Not convinced that existing artist development programmes were making a tangible difference, New Perspectives Theatre Company has created a year-long scheme designed to be both open and flexible, says Jack McNamara.
The New Associates programme, currently two months underway, was developed in response to my frustrations and reflections on the artist development opportunities our theatre company had made available in recent years.
The question of how to offer early-career artists as much as you can with the resources you have is a difficult thing to get right. We have run various programmes - from company mentoring to a training ensemble - all of which had their merits. Yet a question would continue to bother me: had we actually made a difference to these artists and their practice? Or did the programmes simply disappear into the fog of training experience that artists accumulate on their solitary creative journeys?
We are based in Nottingham and the artists we offer support to are largely from the East Midlands area. Since moving here six years ago, I have been consistently amazed by the prevalence of the self-starting theatre artist. With fewer immediate opportunities to follow the conventional paths of being either an actor or director, theatre-makers here really do just that – make theatre. They create it, perform it, stage it and produce it, often on their own or in largely democratic companies.
I want them to experience our company warts and all, so that they can steal our secrets and avoid our pitfalls
While I am sure many regions have similar traditions, myth has it that ours stems from a legendary and now defunct contemporary art course at Nottingham Trent University. Most of the practising artists today began long after that course closed down, and yet its spirit seems to have stayed in the air.
So, in supporting theatre artists in this region you are faced with a wide range of skills and needs. Performers want to know how to complete funding applications and writers want to know about tour booking. I realised that our previous programmes had been too focused on specific disciplines such as acting, writing or directing.
In rethinking how we would approach artist development going forward, four themes stood out.
Longer engagement periods
In the past, our programmes took place over a concentrated time. Yet this placed an unhelpful pressure on the activities and left little breathing space either for reflection or improvement. Being too project-focused seemed to be getting in the way of artists absorbing and developing in their own time.
Engaging with a group of artists for a minimum of 12 months allows each individual the chance to really plot how they want to develop and for us to offer the right support at the right time.
The labels we apply to artists (emerging, established, mid-career) do not accurately identify the needs of individual artists. No matter how we group people, artists operate at different levels. Some might be undertaking a major national tour, while others are still getting to the bottom of what art they want to make.
We decided our new approach would ensure that each artist has the opportunity to receive practical support for a specific project, skill or area alongside any other group activities. The aim is for the programme to take a slightly different shape for each person, rather than try to fit them into our schedule or priorities.
Access to all areas
As a company constantly planning, rehearsing and opening theatre, extending a programme over a longer period of time enables us to invite our New Associates to each stage of our work - from script meetings to opening performances.
In my experience, being close to art being made, and watching it solve its own problems, can often help unblock your own creative challenges. By offering access to all areas, we could become a creative resource for them throughout the year.
The source of a lot of frustration between artists and organisations is poor communication – expectations that are not met, plans that are not followed or offers that are not clear. I decided that the best way of avoiding that was to be the first point of contact between the artists and the organisation. This meant I could develop a clear relationship with them and adapt the programme to address individual needs as well as those of the group.
Opening the door
We are only two months into the programme. It is still finding its form, and is developing in accordance with what both the group and the individuals seem to want. Alongside theatre-makers, we have invited spoken word and dance artists to stretch all of our thinking. Some have joined with very clear objectives; others want to use the time to think through what they want to do. No needs are more valuable than any others, and I am keen to eliminate any sense of competition or imbalance that organisations can sometimes unwittingly create.
Ultimately, this will be an experiment in openness. What happens when we truly open the door and invite a mixed group of artists to live alongside us for a year? I hope to remain as generous and responsive as I can. I want to explore how the many resources we have as an organisation can be of concrete use to them and their work. I want them to experience our company warts and all, so that they can steal our secrets and avoid our pitfalls.
I hope that each of them reaches the end of the year with a clear sense of having moved forward, and that our company’s own route is challenged and enriched through nine fresh influences.
Jack McNamara is Artistic Director of New Perspectives Theatre Company.
Current New Associates: Gloria Lowe, Scarlett Turner, Ravelle-Sade Fairman, Kieran Spiers, Hazel Monagahan, Grace Cordell, Louise White, Ryan Leder and Christina Tsoutsi.