Book Sleuths in a Bind: A Very Puzzling Case was an interactive theatre show for families, specifically those with children aged between 7 and 11. At the opening of the show, the Sleuths learn that the Reading Rug – a key (but fictional!) feature of all library events – has mysteriously vanished, and they have been tasked with tracking it down. During the show, audiences had the opportunity to join in the sleuthing: creating an E-fit based on a description, decoding numbers, solving a riddle, completing a rhyme and examining evidence. To do this, each child was provided with a Sleuth’s Sleuth Proof – containing stencils and template for the E-Fit, a pencil and paper. They were also given a free sheet, containing a welcome note, company biographies and puzzles.
The Book Sleuths toured 15 Hertfordshire Libraries in the October half-term break 2021. We performed 19 shows in total, all across the county. The project received funding from ACE Project Grants, and sponsorship from local businesses Auria Accountancy and Simmons Bakers. Hertfordshire Libraries provided considerable support-in-kind, including extensive staff time, the use of libraries and a rehearsal room. We were also supported by TAIL, and Hertford Theatre through the loan of costumes.
Facts and figures
The show was a commission by Hertfordshire Libraries, who wanted an arts event to entice families back into their spaces after the lockdowns. This was to be a first for the service, they had previously hosted creative work but not collaborated with artists to make a show specifically for them. Given the local nature of the project, I was keen to engage local creatives: Hertfordshire-based Kate Miller and I developed and wrote the show, Nancy Surman designed the set and costumes. After 9 days of rehearsal, the tour took place over 9 days, taking in libraries of all sizes. With the exception of two libraries, we only played each of our libraries once, plus additional shows at Hatfield for Prize Draw Winners from the Summer Reading Challenge. These latter shows were free to attend, but for all other performances we charged £7 for adults and £5 for children. Our audience feedback generally suggests that this was fair and accessible pricing. If we hadn’t charged, the project would not have been possible in our time frame, at this turbulent time and with an under-15k ACE bid. Our feedback shows that the majority of people heard about the show through posters or bookmark-flyers in their local library. We also made thorough use of the libraries’ social media accounts, particularly Facebook. We did manage to secure one radio interview, but other than that our press releases were not picked up by local press outlets.
One of our main barriers was, of course, Covid-19 and the uncertainty that caused and continues to bring. We initially scheduled the project for summer 2020, but moved it to the October due to restrictions and the lack of confidence around indoor events. Another challenge was just the newness of the working relationship. It was my first time working this closely with a service under a local council, and, as I say, the libraries first time working this closely with an artist. Libraries have to work in very different ways to theatres and arts venues, it’s a completely different set-up with a great many tiers of hierarchy. However, my three key libraries staff – Audience Development Manager Shirley Everall, Young People’s Librarian Jane Mellors and Project Librarian Izzy Martin – could not have been more supportive of the project. All three gave a great many hours to Book Sleuths, above and beyond anything they anticipated.
This enthusiasm was largely reflected in the wider libraries staff. Some libraries were more confident, for those who weren’t this was often a reflection of new staff being in post, and, again, concerns about Covid. However, Kamal at Tring Library was just terrific and deserves a mention! Izzy did a brilliant job of making sure all the libraries knew who and what to expect on the day, so we had very few problems there. The only issue we did have was one of our making, when our set was too tall for the (very) low ceiling, but, team work makes the dream work, and we dealt with it. Some shows sold better than others, which is a reflection of a range of factors. It does seem that the personal touch was important, where staff would actively draw people’s attention to the show; we provided every library with a detailed FAQs sheet to help with this. Some libraries had a harder task than others – there is a noticeable trend between lower-income areas and our smaller audience numbers, and our audience figures mirror the ACE Arts Engagement Indices from 2010. Also, at the time of marketing, most schools were unable to be receptive to communications from the libraries service, which is usually a strong avenue for libraries in the run up to events. There are discussions to be had about how we reach those people who don’t usually engage with the libraries service, as the majority of our audiences were already members. However, the aim was to get people back into their libraries, which we certainly did.
Feedback and Reflections
We considered this as a pilot event, testing the water. In our post-show Q&As, we had numerous requests from parents for this kind of work in Hertfordshire Libraries in the future, which is fantastic. Three-quarters of adults who attended said they were ‘very likely’ to attend a family event at Hertfordshire Libraries as a result of their experience at Book Sleuths, it was clear to anyone watching that the children were engaged and having a good time. The Book Sleuths’ Salute was a particular favourite, especially with library staff! One of the reasons for the success of this project was the bespoke nature: we had a specific age range in mind, we knew it had to fit into libraries of various sizes, we wanted it to be around 50 minutes long and be attractive to families. Another reason for the success was the real partnership with the Libraries Service and the fact that the initial idea of creating a show was theirs, so they had the determination to see the project through and to make it happen. (Shirley’s tenacity is incredible!) Without that, I believe it would have been a different story.
Early on in the process, I attended online meetings with library managers to outline the show and what they could expect from us, which were appreciated. There is value to be had in the library staff meeting the people making the work. The information that we provided, spear-headed by Izzy, helped them feel secure and confident before the show. At least one member of senior library staff was also present at every show, which I really appreciated and it was a great support to their colleagues. I would also like to say that I really appreciated the support of Karen, formerly at Creative Arts East, who was brought in by TAIL to mentor us. I found our conversations really valuable, especially when I needed a bit of a boost.
The majority of our performances were well attended, 97% of our young audience said they enjoyed or really enjoyed the show and 11 freelancers received work as a result of the project. Book Sleuths in a Bind inspired children to read and engage with stories, encouraged families to spend time together and sparked imagination and curiosity – all within an accessible, local community setting. In doing so, we contributed to meeting four of the Universal Offers: Children’s Promise, Culture and Creativity, Reading, and Health and Wellbeing. Library staff have reported that they feel excited and ‘fired up’ to further explore the potential of their spaces as performance venues; the local councillor with the Portfolio for Libraries attended three shows, after the first he said ‘this is the future of libraries’. Yes, the project took an incredible amount of work, time, effort and energy, but it gave hundreds of families a wonderful time. I hope rather than being a one off, this is the start of something new, for us and for Hertfordshire Libraries.
We have a film of Book Sleuths in a Bind, filmed at Bishop’s Stortford Library. (Yes, Michelle, we had a lovely time with you!) If you would like to see that, or have any questions about the project, whether you’re a librarian or a fellow artist, please get in touch with me, I’d love to hear from you.