A Very Special Thank You to Barbara Slack

Thursday, December 13, 2018

As 2018 finishes as does Barbara Slacks’ time as co-director of the rural touring scheme Highlights when she retires at the end of the month. Barbara has been at the helm of Highlights, and a much treasured rural touring colleague, for over 20 years. Back in summer, we celebrated Barbara and all her wonderful work, with the much deserved, NRTF Special Award. Her colleague, friend and Highlights co-director, Rosie Cross, gave a speech which left many of us with tears in our eyes.

To say thank you once again to Barbara for all the wonderful work she has done for Rural Touring in the UK, we wanted to share Rosie’s speech once more. Don’t worry though, we’re not letting Barbara go that easily – Barbara will continue to host rural touring events as a voluntary promoter in Appleby, Cumbria, for years to come! 

21 years ago in 1997, as the arts officer for one of the District Councils in the North Pennines, I interviewed Barbara for the job of Director for the brand new Highlights Rural Touring Scheme. 10 years later in 2007, she interviewed me for the position of Co-Director of Highlights. Since that time, I’ve had the great good fortune to be her job share partner.

Back in 1997, Highlights worked with a handful of venues in the 4 districts which made up the North Pennines. Barbara grew the scheme to what it is today, with nearly 70 venues, covering 3 counties. She secured regular funding from ACE and from the 3 County Councils – as well as numerous project grants over the years. Remember that NRTF also was constituted in 1997. In those early years, Barbara got involved in the small network of Rural Touring Schemes which were starting up around eh country.

And in the year 1999, she hosted one of the earliest NRTF conferences in Appleby in Cumbria. Of course, the NRTF conferences then weren’t quite the large affairs that they are today; but also remember that at that time, there was only Barbara at Highlights and she pretty well put on the conference alone – an enormous feat! And more recently Barbara has joined the NRTF board.

Barbara is held in the highest esteem by all of those who come into contact with her professionally. Scheme managers across the country admire her – especially those in the North, whereas you may know we have a particularly strong network; and that’s due in no small part to Barbara’s efforts over the years. But this appreciation extends also to all of our volunteer promoters, who love her and think the world of her. The same is true of funding partners and of course artists and companies. Just recently I saw an email to Barbara from a company, saying something along the line so simply:- “You’re just so brilliant. Thank you!”

Scheme managers have a lot of tangled tricky stuff to sort out in all sorts of areas. Faced with a problematic, thorny situation, whereas many of us may lose our rag and turn the air blue, Barbara keeps her calm, sorts things out and everyone is left happy and content. She has a wonderful quality of impartiality and compassion and treats absolutely everyone in the same fair way.

I reckon, that in whatever capacity we know Barbara, through our lives in the Rural Touring scene, we are all privileged to be counted AMONGST her loves and passions. I say AMONGST because we must acknowledge and not underestimate the other loves and passions in her life – these being:-

  • Her unbounded love and devotion to her family and friends
  • Her great love of the outdoors
  • And of course – her insatiable love of cake!

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Barbara Slack, THE most deserving recipient of this very special award.

NRTF Director goes to Juliet & Romeo

hursday, November 8, 2018

It was a dark and cold Sunday, November evening, the type of evening you might light a fire and curl up on the sofa with a hot chocolate… Not me!! I keenly left the house at 6pm in the pitch black to drive to a village called Collingbourne Duces in Wiltshire to see Juliet and Romeo.

Welcomed to a large village hall by the lady at reception who also manages the hall. I didn’t catch her name but she was very friendly and accommodating and looking forward to seeing the production. The hall was already full, despite arriving in good time, bar open lots of chatter.

I sat on an agility table at the back, higher than the chairs, and normally used by the children’s gym classes held there in the week. I was grateful as I could see the dancers feet this way! I got chatting to the couple in front of me. She commented that normally she knows everyone but this evening she didn’t recognise most people. She believed people are travelling long distances to see the renowned dance company Lost Dog.

It starts, conversation aimed at the audience about a marriage in trouble, the audience finds itself part of some kind of interactive, memory based, marriage guidance counselling.

Heartbreak and humour, surrounded by beautiful dance and evoking memories. Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship can relate to aspects of this performance. It’s self reflective, emotional and truly stunning. As it completes I need to take deep breaths and look at the ceiling, please don’t cry!

I hung about to say hello to Ben Duke & Solene Weinachter who devised and performed Juliet and Romeo. I met Ben in 2004 at the very conception of Lost Dog Dance, when I was running a Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe (The Roman Eagle Lodge). So it was great to catch up being in my role as Director of NRTF.

Juliet & Romeo is touring as part of the Rural Touring Dance Initiative

More information on all the Dance tours can be found here – https://www.ruraltouring.org//rural-touring-dance/rural-touring-dance-initiative-dates-autumn-2018

RTDI Company Profile: Uchenna Dance

In the second of our Rural Touring Dance Initiative Company profiles, we find a little bit more out about how Uchenna Dance are preparing for their Autumn rural tour of ‘The Head Wrap Diaries’ from their Creative Director Vicki Igbowke.

What are you most looking forward to?

Being on tour! This is our first tour of this scale and to rural audiences, we are really excited to be part of the scheme and sharing this show with those we would not normally engage with.

What have you packed in readiness for rural locations?

Food is VERY important to the company (LOL) so we have all packed those essential snacks that will keep us going while on the road. We also have some equipment, set and a mobile installation that we hope to be able to display at most venues.

How do you think it will be different from touring to towns?

The difference is that rural touring as a real intimate feel to it, we are being welcomed into the local community by the local community on all levels including communication with promoters pre-tour, recreating bespoke versions of the show for each individual venue to being looked after post show in the homes of those from the community. You just don’t get this kind of intimacy touring to town and big cities. 

Can you sum up your show in 3 words?

Culture, Laughter, Hair

What would you say to anyone who has never seen dance /theatre?

Come with an open mind, know that you do not need to get all of it as there is not always a deep and meaningful story to work out and just enjoy the dance and music

Attending a Menu Launch Party

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Attending a Promoters’ show menu launch event is a bit like opening a box of chocolates. You know your eyes will light up as you get to see everything, you know you’ll get a bit of guidance, but then you know you’ll be left to just sit back, feel spoilt, and get to pick the ones you really like.

This was the happy position I found myself in at the delightfully named Bardon Mill and Henshaw Village Hall (was there an argument over which name came first ?) in Northumberland last month, where two dozen Highlights Promoters got together for their twice-yearly meeting. A chance to mingle, to make face to face contact with Highlights HQ staff, and to discover which shows had been selected to be offered up to be booked for the Spring. Highlights cover a huge area, stretching from the Lake District to the Northumberland coast – and usually, they run four Promoters evenings every six months so that everyone has got a chance to get to one.

 But actually, for me, what’s just as important is the chance to be able to say hello to all the other Promoters. It can be quite a lonely role at times, acting as cheerleader, front of house, box office and bed and breakfast host, let alone setting out the chairs and tables and making sure the heating’s switched on. The opportunity to compare notes, see which Past shows worked and which didn’t, and let off a bit of steam about hire charges, raffle prizes and wobbly tables can definitely be good for the soul. And it’s also a chance to pinch a good idea or two. And to nose around another village hall.

And it’s nice to be a little bit spoilt. A few tasty cakes and buns go a long way to making the evening feel special. And to hear words of thanks from Highlights HQ really matters too, because they know how much work goes into being a Promoter. Equally, there is a lot of reciprocated respect, love and admiration from Promoters for rural touring scheme staff who go above and beyond to make everything happen across the UK’s 30 rural touring schemes.

So all hail to the Promoter menu launches. If you’re a Promoter like me, try to get along to them whenever you can because they’re about so much more than just the new season. And if you’re a Scheme director – my advice always – never skimp on the food….

Audiences across the North are guaranteed a great Spring 2019 offer – I know because I’ve seen it .
Tom Speight Highlights Promoter and NRTF Chair

Top Tip for Promoters: Talk us through your apprehension

Friday, October 12, 2018

This week’s top tip comes from Carn to Cove Scheme Manager, Claire Marshall and is aimed at venues and promoters.

The main points are:

  • If you’re worried about taking a show for any reason talk to your Scheme
  • Schemes are here to make things work for everyone involved
  • Schemes can’t help if they don’t know there is a problem

For all our Rural Touring Tops Tips, for artists, promoters, venues and schemes click here.

NRTF Board Away Day

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The National Rural Touring Forum Board of Trustees and observers consist of promoters, performers, senior schemes staff and Arts Council. We meet at least 4 to 5 times a year to ensure the success and good governance of NRTF.

Stanford Dingley Club Room

This September we had an away day, which was a chance for me, the Director and the Trustees to have the space to explore ideas, innovative initiatives and to better understand the needs of our members.

As I reach my 6-month-in-the-job mark I decided to invite the board to my village to see NRTF HQ, our local Clubroom (where we held the meeting) and also to see where I am from. 


I am lucky enough to live and work in a beautiful village called Stanford Dingley, an hour west of London in West Berkshire. It was a hot Indian summer day so we could make the most of the surroundings.

I probably have one of the tiniest HQ’s in the land. It is small but perfectly formed and probably now Pinterest-able! 
For me it is important to have a place to work that is uncluttered and just how I want it. Lets be honest I spend most of the hours in the week here, so I have made it a little heaven to get my head down  in, and do the best job I can.

NRTF Board Members

We had a picnic lunch then a countryside ‘walk & talk’, which really works in avoiding the post lunch slump and keeps the energy in conversation going when you have limited time.

On the away day agenda, amongst many other things, was our members and how to best support their/your needs. We are always interested in hearing ideas form members about how to expand what we do!

It was a very productive day and it was fun. Keeping a proactive and supportive board enthused and engaged is so important for organisations and an away day is a good opportunity for this. The NRTF (and I) are very lucky to have the support of such an amazing group of Trustees each one with a wealth of Rural Touring Knowledge.

Want to know who is on the board?- https://www.ruraltouring.org/about

Reflections on New Directions 2018: Sam ‘Making Work for Rural Touring’

Friday, September 21, 2018

In the second of our ‘Reflections on New Directions’ blog we hear from another of our wonderful social media helpers – Sam. Sam is a theatre maker and recent graduate of Worcester University – our hosts for the conference. Here he talks about how the conference opened his eyes to the opportunities Rural Touring presents to theatre makers.

Making work for Rural Touring

The National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF) 2018 was a bit of a crash course for me. Despite working in the Arts as a theatre director (Clown Funeral Theatre Company) and Youth Arts worker (C&T Digital Theatre/EMERGE Festival Walsall), I was only faintly familiar with rural touring. The closest I’d had to a rural touring experience was the odd variety night or youth theatre show at the Village Hall in Nuneham Courtenay, a cluster of about 40 houses in the Oxfordshire countryside, and a Robbie Williams tribute act at the Cockadoo, the local Chinese restaurant. To be thrown into a world of music, dance, theatre, poetry and comedy running all over the country was an exciting wake-up call!

This year’s NRTF featured around 30 touring schemes from across the country, representing everywhere from pubs in Cumbria to community centres in the Black Country to village halls in Cornwall. We were treated to live music every evening, no less than 22 showcase performances spanning dance, theatre, poetry and storytelling, as well as meetings, networking opportunities and buffets aplenty. Amongst all this, I was struck by the extraordinary enthusiasm for such a variety of performances amongst delegates at the conference, and it didn’t take long to appreciate the amount of work every scheme and promoter puts into finding acts that they trust. That really is a key word – trust – as many promoters are volunteers, having gained a reputation amongst their community for putting on good acts that people are happy to pay to see.

So how do artists make work for a rural touring context? As a theatre-maker myself, I’m used to making shows that can move from studio to studio, rely on similar lighting rigs, powerful PA system and a black box space. Although these spaces do exist in rural touring schemes, performers are often equally faced with the task of showing their work in a theatre one night, and a library the next. Rather than seeing this as a daunting task, as I might have done before this conference, the attitudes of performers to the rural touring circuit has been exciting to see, with adapting work to new spaces being seen as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

Fiona Coffey described the atmosphere of rural touring performances as having a uniquely ‘live’ atmosphere. When the audience all know each, and come to the same village hall every weekend to catch-up, chat, and celebrate the week, it creates a community energy that performances can build off. Fiona talked about how she actively tried to create an immersive, fun dimension to all her shows, which allows her to take part in the community energy of rural touring. This is a great example of artists building their work to suit a rural touring audience.

Some artists, such as Little Earthquake and Pentabus Theatre, have gone one step further. Little Earthquake described how a number of their previous shows had been created by actively going into community centres in rural areas, and holding workshops and discussions about what communities actually want to see. Their latest show, ‘I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost’, was a highlight of the showcase for its fantastic humour and intriguing premise (a story about Co-Director Gareth’s relationship with a ghost called Bernie), and their showcase performance made sure to mention that their show featured an interval, greeting with cheers and applause by promoters in the audience. I was unaware of the importance of intervals to venues, but it is absolutely essential in many locations, as interval bar sales are the main source of income during these events. Pentabus, on the other hand, used their showcase to seek out rural collaborators around the coasts of Britain, as they wanted local people to feed into and feature in ‘One Side Lies The Sea’, their latest performance. Not only does this help to create connections amongst rural touring schemes across Britain, but it uses rural touring as a way to help local communities create artistic work.

Building shows for audiences is one way to go, but some promoters and performers were keen to celebrate another method: make work that is good, and adaptable. Music is a wonderful artform for rural touring, because it can generally be done just about anywhere, and a good musician can move around the country, taking the same songs to venue after venue, and receive fantastic responses from audiences who are able to talk, drink, eat and join in with the shows. Musicians don’t necessarily need or make their songs for an audience, or for a particular venue, it just needs to be good. Venues also often find cheap ways of improving their acoustics, such as hanging curtains and putting up soft pinboards, which is much simpler than installing a lighting rig for a specific piece of theatre. But anyone can take this approach, for as long as the work you make is enjoyable and adaptable, it can be suitable for rural touring… and it’s a fantastic opportunity to reach new audiences if you do! Rural audiences aren’t necessarily looking for a particular kind of show, they just want to see something good, and they appreciate variety in their programming.

This has been a wonderful learning experience, and I can’t thank NRTF highly enough for the opportunities I’ve had over the last few days. The next time I make work, I will be considering right from the start how to make it suitable for rural touring, and I encourage every artist I know to think about the potential that it can open up for them.

Directors Journal – Rural Touring Dance Initiative Meeting

Friday, September 14, 2018

Directors Journal is a behind the scenes insight into what the director of the NRTF, Holly Lombardo is working on. Offering more information on our projects and the long-term goals of the NRTF. This week Holly catches up with the Rural Touring Dance Initiative.

What: Rural Touring Dance Initiative Meeting

Where: The Place London

When: September 2018

Today I went to The Place in London to meet with the partners of the Rural Touring Dance Initiative project; Alison Lord, Take Arts, Director of Dance, Eddie Nixon Artistic Director of The Place and Ed Collier Co-Director of China plate. 

We met to discuss the partnership and how each partner feeds into the actions and outcomes. Each one of us brings something unique and different skills, which makes up a team with expertise and experience to make the RTDI the best it can be. The NRTF has gone through a new structure while RTDI1 was wrapping up and the new RTDI2 launched, this was the first opportunity to talk about how the new structure will support outcomes.

It was a chance to reflect on RTDI1 and what an incredible season of work it was. RTDI2 is about building on the success of the first project and create a legacy for dance in rural venues and communities. 

Rural Touring Dance Initiative is an Arts Council England and Foyle Foundation funded Project that encourages audience’s to try new genres of work & broaden horizons while bringing communities together through dance. It also offers opportunities for dance companies to tour in a new and innovative way out of city black-box venues and into new spaces all over the country. 

We had some very constructive and positive conversations and gave me a chance to finally meet Alison and Eddie. We are going forward together on this project and we will see some amazing outcomes in the future. I am looking forward to working with everyone on the Rural Touring Dance Initiative.

To find out more about the Rural Touring Dance Initiative click here.

Opening up a New Direction for Theatre Maker Noah: Reflections on This Years Showcase

Monday, September 10, 2018

This year’s New Directions Showcase was held at the fabulous Worcester University. As well as providing comfortable digs, two professional (but very warm) theatre studios and catering, they also provided a whole team of incredible students. Without whom the showcase just would not have gone so smoothly. One of those invaluable helpers was Noah, a recent Worcester University graduate, who teamed up with NRTF Stephie to cover the social media for the three days. At the end of the showcase, we asked Noah to pen us some thoughts on his experience and his understanding of Rural Touring… we think you’ll like, and be impressed, by what he has to say…

There’s a saying in life, ‘timing is everything’. My name is Noah Kilworth; within the last month, I have spent my time completing a degree (Drama & Performance – University of Worcester) moving back from Worcester to my hometown of Wolverhampton, marrying my fiancé and, last but not least, searching for employment.

When Dr Jane George (Head of Theatre and Film – University of Worcester) approached me in May 2018, asking ‘are you interested in writing a blog for the National Rural Touring Forum’s showcase?’, the answer was a simple ‘yes’.

My first experience of rural touring theatre came whilst studying on the Touring Theatre Masters course (University of Worcester), a new four-year integrated master’s degree which specifically equips students with hands-on experience of touring theatre and the related skills to be successful in this career.

In winter 2016, my peers and I travelled to Malvern, Stourport and Ludlow to perform in community centres, parish halls and theatre studio spaces. On-route to our first venue, travelling from the confines of the University of Worcester, I remember feeling a ripple of uncertainty. I guess, for me, ‘rural touring theatre’ was totally unfamiliar and a step into the unknown. My trepidation soon changed when I met the managers behind the venues, the promoters who had booked the work and the public who had paid money to be entertained. I soon realised that the rural network has as much dedication, heart and thirst for theatre as any urban setting, if not more. Ultimately, I realised that as long as we performed quality work, everyone will be happy.

Perhaps, what surprised me the most at this year’s showcase, was the vast range of work displayed by the artists and practitioners. From traditional theatre to dance, poetry and storytelling, the three-day showcase truly covered a vast spectrum of theatrical disciplines.

A large number of the shows used autobiographical stories, exploring journeys which they themselves had encountered. The majority of acts, in my opinion, shared logistical similarities and set-ups. Familiarly, I witnessed casts of no more than three (many solo performers) and simple set designs which were easily manageable and manoeuvrable.

As a result, aesthetically speaking much of the performances were comparable in appearance. However, each artist had a unique story to tell. My question to the artists was quite straightforward, ‘Why tour rurally? Specifically, I wanted to know what the term ‘rural theatre’ meant to the performers. The very people who pitched their ideas hoping to be selected. The responses were vastly varied, from this I understood the different approaches used by the companies to create their piece are often unique and individual.

For some, such as Pentabus (National’s Rural Theatre Company), the question is a no-brainer; as Sophie Motely (Artistic Director) stated: “this is what we do – telling stories with local relevance making a national impact”. Still in its early development, Pentabus’s ‘One Side Lies The Sea’ explores maritime heritage of rural coastal Britain. They use verbatim theatre to great effect, the piece also uses digital media throughout.

The Smog, a new theatre company established in 2016 want to push absurd theatre for audiences looking for an alternative. For London based artists Nick Cassenbaum, writer and performer of ‘Bubble Schmeisis’, and Shane Shambhu, with his piece ‘Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer’, the question ‘Why tour rurally?’ evoked different standpoints. For example, East London’s Nick Cassenbaum stated: “its great touring to rural communities because you meet different types of audiences – the simple fact that you’re not in your hometown changes everything”. For Shane Shambhu, by touring his work rurally he not only bridges the gap between different cultures but also uses the opportunity to collaborate with artist across the country.

Elephant and Castle, by Tom Adams and Lillian Henley, use music and acting to deliver a thought-provoking piece on sleep disorders.
Hannah Prior, creative director and theatre-maker at Ignition spoke about the usefulness of the NRTF showcase for networking, “It’s great to take time to be able to meet all the other schemes and see the array of work that is available to rural communities.” Hannah has worked extensively with Looked After Children, educated in pupil referral units in the London area.

Flipping the coin, I asked the promoters and venue managers the similar question, “What do you want to see toured rurally?”. Those who are connected with schemes that support and encourage new work across the UK are quite simply committed to bringing diverse quality pieces of work to rural communities.

Paul Graham, chair at arts alive informed me “bringing acts to a venue is risky – if it doesn’t work people in the community will remember”, continuing “if you give people a night they remember – for the right reasons then there’s no better feeling.”

Due to the practicalities, many artists would tell me that one-person shows work better and a minimal set is a bonus. On a whole, promoters felt that selling a show with a bigger cast may be more lucrative but not always.

Singalongs or, theatre with musical soundscapes are often a winner, especially if the piece of work attracts multiple age ranges. However, the final say always returns to the word ‘quality’.

I intend to create a pitch specifically aimed at the rural touring community. I’ll also be spreading the word to fellow theatre-makers, ‘if you’re not tapping into the rural touring theatre world, you’re missing a trick.

Thanks for reading, take care!

Rural Touring on Desert Island Discs with Pam Ayres

Friday, September 7, 2018

The wonderful Pam Ayres gave a fantastic shout out to Rural Touring on Radio 4’s famous Desert Island Discs.

The world of rural touring went mad! Clearly, we’re all Radio 4 listeners, with the clip being shared all over social media and Facebook.

It’s fantastic to have advocates such as Pam giving Rural Touring the national recognition it deserves.

The full show is available to listen to online here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bd763r