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Insight: How mobile theatres are getting shows on the road

Underbelly’s mobile Udderbelly space, originally created for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is now a regular visitor to London. Photo: Daniel Piper
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Earlier this year, The Stage named as one of its theatre buildings of the year a portable structure that’s constructed in just a few hours using only a mallet and an Allen key. The Roundabout, planned and built over four painstaking years by the new-writing company Paines Plough, is just the latest in a wave of mobile theatres transforming the touring environment in the UK.

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 13.22.30The movement isn’t confined to just one sector of the industry or scale of work: both commercial and subsidised organisations are represented in this brave new world, with companies creating theatre for audiences old and young in spaces big and small. It’s not about geography either: mobile performance venues are popping up all over the country, from Cornwall to Scotland, sometimes in remote locations without any receiving houses, sometimes in cities that are stuffed to the gills with them.

At the heart of these projects is the idea of creating a space over which you have full creative control. James Grieve, artistic director of Paines Plough, describes how the Roundabout was born partly out of the company’s “frustration at not being able to replicate production values in different places”.

He adds: “We were going to some quite small and not very well equipped studio centres and community halls. We thought that the people in those places were not getting as high quality a show as those that were going to the Manchester Royal Exchange Studio, for example. We just thought that people shouldn’t be getting a better experience just because they live in a city. With Roundabout, we can quickly replicate really high production values wherever it travels – it doesn’t matter where you see it.”

While achieving a consistently high standard of work from location to location is in the interests of any touring company, some projects lend themselves better to the constraints of the touring circuit than others. The creators of the hit children’s television series In the Night Garden… were initially reluctant to license a stage version of the show as they were nervous about compromising on the “very detailed and fully realised world” of the programme, says Andrew Collier, creative director of Minor Entertainment.

But when Collier and his team came up with a plan to tour In the Night Garden…Live as an entirely self-contained entertainment experience, the project got the green light. By summer 2010, just a few months after Collier’s pitch, the Showdome – an inflatable tent structure with its own toilets, front of house area and buggy parking – was on the road.

“From a commercial point of view it’s very attractive because it means that – particularly for a show like In the Night Garden… that has an audience with very specific needs – it puts you in control of the whole audience journey, so you’re not getting passed between show producers, venues and ticket agents and all the rest of it,” says Collier.

“It gives you nowhere to hide,” he adds. “If something isn’t right, you can’t blame the theatre or the ticket agent, so there’s more work involved in it than we ever anticipated starting off. But it does mean that you can get it right and make it work for the whole audience, and that the thing is seamless from the moment that they look at the website to when they get home after the show.”

In the Night Garden mobile theatre entrance
In the Night Garden mobile theatre entrance

For Cornwall’s Kneehigh company, which also launched its Asylum touring tent in 2010, having a portable and adaptable space of its own is crucial when it comes to creating “all-encompassing” experiences for audiences.

“It’s not just about sitting in a theatre watching a show, it’s about being part of an event and a journey,” says Paul Crewes, the company’s chief executive. Storytelling, live music, food and drink, art exhibitions, plus the main event of course – it all creates an “environment for people to come and find out about what we do and how we represent our work”.

Logistical considerations also played a role in the creation of the Asylum, Crewes explains, with Kneehigh having outgrown all but one of Cornwall’s receiving houses and needing somewhere to connect with its home crowd. The Asylum ticks this box by giving the company a highly visible base from which to develop new work each summer. But because the venue is mobile and temporary, Kneehigh also remains free to continue the other strands of its work, touring to theatres up and down the UK and abroad.

Crewes would like to take the Asylum beyond Cornwall, but is wary of the costs involved. There are lots of advantages to having your own bespoke portable theatre, but they don’t come for free. Minor Entertainment, for example, has to shift 16,000 tickets at each tour location just to cover the costs of moving the Showdome (it tours with 20 trucks). As a result, the company can only afford to take In the Night Garden… Live to big cities with good transport links. It has also cut down on the total number of tour locations to make the sums add up.

Kneehigh’s production of Midnight’s Pumpkin, performed in its Asylum space in 2011. Photo: Steve Tanner
Kneehigh’s production of Midnight’s Pumpkin, performed in its Asylum space in 2011. Photo: Steve Tanner

Underbelly has gone down a similar route with the Udderbelly, a mobile upside-down cow-shaped space originally created for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that has also visited Brighton and now regularly pops up in London too.

“It is difficult to move pop-up venues regularly, and commercially make them work,” says Ed Bartlam, one of Underbelly’s directors. “We’ve found that it’s best to find sites you can sit down on for a bit. What we do then is change the variety in the programme. So we may sit down on the South Bank for longer but we’ve got lots of shows coming through, which keeps the programme fresh. What we’re putting on is changing every week.”

This model of mobile theatre touring has proved successful – artistically, commercially or both – for Underbelly, Kneehigh and Minor Entertainment, but Paines Plough needed to find another solution if the company was to use the Roundabout to “fulfil [its] mission to tour everywhere”.

“Part of the reason it took us four years to build the structure was the perennial interrogation into what the running costs would be and how we could possibly get them down,” explains Grieve. “One of the things we’re most proud of is that Roundabout is going out on a weekly cost that’s the same as one of our mid-scale touring shows.”

Even so, the company still has a lot to learn about how the theatre will work, he says. Community engagement and involvement – getting locals on-board to programme events alongside shows in the Paines Plough rep, for example – will be key to making the Roundabout sustainable in the long-term.

It shouldn’t be too tricky, if the reaction of audiences to the Asylum, the Udderbelly and the Showdome are anything to go by. There seems to be something about portable performance spaces that excites the imagination of the public – perhaps it’s the old-fashioned thrill of the circus coming to town.

Whatever the reason, “pop-ups and temporary venues (particularly those in the shape of a cow) can be more accessible to people who traditionally wouldn’t go to see a show,” says Bartlam. “It’s very different from seeing a show in a permanent West End theatre. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy both, but I think it’s good to have variety.”

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