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

Regional Activity, National Impact

Tom Nicholas - 16 January 2017

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This was a wide conversation about some of the challenges and opportunities faced by regional artists and organisations. There was a bit of a bias towards the South West in those attending but some really interesting input from elsewhere too.

I forgot to jot down everyone's names but there was a really great mix of expertise and experience in the session including folks from ACE South West, Bristol Old Vic, The Bike Shed Theatre, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Wardrobe Ensemble, The Lowry as well as a whole bunch of independent artists.

I've sorted the report by theme rather than chronologically.

What is impact?

We began with whether regional activity should have a national impact. This came from directions of both whether there was a moral obligation for “national” press etc to take notice of work in the regions but also whether regional artists or organisations should be looking for national impact. Does focusing on national impact effect the local impacts which.

We also spoke on the tendency of artists and organisations to focus on the city centre areas of their communities. Should more work be done to take work out to suburbs? Interesting crossover here with Tom Spencer's session on intra-city touring yesterday.

The obvious question of what is impact was raised? It went unanswered but this, in fact, allowed us to have a quite wide-ranging conversation.

We also discussed whether we thought work/activity which takes place in London has a national impact or whether that's more localised too.

Later, the issue of what the “final step” for artist development in a region was. One of the Wardrobe Ensemblers talked a little bit about their current planning. While their strategy at the moment is exploring how they might gradually move away from reliance on subsidy, the actual goal is to be able to eat and survive from the proceeds of making theatre for as long as possible.

Quality

We had a long discussion about quality. We decided that some notion of objective quality is possible. Though personal taste is a factor in what we perceive as “good” or “bad” is a factor, there is an objectiveness in the quality of presentation and communication of ideas.

The strength of artist development schemes can have an impact on this. We had a long conversation about what skills we thought organisations should be fostering in artists. This became even more interesting later when the group expanded a little.

Critical conversation is important in fostering quality. How do we avoid puff pieces by well-meaning journalists but also completely shutting down artistic practice by destroying confidences or otherwise critiquing artistic practice before it has time to grow?

The Role of Large Organisations

There were a number of examples during the session of organisations who take their sectoral leadership responsibilities seriously and some which don't.

We discussed at length whether such organisations had a responsibility to local artists and how that sat alongside their commitments to local audiences. Again, this crosses over with the issue of quality.

We heard from someone (whose name I forget, apologies!) from The Lowry about the ways in which venues in Manchester and Salford are joining together to support artists. This has allowed each venue to support in areas that they are most proficient in.

We discussed if whether a venue is a producing house or not effects how it supports independent artists in a regional setting. If a venue produces its own work then there is potential a conflict with their own interests to support independent artists too much.

There is an observable tension between a venue having their own artistic identity and being able to openly support artists in their city/town/place. What happens when the artists in a regional setting without a glut of venues don't make the work that their large venues want to programme/support? If a particular piece of work doesn't fit, they should ideally pass it on.

Networks

Is there space for a network through which artists can connect and therefore take the London-centric industry machinery out of the question.

We wondered whether artist or company “swaps” might work. One artist/company presenting another's work in their city/town and therefore allowing them to take advantage of the audience relationship that artist/company has in that city.

We wondered about whether some kind of exchange programme might be possible.

Later on, Battersea Arts Centre's Collaborative Touring Network was mentioned and their drive to take work which they were excited by out to new places.

David brought up Venues South West, a new network being formed, directly influenced by Venues North which aims to provide artists with all the relevant information to make approaching venues accesible. They also share artists they're excited about and can recommend/signpost to one another. The hope is to create a similar collaborative environment in the South West.

Connection Between Artists and Place

We decided there was something special about an artist who is able to build an authentic relationship with a place and landscape.

The benefits of being based in a regional setting were highlighted. Lower cost of living for example which allows a greater amount of artistic risk-taking. Someone suggested that artistic practice within the capital has to be slightly more commercially focussed whereas his is not the case to quite the same extent in the regions.

How do we communicate the connection between something being made in a place and the “importance” of that? How do we get audiences to support their local theatre artists in the same way music-lovers might support a local band? Can we encourage them to emotionally invest in their local artists in order to go on a journey with them?

Someone brought up the demise of the season ticket and how some segments of the audience often ask for it to be brought back. There was some discussion as to whether audiences had grown more discerning with how they choose what work they see.

This bred the question of does it matter who made the work? Are we overthinking it? Again, the tension between serving audiences and serving artists. Is this a false dichotomy or, perhaps, not?

Leigh mentioned the importance of engaging potential artists at a young age, making them believe its possible to make work in a regional setting, that it doesn't necessarily require packing your bags and heading to the big city.

Regional Activity, International Impact

Emma suggested cutting London out of the picture altogether and thinking internationally. It's easy to forget that there's a whole world out there. Recent examples were Bristol Old Vic's international touring and the Wardrobe Ensemble in the USA.

There is support available from both the British Council and the International Artist Development Fund. Someone mentioned a project supported by the IADF which allowed them to build relationships in Chicago and also to bring artists over to the UK to build relationships here. This relationship has continued.

It was discussed that many international companies don't feel this same drive to go to their capital. Pina Bausch was happy to ignore Berlin/Bohn.

Away from subsidy

We began to look at whether current approaches were “broken”.

Phil reminded us that to view current drops in available subsidy as a valley was wrong and that the situation was likely to worsen. On the other hand, the London-bias of such subsidy is currently being rectified at a rate never seen before. Within this, however, is an intra-regional bias. He mentioned that, though Bristol is home to 9% of the South West population, it receives 27% of public money. He reminded us of some of the changes that had taken place over the previous decades–the move from regional rep houses to a more artist-led system.

This sparked a really interesting conversation about moving away from subsidy.

Someone mentioned a company in Chicago who were able to buy the theatre building from which they operated by running Zombie days, commercial activity thereby supporting “more artistic” work.

It was mentioned that Manchester was able to support the arts through an airport tax. This relies, however, on the airport being municipally owned. Will the metro Mayor in Bristol open up opportunities to campaign for similar schemes–a hotel tax for example?

Sponsorship and Philanthropy

Within the conversation about interesting models to draw upon from the US, it was mentioned that there is a much more concrete history of philanthropy towards the arts across the pond. What about areas without such a tradition?

Emma forwarded a scheme BOV are currently working on in trying to engage with local businesses to support BOV to run work experience for local young people. This allows those businesses to live up to their civic responsibilities while BOV can fulfill the demand for work experience in the arts. By also employing local artists to run such a scheme, everyone wins.

Phil mentioned a theatre which, in place of financial backing from the local government had been given the adjacent car park. This gives them an ongoing revenue stream. They also have the freehold so are able to look into potentially building flats or similar on the site.

Do artist development schemes need to provide further business support to artists to allow them to think in such creative ways?

Thanks everyone for such a thought-inspiring session!

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