Having been preoccupied with supporting theatre companies to make and tour shows regionally for well over a decade, the lack of diversity has been a constant point of concern. So when I joined Farnham Maltings to run house’s seed funding initiative – which supports relationships between theatre makers and venues across the South East of England – I started by meeting people who were creating artist development opportunities specifically targeted at BAME theatre makers. Why, I asked them, did the work not make it onto regional touring circuits? The most common answer was that no one knew where to begin; our network alone has over 200 venues and that’s just the South East. What do those venues want? How do you get your work seen? Where are the showcases and platforms? Who are the producers? How can presenting venues help you produce a show?
Three years later, we were revisiting the ambitious targets that we’d set ourselves for the diversity of the work that house would support. We weren’t doing badly, not least because when you invite artists to think about who they want to bring their work to, the majority don’t tend to plump for the wealthiest, best-educated, least ethnically diverse 8% of the population that are the main consumers of publicly subsidised theatre. Indeed, we had successfully invested in projects that engaged working class communities, hard to reach young people, and marginalised or overlooked groups from foster carers to Eastern European immigrants, as well as micro-communities such as Roller Derby teams and community choirs that cut across the usual social divides. However, ethnic diversity was still conspicuously absent.
Drawing on the success of a geographically-targeted open call last year, we decided to stage our next Pitch Up – a platform for helping theatre makers and venues to start conversations – with an express focus on BAME theatre makers. We have super-charged its appeal by launching a concurrent seed funding open call, again with a BAME focus, and by partnering with Ovalhouse to host the event. We promoted these opportunities through organisations that were better connected with the artists we wanted to target. It was a kind of exhilarating relief when the applications started coming in.
Different patterns emerged from these submissions; fewer companies, more individual artists with a background as an actor, writer-performers who had developed shows through spoken word circuits and artists crossing over into TV and film. These weren’t our networks – and, so far, we hadn’t been theirs either. It wasn’t a question of helping BAME artists to ‘get themselves out there’ – they were already ‘out there’, just that their ‘out there’ wasn’t our ‘in here’ – it was about supporting a wider set of connections between venues, producers and theatre makers. And what better forum for this than Pitch Up.
Over 40 artists, programmers and producers pitched, sharing their ambitions to bring diverse work to regional audiences, and this to a room of 90 more who were similarly keen to connect. Generosity and collaboration are key to our ethos. It’s easy to forget that venues and theatre makers are on the same side but, as Ovalhouse’s theatre filled with ideas and its café hummed with lively conversations, nothing would seem more obvious. Now that the introductions have been made, we’re excited to see what relationships grow in the coming weeks and months; even from the conversations we have had so far, we know that people are starting to plan and make things happen.