‘We need to learn to collaborate outside the theatre sector’
On the day lockdown began, the first show supported by our Next Stages project – set up to develop, produce and tour mid-scale theatre – was due to hit the road.
Pre-Covid, we had identified a number of challenges to mid-scale touring through this project: structural funding issues; that it was London-centric; the rare crossover from studio to mid-scale; the balance of financial risk and maybe most importantly, diversity, representation and connectivity with audiences.
Post-Covid there will also be greatly increased pressure on finance – audiences with less to spend – and fear of gathering, Arts Council England and other funders facing a profound economic squeeze and a shift in audiences engaging with performances online.
So how can we use this once-in-a-lifetime moment of chaos and disruption to make touring better? We feel the key to this is in our relationship to the audience. It’s more than audience development, it’s about how we integrate with communities and become trusted and vital parts of their lives.
ACE’s Let’s Create strategy focusing on community and co-creation makes a great context for change. People don’t live in geographic isolation, we are part of nationally connected communities of identity and interest.
Touring companies, venues, artists and funders need to work together to find stories that connect locally and have national relevance
As touring companies, we can take work with the strength of deep community relationships beyond the home cities, towns and villages where it was created. To do this we need tangible, specific strategies to be more direct in collaborating with diverse communities across the country, finding co-collaborators and co-conspirators in each area we tour to and each community we make work with and learn what really brings people together.
All this needs a rebalancing of our efforts. We need to balance production budgets with a greater focus on engagement, backed by enough people at a national and local level with enough lead time to really bring change about. Roy Alexander Weise at Manchester’s Royal Exchange has recently talked inspiringly about this.
This moment has also catalysed digital challenges and opportunities. Can we become more like the music industry – in which listening at home feeds demand for the live event? Touring’s digital impact must grow beyond marketing and streaming performances to find ways to straddle live and digital spaces in a way that is open and exciting for audiences.
We also need to be much smarter with data: imagine what an extraordinary resource it could be to have a show broadcast through Audible and then to see where the hotspots of interest were, each representing a gateway to new audiences. Imagine too if we had a theatre version of boxofficemojo.com where we could all see exactly how shows are performing financially day by day.
And how do we get there? Collaboration. Touring companies, venues, artists and funders need to work together to find stories that connect locally and have national relevance. We need to integrate communities into the producing and artistic processes and we need to learn how to collaborate routinely outside the theatre sector with broadcasters, online platforms and across art forms. And to successfully collaborate, we need to find new ways to share the risk.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.