greenhouse is a three year initiative supported by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation aimed at helping contemporary theatre thrive across the South East and East of England by better connecting the ambitions of theatre makers, venues and audiences.  Here greenhouse project manager, Richard Kingdom, talks about some of the thinking behind the scheme and the first round of supported projects.

At house’s first venue network meeting, Jo Taylor of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre gave a talk in which she lamented the once-popular practice of ‘cleaning up’ marketing databases – the idea that by deleting everyone but the art-loving regular-bookers you’d have such a red hot mailing list that one e-bulletin or mail drop would more or less fill your season.  The reality, she suggested, was that you were in fact reducing your audience base and withdrawing contact from your biggest potential audience; those who had booked to see something but – for some reason – had not come back.  Rather than delete them, call them up and find out why suggested Jo.

As I looked around the room, it struck me that something similar has been going on with the small-mid scale touring circuit.  I’d been a Theatre Relationship Manager for Arts Council England for a couple of years, focused on the South East, and here was a room full of programmers from the region and I only knew about a third of them.  As funding has been increasingly directed towards producing rather than presenting, the venues actively engaged in programming contemporary theatre have been whittled down to the venue-equivalents of the ‘art-loving regular-bookers’.  I was excited – and still am – by house’s efforts to buck this trend, not just because of its potential to re-build that touring circuit, but also because of the impact it might have on what theatre is being made.

If you’re a touring theatre company then a key audience for you is the programmers who you hope will book your show.  This is the audience that you spend a lot of time seeking out and trying to build a relationship with.  Perhaps inevitably it’s also the audience that you’ll be thinking about – possibly not consciously – when you’re in the rehearsal room: “does this look like the kind of show that venue x might book?”  If that pool of programmers is a shrinking circuit of active venues and the audience that those programmers are thinking about is a shrinking database of hot prospects, then the work we’re making and the ways we’re presenting it are not likely to be reaching out to a wider public.  And so the wider public take a rain check, the databases continue to shrink, more seats are left empty, the touring circuit retracts a little further and on it goes.

This is why we wanted our first set of greenhouse seed commissions to describe a specific relationship with an audience, one that might re-make the link between artist and audience, inform the creative process and help the supporting venue make a new connection.  We didn’t want to be prescriptive about where this might lead and so our investments are deliberately in very early-stage research and development periods, encouraging makers and venues to work in new and unfamiliar ways.  So theatre company Take the Space is going to Norden Farm Arts Centre in Maidenhead to work with a boxing club and a Quaker group before writing their new play, White Feather Boxer; The Plasticine Men are brokering relationships with Immigrant Retention Centres to begin testing ideas for a new show; Fevered Sleep is going to the Quarterhouse in Folkestone to work with local dance schools on the development of Men Dance with Girls; and Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre is hooking up theatre duo Mars.tarrab with the local roller derby team as the starting point for a new piece.  We hope that building the community around each project like this will enrich the work artistically; rooting it in an engagement with the people that it might ultimately hope to speak to as an audience.

Some of the projects that we’re investing in go further, applying this approach to developing work with a specific local resonance.  We have South Street Arts Centre in Reading working with locally-based theatre makers to seed a piece about the recently vacated Reading Prison; Townsend Productions is working with Leighton Buzzard Library Theatre to assemble a community choir to tell the story of the Chartist Movement and its links to Leighton Buzzard; and Root Theatre is bringing an emerging writer back to her home town of Gillingham in Kent to explore ideas for a new play about the town and the surrounding areas with the support of new venue LV21. We’re keen to see if this local specificity attracts a broader audience but also how the immersing themselves in a place to tell an audience its own story impacts on the theatre makers’ practice.

We’re equally interested in how some of these projects might impact on the work of the partner venues, many of who are also testing new approaches.  So Cornerstone in Didcot is supporting the development of new work for the first time, collaborating with Canterbury’s Gulbenkian Theatre to pull together a new creative team for a piece of children’s theatre; Colchester Arts Centre is looking to develop a new audience of ‘grey radicals’ by supporting a collaboration between emerging company GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN and queer performance icons, Bette Bourne and Paul Shaw; and The Old Market in Brighton is deepening its relationship with local artists by supporting a new collaboration between performance maker Victoria Melody and her star-of-daytime-TV-antique-shows father.

We know that seed funding ten projects isn’t going to change the country’s small-mid scale theatre sector overnight but we’re nevertheless optimistic about greenhouse’s potential to shift the status quo and encourage theatre makers and venues to pursue new approaches to creating work and engaging audiences.  We’re trying to borrow some of the trend-bucking ethos of our sister initiative, house, to enable theatre makers to strike up a relationship with potential audiences in a way that is akin to Jo Taylor’s ‘call them up and find out why’.