An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Twine

Audiences and rural promoters are the life-blood of Northumberland Theatre Company. Gillian Hambleton reveals how the company harnessed that loyalty to keep the company going through hard times.

Photo of a performance
Northumberland Theatre Company's production of Rumpelstiltskin

Keith Pattison

In 2012, Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC) lost 100% of its regular funding from Arts Council England. It was, and remains, hard, but with the support of Twine – a Catalyst Arts-supported project helping small touring theatre companies – we have invested significant time, energy and resources in developing alternative income streams.

The success of our efforts can be measured by the fact that three years later we are still making new work, supporting new artists and touring to village halls across the UK. In the past twelve months, we have taken 92 performances to over 5,500 people in areas with limited access to the arts.

Let your audience, your board, your staff, the press, everyone know what position you are in – be positive, not alarmist, not desperate 

Based at Alnwick Playhouse, NTC’s mission is to make professional touring theatre of the highest quality that is accessible to those communities who are theatrically disenfranchised through geographic, economic, social or transport constraints. We also provide the highest quality training and support to new and emerging theatre practitioners in the region, through on-the-job training opportunities.

Fundraising from trusts and foundations has been a success story for us and is now our greatest source of income. Perhaps more surprisingly though, for a small touring theatre company, we have also been successful in raising meaningful sums of money from individuals and community groups.

Making friends

Knowing of our situation, many village halls we have built relationships with over years of touring sent us donations on top of our fee, giving us any additional money they took at the box office. Not only do the cheques make a real difference to our ability to keep touring, but the emotional boost we get from the personal messages that accompany them and the knowledge that the communities that know our work best value it so highly gives us the resolve to keep doing what we do.

Our board has also been enormously supportive. It has raised money for the company through a range of activities, including sponsored cycles, poetry fundraising nights, personal donations and literally knocking on doors to secure donations from local businesses. Everyone from the Chair of the board to office staff and touring actors has been part of the fundraising effort. It is fair to say that this combined push has brought an already close company even closer together.

This sense of being in it together extends to our audiences and we now have a successful ‘Friends and family’ scheme, which brings in regular income as well as allowing us to keep in touch with long-term supporters.

Look after the pennies…

The most unexpected success story for NTC, though, has also been the simplest. After each performance, we put out a donation pot and one of the cast says a few carefully chosen words to the effect that any donations would be gratefully received and will enable the company to carry on making and touring shows.

We’ve found that the immediacy of the ask at the end of the night and the ease of putting change in a pot, rather than filling in a form or going home and donating online, works well for our audiences. In some village halls, I have seen audience members put £20 notes in the pot, in others 20p.

The response has been far greater than we had ever anticipated. In the past three years, we have raised just under £7,500 through donation pots.

The people of Stakeford, an ex-mining community whose Methodist Hall is always full to bursting, would never dream of travelling the five miles to see theatre in Morpeth, because it is socially and financially a non-starter. For them, this theatre-on-their-doorstep is one of few chances for a good night out at an affordable price.

Along the way, we have learned some important lessons that we can pass on, chief amongst them being:

  • Let your audience, your board, your staff, the press, everyone know what position you are in – be positive, not alarmist, not desperate – and let them know how they can help you. You will be surprised at the support that is forthcoming. It may not always be financial, but a letter demonstrating the quality and demand for your work can be equally useful.
  • Do not ask your audience to support you in too many ways. We did at first, but soon discovered it is easier to put money in a pot at the end of the night than fill in a form, donate online, give via text, sponsor or attend an event.
  • Above all, do not give up if you believe in what you do. We survived losing our core funding and, three years on, we are still here, thanks to a dedicated and determined team and loyal and generous audiences.

Gillian Hambleton is Artistic Director Northumberland Theatre Company.

This article, sponsored and contributed by Twine, is part of a series exploring the fundraising challenges faced by small touring theatre companies.

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Photo of Gillian Hambleton