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:

Rural Touring Top Tips for Artists: Shane Shambuhu

Friday, September 7, 2018

‘Be Flexible’ is a key piece of advice when it comes to Rural Touring. From working in spaces of all shapes and sizes to understanding the importance of an interval and a raffle. For a really successful rural tour, you need to be prepared to adapt – and see this as an opportunity for pushing your work further, not a limitation! 

But Nick Cassenbaum, one of our New Directions Showcase artists from this year says it much more succinctly than I do!

To see all our Top Tips for Artists watch our Youtube playlist here

Welcome to the world of Rural Touring…

Friday, September 7, 2018

Brand new to the world of rural touring and not really sure what it’s all about? We teamed up with Ian McMillan an NRTF favourite, and advocate for the sector to create a video to introduce everyone to the fantastic creative whirlpool that is rural touring. Watch the full video here…