Guest Blog: Dumbshow talk small-scale touring

In our latest blog, artistic director of Dumbshow Michael Bryher talks about the challenges the company have faced touring The Pearl on the small-scale.

This autumn we will be touring our adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl to 31 venues nationwide, roughly 20 of these dates have been supported and facilitated by house. This will be our biggest tour to date and we’re thrilled, but our experience of booking a tour outside of house has got me thinking about the challenges of small-scale touring and how companies can offer solutions.

The background to this question is that small-scale touring independent of support from initiatives like house is a dysfunctional process, propped up by a massive amount of hidden subsidy. This doesn’t mean that great work isn’t being made – some of the most honest, brave and adventurous work is produced on the small scale – but the cost of paying multiple artists almost always outweighs box office income and so extra investment is essential. By its nature the small scale is atomised and an easy victim, so as arts funding is being decimated, artists often aren’t getting paid (a living wage or at all) and the hidden subsidy of second jobs, loans, debt and help from families is what keeps them going. Not everyone has these alternatives and so we’re in danger of having an unrepresentative set of voices feeding the wider arts scene.

So what is the solution to a seemingly impossible scenario? Audiences are the key. How do we get them through the door? How do we give them value for money and a good night out? And how do we get them to come back again and again?

Earlier this year I was talking to Owen Calvert-Lyons, artistic director of The Point, and he suggested that companies need to think outside of the box a little more – workshops for schools are not enough! He cited a great company called Maison Foo, who will be touring a piece which deals with questions about the cost of consumerism. Owen described how the company plan to visit The Point a few weeks before the show tours there to set up a swap shop which will be run by characters in the play, where local people could come in advance and take part in an activity related to the ideas in the piece, find out more about the show and (maybe) get a good bit of clobber too!

This got me thinking: how can we offer activities to venues that can draw audiences in which will be both enjoyable in themselves, and which may also shed new light on the show itself? Or does this devalue the work by suggesting it is not enough in itself?

We always want to draw you into the world we create, to make you complicit in the story, to encourage a sense of engagement that isn’t passive, and so extending this beyond the curtain call feels natural to us and doesn’t devalue the show. To answer the first question, we are offering a programme of extra activities to venues, from which they can best decide what would be most likely to appeal locally.

We aspire to be as responsive as possible to the communities and venues that we’re playing to. Rural touring scheme Carn to Cove have asked if we could accommodate an interval into our Cornish shows and share a communal meal with the audience. We love the playfulness of this idea, and recognise the value of people eating together.

We’re reaching out to book groups, through libraries and book shops, with special Book Club discussions. Leighton Buzzard Theatre will be piloting their first ever Audience Book Club with The Pearl and are encouraging library members to borrow the novella, see the show and then attend a special discussion facilitated by Dumbshow. The Point have worked with their Central Library to order extra copies of The Pearl, which will be available to borrow from the theatre directly in the weeks before the show. Many other venues are similarly enthused by this chance to engage local libraries and reading groups.

We’re offering enhanced post-show talks entitled ‘Pearls of Wisdom’, asking venues to work with us to invite interesting local speakers to join us after the play to discuss the themes of The Pearl: class, social mobility, wealth, notions of value and values, and how these themes resonate locally.

We’re not taking a fixed product to places and delivering it – we are working with venues to respond to the appetites of our audiences. Ultimately we want to give audiences a good night out, to communicate with the outside world and connect with others. We aren’t reinventing the wheel, but we want to get more people through the doors, enjoying theatre and feeling its benefits, and then going back out into the world feeling proud of the culture that we have in this country. We reckon this is the best way that we, as a small-scale theatre company, can contribute to the bigger picture.