shows and we’re flexible and adaptable to their needs. We provide a model of booking, supporting and promoting plays, which we intend will remain in place once venues are selecting work for their own communities, with the confidence and skills to do so.

In Grove Hall, South Kirkby, an ex-mining village outside Wakefield, our promoter is a local town councillor who knows just about everyone in the village. His promotion is exemplary and we sell out every time we play there. Even on a Wednesday afternoon with our one-woman suffragette musical ‘Wrong ‘Un’ we’ve sold more than 100 seats – remarkable for a small-scale show in an area of low arts engagement.

The heart of the community

If audiences trust the promoter or the venue enough to take the chance on the show, they have a great experience and want to come back for whatever’s next, bringing friends with them.

The difficulty of connecting with such audiences will never go away. We recognise this and our ultimate goal is ambitious, but, we believe, achievable. We want people to enjoy quality art in their own social spaces, regardless of whether they’ll ever visit a formal theatre. In bringing audiences through the door, we contribute to keeping places alive and vibrant at the heart of their community.

Rod Dixon is Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company.
Tw: @RedLadderTheatr

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Photo of Rod Dixon