CONCERTA Case Study: Volunteers & Rural Touring

Volunteering sits at the heart of the rural touring programme. Most of the promoters are volunteers, every performance is supported by volunteers and many of the venues are run exclusively by volunteers; even those venues who employ professional staff utilise the help of a network of volunteers in promoting and supporting performances.

Case Study Taken from CONCERTA report

Historical NRTF data suggests that in any one year there is something in the region of 110,000 volunteer hours committed to supporting rural touring[1]. Given that during the five years of study, there were 9,467 performances in 4,354 venues this would mean that each performance had something in the region of 58 volunteer hours associated with it.

Our Case Study evidence would suggest that this substantially underestimates the amount of volunteer time dedicated to supporting rural touring performances. In Borwick and Priest Hutton Memorial Hall in Lancashire, for example, when researchers arrived at the venue three hours before the show was due to start, five volunteers were already hard at work in the venue putting up temporary staging, arranging tables and seats, helping the artists unload equipment and liaising with the artist’s technician in order to integrate the hall’s lighting and projection facilities into the technical requirements for the show. Behind the scenes other volunteers were preparing a meal to be eaten by the artists and their team before going on stage. As show time arrived, other volunteers arrived to operate ticket sales and regulate the door and seat audience members. When the show finished members of the audience stayed behind to help clear away the chairs and tables and put away the temporary staging. Volunteers helped the band load their van, put away the staging and it was a volunteer who swept the hall at the end of the night and switched off the lights and locked up, long after everyone else had gone home.

In Caunton Dean in Nottinghamshire, different volunteers take on responsibility for ticket sales, for poster distribution and for preparing food as well as preparing the venue. In Devoran, in Cornwall a group of volunteer parents organise a whole programme of children’s shows and activities.

Even in venues with professional staff, the amount of volunteer time dedicated to a performance far outweighs the amount of professional time. In Wem Town Hall, for instance, for the performance of Just Us dance company, there was one duty manager on duty during the whole event; however audience members arriving at the venue bought their tickets from a volunteer in the box office, ordered and were served their pre-show and interval refreshments from a volunteer and were greeted and seated by volunteers. At the end of the night volunteers cleared the hall and put away seating. Night after night, this scene is repeated in all the venues participating in rural touring.

Every performance is supported by a rich network of volunteers and volunteer labour, but it is important to understand that volunteering goes far beyond preparing the venue and helping out on the night.

A point emphasised repeatedly through the study fieldwork is that ‘voluntary’ does not equate to poor quality. Artists interviewed talked about the professionalism of locally-run venues. Promoters talked with pride about the different roles that volunteers took on and the professional way they carried them out. Schemes themselves operate a contractual relationship, which demands the same kind of accountability from volunteer promoters as it would from professionals. 

This is a very important point. While the NRTF and local Schemes offer a range of packages of support to promoters, there is very little practical support around supporting volunteers and volunteering as such. Venues that have paid staff, have some capacity to run schemes to recruit and support volunteers, but the reality for most voluntarily-run venues is that most promoters rely on a group of people to help them out who receive very little in the way of support or training. Usually they are people who have self-nominated or are known previously to the promoter.  Often the groups of volunteers stay relatively fixed over time and promoters often say that it is difficult or impossible to get new people involved.

“People tend to mix and match for other activities but no one come forwards for the arts” … no-one younger wants to come forwards to help you see” (Volunteer Promoter)

Although it is understandable that there may be a reluctance for new people to get involved, interestingly our audience survey responses (Section 3.12) indicate that there is a small but significant number of local audience members who would be willing to get involved and to help out. This would appear to be an opportunity for future development and could contribute both to sustainability and to succession planning in local venues.

Our Case Studies indicated, as does the literature, that there are a range of motives for people to volunteer at rural touring events.  One volunteer started to help-out because his wife was volunteering, another found that it was a great way to meet people after moving to the area and developed a range of friendships as a result. All the volunteers we talked to expressed a real sense of pride and enjoyment from their volunteering.

“We get a buzz out of it and people enjoy themselves obviously… and when people come up at the end of the show and say that was a blooming good show. Best yet or whatever.”

“I do get enormous satisfaction from the village hall being a success for putting on things that people enjoy and making a bit of money. I do get emotional. You know, I mean I enjoy it coming to fruition and when it comes off we all have a good time.”

“I never ever would have thought, ‘I’ll go and watch a ballet’, and it’s just changed me and enabled me to watch things and see things that I never thought I would enjoy even. Some of them are hard work …”

“Just remembered, I forgot to say why I was doing it and it’s the same reason as everyone else has, as in it’s nice to meet people and I genuinely believe the same things as you, the Town Hall is important but also for selfish reasons that, because I have used it for myself as a venue to do my art, where I have received some income, so it only seems fair to balance that with supporting it on a voluntary basis as well.”

The benefits of volunteering are many and varied. Our conversations with volunteers, promoters and with schemes identify many benefits both to individuals and to communities that accrue from volunteering. These range from the individual skills and health and wellbeing outcomes to the more macro community benefits related to increased community capacity, richer social and cultural interaction and civic society. Some of thing volunteers reported to us included the following quotes:

“It anchors you to the community.” 

“It’s enabled me and now makes me watch things I never thought I would watch.”

“I really wanted to put something back into the community.”

“It makes you more positive about where you live.”

Individual volunteers were much more likely to talk about their personal benefits, often related to a greater sense of involvement, friendship, purpose and pride with being involved and associated with touring events.

“… and so I came here because I returned back to the village after a bereavement and really was looking for an out to get to know people. So, that, yeah, and have met lovely, lovely people”.

Yet it was notable also that many people who started volunteering on rural touring activities had ended up being involved in other projects and skills and confidence learned through being involved in the touring events had soon transferred to other activities.

For example, we gathered many examples in our study of how volunteering on arts events often leads to and generates other arts activity. In one example, in Borwick and Priest Hutton in Lancashire, a core group of volunteers were so inspired after hosting professional acts in their local hall that they decided to form their own ceilidh band, and which is now a fixture at many local events and has proved both an asset to the local community as well as of great personal value to those involved. Another example was in Wem, where an individual who saw that after attending a film performance, the audience tended to stay and chat about the film, through this experience she was inspired to introduce film performances as part of her volunteering with U3A.

Rural touring, then, both builds and further enables community capacity. In Caunton Dean in Nottinghamshire, for example, the local history society was set up partly as a result of interests and social contacts fermented at rural touring events.  Today, many of those involved in supporting the rural touring events now also support local history society events. As a result of the experience gained through rural touring events the organisers know what goes into planning and promoting events and have the mechanisms for publicity such as the parish magazine and word of mouth networks, and which they have the skills to exploit. They now host guest speakers. Equally, all the village events benefit from this skill and legacy; village fetes, MacMillan coffee mornings, bring and buy sales, Christmas events, all reflect the fact that there is an embedded knowledge of what goes on into promoting successful events that interviewees connected back to having been fostered through rural touring experience.

Another example, from Borwick and Priest Hutton, illustrates very graphically how volunteering can lead to very practical and substantial economic outcomes. In this part of Lancashire, the local speeds for broadband were extremely slow and many people had been talking about how this was hampering the development of business and other initiatives locally. The promoter in conversation with other volunteers he worked with at the memorial hall on arts events saw the opportunity to do something about it. The immediate circle of people he asked to support him were the same group of volunteers who supported the arts events. Over two years this group met one day a week to physically dig and install the community broadband across the local countryside which resulted in the local community installing a hyper-fast broadband infrastructure at a fraction of the cost that it would have been if a professional company had undertaken the work. Already after two years, there are reports of more local businesses springing up and at least one media company has relocated to the area as a result of the development[1]. Although Borwick and Priest Hutton is a particularly strong example of the knock-on effects of volunteering, it is a powerful reminder that many people who start off volunteering in one area of activity often get involved in other volunteering when the opportunity arises

“Really, in an area like this, you’ve got huge human potentials. People with tremendous talents and experience and so on and often an enormous willingness to get involved and work hard and all the rest of it, but most frequently what’s missing is anyone to catalyse that process. I mean, if you’re prepared to do that, I mean, for me, relatively small amounts of effort can get a huge payback in terms of what you can achieve.” (Volunteer Borwick and Priest Hutton)

Our Case Studies indicated how volunteers involved in rural touring events are involved in a myriad of ways in their local communities. Although rural touring events are just one of the many activities that volunteers support, they enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other areas of volunteer activity, and if rural touring wasn’t always the catalyst which started many volunteers off on their volunteering journey, it continues to sustain and develop this critical capacity for rural communities well beyond the arts.


For more information on CONCERTA see – https://www.ruraltouring.org/project/concerta-social-impact-study-2/

Why is Rural Touring so Important?

Rural Touring Advocacy

What is National Rural Touring Forum?

National Rural Touring Forum supports rural touring schemes, promoters, artists and communities to bring high quality and professional creative experiences to rural venues and audiences. It does this through advocating on behalf of the sector, creating national projects, networking, showcasing and hosting an annual conference.


What is rural touring and why is it different from urban touring?

Rural touring is where professional performances take place in rural venues. These rural venues usually take the form of a Village Hall or Community Centre, but can also be pubs, libraries and outdoors. They are rarely fully equipped arts venues. Performances are programmed by a rural touring scheme, who will curate a varied season of events. Instead of all the events taking place in a couple of rooms in one building, they take place in lots of venues across a specific geographical area, sometimes whole counties, sometimes even further. Rural touring work is very different from touring to city centres or venues in urban areas. Artists express high regard for rural touring venues and the level of professionalism from the promoters. They often talk about their appreciation of a certain “magic” and warmth of the audiences that happens at rural events which aren’t the same at larger halls or festivals.

“The heart of the reason why it’s different from a town centre art centre is that the audience knows each other. That contributes to the other thing that is distinctive, which is that rural touring events become part of shared memory, part of what builds community. So, for both of those reasons, I think that it is a very distinctive kind of artistic experience.” François Matarasso, March
2019


Green Touring
Touring is inherently greener than venue-based work. Large venues consume vast amounts of energy and expel lots of carbon. People invariably drive to them – or drive to a station to get a train to get to a city where the venue is. Small-scale touring – where one van is on the road for a small cast – has a low carbon footprint in comparison. Rural touring is generally set in villages where many audiences walk to the venue. And if they don’t walk, they live usually within a 10-mile radius, so journeys are short. Previous NRTF annual surveys report that 90% of audiences travel for less than 10 minutes to get to their village hall.

Rural Promoters

Rural touring couldn’t happen without promoters who host the events. They work with the schemes to identify which performance or artist is the most relevant for their audience and do everything from box-office to get-ins, promotion, hosting artists. Many know their audiences on a first name basis.
Volunteering sits at the heart of rural touring; most promoters are volunteers. Venues employing professional staff utilise the help of a network of dedicated helpers. Promoters maintain an engaged audience for shows, know what they like and are aware of the level of risk they are comfortable in taking in their programme.

Performers

All genres of work are represented in rural touring. Creative practitioners and performing companies are selected via recommendations, showcasing, introductions, festivals and seeking out shows independently. They all have a few things in common – flexibility, relevance to the audience, and professional quality work.
It’s about putting artists in front of audiences and audiences in front of artists. Everything else is fundamentally about getting that moment working Properly. Our job is to make sure that that marriage is right and the right communities, the right shows and the right artists end up in the right place at the right time and that’s very important to us.” Director, rural touring scheme

Health in the Community

Rural touring brings high-quality arts to people who otherwise would not have access to it. This can contribute to reducing the effects of isolation and to developing community cohesion, while also strengthening the capacity of local people to organise and to develop themselves.
Bringing quality, diverse, and challenging arts activity has been shown to be integral to catalysing and supporting community life in rural areas, especially as other village ‘anchors’ such as shops and pubs have diminished. The act of programming touring arts into rural areas generates a range of individual and community benefits, including personal development, improved well-being and supporting community buildings and infrastructures such as pubs, halls and schools. The strengthening of existing community organisations through networking and volunteering and bringing people together positively fosters community cohesion by reducing loneliness, breaking down age barriers and even, enhanced local democracy. 

Rural Touring Stats

1,650 Performing Groups

110,000 Voluntary Hours

332,000 Audience Members

£1,000,000 Box Office Sales

2,500 events

1,000 venues

Benefits and Impact of Rural Touring

  • RT acts as an agent between the local agenda and creative work being made
  • RT sector doesn’t just tour work that is already touring – it commissions and premiers too
  • When the country is becoming more ‘place-based’ RT addresses localism by creating work with national appeal
  • RT is ahead of the curve when it comes to non-traditional touring spaces in comparison to town and city-based touring
  • It supports professional performance into rural areas, engaging residents in cultural experiences
  • Thanks to RT, audiences in rural areas can enjoy the same opportunities to see and appreciate the arts on their doorsteps as urban counterparts
  • RT supports skills development and cohesion
  • RT gives opportunities to address social mobility and people living in deprivation
  • RT contributes to local economic growth
  • RT can change individual and community perceptions of art and culture, increasing confidence and a sense of belonging in people
  • RT helps facilitate a greater understanding of what local provision should be delivered and how this could be achieved
  • RT helps drive improvements in local facilities
  • RT supports the development of strong local networks and volunteering in a range of activities.
  • RT is a driver for promoting a year-round calendar of events and activities
  • RT positively contributes to wellbeing including social and emotional development
  • RT fosters the empowerment of young people
  • RT encourages social inclusion and integration into the wider community
  • RT encourages the arts to be more integrated into the school curriculum
  • RT supports staff training in arts development

GAIL FERRIN’S TRIP TO ‘BRAW REVEALED’

CPD GRANTSGUEST BLOGNRTF GRANTS

GAIL FERRIN’S TRIP TO ‘BRAW REVEALED’

Monday, October 14, 2019The NRTF recently sent Gail Ferrin from Blaize ArtERY & Live Lincs Touring to ‘Braw Revealed’ using one of our CPD grants. Here we hear about what she learnt. 

I recently had the opportunity to attend Braw Revealed billed as ‘a day of learning, sharing and doing for anyone looking to contribute to the innovation of rural touring’, which took place at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, Scotland. Representing the NRTF, I went to hear about the project and see if I had some ideas to contribute to the day.

On arrival, I found a room full of delegates from across a wide spectrum of arts, including; development officers, marketing & communications officers, venue directors, performers, touring organisations and programmers, representatives of various forums, event managers, lecturers and other arts development professionals.

I also noted the quote displayed on the screen – which set an interesting tone to the day;
“I thought it was going to be shite but it was actually quite good” Neil – audience member Isle of Eigg

The day began with an overview of Braw – a two-year-long action research project which is almost complete. Described as a project which is ‘examining artistic vibrancy, relevance and impact by deepening the relationships between three devising performers and three rural communities’ I was interested to hear about the impact and learning from this process.

Jo Maclean, CEO of the Touring Network and Lisa Baxter of The Experience Business led the day and began describing the project ‘What we did, why and how we did it’. They explained that they would explore and share what happened when they propelled 3 devising artists, 3 promoters and 1 first-time animater into an open-ended experiment into rural touring – examining what happened when trialing some new approaches (with some spectacularly good and not-so-good results!). What followed was a series of sessions where the assembled delegates heard a review of the three areas and projects, from promoter and artist perspective – Birds of Paradise Theatre, Creative Electric and Lochgoilhead, Vanishing Point and the Idle of Eigg then Saffy Setohy, The Work Room and Forres , Finhorn Bay Arts. There seemed to be some more successful experiences and those which perhaps hadn’t accomplished quite what they could have. However, all acknowledged it had been good to try. 
It seemed that perhaps a two-year project timeline was too long to keep audiences and participants involved and that some of the initial energy dissipated as time went on. The team also acknowledge they should have put in place a tighter brief and been clearer on expectations of all involved, including promoters, companies, the animater, and artists.

At the end of the day, the delegates were asked to contribute to some questions around what happens next for Braw.

Overall an informative and interesting day, which mainly consisted of hearing from all of those involved in the Braw project, and some comments and feedback from delegates who offered some opinions, suggestions, and observations after hearing about the process, results, feelings of promoters, audiences, and artists who were involved.
One of the main points I came away with from the day is just how important promoters are, they are key to the success of projects like this, they know their communities and yet they have limited capacity and should not be expected to work as hard on getting projects up and running and sustaining a lot of local involvement over a long period, without funding and other support.

Gail Ferrin – Blaize ArtERY & Live Lincs Touring