Good feedback is crucial to making a good show, but where can you get it? Lyn Gardner meets circus company Upswing, which has started an initiative, called Join the Dots, to give structured feedback to touring artists
After creating a show, rehearsing, staging and then touring it, what happens next? Most of the time the creative team disperses, moves on to a new project and that is that. But not for those taking part in Join the Dots.
Join the Dots is a new initiative developed by contemporary circus company Upswing. It’s a debriefing process where several months after the show has finished, the creatives come together with programmers, producers and peers who have seen it to discuss what worked and what didn’t.
The initiative is designed to create an honest environment to explore the work and what Upswing’s artistic director Vicki Amedume calls “the interesting bits between the intention and how the show has really been received by the audience”.
She says: “It’s healthy. Join the Dots is a way of getting away from that critical voice in your head and really hearing what other people, people you respect, think about a piece of work.”
Director Christopher Haydon says that “artists tend to be a neurotic bunch, so having proper structured feedback to improve practice and alleviate anxieties can only be a good thing”.
He sees it from both sides of the fence. Currently he is a freelance, directing shows at major theatres such as the Royal and Derngate in Northampton – where his production of The Remains of Day has just opened – and previously he was artistic director of the Gate.
Haydon believes good feedback can happen at any stage in a project, but he also says that proper debriefs can help careers. He recalls a show during his tenure at the Gate – which he left in 2017 – made with an inexperienced director that had not been a huge success.
“We sat down for a coffee and my responsibility was not to say you mucked this up and we will never give you another chance, but to try and turn what had happened into a positive learning experience for the director and the theatre. Good debriefing is always about everyone learning for the future. It’s why it’s so crucial.” He also thinks it has to be a two-way process, not just about what a venue thinks of an artist’s work but what the artist thinks of the venue.
“It’s only a proper debrief if feedback goes both ways – not just theatres giving feedback to freelances, but the freelance giving feedback to the theatre,” he says. “When I was at the Gate we always asked people what they had and hadn’t enjoyed about working there because only when you know that can you change things for the better. As a freelance giving feedback I always try to focus on systems not people. It’s easy to say that someone just didn’t do their job but it’s much more useful to think about whether the problems are structural.”
Haydon is an experienced director with a respected body of work and the confidence to say what he thinks. It is infinitely harder for younger and more inexperienced artists, particularly when they are touring, to ask for feedback or to receive it.
Josie Dale-Jones and her company This Egg has done 200 performances of Me and My Bee in venues up and down the country, but in two years of touring she has seldom had any feedback from venues.
“We are constantly evaluating it, but you seldom get comment from venues,” she says. “If they have sold lots of tickets you sometimes get an email saying thank you but mostly there is silence. It can make you feel invisible.”
Dale-Jones cites venues such as the New Wolsey in Ipswich and the Drum in Plymouth as being good at providing feedback, and says festivals are often exemplary in communicating with artists. Other theatres, such as Northern Stage, have structures in place for debriefing, and at plenty, such as Bristol Old Vic, a cup of coffee is always on offer.
But if debriefing is as crucial as Haydon says, why were so many organisations reluctant to talk about how they work with outside artists when I approached them? It suggests an awareness that they don’t have the most robust or useful structures in place. In business there is almost always a debrief at a project end, so why not in theatre?
The problem may be that artists can turn up to a venue and never meet the person who booked the show. They can leave without knowing if anyone from the venue actually watched it. This lack of dialogue does nothing to broker relationships and suggests that venues are only interested in whether the product sells and not in its artistic intentions or building a partnership for future work.
Funding comes with accountability. Theatres and companies who get Arts Council England subsidy – in whatever form – must predict outcomes and evaluate work for the funding body. But rarely do venues share that information, or the audience feedback they collect, in a useful way with companies.
It may simply be a matter of venues being over stretched and under staffed, but Lina Johansson of all-female circus company Mimbre believes that lack of debriefing and evaluation is a particularly British problem.
“Dutch and German producers and programmers are much more upfront about telling you what they liked and didn’t like about a show. That can be scary, but it’s much more useful than the way in Britain people dance around telling you what they really think. Honesty is a good thing.”
But then came Join the Dots, a new way of bringing people together to discuss a project. Upswing’s Matthew Woodford says the process came out of one of its shows called What Happens in Winter, which had mixed reviews and responses. Upswing wanted to find out how they, and those who had seen the show, really felt about it.
They came up with this initiative, a process that takes place months after the last performance and brings a group of people together to tackle artists’ questions. The session is facilitated by someone who hasn’t seen the show and can therefore probe the panel’s contributions more deeply.
In the last week of February, I was the facilitator on a session called to discuss Mimbre’s The Exploded Circus, a show that toured widely last year, and may yet have further life. Director Lina Johansson and executive producer Lissy Lovett came up with the questions, but they did not take part in the the discussion. Instead they listened intently.
The session exploded the show with real rigour, and it raised wider issues about the industry and the way venues and companies operate and how relationships might be improved. It is a process that has application right across the sector because it is so geared towards analysing the work without holding back.
Lovett said before Joining the Dots, she had come to think of the technically demanding Exploded Circus as primarily a series of – sometimes unsolvable – lighting issues, but that after the session she appreciated more what Mimbre had achieved in making such an ambitious piece.
“It confirmed to me some of the things I already knew about the show,” said Johansson, “but sometimes you don’t know whether what you know about a show is just you being ultra-critical of your own work or ultra-defensive. It allows you to see what you’ve made more clearly. That is very, very useful.”
For more information go to: upswing.org.uk