The Early Days of the NRTF

For Village Halls Week we asked John Laidlaw to tell us about his early memories of rural touring networking and what would become the NRTF…

Back in the years before the NRTF existed, I attended a south-west networking meeting. I can’t remember the year exactly, possibly 1992 or 1993 and I can’t remember the exact venue, but it was in Exeter. I had only just started as a freelancer, managing the then pithily titled Warwickshire Village and Community Touring scheme, now Live & Local. The meeting was primarily for groups from the South West and I was the most northerly delegate. I was still very much learning about RT having only started in 1991 having previously been a production manager and touring technician and the Warwickshire scheme was looking at management models for the future.

This meeting stuck out for me as there wasn’t an assumption that it would necessarily be repeated or that the rural touring groups, in particular, would form any association. I’d been to several similar events, not about RT, where the opposite was true regardless of need or demand!

There was however a dynamic that with hindsight encapsulated the principles and growth of the RT sector. Contact lists were shared, and like-minded organisations and people stayed in touch. It grew organically … it wasn’t forced, and the growth was focussed entirely on the rural touring sector and reflecting the fundamental principles of the sector.

If you have a Rural Touring memory you’d like to share with us, whether that is from 20 + years ago, or 20 minutes ago, we are always looking for contributors to our blog. Get in touch with Stephie

How I Got Involved with my Village Hall and Rural Touring

Today marks the start of Village Halls Week 2020 and to mark the occassion we asked the Chair of the NRTF, Tom Speight to tell us a little more about how he came to be involved with his village hall and rural touring.

The Watson Institute, Cumbria

Sometimes it’s the ticket sales. But more usually it’s the positioning of the lights. Or the whereabouts of the corkscrew(s). Or working out how to squeeze another five seats in for late arrivals. Or juggling the dietary requirements of the actors who I’ve offered to feed before the show. But whatever the worries of being a village hall rural touring promoter, it’s always great fun and immensely satisfying.

I first took an interest in what I later learnt was called “rural touring” back in 2007 when I was working as the News Editor at BBC Radio Cumbria in Carlisle. Occasional press releases would come my way, advertising what sounded like ridiculously high quality, professional performance art – drama, music, comedy, magic, even dance – all taking place in the extensive network of village halls that pepper a rural county like Cumbria. I was intrigued. How on earth did that happen? How did they get such astonishing calibre of artists? How did this process work? Could I get them to my hall?

Trio Dhoore, November 2019 performing at The Watson Institute

I dug a little deeper, and before I knew it, I had become what is known in the rural touring world as a “promoter”. That is, a volunteer who makes an event happen in their village hall (there are currently 1,700 of us across rural England, Wales and Scotland).

My village of Castle Carrock has 270 people living in it, located 10 miles east of Carlisle, on the edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We lost our shop a few years ago when the proprietor died and no one stepped in. But we still have a good pub, a thriving school, a church and a village hall, The Watson Institute. And so we have enough amenities to keep some kind of community spirit going – so long as people use them. And hosting rural touring shows has been a crucial mechanism to keep the hall busy and talked about.

Shoo Shoo Baby performing at The Watson Institute, December 2019

I became the Chair of the hall 10 years ago because I wanted to see if I could offer some new ideas and some new energy, including bringing shows to life. People on the hall committee had done brilliant work in keeping things ticking along but like many voluntary institutions, new blood with new ideas and most importantly, new energy is always needed. The Watson Institute is a very special place. Built in 1897 by the richest family in the village originally as a Reading Room, it’s now a wonderfully intimate village hall and venue where I can seat 65 people at a push, cabaret-style, small tables, candles, subdued lighting and a small stage that I borrow from the school next door. I love being involved. I love the challenge of choosing a show which I think will work for my audience (my reputation is constantly on the line !). I love witnessing people coming together. And I love experiencing – and sharing – superb performance art on my doorstep. It continues to be a blast.

The Watson Institute

This season The Watson Institute are hosting one of our Rural Touring Dance Initiative shows ‘Louder is Not Always Clearer’ on Saturday 7th March, 8pm. The Watson Institute is part of Highlights Rural Touring. Find out more here.

Tom Speight can be found on twitter @tomspeight