As funding continues to dwindle and more is expected of theatre organisations, Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell says it has found strength in working more closely with its host university
Northern Stage sits within the campus of Newcastle University, very close the top of Northumberland Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. We are in the centre of the city, but crucially 50 short yards on to the university campus. To get to our front door you have to cross that subtle border, which in all sorts of ways says you are in a different place. Our audience, drawn from across the North East, from all walks of life, must not only feel empowered to negotiate the social and cultural barriers that shroud theatres, but must also cross into the campus of a university, which, however welcoming and open, has all of its own power structures and systems of permission.
In the past, the relationship between the theatre and its host university struggled to get beyond the transactional. The university is our landlord. We pay it rent and it makes us an annual grant. We would meet to discuss signage and the use of our building for university drama and dance societies. A polite, cordial and not particularly effective relationship. A marriage of circumstance, happenstance and convenience.
But around four years ago, this began to change. As with all big shifts, it began with the small things. A few key staff changes, in both organisations, led to conversations between people who had never had them before – previously made decisions had been forgotten, which defeated some old barriers.
Institutional thinking, or institutional barriers, are subtle and stubborn. Often a context that has made something previously impossible has changed, but the system does not acknowledge that change until it is pointed out, or new people who have never known of the impediment begin to work together. A bit like Wile E Coyote running off the edge of a cliff, but not falling until he looks down and acknowledges the absence of ground: things that are no longer there often hold us up.
Opportunity and necessity are also great engines of change. For both the theatre sector and universities, it had become abundantly clear that we were living not just in an age of change, but one of seismic change. Funding structures, expected outcomes, ways of measuring and reporting our impacts and intents, financial pressures, disappearing support from local government and a decade of standstill central funding had altered the landscape so fundamentally that the adage of “doing more with less” no longer applied.
Both sectors were aiming, with great innovation and determination, to do more, for a much more diverse community, while earning more, making more, supporting more, enabling more, and keeping cost of entry as low as possible. The answer of how to do all of these, sometimes contradictory, things lay in new thinking and new models.
Our next big step was to make this a conversation between many people – not just between our institutions leaders or gatekeepers. We established an informal working group that brought together members of faculties as diverse as the experimental architecture department, the business school, digital institute, humanities department and the medical faculty, and put them in the same room as our participation and producing teams, and our technical and front-of-house departments.
This, surprisingly swiftly, led to a profound shift in our conversations. We stopped talking about what we were doing – teaching, making plays, researching, developing artists – and began to talk about what we were doing it for. We stopped looking at the tool and started to look at its application. We had conversations about: how we could increase opportunity within marginalised communities; how to create agency and access; how to empower the parts of society we were not effectively working with; how to understand, listen and respond better.
Out of this shift, projects began to grow: a Digital Knowledge Transfer Partnership (a scheme funded by Innovate UK to connect graduates to industry, normally applied within industrial contexts – this cultural application was an innovation in itself); a successful Arts and Humanities Research Council bid investigating the use of digital technology in theatre and international partnership; a burgeoning set of activities in Byker – one of the most deprived wards in the country; an innovative new model of impact evaluation around our young company; a social justice project researching the impact of cultural activity on the lives of young migrants; a partnership with the hugely ambitious City of Dreams project, which engaged young people across the North East; partnering on fundraising, on advocacy and the sharing of networks, skills and perspectives. All of this genuinely feels like just the beginning.
This complex suite of activity is not under the guidance or purview of one individual, or in the interest of one institution. It is the fruit of an overlapping of systems and sharing of data from both inside and outside our organisations. As we accelerate from small projects that have taught us how to navigate each other’s decision-making and planning processes to larger, medium-term projects, we are finding ourselves rapidly in the foothills of ambitious undertakings that will take years to deliver. They will change our organisations – the impact of which will be felt far beyond our physical boundaries. Where our position on the campus once felt like a context that had to be negotiated, mitigated and managed, it now feels like a vast, multifaceted opportunity that we are finally starting to realise.
One of the less acknowledged effects of the relentlessly tightening ratchet of funding is that it impairs our ability to think, plan and act with a long-term strategic view. When the problems of balancing this year’s budget are so acute, and when quick decisions need to be made, it is increasingly difficult to invest human, financial or capital resources towards long-term goals. If you need money to keep the lights on today, it is impossible to invest in a long-term project.
As we begin to look towards larger projects with the university, be those shared capital fundraising for new community resources in Byker or partnerships between research and performance projects, success is predicated on not only long-term thinking, but in sharing and refining that thinking.
‘If you need money to keep the lights on today, it is impossible to invest in a long-term project’
Investment from senior figures in the university is, of course, critical to getting the ball rolling. But the drive for projects will always come from academics and students who see opportunities with us, while we support artists, audiences and participants to identify and access opportunities in the university.
As part of this process, Northern Stage has learned what it’s like to be a smaller partner to a much larger entity. As the largest producing theatre in the North East, most of our regional partnerships are with smaller companies and I think – I hope – this experience is teaching us to be a better, more transparent, more malleable partner.
A successful partnership is not a straight-line process. It is not that ‘together we do this thing for this gain’. It is a shift in recognition; in points of intersection; shared values; shared aspirations; shared outcomes. Critically, it is not working together towards goals that are ‘one time for you, one time for me’ but reaching to use shared resources for the benefit of those outside our institutions. Partnership that strengthens our utility to others is partnership that strengthens ourselves.
Lorne Campbell is artistic director of Northern Stage