Adam Davies, Co-Artistic Director of Animikii Theatre, visited a Conference from the National Rural Touring Forum and talks us through what he learnt about audiences, venues and promoters.
As I was leaving a fairly empty commuter train at an even emptier station in Wymondham (Wym-dom, as a local corrected me) I felt slightly uneasy of the task that was given to me by The Lowry, Cheshire Rural Touring Arts and Lancashire Spot On, which was to allow myself to become accustomed to the world of rural touring – an entirely new theatrical venture to me. Being the only representative of Animikii Theatre at the 2015 national conference in Norfolk I was left with an overwhelming feeling of responsibility – a shared taxi with two Arts Council representatives helped settle my nerves, showing their support by paying for the taxi (my first piece of Arts Council support as an artist! Yay!)
Arriving at the conference, bag in hand, newly printed business cards in pocket, I quickly set out to be proactive in meeting as many people as possible. At first I wasn’t sure my objective was as thought out as it should have been as I had no clue who I should be introducing myself to, only that if I said hello to as many as I could in the first night I would be left with a lot less to do over the second and third days. Yes that makes sense, let’s do that!
‘A Wider Horizon’ – the key notes speech by Francious Matarasso kicked off the conference with an intriguing insight into the heart of rural touring. What I took from his speech was just how important the audience were to the rural touring network. I came to understand over the next two and a half days that the audience was the focal point of what the national network were trying to achieve: Understanding our audiences’ needs, challenging those needs, and being bolder in the work that we choose to deliver to them. Being a novice, my initial perceptions were that the audience of rural regions were lacking a fully rounded cultural experience. They lived too far away from high profile theatres to able to benefit from the high cultural engagement that those of us from the city were used to. How wrong I was. I came to learn that audiences in rural areas were falsely perceived to have been lacking in cultural experience, because, if anything, they are more experienced than urban audiences in the UK, and in fact, through this enriched experience, they demand a higher level of artistic product from the NRTF.
These ‘high expectations’ were being discussed at the NRTF conference by the entire network of volunteers and heads of regions. One of the most fascinating learning points of the three days at the conference was the infrastructure within the National Rural Touring Forum. It is a forum that is both complex and familiar; Teams of professionals stretch over 30+ networks across the UK, and within these networks are network directors, leaders and volunteer promoters. These teams work tirelessly to not only deliver diverse art to their villages and towns but to continue to raise their own standards year on year. This has pushed the Arts Council into making a heavy investment in rural touring and by doing so hope to extrapolate the hard work of the NRTF and make sure its success is enjoyed by the many, not just the few. Now that sounds like an artistic mission statement I would gladly set my name against!
From a theatre company’s point of view I enjoyed learning the process of how a network chooses it’s ’picks’ and how the volunteer promoters sell those to the people in villages and towns across the UK. For a typical theatre the program is set by the programmer and the team at the theatre and the audience buy into that, but in a rural scheme the choice is decided by the audience’s preferences rather than the other way round. It is an eternal dialogue between promoter and audience that lies at the centre of the NRTF model. The early stages of engaging the public in an open dialogue isn’t quite what we are used to in the commercial theatre because it would mean inevitable outsourcing of vast amounts of constant surveys to their punters to keep an up to date idea of what people wanted to experience, but in the rural community it is possible. It is only possible through the sheer hard work of a volunteer promoter.
Volunteer promoters: I met a host of volunteer promoters at the NRTF conference, and to the uninitiated it would seem that they weren’t the ones to engage with regarding my theatre company’s future in rural touring, but soon enough they became my sole focus for the entire conference. They not only interested me from a promotional point of view but they also held all the answers to what the audience demanded when attending an evening of theatre at their local village hall/pub. One key gem of advice: “Always have an interval.” “They like to have a drink and a natter to their neighbours, you see.” Here I was hoping to get away with a 50 minute show!
I could write on about the plentiful amounts of engaging shows and artists that were at the conference or indeed the grub! but I’ll leave for you to sample if you make it down to the conference next year in Cornwall (my bag is packed). Above all else this conference was essential for an artist like me. During my short time within the Developed With The Lowry initiative I have developed so many key skills that have enabled me to take my artistic process to the next level. My major development during this jaunt to the depths of Norfolk led me to see just how important the connection of ‘artist & audience’ or ‘audience & artist’ really is. It’s vital, and as long as we keep asking the right questions to our audiences and open our ears to what they answer, the art choose to show them will be richer because of it.