Many thanks to Cate Latchford, a voluntary promoter on the Arts Alive Touring Scheme in the West Midlands, who’s written the following blog on her experience of the New Directions Showcase:
Choose bravely this season. I mean, it’s understandable when we browse through the menu, we worry if we’ll sell the tickets, fill the seats, please our audience and win them back. A light-hearted drama, some gentle music, a bit of comedy or occasional exotic dance. Give our audience a pleasant evening, choose something that won’t rattle them too much, that they can bring a friend to, have a cup of tea to or tap their feet. It’s a bit nerve-wracking, choosing, deliberating, will they, won’t they? And the angst, the image of empty seats, the wasted cakes, the tumble weed down the village street and the looks, ooh they got it wrong this year didn’t they…let’s just go with the play about the sheep and the blow-ins from Kent, dance never sells and that jazz can be so impenetrable.
So this year, what will you choose? Because you need not be afraid. At this year’s National Rural Touring Forum in York, curated by the wonderful China Plate company, the brilliance and professionalism of touring companies shone through. Over 35 companies and artists showcased their work, at York Theatre Royal in July. Promoters, touring schemes, performers and funders gathered to talk, discuss and network, fed and watered at regular intervals, and enthuse over artists new and old. We were given jazz, film, drama and dance, and such variety. I’ll give you a taster.
EveryDay’s The Love Project, gave us sixteen short stories, created from interviews, and Francesca Millican-Slater’s My Dearest Girls drew on letters written between Shropshire women in WW1, both creating heart-warming pieces on the unique lives we all lead. Pentabus and Camden People’s Theatre raised contemporary issues, fracking and HS2.We were treated to the wonderful poetry and wit of Clod Ensemble’s The Red Chair, written and performed by Sarah Cameron, quite spell-binding and magical. In contrast was the energy and movement of Wardrobe Ensemble’s Riot, nine young actors, exploding onto the stage to recreate the battle and furore of buying a cheap sofa in our favourite Swedish furniture store. Exhausting!
Tuesday evening created a mini festival in the Fauconberg Arms, comedy, poetry and music, intimate settings in the bar, on the decking, in a caravan (we could do that, we whispered, in The Yew Tree!). The second night it was jazz, three bands delighting us with the music of Chet Baker, Latin and Cuban rhythms and New Orleans blues. As we staggered up for a third day, we were given dance, wonderful, physical dance; vintage, bright social dance from Spilt Milk, playful and fresh and connecting with their audience, giving everyone the chance to dance in their second half. The energy and power of Phoenix dance, athletes on stage, was breathtaking. The beauty and emotive choreography of Norwegian dance group, Panta Rei, brought many of us close to tears.
But what struck me most throughout was the desire and determination of the artists to bring these brilliant performances to our little village halls, to fit into the awkward spaces, to connect with our communities. Companies are designing their sets and shows to fit around us, they are realising the benefits of rural touring, of getting up close and personal with small audiences. And for us the rural audience, what do we get? Closer than any National Theatre goer, we experience professional performance in our own intimate setting; they might as well be in our sitting rooms, as for some of us our venues are a vital part of our community, a stone’s throw from our door. Here in our small spaces, the dancer stares into our eyes, their physical presence full in our faces, they eat our cake and talk into the night about the inspiration, the lighting, the tour. We own them for a night, they come into our community, they may drink in our pub, sleep in your neighbour’s house, inspire your child. What privilege it is to share in our space, such professional theatre, leading musicians and performers, delighting us, challenging us, giving us our own personal experience to mull over as we walk home that evening, discuss the next day in the shop.
I‘m really appreciative of the chance I had to enjoy such a variety of productions (thank you, Sian!) and the opportunity to talk to and discuss issues with other promoters and schemes from across the UK. NRTF confirmed just how professional and inspiring small companies and performers can be and how we can trust our rural touring schemes to offer us great value and quality. So be brave next time you sit and browse through that menu. The sheep and the blow-ins from Kent will be great but give those dance groups a look too. Awe-inspiring!