house – one year on

It’s the 1st anniversary of running house. These are some of the things I think now…..

We started with the ambition of getting better theatre to more people. We have had more than one conversation about what we mean by ‘better’ theatre. And haven’t really resolved it. We know that you can’t put theatre on a measurable scale and no one sets out to make rubbish theatre but we wanted to describe the ambition of the work we would tour. Can we just say we will know it when we see it?  The ‘more’ bit of the sentence is much simpler. We wanted to reach more people in a greater number of places. And we have done that. We were adamant that we should focus on things that couldn’t happen without us – for two reasons: We didn’t want to undermine the existing infrastructure and we wanted to focus on new ways of working.

One year on and we have a network of 115 venues from every part of the region and over 250 companies who are promoting their work through the house website. We have underwritten 10 tours of a range of new work, including two international pieces. We have taken over 30 promoters to Edinburgh for a week, run two regional network days and delivered a series of training days for programmers and theatre companies. Here are a few things we discovered on the way.

It’s always about the people. We knew this but it is always worth reminding ourselves of the truth that buildings are inanimate objects. It is people that make things happen, we have worked with tiny organisations with no resources and a seemingly, conservative audience who are managing to attract significant, engaged audiences. And we have worked with purpose built palaces for the arts with large marketing teams through which the wind blows.

Many venues don’t have a relationship with their audience. This partly relates to the above. The venue doesn’t have a relationship with its audience the people who work for it do. We were prepared, we thought, for the challenges that face many programmers. But we were still surprised by the number who couldn’t see a show when it was in their venue or who didn’t talk to their audiences. Long gone are the days when the theatre manager would see every audience in. This is surely about the changing nature of the job and the range of pressures many are under. But it used to be a much more regular pattern to see venue managers working 11.00 – 20.00, knowing their audience, etc. In many venues this role, and connection, has gone.

What we say and what we know are not the same. I think that one of the greatest achievements of this first year has been the spirit of honesty and generosity that has developed around house. If we are to succeed in changing the culture of programming and making work then all of us need be honest about what we know and the things we need support on. It is often hard to admit that you don’t know something to your peers, to admit vulnerability or doubt. And yet we are all making it up, all of the time. It quickly became clear that many people were either too busy or lacked the opportunity to rehearse ideas around what programming is. We decided to run a series of sub regional events that would bring groups of around 15 programmers together to share information, models of programming, contacts etc. We set out to run 6 one day sessions across the region and sent an invite out to the network. They were full within 24 hours.

Emboldened by the success of these days we ran 6 days for companies to explore how they develop relationships with venues. These were also quickly over subscribed.

All of which encouraged us. There is an appetite to engage and learn within the region’s venues and companies. Many, if not all, of these organisations are keen to connect. Perhaps this is one of those opportunities that comes from the challenge of our times.People are far more prepared to collaborate and share risk.

Working with others helps things make sense. It is true that when you start to work with others that share the same challenges things come into perspective. And it is hugely reassuring to discover that we are not uniquely inadequate. Lots of other people are struggling with the same concerns.

The more people you connect to the more able one is to move from reacting to shaping. I have been surprised at how much easier it is to think and shape the things we want to do as part of a bigger network. Things like the Creative Employment Programme – for which we are now providing 16 places – was easier as part of a conversation about how we open up the sector to a wider group of people than when we were thinking ‘can we provide some work experience’?

The digital thing is important. We planned to ‘create a digital platform for the region’. We had looked at Theatre Bristol and Cyber Paddock. And decided to go for a very simple model describing the region’s venues and create an opportunity for companies to say what they did. We added a resources section and a blog. It seemed such a simple idea. And yet it is one of the most useful resources we have created. We know of several companies who have booked complete tours using the information there. We hear, regularly, of programmers sifting for new contacts and work. The range of people contributing ideas, tips, templates continues to grows. I think we will need to work at ensuring the site stays useful and that there are lots of other opportunities here – we could put photos from the stage of every venue, get more news up, write our own editorials on current policy developments.

Commissioning. We said we would commission work if there were obvious gaps or if we wanted to test a new idea. Whilst we have done some of that – and I think we will continue to do so – we realised that, actually, there is almost an over production of theatre. Certainly there is more work that the available traditional marketplace can, or is prepared to, support. I am sure this is why many artists are exploring other ways of reaching an audience – through site specific, occasional and intimate work.   But much of this work relies heavily on subsidy and I am not sure how much of that is going to be around in the next few years.  We have decided to focus on ensuring the best work gets a longer life. Which has led us to only programme work that we have seen. To talk to companies and programmers about work they would like to see revived, often looking for a show that has had a short run or initial tour and then disappeared.

Middle scale. We started by saying we would also look at the middle scale. I don’t think we have done this yet. We have talked about it and understand better the challenges – companies wanting full weeks and two day get-ins, programmers needing split weeks and shorter get-ins. It may be that this is where work has to be commissioned but we lack the resources to make that happen. This is something to think properly about over the coming year. Because if we aren’t able to do it we should make sure people know we aren’t that solution.

The next year. We will definitely take a group of programmers to Edinburgh again – perhaps choosing to see more work together. Getting people to see work and to talk about it has been one of the most useful things we have done. As one of the programmers commented – ‘if you met the person in charge of buying tarmac for the country you would expect that they would go and look at tarmac’. Underwriting shows is a given. It works and theatre is happening in places where it wasn’t. But I think we will use a greater range of models. Not always paying the full fee and sometimes just recommending work we have seen and like. My real hope is that we can use the region’s venue’s generosity, untapped resources and knowledge of their audience to support companies to create better work – whatever that looks like.


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