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Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

Bristolians/city-dwellers: how can we share more with the regions that surround us?

Tom Spencer - 15 January 2017

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This was a very informative session – huge thanks to everyone who joined it.

Context:

Bristol, like many cities in the UK, supports a number of proportionately very well-funded, well-loved and well-attended venues and organisations. But they (in the main) share a space in the city centre. Surrounding them are huge areas of population – suburbs, commuter belts, market towns, rural areas – with some of the lowest arts engagement in the UK.

Bath and North East Somerset council have just announced 100% cuts to arts funding, and Bristol Council have opted to cut funding to Key Arts Providers. North Somerset Council are keen to repeat the success of Banksy’s Dismaland but have no strategy for how this might happen.

Notes:

These are scattered; please add to this if anyone at the discussion sees missed threads.

There were examples given of successful schemes to encourage producing/presenting organisations to look outwards: the M50 Circuit around Dublin (which links suburban venues), Anti Festival in Finland (in which principally live art is commissioned for sites across the entire region of a city).

We spoke about place-making, and how schemes and new venues tend to crop up in towns with a strong separate identity (eg. Frome), but struggle in areas that are defined by feeding a larger city (eg. Keynsham).

There was a reminder that sporting institutions often function well as place-makers. Eg. a Football team that proudly represents a suburb or particular area of a city… ‘our team’.

One person suggested that any venue’s primary goal is to bring audiences through the door, and that they often don’t have resource to properly consider who those audiences are or how they could draw from a wider area. This was firmly disputed by many others with the idea that, as publicly funded organisations, venues have a civic role to deepen and widen engagement – it seems that to move forward on this requires marketing departments as well as creative leaders to totally subscribe to this idea.

A huge point in this area is public transport: it is a barrier to many audiences reaching quality work, and a barrier to many artists exploring the wider region. Perhaps a conversation is needed about hosting some exploration trips around the region?

We referenced the conversation from earlier in the day about bringing the most exciting work to Bristol, and the idea of intra-city touring (one company playing to multiple venues around the wider city, supported through joined-up programming, technical support, marketing etc. from a number of partners).

Tanuja Amarasuriya spoke of the successes and struggles of the Theatre Bristol project Lighting the Touchpaper, which used a rural touring ‘menu’ model to pilot such a scheme. She spoke of the biggest challenge being the lack of legacy, and the challenges of supporting technically ambitious work. She suggested an alternative model, in which venues programmed longer runs and (instead of touring the work) offered a touring version of grass-roots marketing/engagement work. Eg. a series of workshops to different centres around the city, which all feed in to the work the artist playing at the major venue.

We then discussed long-form embedded work – inviting artists into particular community groups to create work over a greater period of time. While this is no guarantee of lasting legacy, it feels like a more collaborative starting point than simply touring one-nighters around the region.

We talked about the possibility of ‘twinning’ venues with other wards around the city/county, as a way to combat the scale of the problem. Eg. Arnolfini works with communities in Bishopston, Bristol Old Vic with Long Ashton. Or perhaps we could split the centre of the city into pizza slices and work outwards to delineate remits.

I ended with a brief discussion of the research project I’m currently doing into the feasibility and focus of a potential new commissioning/instigating organisation with Avon (Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset) as its landscape. I agreed to share findings through the D&D networks as soon as this reaches a more public stage. And hopefully some of these ideas can carry forward into the discussions between Bristol’s major organisations as they look towards an era of greater collaboration.

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