Creating a meaningful partnership with tour venues

As Artistic Director of a small touring theatre company with ambition to do meaningful, in-depth work with communities around the shows we create everywhere we take them, I often feel frustrated at just how challenging it can be to actually deliver on what we plan and say we will do with venues. Not without trying, not without offering to bring our time, expertise, contacts and skills to a venue, as much as is needed to make it work (usually covered by our own fundraising) it is often to little avail. Looking at the strategic aims of both organisations and how this kind of work is fulfilling those aims for everyone is key. Sometimes the fit is just not right, but there are also a number of other reasons; restrictions on people’s time, capacity, effort and priorities. I believe this kind of work is a more meaningful way for communities to engage with touring theatre, a winner in terms of audience development, and frankly, it’s in all those creative case for diversity statements within NPO agreements so although it may seem a lot of effort, it has to happen.

This blog post is not going to be a big old moan about how many venues just haven’t cracked it yet! Or my complaints about how despite the will and want to make things happen it’s rare for action, true relationship building and investment to be forth coming. No, this blog post is a positive one. It’s inspired by a relationship with a venue where this did happen, where we were embedded, where the effort was equal, where participants got a brilliant experience, where we felt at home, where we didn’t want to leave, where we were met and greeted, where many of the staff came to see our show, where we are excited to continue the relationship as it is equal and full of enthusiasm on both sides.

We were at Derby Theatre earlier this year with our second national tour of our show Leaving, by Paddy Campbell. On both tours when communicating with venues we had discussed working with young people with experience of the care system or those who work within the industry at each venue. For the tour, we would design and deliver a bespoke project in partnership with each venue and outside organisations (with whom the venue was already in touch with or they would like to build relationships with), whether it be something simple and straightforward like a pre-show workshop, watching the show followed by a post-show chat and food, or something more in-depth such as a symposium or the creation of a new piece of work. We were keen that we didn’t just appear, do a ‘get in’, tech, show, do a ‘get out’ and then bugger off, as is often the case with touring.

We have been trying to do this with every venue on every tour for many years with varying levels of success. Obviously, participation and engagement is a big part of an Arts Council project application so people tend to include this stuff because they feel they have to. But we don’t write about it because we have to, we write about it as it’s a massive part of the work we do, and for us, is valued as important as bringing a show to other places for different audiences to see. It’s not an optional add-on to tick boxes, it’s integral to our process. That conversation we might have with a social worker or a young person who has just left care, or a mental health worker or foster carer who gets to talk to us about the play, groups who take part in activity with us or the creative team, all these ‘add-ons’ open up a much wider discussion and allows reflection, it’s all so invaluable.

If that one person who knew nothing about the care system, who held certain opinions that they may now question can engage with us in further conversation are they not more likely to challenge someone else and the prevailing orthodoxies that exist in society which continue to create social exclusion and discrimination? If we (the theatre makers of this world) really are trying to make positive changes through our work, then we have to create the opportunities for our work to be delved into, explored and accessed in different ways to maximise the impact it can have.

So, we were in touch with Derby Theatre, where we chatted to Alix Manning-Jones (Cultural Education Producer for Derby’s Cultural Education Partnership) who came to see our show on the first tour (a great start – selling a show that someone has already seen and realises is brilliant and powerful, means half the battle of the tour booking negotiation is already won). Alix was immediately an advocate for the show and for our work within her organisation and beyond after an in person meet when she came to see the show. The beginnings of our relationship was forming. Finding the right person in an organisation can sometimes be challenging, having one direct contact who can answer your questions, someone who gets in touch with you too, so you don’t always feel like you’re doing the chasing and bugging automatically starts a relationship on an equal footing.

I bang on a lot about symbiotic relationships between venues/NPOs and independent companies, I think sometimes the armour of a building, a massive printer in an open plan office, a bigger budget and more staff sometimes can be viewed as superior or more experienced, or that the relationship should be paternal (or maternal). A company is ultimately the people within it, and whether there’s 4 of you or 44 of you, it’s about those people’s skills, training, ethos, values and hard work not the surroundings in which they sit. Obviously, let’s not stop sharing resources and being generous with what we have with others in the industry, but it’s about how we view each other. I am an Artistic Director with almost 20 years’ experience of working in theatre and still have moments where I feel treated as ‘emerging’ (whatever that really means!) because my organisation is small and hasn’t been around forever and my office is small and cheap! (I’m banging the drum again! Slowly realising this blog may have the odd side rant! Apologies).

So, back to Derby Theatre! Derby Theatre alongside other cultural organisations and in partnership with Derby/shire Council’s and Barnardo’s, run the brilliant award winning Plus One scheme designed for young people with care experience. Together, over the course of a year, we designed a project that we would run together at Derby in the week leading up to the show. Where our cast of professional actors, stage manager and director (myself) alongside Alix and the young people she connected with the project, would create a new piece of theatre together to be performed before the show. In the lead up we were in touch regularly, feeding in ideas and information to each other about the needs of the group and Curious Monkey, both in terms of what support people would need and in terms of breaking down any barriers to participation and practical/technical/logistical requirements.

Before we arrived the whole company received a welcome pack from the theatre with loads of information about Derby Theatre, the city, places to find what we needed. On our first day Alix was there to meet and greet us, show us our space and between us we got together the resources we needed to make the work happen. For anyone working with young people in care you will, I’m sure, know that attendance can sometimes be an issue depending on what has come up for that individual that day. Often, the young people can have quite chaotic lives for one reason or another. One of the Plus One group was having to work club night bar shifts on top of day time work to afford their rent, so getting there for 10am was not always possible. Alix managed all the contact and daily reminders/wake up calls with the group (which meant she was on and off the phone constantly!), supporting them with travel and making sure everyone had eaten and had a cup of tea that day. It’s this care and the flexibility in the way we work around all this, that really makes a project like this a success. Trust is the key to engaging people to take part, and when there is an investment of time and care into the setup of a project people ultimately trust you and it.

We worked together throughout the week getting to know each other, building trust, creating characters and devising scenes, talking about what we really wanted to say, what should change, what are the preconceptions, what is the truth, what makes us angry and how can we both inspire and challenge an audience and present our thoughts coherently and powerfully on stage, and with humour.

And we got there! Overcoming nerves of first time performers, initial suspicions and various personal circumstances that arose. With the support of the professional cast with fire in their bellies they performed a brand new piece of theatre on the Leavingset complete with sound and lighting design, props and costume and a truth and authenticity that made 90% of the audience laugh, cry and certainly have a good hard think.

After receiving rapturous applause and a serious adrenaline buzz the young people sat proud on the front row and watched the production of Leaving. Many of the same themes and issues were raised that they could relate to.  Alix and her team there to support if anything was triggering and the young people needed to leave or take a moment.

We followed the show with a post-show discussion (with a huge panel of the Leaving company and the Plus One group). It is one of the most powerful post shows I’ve ever sat on. The confidence and agency of the young people to speak openly and frankly and to challenge and ask questions of us, and our process, in front of an audience was amazing. There was some serious respect and understanding going both ways.

Sarah Brigham, Derby’s Artistic Director and various other staff members were all there supporting the project and the show (it’s amazing how many venues you tour to where none of the staff attend the show). We were in meetings all week about what is next for our relationship going forward and left knowing we had achieved something great together and that we are building something together rather than dropping in for a fleeting visit.

So thank you to Derby and onwards and upwards to our next venture together. We will be back there on 30th October for Culture Cares Conference 2018. The conference will be exploring how arts and culture are making a positive impact and creating pathways in the lives of young people in and leaving care – Check it out!

I realise a lot of the success of this project was the fact that Derby has already done years of work with young people with care experience and that the challenge, the scary thing for venues is,  ‘How will we recruit people to take part?’ ‘How can we build those relationships and engage those people when we haven’t before and they are notoriously hard to engage?’ I should also talk about other relationships with venues where we have built these relationships from scratch, like our regular care leavers theatre going group, Troupe, that attends Northern Stage (and other North East venues) every month amongst other activities there, but that’s for another blog post…

To all the wonderful people in venues, I would like to leave this with you…Be brave to venture into an in-depth relationship with a touring company (but it will need time, a good lead in, resources and commitment) and if we do it together it is very likely to be successful. If we are equal partners in it, you will be likely to reach audiences you never have before and the legacy of this can be game changing for your organisation and your creative case responsibilities.

A participant point of view:

Curious Monkey worked us to produce a short play from Derby’s leaving care point of view. They taught us how to plan and prepare a script, how to act out real emotions and how to tell a true story from the heart. Watching Leaving for me was something I had never experienced before, at first I couldn’t understand how any actor could portray leaving care the way it happened, but they did. The play touched everyone that watched it, but also left professionals working with us every day, it made them question themselves, their own professional practices and the impacts those decisions have on our lives. The play and the experience working with Curious Monkey changed my view and I look forward to working with them again.

Chloe – Care Leaver

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