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Paines Plough’s James Grieve: To fix the mid-scale touring crisis, we need to get radical

Paines Plough’s Roundabout pop-up amphitheatre at Marine Gardens, Margate in 2016. Photo: Francesca Moody
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Paines Plough artistic director James Grieve rejoices in the recent success of small-scale touring, but, he says, we also need to get behind mid-scale touring if we want to reach tomorrow’s theatremakers

When I started at Paines Plough in 2010, everyone said small-scale touring was dead. It made no financial sense and no one wanted to schlep around doing one-nighters in tiny theatres. It was all about ascending to the hallowed mid-scale.

Eight years on and the roles have been reversed. While eulogies are solemnly recited for the moribund mid-scale, small-scale is resurgent. We’re currently in rehearsals ahead of taking Anna Jordan’s joyous Pop Music to 44 small venues this autumn from Lyme Regis to Whitehaven. It is a network we’ve built over eight years, playing one-nighters everywhere from studio theatres and arts centres to student unions and nightclubs.

Our first tour attracted 30% capacity, our most recent sold at 89%, and other companies report similarly buoyant sales. The venues have become ever more confident programmers of new plays, which have attracted new audiences and kept them coming back. It has encouraged new companies to make work and tour it at this scale. It is a virtuous circle.

To do this, of course, takes investment. Our success has largely been possible thanks to the support of the Arts Council’s Strategic Touring fund, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which have backed us to build this touring network. We hope its legacy will be continued growth in audiences and renewed ambition in companies to make and tour work on the small scale.

But touring is always in some sort of crisis. And currently it’s at the mid-scale, as highlighted by ACE’s Analysis of Theatre in England report in 2016. Venues say there is a dearth of shows, while producers say there’s not enough demand to make them. Meanwhile historic mid-scale audiences are ebbing away, undernourished, making the whole thing even less viable. It’s a catch-22. At conferences, roundtables and gatherings we lament, in hushed tones, the unsolvable conundrum of the mid-scale.

Where has it gone wrong? ACE’s Strategic Touring Fund invested £35 million in creating touring models and returned substantially on that investment. Success stories include the Ramps on the Moon consortium of six venues, which make critically acclaimed mid-scale touring productions with D/deaf and disabled actors at their heart. There have also been some transformative interventions in rural touring. But the fund has been closed and rolled into the Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants, and while ACE promises it will continue to invest in strategic touring, the loss of a dedicated fund will be sorely felt.

Damaging to the sector – and particularly touring – was the Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report released in 2013. That’s because it accounts for subsidy by recipient postcode, as opposed to where that subsidy was actually spent, or where the benefit was felt. It fomented a prevailing view that funding should be reallocated away from London, but it failed to account for touring, theatre’s vital ecosystem. Headlong, English Touring Theatre, Out of Joint, Actors Touring Company and Paines Plough all have London postcodes but exist to tour. National Theatre Live clearly benefits people outside the London Borough of Southwark.

London accounts for 50% of all theatre audiences. We won’t rebalance that percentage around the country by removing funding from the capital, but rather by supporting more work made in London to tour, saving punters the train fare and stimulating local economies wherever touring work draws audiences.

‘Theatre is still waiting for its Uber moment: the idea that fundamentally changes the way we consume live performance’

So what’s to be done? Firstly, and unavoidably, funding is crucial. Touring work distributes taxpayer investment more equitably than work that remains static. If we want to rebalance our cultural capital, we need more touring shows reaching more people in the extremities of the UK, and we should incentivise in the way the premium on theatre tax relief rewards touring. As with the small-scale, if we want a resurgent mid-scale it will take years of strategic investment.

When we are on tour we need to be more local. Your Google feed knows what you want to read, your theatre needs to know what you want to watch. Fuel, Battersea Arts Centre and others have been leading the way in appointing local ambassadors in places they visit to canvass and represent the local community in programming decisions. It is no longer enough for touring companies to parachute in on Tuesday and leave again on Saturday. Audience development needs to be year-round, and local people need to be ever more involved in curating and promoting their local culture offer, as they are in North Yorkshire, where volunteer promoters book professional work for their village halls through the brilliant Rural Arts on Tour scheme.

Paines Plough artistic director James Grieve. Photo: Charley Wiles

Targeting areas of low engagement is hugely important to introduce and enthuse new audiences. Our own Roundabout Festivals take a pop-up amphitheatre to places such as a bowling green in Little Hulton, Salford and the Marsh Farm estate in Luton. Brilliant, inventive companies such as Slung Low and Middle Child are deeply embedded in local communities historically underserved by theatre but now proving devoted fans of their local companies.

What about more radical solutions? Perhaps touring companies should lose funding altogether and the major subsidised buildings should be compelled to tour instead. The brand and heft of the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court should be able to fill a fair few mid-scale theatres. Or maybe all touring companies should be permanently itinerant with no fixed abode, in London or anywhere else, but always on the road, run on mobile phones and laptops from the heart of the communities they serve.

Or what about putting new plays on the curriculum? If we know there’s a new Mike Bartlett or Lucy Kirkwood coming in 2020, let’s plan ahead, get it on the syllabus and give venues the confidence to programme that instead of yet another Educating Rita.

Theatre is still waiting for its Uber moment: the idea that fundamentally and forever changes the way we distribute and consume live performances. It’s not cinema broadcast. It’s not virtual reality. If other industries from food to fashion to music are anything to go by, it will be an idea that makes our product more bespoke, more accessible and more local. In other words, it will be a new way of touring. A new way of reaching people in the places they live, on their own terms.

It won’t be me that has this great idea. It will be some wunderkind in their bedroom in Luton, Stoke or Plymouth. But they will never have the idea if they have never seen any theatre. So we have to keep trying to make strides, to solve touring’s perennial crisis, to make sure everyone, everywhere has the chance to see great theatre.

I grew up in Folkestone, when, despite a population of 50,000, it had no professional theatre. I was lucky, my parents took me to London to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats and Les Miserables. If they hadn’t, I’d never have experienced the mind-expanding magic of live performance.

Against a backdrop of the concerted erosion of arts education with 10% fewer GCSEs in music, art and drama this year, touring feels more vital than ever. Without it, kids like I was, in towns across the country, will never get to experience our nation’s cultural treasures. Whatever the future of touring, touring has to be the future.

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