Changing Times

Nicola Pollard is a freelance theatre director, and Artistic Director of Up The Road Theatre, a small-scale touring theatre company based in Kent. Founded in 2015, the company have since created and toured two shows across the country, visiting village halls, community theatres and non-theatre spaces.

I asked Stephie back in April if she’d like a blog from me. I’d been blogging for Eastern Angles while directing their spring tour, and, after a brief hiatus, had just concluded the series of missives. During those intense, focused weeks of rehearsal in February and March, coronavirus had felt really far away (literally, we were in Suffolk), but news had gradually filtered through that something alarming was occurring. Then, the idea of cancelling a handful of shows felt absurd. Government restrictions on gatherings seemed far-fetched. But, plans for the tour changed, then changed again, and again, until the entire 10-week tour consisted of an ‘opening night’ behind closed doors. I won’t need to explain to many of you what it’s like to work on something for months then have it all taken away. A show isn’t done by opening night. It needs time, and audiences, to grow, breathe and develop into a fully-fledged production. We’re hoping that Red Skies will have that opportunity next spring.

So that was going to be the first blog, but I soon realised that no-one needed more stories of cancelled shows, lost work and fear for our future. In August I put it to Stephie that I could write a blog about starting to begin creative work again. ACE had opened up Project Grants, the summer looked good for outdoor performances, there was a general vibe of positivity.

As I eventually sit down to write this (September 24th) I’m not sure where we are. Many of our schemes, promoters and artists are in areas with local lockdowns, new restrictions have been announced and other restrictions passed into law. Many of us have sweated over and submitted ACE bids of one form or another, and might well be aware that our future, be that short or long term, depends on the outcome of those bids. It’s an uncomfortable limbo state.

How does it feel to be a freelance artist right now? I don’t know about you, but I think it’s vital to try to keep going with creative work, in whatever capacity we can. We don’t all have avenues, outlets or resources to actually make something regardless of what’s going on, or an audience eagerly waiting for us to put something out there. But maybe we can plan. Maybe we can dream and then turn that into something of a plan. I found it really hard to keep working on something when I couldn’t see a way it would ever see daylight, but now I think there is daylight, even if it’s a small chink that keeps changing size. 

There will be a way through this and the arts will have a place. It isn’t easy – artists tend to need some kind of support from venues or organisations, and they can’t make any promises right now. I have to keep telling myself that there is no rush. I don’t want to be in that situation where I have to tell a hard-working, dedicated cast that our first night is our last night. I won’t be the first one out there with a show when we’re given an unequivocal green light. But I will be out there at some point in the future. Actors and other creatives want and need work. Audiences want and need work. Schemes and promoters will want and need work. That’s the motivation. At some point, Up The Road will be back on the road, and what a tremendously long road it will have been. 

Do you have a Rural Touring story or point of view you would like to share on the NRTF blog? Email Stephie Jessop with your idea!

Artists FAQ (COVID Edition): I don’t want to create digital work – is that going to harm my career?

No. Right from the beginning of lockdown Rural Touring schemes have been asking ‘how do we reach audiences offline’ and working with artists to address this. We work with audiences and in communities where access to the internet (or good internet) can be limited. Just as some schemes and venues will continue to think about digital work becoming part of their core offer in the future, others are exploring alternative art forms and ways of reaching audiences. So if you have an idea that isn’t digital, but also isn’t an in-person event, now might be a good time to explore that! 

It is also a very stressful time, so if what you need to do is secure yourself financially, or take a break completely, we all want to support you to do that too.

Artists FAQ (COVID Edition): What about digital work?

One of the fantastic things about the lockdown was the access to digital work it has created – and the appetite for it among some of our least tech-savvy audiences. Some schemes have embraced digital work and started projects which they are now looking to tie in with their regular work and make long term, others have been focussing on how to reach audiences offline.

One thing all the schemes have kept at the forefront of all their digital thinking is, how do we deliver something online that still captures the magic of rural touring and feels local? If you’re thinking of creating or sharing work digitally, it is worth keeping this in mind too when you approach schemes.

Artists FAQ (COVID Editing): Are other creative ideas being discussed?

Yes! And as we all know, the best people for creative ideas are artists. So if you’ve got a new project you’ve been thinking about that responds directly to these new conditions we find ourselves in then speak to your local scheme, keeping in mind their capacity right now.

Artists FAQ (COVID Edition): Is outdoor work being considered?

Yes. Outdoor work is being considered, even for Autumn. But the same thought processes apply to indoor programming when it comes to considering how far artists would be travelling/touring, how will we accommodate them, how can we keep artists and audience safe. We have also been advised that the restrictions for events outdoors will be the same as the restrictions for indoor events, so this may not be as simple a solution as we originally thought.

Artists FAQ: How will venues and promoters be operating?

If you haven’t already it’s worth looking at the ACRE guidelines for village halls reopening, to get an idea of the new restrictions promoters and venues will be working within, as they’ll also have new things to consider when it comes to hosting your show. For example, how will get-ins and get-outs be delayed or lengthened by new cleaning schedules?

There will be other ways touring will be different going forward. We are encouraging promoters to go cashless wherever possible especially when it comes to ticket sales, but as we work with such a variety of spaces it’s hard to say how each space will adapt. If you do have a tour that is looking likely to go ahead, it might be worth putting together a survey/checklist for your venues to fill out so you can get all the information you need about how your show will work in their space.

Artists FAQ (COVID Edition): When should I be contacting schemes about touring beyond Autumn 2020?

Now, but make sure we have all the information we need and be aware that 2020 is having a knock-on effect into 2021. Many shows which were due to happen this year have been rescheduled for future seasons – some schemes have the capacity and the funding to be able to have bigger future seasons to incorporate new programming alongside rescheduled programming but not all schemes. It’s also worth remembering that some tours which were due to happen in future seasons or were originally rescheduled for Autumn 2020, and are now looking at Spring 21 may not be able to happen so there is still the opportunity for new work to be included in programmes. Again arming schemes with as much information as possible about your work in one concise place will help them make decisions if another show falls through and they need replacements etc.

Artist’s FAQ (COVID Edition): What Do Schemes Need To Know?

Going forward, and especially in the next 18 months, the way we all approach touring and the information we will need is going to be different. We advise you to update your tour packs to make sure you’re including as much of this information as possible, for both long and short term tour plans.

  • Where you are based, and how far will you be travelling?

Many schemes, especially the ones who are looking at programming events are likely to be looking to work with more local artists, so make sure your closest scheme is aware of you. Make sure you include if you were already in conversation with them, where you are based, and how far you would be travelling to get to them. If you have other tour dates in other areas then please also let schemes know about these dates. We’re aware of how much travelling people are doing, how many people we have come in to contact with, and what the danger of moving around lots might be. Schemes and promoters will want to know this information so they can make an informed decision.

  • Your accommodation needs/touring radius from home

Even if schemes are planning to book tours this Autumn, it is unlikely promoters will be offering homestays any time soon. As we all know the hospitality sector has been hit hard by the crisis, and we don’t know what that will mean for hotels and other guest accommodation across the UK. 

And most importantly we want you to feel safe and comfortable when you’re on tour too, so it is worth setting yourself a touring radius and specifying any accommodation needs. How far are you willing to travel in one day? For example, if you were to go home every evening? Or if suitable accommodation can’t be found nearby.  If you’re touring as a group and isolating together for the tour how much room do you need to be comfortable and support the mental health of everyone on tour?

  • How quickly can you be on tour?

We all now know how quickly things can change, so its good to let schemes know if your show can be on the road straight away, or if you need a specific amount of time to get prepared. For example, if you’re a band who have been touring together previously, it’s likely you could take a gig nearby at a drop of a hat, whereas a theatre production might need time to cast and rehearse.

  • How self-contained are you?

Are you a company or a band that lives and works together? Are you a group that could isolate together for two weeks before you begin the tour? Or are you putting together a cast of people from all across the country? Schemes and promoters will want to know this so that they can assess how comfortable they are with touring your show into their communities. Transparency and information is the key to making touring safe.

  • How many people are on the road

Similar to the above, now more than ever we need to know exactly how many people are on the road. This includes artists, technicians or stage managers, and anyone else who may be joining you (eg family members who aren’t actually part of the performance). 

  • How flexible can you be?

If a date had to be cancelled at short notice what are your terms? Could you reschedule for a week later or would you need to ensure a fee was paid?

This is going to be tricky waters for everyone going forward, and everyone is looking at their contracts and cancellation clauses, if you’re planning a tour in the next 18 months you need to be thinking about how you make that viable.

  • Have you thought about how social distancing measure might affect your show and how they can be built in?

Currently, there are different restrictions in place for different types of performances. Make sure you are up to date with what rules are in place and how they might affect your show. The key one is obviously how much space will you need to make sure everyone on stage is at the appropriate distance from one another (if applicable) and the audience? Other things to think about is how will your get-in be affected, do you have your own risk assessment done? Is there anything else you will need to know from venues ahead of touring.

  • Have you got other creative ideas for making your show work within the new rules?

Schemes and promoters are open to new creative ideas and ways of working. If you’ve ideas for how your show can work within the new guidelines, make sure you share them.  

Artist’s FAQ (COVID Edition): When are schemes looking to start programming and touring again?

When are schemes looking to start programming and touring again?

As always with rural (and all) touring there is no one size fits all. Schemes have been working closely with their promoters to plan for future touring in their area. Some schemes are going ahead with a limited Autumn 2020 season, whereas, some schemes have taken the decision not to programme at all for the rest of this year, and some may be hitting pause for now but with the hope of programming events, with a much quicker turnaround further down the line.

With this in mind, our advice is…

If you had dates pencilled with a scheme for Autumn 2020 or beyond, then speak to those schemes individually. Schemes are committed to keeping artists informed. Many schemes are working with very reduced staff, so replies may be slightly more delayed than usual. Because communication at the moment can be interrupted, we suggest arming the schemes with as much information about your show/tour/company as possible in one easy place.

Celebrating a Rural Touring-iversary with Spiltmilk Dance

Image credit: James Dodd

We’ve recently celebrated our 6 year Rural Touring-iversary (yes, that’s definitely a word!). That, coupled with the current public health crisis which is keeping us away from the audiences we love, has led us to take a delightful trip down memory lane. We’re looking back to where this adventure all began and sharing some of the stories we’ve collected along the way. 

In 2013 we took a show called Spiltmilk say Dance to Edinburgh Fringe, it was a tongue in cheek celebration of social dance crazes that have swept the nation over the years from The Twist, to The Charleston and The Hand Jive to The Macarena!

Happily, whilst we were up there some touring schemes saw the show and the feedback was great, they loved the accessible subject matter and that it mixed complicated choreography with proper belly laughs.

So in discussion with the lovely folk at Live and Local we began to build on a little dream of ours – to tour the show alongside a social dance with live music, fancy dress and everyone getting stuck in! They gave us the encouraging nudge necessary for this participatory, great night out to be born – and we’ve never looked back.  Spiltmilk say Dance went on to tour to 35 village halls across the country and from the first few shows we knew, in this setting, our work had found its spiritual home.

Image credit: James Dodd

It’s that heady combination of doing shows for such a diverse range of audiences, mixed with the total joy of being fed, watered and welcomed in by a local promoter plus the glorious opportunity to become part of a community for the night – well, we were hooked!

We’ve gone on to tour three more shows on rural circuits, visiting hundreds of fabulous halls from the Scottish Highlands to Cornwall and from Norfolk to Wales.  We now make all our shows with rural and community audiences and venues in mind.  Embracing the ‘think on your feet’ challenges of fitting into halls of all shapes and sizes is all part of the fun and we get a huge thrill from the complete absence of a ‘fourth wall’ at rural shows; we can’t imagine doing a show now without the chance to chat to everyone as we pack up our gear at the end of the night!

And where else in theatre land would you be able to gather such a brilliant selection of touring anecdotes? We could entertain you for hours with tales of ‘tricky’ changing rooms (a cupboard with no lights or a curtained off section of the kitchen, anyone?).  Warm your heart with moments of pure joy such as the audience turning up to a show in Wales all in 60s and 70s gear and the promoter leaving us homemade brownies in the morning.  Or arriving at a venue in Scotland to discover our digs were in a castle with four poster beds!  And we’ll give you a chuckle relaying the occasional challenges unique to rural touring such as the tiny Kent church where we just about squeezed in 3 stage blocks and our techy had to operate the show from the pulpit.  Or even the time we got snowed into a Derbyshire village and had to appeal to some friendly locals for a bed for the night.  These are all experiences we will never forget and which we can’t wait to collect a few more of in future.

It’s always important to try the local cuisine…

Whilst the world is taking a necessary pause from such live events at the moment, we’ll be leaping back into touring as soon as we are able to, and look forward with excitement to what the next 6 years on the rural road may have in store for us – we’ll see you there!

Sarah  Boulter – Co-Artistic Director, Spiltmilk Dance

Find out more about Spiltmilk Dance online here:

Twitter @SpiltmilkDance
Facebook @SpiltmilkDance
Instagram @spiltmilkdance

Do you have a Rural Touring story you’d like to share with us? Then email Stephie!