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.

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…

What is the National Rural Touring Forum?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The National Rural Touring Forum is an organisation that networks, develops, supports delivery of high-quality creative experiences across the UK. The aim of the Forum is to support the strengthening of communities to bring professional work to rural venues. NRTF members are made up of a national network of Rural Touring Schemes who programme menus of events that tour in their region. We also have artist, venue, promoter, producer and festival members all promoting and developing professional work for rural settings.

NRTF provides its members with opportunities for training, making connections, showcases, research, discussion and advocacy. It also develops strategic projects that enable national & international partnerships and commissions.

We sit on Arts Council Rural Stakeholders panels to lobby for support in the rural sectors and highlight the importance of meeting the needs of rural audiences and communities. We also lobby at government level and throughout the creative and cultural sectors. Through research and advocacy, the NRTF aims to promote a better understanding of the value of rural arts and touring. Many Rural Touring Schemes are funded, and some by Arts Council England. This means they can subsidise programmes to bring bigger or more innovative work to their venues. The schemes will spend a lot of their time seeking creative work they believe are suitable and enjoyable for their audiences. They will also challenge audiences to try something new, like dance for instance. Since 2015 the NRTF have joined forces with The Place,

Take Art and China Plate to launch an innovative initiative for making and touring dance performances to and for rural areas. Originally a 3-year project RTDI has now been extended until summer 2021. RTDI offers curated dance Menus to NRTF members.

The feedback from audiences has been astonishing; people who didn’t think ‘Dance was for them’ have come away with a new appreciation for dance as a genre and are keen to see more. Equally the performers get to immerse themselves in the space and directly with audience members.

There is a big difference between performing on the rural touring network and in Blackbox or urban theatres. Rural Touring performers need to be much more self-sufficient, they need to be able to get there, be flexible with get-ins and have minimal or easy set ups. What they get in return is an up close and personal experience with the local community. They will probably arrive with the audience, perform near the audience and then have a drink and a chat with them after. They may even be staying with one. It is not often you get this raw, instant and direct feedback from audience members on your production. It is unique and beautiful and incredibly rewarding. A large part of what the NRTF is about is not underestimating rural audiences.

Funding for the Arts is still a city-centric issue; travelling to large towns and cities to see productions can be time and financially prohibitive. There are also physiological barriers to some who don’t feel as comfortable in larger cultural institutions.

Access to the arts is important for everyone in society. It is reasonable to assume most people appreciate seeing high quality and innovative performance & art. This is what the NRTF is addressing and highlighting.

Across the UK there are currently 30-member schemes, 1,650 promoting groups, 110,000 voluntary hours, 332,000 audience, over £1,000,000 box office sales.

NRTF – Chair post

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF) is one of those wonderful under the radar organisations that helps keep rural Britain thriving. I’m its Chair.

My journey to that heady position began when I became what is known in the rural touring world as a “promoter” eight years ago. That is, a volunteer who makes a professional performance happen in their village hall. There are currently 1,659 of us across rural England, Wales and Scotland. And last year, we put on shows to over 330,000 paying audience members – a whopping 26% increase over the last ten years.

Image result for castle carrock

My village of Castle Carrock has about 270 inhabitants and it’s located 10 miles east of Carlisle, on the edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We still have a good pub, a thriving school, a church and crucially, a village hall, The Watson Institute. Hosting rural touring shows has been a crucial mechanism to keep the hall busy and talked about.

My hall. It’s a very special place and means the world to me. 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 sit 65 people at a push, cabaret style, small tables, candles, subdued lighting and a small stage that I borrow from the school next door.

Image result for The Watson Institute, castle carrock

There are two seasons to the rural touring year where I live in Cumbria – the spring season and the autumn season. A small organisation called Highlights acts as the clearing house for me as I choose which shows to put on. Highlights is a charity, one of twenty seven such schemes across the UK.

The schemes get some of their money from the Arts Council, some from the box office and some – though less and less – from local authorities. It means that they can help subsidise more “risky” shows, encouraging more confident promoters to try out shows that might on paper be more difficult to sell. And the schemes are affiliated to the NRTF which advocates for rural touring as well as helping to drive a central strategy. A recent three year campaign to get professional dance into village halls – yes, dance into village halls – has been a huge success.


Tom Speight January 2018