Eclipse Theatre is leading European theatre towards increased diversity – but with Brexit looming, how much longer can it last? Nick Awde meets artistic director Dawn Walton to hear how the Sheffield-based company is building international networks and encouraging directors to reach diverse audiences and programme work by black artists
From small beginnings with a big vision, Eclipse Theatre has steadily grown black theatre in the north of England and given regional touring a much needed shot in the arm. In fact, its model is so adaptable that the Sheffield-based company now finds itself moving to an international level – thanks to a pioneering two-year project funded by Creative Europe. And, despite the uncharted territory facing the UK and the EU over the next couple of years, Eclipse sees its mission to bridge black arts across countries as a lasting one.
“It started with Slate, our Arts Council England Sustained Theatre funded movement in the north,” says Eclipse artistic director Dawn Walton. “We call things such as this movements, because you don’t build anything that doesn’t have a legacy. And the legacy of Slate is an international black artists network.”
Eclipse set out to deliver diverse programming in regional theatres, approaching it from the direction of recognising the need to locate and support talent, and then crack the problem of regional touring.
“We set up Slate because when Eclipse started eight years ago, very quickly black artists started knocking on our doors,” explains Walton. “Although we were doing high-quality work, we were barely functioning ourselves as a small organisation that was punching way above its weight doing middle-scale touring.”
As a result, Eclipse realised it had to put the touring of black work into a wider context. Since there is a disproportionate perception that black work is risky to tour, there was a clear need for black artists in the independent sector to be supported to take this next step. “They were very shut out,” says Walton.
With its tag line: ‘Black. Arts. World.’, Slate confidently places artists right at the centre “to shake the ground and find those black artists” and then offers support. As simple as that. “And it’s bespoke,” says Walton. Working with a team of ‘enablers’ – black arts leaders based across the north – Eclipse finds the resources to do everything from very basic steps such as how to apply for funding and to make links with another organisation to how to move work around the country and ultimately around the world.
“The aim is to build sustainable models for black artists in the north of England by extending their networks locally, nationally and internationally,” adds Walton. Importantly, to Eclipse, ‘black’ includes anyone who is marginalised for their race or ethnicity.
Grassroots connections that promote excellence are key to Slate’s appeal and help it to make connections overseas. “We are aware that true sustainability comes from moving your work outside the country as well – [taking example from] dancer Akram Khan, 1927 theatre, the list goes on. We understand how that works and traditionally black artists have never had that opportunity. And so we’re giving them that knowledge through shared learning.”
Extremely handy in this respect is that Eclipse is based in the same building as Forced Entertainment. “They are of course more than well schooled on internationalism. About 80% of their work is outside of the UK.”
Funding for Slate’s international programme has come through Creative Europe with the intention of working with a series of foreign partners who are setting up a Slate pilot in their own cities. They find their own associate artists to become enablers, theatremakers who identify and stimulate black artists in their region. As they develop work, everyone shares practice and findings, they hold international workshops and accelerate the learning of diversity between countries.
Portugal and the Netherlands are the first partners in the shape of Lisbon’s Teatro Griot and Amsterdam’s Meervaart. As lead organisations, they’re working with Eclipse over the next two years, with the aim of moving work between the three countries.
International arts network IETM, based in Brussels, has been a key conduit to making connections – Walton is on the advisory committee. “When I started going to IETM, everybody I talked to – all over the world – seemed to be talking about diversity. ‘How do we do it?’ they asked. They were also all very good at having the wrong people in the room – by not having black artists there. I thought: ‘Oh, this is like back home…’
“But, through IETM, we were able to find people that were like-minded and willing to take the plunge with us. It’s a small cooperation project. There are only three partners. But what is remarkable about it is that, to my knowledge, it is the first Creative Europe-funded project specifically about race. There hasn’t been another one, which is ridiculous.”
Founded in 1981, IETM is an international organisation for contemporary performing arts. It was the first European cultural network, founded by professionals for professionals to create an exchange space to reinforce and strengthen international collaboration in Europe’s independent performing arts sector. It has since grown to a network of more than 500 organisations and individual members from some 50 countries, although 88% of the membership is based on the continent. IETM holds two plenary meetings a year in different European cities, and smaller meetings all over the world. It commissions publications and research, facilitates communication and distribution of information, and advocates for the value of performing arts. ietm.org
That doesn’t stop Walton from feeling excited about the chance to reach out beyond UK borders. “The definition of black artists varies hugely from country to country, but in many ways it makes sense that this had to come from the UK.
“But it’s not about a UK company teaching everybody what we do. It’s about an honest discussion to explore the best way to support black artists and allow them to move their work around and to share it. Because, when you look, you can’t see that work. It’s not there, it’s not available and [yet] there’s a hunger for it – in the same way we’re discovering there’s a hunger for new black British work, which Eclipse is producing.”
That work comes in the shape of Revolution Mix, a programme spearheading the largest ever national delivery of new black British productions in regional theatres. Required reading is the ‘R’ Word, available on the Eclipse website, a study of black touring that the company has produced.
“It takes on the myth of risk that is applied to black work,” says Walton. “And we take it on with data and evidence, and then we publish it for free. Because the issues are the same all over the world, we’re getting emails from people in places such as Canada, Australia, Brazil. People are picking this thing up and saying: ‘We’ve got the same problem here. We’re going to use this.’ So I’m really excited about having a global project.”
Still, becoming part of Creative Europe during the Brexit end game must have raised all sorts of barriers to the application process as the world shrinks for the UK and access to this sort of funding programme threatens to be closed.
“We didn’t get that [face barriers]. We applied sooner than we originally planned because of Brexit. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m thinking: ‘Get your head down, let’s get what we can done, while we can.’ Because I don’t know what will happen.
“This is the last chance at the moment where a UK organisation can lead. So getting it at this point is important – if only because we can lead. What happens if we pass Brexit presumably is that we’ll have to hand over leadership, which would be crazy because at the moment we have the most amount of knowledge in this sort of area. So it would make sense that we lead in this instance. Not because we want to, but because it’s important that we do.
“As I say, we do nothing that hasn’t got a legacy so we’ll need to find a way to continue. And whether we do that with two, four, eight, other countries, the end point is connecting black artists so that the network increases. How we do it after this? I don’t know, structurally. I just know we’re committed to connecting the artists, making the network, and the artists will work it out. That’s what we’re good at. We’ll find a way.”
Artistic director: Dawn Walton
Recent productions: Black Men Walking (Royal Exchange Manchester, Royal Court, regional England tour)
Staff: permanent four, freelance six
Funders: Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Foundation Key contacts: email@example.com, 0114 312 2249