Over 2015-2016, Natalie Querol spent 18months working with the Shelley Theatre, Bournemouth, with the support of a House Producer Fellowship. Here, Natalie and the venue’s manager, Matthew White, share their experience of the collaboration:
Natalie Querol, Producer
As an experienced independent producer I applied for a House Producer Fellowship for two reasons. Firstly, having toured many shows over the years I was keen to broaden my perspective and learn what it was like to work on the other side of the touring equation – specifically in a small receiving house. Secondly it was an opportunity to work with the Shelley Theatre – a remarkable 160 seat theatre in the suburbs of Bournemouth just round the corner from where I grew up and at the other end of the country from my adopted home of Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Shelley Theatre is a labour of love – willed into existence by a dedicated board and managed by Matthew White, a truly extraordinary venue manager whose job included programming, marketing and sales, managing a team of 70 volunteers, building management, artist liaison, front of house management, and anything else that needs doing (as well as being the closest thing the venue has to a technician). Matthew’s background is in sales and he’s a brilliant marketeer – shows that would get audiences of 20 to 30 elsewhere on tour could expect anywhere from 60 to a sell out at the Shelley. As an unfunded venue which is being gradually renovated as and when money can be raised (when I started, the foyer and bar areas had plastic sheets for windows and scarves and gloves were essential office-wear), it’s just not possible to take the risk of paying fees or committing to guarantees. Receiving touring shows from House and hosting festivals like Bournemouth Arts by the Sea made a huge difference to the kind of work that Matthew was able to programme.
Over the Fellowship, I supported Matthew with programming and built relationships with local schools and the Cultural Hub, attended Dorset Theatre Promoters Consortium (DTPC), and produced the venue’s first ever in-house show, Bob & Lorna’s Christmas Party. The first time I met with the board they said their aim was one day to produce in-house and I’m really proud of the show we made on the tiniest budget. I paired local theatre maker and veritable genius Lorna Rees with the always brilliant Bob Karper who came down from London (and stayed at my Mum’s!). Between us we made a joyful, anarchic, cinnamon scented hug of a show, complete with after show party, that delighted audiences (check out our lovely trailer below). Not only was Matthew chief sales person and general partner in crime but he also designed, rigged, and plotted the lighting for the show. He patiently taught me how to operate both lighting and sound – something I’ve never done before but that is part and parcel of life in a small venue.
I think the most valuable role I filled in my time at the Shelley though was as sounding board and sanity checker for Matthew. In my world I get to talk with colleagues in a similar position to me with a similar set of experiences all the time but for a venue manager that can’t afford the time to leave the building that’s just not the case. Matthew has left the Shelley now but we’re still in touch and I’m certain we’ll find a way to work together again.
I’ve come away from the Fellowship having learned an enormous amount, with a brilliant show that we plan to give a future life, and having built relationships with organisations including Activate Performing Arts and DTPC which make it more than likely I’ll take shows and projects to Dorset in the future. It was an incredibly valuable experience and one that will have a lasting impact.
Matthew White, Shelley Theatre
When I first met Natalie, we cooked up some very structured plans linked to the existing plans for the Shelley’s future. But the future at the Shelley Theatre can be very bendy and flexible! The organisation’s objectives shift and change as funding streams come and go and the dynamics of the company alter, and Natalie was great at adapting to these circumstances, unwavering in her mission to support me in creating a longer term vision. My role at the theatre was broad and all-encompassing of programming, marketing and strategic management, but was generally focussed on the short term, so having a long term creative thinker by my side was invaluable. Natalie quickly realised this was going to be a Fellowship with outcomes created from many components rather than one single project!
Plan A focussed on audience development, namely with local schools. The legacy of Natalie’s ground work and expertise in facilitation is paying off right now with several local schools and education agencies using the venue on a regular basis for project work.
Plan B sprung from a long term ambition and a short term programming gap; when a key Christmas slot unexpectedly needed filling, we took the opportunity to produce a seasonal family show ourselves. The Shelley Theatre has had a long standing desire to produce work in-house but has not had the skills, opportunity or ingenuity to make this happen. Natalie made this happen, effectively commissioning and producing the whole thing from scratch.
Most importantly, in a lone working environment, Natalie was a great support to the venue and mentor to me in all things practical and programming. This was not something I was initially expecting to be part and parcel of the Fellowship but to me personally was an invaluable part of the experience.
Bob & Lorna’s Christmas Party – trailer
main image: Bob & Lorna’s Christmas Party, credit Alex Brenner