‘You can tell the health of a community by the stories it tells to itself’
One challenge theatre makers and programmers face, especially with arts investment under pressure, is how to create work that is contemporary, relevant and popular. How to retain existing and build new audiences at the same time. Greenhouse is a new three-year initiative that seeks to involve venues and local communities in early conversations about the work that theatre makers are thinking of creating. To contribute to the process, create curiosity and connect with that potential audience.
Having spent the past two years establishing house as a programming network across South East England we are now working with Esmee Fairbairn on a three year programme to test new ideas and ways of working. The ambition is to make it more everyday for programmers and audiences to contribute to the creation of new work and make better use of the latent generosity, knowledge and resources that sit within the regions venues.
During the 1940s, Compass was established to take theatre to communities the length and breath of the country. They would tour in a theatre made from 18 lorries linked together to create a ‘blue box’. Much of the work was from the classic repertory cannon and many of the communities that they toured to went on to build civic theatres partly in response to the demand for local provision.
There was something noble in those efforts – a kind of missionary model in which art is taken out to the people from our centres of excellence. And there is still room for that model. I myself am currently involved in a conversation with The National Theatre, The Royal Court and the National Rural Touring Forum exploring the possibility of one of them touring work from their stage into village halls. I like the mischief of it.
But we have a hunch that if we are to sustain our purpose and popularity we need to engage communities and programmers in the making of theatre, wherever they are. Work cant just be made and toured from our major cities it needs to be made in every corner of the country.
This is not an argument for local work about local things for local people. It is just that the best work is often made with a particular audience in mind. And that, for many, the regions are a foreign country. Equally, the people of, say, Louth in Lincolnshire have more in common with the people of Camrose, Alberta than they do with many of the people of London or Barcelona. So it is possible to make work that is both provincial and international.
And that is what greenhouse has set as its central ambition. We want to better connect the ambitions of artist with those of programmers working purposefully to fill their theatres across the region, so that each inform the thinking of the other. We will be investing in 10 partnerships a year to test an idea that might lead to popular, contemporary theatre and nurture an appetite for experimentation amongst the audience.
Of course many of these ideas are not new nor is it the only way in which work can be created. But we know that there exists a generosity, expertise and audience within the presenting venues of the Country that we should make better use of, we know that if an audience connects with the making of the work they are more likely to champion and support it and we know that we should constantly try to reinvent.