Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Emerge Open Space

Here's my summary of Emerge's Open Space event held on 17th June 2012 at Left Bank.

We talked about audiences. We asked why there wasn’t a large one for contemporary work in Leeds. We discussed the terminology around contemporary work and why anyone who didn’t make ‘work’ (and therefore understand the terminology) would want to spend their evening doing something with ‘work’ in the title, even if it was someone else who was doing the ‘work’? We asked why anyone would want to attend an immersive, promenade piece of ‘work’ when they could have an amazing experience in a spectacular place (tag line for Unfolding Theatre’s flag ship show Building Palaces) instead. We asked ourselves why we pitch work as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’, making value judgments on behalf of the audience who will never see it because we’ve decided that for them.

(And now we’ve established that ‘work’ is not great terminology, I’m going to continue to use it throughout the rest of my summary.)

We asked if festival formats were a better way of bringing contemporary performance to audiences rather than one off evenings which were easily miss-able when in conflict with other commitments and also expensive (especially for artists living on low budgets). We observed that a body of artists are turning out to support the work and that these work-making artists are also advocates for the other work and the venues who are programming it. We thought that there was an opportunity for the venues we spend time at to acknowledge this activity. I envisaged a group of artists who could be advertised as friendly approachable faces for new audience members to make connections with. We spoke about post-show bar activity and how important it is. We enthused about the new bar at Theatre in the Mill, the success there in engaging with new audiences and the welcoming and open atmosphere around that venue.

Iain shared his experience of pushing a marketing department to release tickets for Pekshar’s ‘After the Rain’ (about the aftermath of the Oldham Riots) into the wider community where they were sold over the counter in local shops. This approach was sensitive to the needs of the community who would attend the production. I had visions of those of us who make up the body of advocate artists I’ve already mentioned chatting to shop owners, over fish and chip counters, at bus stops (in the rain of course), down the local pub.

We acknowledged that some people don’t know the conventions of the theatre, like how to collect tickets from box office and all the ‘dos and don’ts’ inside the space and saw these as potential barriers. We acknowledged that the prospect of going in, but not being easily able to get out again, could be off-putting for some.

I overheard a conversation where someone recounted their slightly apologetic, self-depreciating approach to inviting people to see their work forthcoming performance : ‘if you’ve got something else on, don’t worry about it, it’s a bit wacky, maybe not your cup of tea’. I immediately related, this is exactly how I sell my own work (help, really can’t think of another word) work. We really should stop doing this!

We asked why Transform was successful and were pleased to hear Amy’s success in filling the WYP bar with unfamiliar faces. We noticed that ‘9’ had been particularly successful in bringing a new audience. We asked if a show with a mid sized community cast would automatically draw a large audience of family and friends and I suggested that actually it was also about the voices, the less prominent ones with their ‘small’ stories. I suggested that audiences wanted an authentic voice, that they could see through the veneer of marketed and targeted theatre offerings, we are, after all in an information glut, bombarded with opaque messages. For something to ring true amidst all of that is very compelling. Iain spoke of his positive experiences (in the sense of bringing in audiences) at Theatre in the Mill with representing voices from the margins and also of working with artists who were particularly honest and open in their approach.

We spoke about Yorkshire and about connecting the North, South, East and West of it. We grumbled a bit about having to travel to get from A to B across the region but we didn’t grumble for long. We were pleased that venues like The Lowry, Theatre in the Mill and Stockton ARC were collaborating on schemes of support such as Routes North and this seemed indicative of a wider culture of joined up thinking that was spreading across the North. Ellie told us of her experience of building audiences across regions and the support she’d had to achieve that from the network she had established. We spoke about the 50% share of ACE funding that was allocated to London and hoped that we could redress the balance in the future. We thought that a unified community, stretching across the geography and demographics of our regions could help make that happen.

And then we talked about the Improbable Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshow (also an Open Space event) planned at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 4th and 5th October. We agreed that we would all take responsibility to invite our wider creative communities to be a part of that event, that we could shape the event by sharing the benefits of being part of it to bring more people into it.

If you’d like me to tell you about the benefits of Open Space and Devoted and Disgruntled please drop me a line, tweet etc.

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