Convener(s):    Jonathan Holloway, Artistic Director, Red Shift Theatre Company 

Participants:      Antonio Ferrara, Alison Mead, Lyn Gardner, Laura Kriefman L S Bland, Chris Wooter, Dan Danson, Julie Rashbrooke, Cindy Oswin, Victoria Dyson, Natalie Querol, Drew Davies, Jo Crawley, Alison Goldie, Rikki Taradcas, Natalie Fletcher, Venla Hatakka, and numerous ‘Butterflies’

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

J Holloway began by describing his experience of 25 years of small and middle scale touring with the company he founded, Red Shift, then moved on to outline his concerns about the way the sector is evolving – 1. Small scale touring has previously offered theatre artists and companies a bridge into the industry by paying fees that allow them to ‘professionalise’ their practice; 2. Funding to this sector has been eroded in recent years (ACE cuts, reduction in local authority grant aid to venues, etc) and hence programming has suffered, the audience experience has suffered, the range of opportunities for emerging artists to find broader recognition for their work and earn a rudimentary living in the process has suffered.  He questioned whether there are forces acting on the sector making this inevitable, whether there is any degree of feeling in the industry to resist these changes and whether or not the artistic community felt strongly enough to rally to the support of the sector. 

In the discussion that followed a split emerged between mid/late career practitioners and emerging artists re how they perceived the situation.

Those who had been in the industry for some time lamented the loss of skills re ‘hit and run’ touring to generic theatre spaces characterized by shows that go out for extensive national/regional tours staffed by teams on longer term industry standard contracts.

Those newer to the sector were less perturbed, feeling that the nature of touring has been and is in transition; that for them the important thing is ‘putting the art first’ rather than securing a tour and then creating a project to fill the schedule.  Three producers who spoke all supported the notion of making substantial and innovative art, then touring it when and where the art was best served, without slavish adherence to long touring schedules in generic spaces.  One of them strove to emphasise her optimism that it is possible to serve the practical ‘business’ imperative of making work that will attract audiences in sufficient numbers to satisfy the ‘bottom line’, be innovative in the work being made and also move away from earlier models of dense week-on-week touring.

The most optimistic note was struck by the phrase ‘people want to tour’ – clarified as meaning that artists treasure the opportunity to develop their work and find the new audiences for it that touring offers.  Some of the established practitioners queried how this optimism fitted with an emerging context in which it is difficult for established artists to square the circle of their financial needs with fractured patterns of occasional short-term touring. There followed a good deal of discussion of what artists can and should expect in a professional setting that no longer strives to provide long term employment on a regulated basis on the wages previously expected.

There was some tension between those arguing for the loosening of the structures surrounding artistic process which has enabled a mushrooming of site-specific work made through collaborative processes and presented away from conventional theatre venues, and those who felt this approach denies access to the broad regional audience attending small scale venues outside the major conurbations, and because of its insubstantial financial circumstances, potentially contributed  to a deprofessionalising of the sector. 

Kneehigh was cited as an example of a company that bridges the gap between extensive small scale touring and creating more experimental work for larger spaces and site-specific contexts.  Several of the group were concerned to unpack this description of Kneehigh’s work, and were also concerned with issues around the manner in which such a company might absorb resources unfairly in their region.

There was general agreement that the working context is harder for everyone now, and it emerged that newer artists and companies who have not experienced public funding in the way the more established practitioners have, are less wedded to the structures and expectations that formerly accompanied subsidy.

There was some discussion of industry notions that small-scale work is a stepping stone to the middle scale and beyond, and there was general condemnation of this view, and celebration of making work on the small scale for its own sake.

It is possible to divine from the discussion that there is a strong sentimental link to touring for most present at the discussion, but there are also differing views of how the landscape is evolving and what is good and bad about it.  There was clearly an opinion that practitioners have to expect less from the sector than they once did, and that artists must consider a more plural pattern of employment, moving from one part of the industry to another to follow opportunities where they arise, and it is no longer appropriate to consider touring on the small scale as a career option in its own right.