Summer 2022 Cluster meetings review

Throughout May & June the house team have been touring across the South East organising venue networking get togethers. On many occasions this has been the first time we have seen most programmers or marketeers face-to-face in almost 3 years (for obvious reasons) but also there have been a few changes with the teams at the venues so it has been great to say hello to those recent starters!

With some new faces, the sessions have been really useful for reintroducing what house can do for each venue in terms of support, training and programming but, more importantly, it has been wonderful to give people the opportunities to reconnect with other local venues and start talking through collaborative ideas. At each meeting either Jonathon or Meghan from the house team took notes about what was discussed and what ideas we had to work together.

5 Overall take-aways from the meetings:

  • Cost of living having an impact on audience numbers. Greater encouragement needed to help audiences feel confident to take risks again on one-night only performances and remember the joy of seeing something different. Also need to consider looking at alternative ticketing/membership schemes
  • We’re all working harder with less colleagues! What can be done to encourage greater recruitment & training, especially for technical & operations departments, and what support can be offered to those taking on more responsibilities – opportunities for mentoring across the network?
  • What theatre to programme. Challenges in finding new work to programme with artists waiting on funding bids or support for new projects. A desire to programme work produced locally and toured around local venues
  • Changes to marketing approaches. Venues cutting down on print costs and better attract audiences with shorter ‘what’s on listings and digital promotion. However a balance is needed to meet the requirements of older audiences and perhaps more digitally focussed younger audiences
  • A focus on practical sustainability A group desire to do more in venues to improve sustainability and engage audiences in new ways to reduce carbon footprint such as how they travel to the venue

 

South Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Wed 18 May, Guildhall Portsmouth

Topics discussed: Lack of staffing, especially in technical & hospitality teams, meaning venues can’t run full programmes. Audiences returning for certain things (comedy & tribute bands especially) but not as much for theatre unless it is uplifting or comical in style. Cost of living having an impact plus still living with the legacy of re-scheduled shows affecting programmes.

Support & training: New Pricing Strategies (Pay what you can, Membership benefits, etc, Audience Centred Experience Design workshops, the future of print & physical marketing

Cluster goals: Will work together with a greater focus on programming discussions and supporting each other when putting on contemporary theatre. The team have set up a Whatsapp group so they can informally discuss new work seen and opportunities to cross-promote. They are also going to look at opportunities to work together when booking advertising spaces online and in local print.

Future meeting: Keen to meet again to pick up on topics discussed starting with a potential programmers trip to the Winchester Hat Fair this July.

Norfolk & North Suffolk

Fri 20 May, The Garage Norwich

Topics discussed: Rise in operations costs making it harder to maintain ticket prices. Plenty of audiences for community led projects but otherwise audiences a little down or booking later. Family audiences especially hard to reach after the pause in engagement – older audiences and young adults attending more. Programming happening a lot later for this Autumn as hard to track down touring work, perhaps down to artists waiting to hear back on funding applications. Greater move for producing work in house or with the community. Area great for tourism but all struggling to find ways to turn visitors into audiences.

Support & training: Fundraising & development opportunities, family theatre audience development. Further support and collaboration to improve on EDI in terms of their workplaces and their programming.

Cluster goals: Greater cross-programming, especially promoting locally developed work. Keen to learn more about programming e-sports events into their spaces – Tom from Thetford Carnegie spoke about how successful it has been in bringing in younger, harder-to-reach audiences into their venue. Also would like to continue to programming digital work to reach more rural audiences.

Future meeting: Would look to run this again in the Autumn and hope to attract more venues from coastal and rural East Anglia.

Sussex

Mon 23 May, Brighton Dome

Topics discussed: Theatre programming limited by lack of commercial viability – ‘known’ shows selling well but audiences less willing to take a risk. Ongoing building project delays also making programming and audience engagement a challenge. Harder to circulate print at the moment with distribution agencies closing down.

Support & training: Digital marketing and outdoor performance programming.

Cluster goals: Working together on accessible performances across the region – Make sure that relaxed performances don’t clash, able to share stage-text machines, cross market the events to the relevant audiences.

Future meeting: Would look to repeat this and introduce a few more coastal venues to the meeting later in the year.

Dorset & New Forest

Wed 25 May, Lighthouse Poole

Topics discussed: Promoting to student audiences & their families. Venues struggling to find or afford mid scale touring theatre. New audiences not adhering with ‘theatre etiquette’; is this a problem or should we adjust how we manage this from a front of house perspective. Some theatre spaces are closing in cities but are hopefully being replaced by smaller arts centres and university theatres such as the Palace Court Theatre, Bournemouth and Boscombe Arts Depot.

Support & training: GDPR and data management – being able to cross promote to audiences from your large scale space to your mid-scale studio space.

Cluster goals: Support local acts across their venues and help them become bigger theatre productions.

Future meeting: There is already a strong venue network movement in Dorset however limited interaction within the New Forest. A future meeting would perhaps happen in this region or nearby Southampton later in the year.

Cambridgeshire & South Suffolk

Fri 27 May, Cambridge Junction

Topics discussed: Venues still in transition state as they await outcome of NPO bids – will determine how much work they are able to programme/commission going forward. With audiences still down, programming is increasingly community led with a focus on taking performances out of the venue to schools/community, etc.

Support & training: Keen to look at alternative ticketing structure or refreshing of ‘friends’ schemes. Helping to better support their own staff through advise on internal staff surveying and perhaps the establishment of a pool of arts mentors across multiple focuses e.g. Programming, marketing, community engagement, operations, etc

Cluster goals: Getting input from the local network or partnering with venues to commissioning resources to then share with the wider network e.g. anti-racism riders, clore leadership, dealing with negative social media & complaints. Greater collaboration for leading on sustainability projects

Future meeting: Plan to host again in Suffolk to attract more attending venues from East Anglia

Surrey, North Hampshire & Berkshire

Tue 31 May, South Street Arts Centre, Reading

Topics discussed: Council run venues being told to stop programming or current spaces are limited by technical problems. Seeing a trend towards older audiences too. Getting increasing demand for weddings & private event hire for spaces which is helping with budgetary limitations. Increasing demand from artists to put events on sale as soon as possible. Alongside continued re-scheduled events, this makes it very had to build up excitement around a season launch. At the time the Jubilee weekend was having an impact on ticket sales too.

Support & training: Building back a risk taking audience (Arts Ambassadors, Theatre Clubs), Audience Centred Experience Design to better sell the venue, not always the individual shows. Behind the scenes ticket offers and better pricing models for family tickets.

Cluster goals: Pooling operations training (first aid/ fire marshalling/conflict management), better print distribution links and cross-marketing

Future meeting: Might split into smaller, more local venue clusters

Hertfordshire & Essex

Mon 6 June, Colchester Arts Centre

Topics discussed: Opening a brand new theatre space and using the opportunity to question a few assumptions about operations eg. Do we need a physical Box Office? Would people interact with ticket machines (cinema style)? How to better engage your volunteers with technical system changes. Going paperless in your organisation – do people still need a physical brochure? With universities suspending and cancelling their theatre & drama courses, where does this leave on campus venues and how do you engage the wider student & community population?

Support & training: Box Office systems and integration with newsletter creation

Cluster goals: Focus on sustainability and audience engagement with practices. How do we encourage audiences to reduce their carbon impact when travelling to the venue.

Future meeting: Keen to return to the cluster and expand our engagement with venues along the Essex coast and Thames estuary

Kent

Fri 10 June, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Topics discussed: Lack of staff or council support for creative programming. More community theatre workshops helping to maintain the wider venue programme. Digital marketing not quite having as much impact as before Covid – still needing to use print. Again slower to arrange Autumn programming due to artists not being sure of their funding. Venues deciding to strategically programme less Theatre & Dance to make sure they can highlight the events they do choose. Hard to find networks promoting particular styles of work (e.g Dance, theatre from a diverse background, accessible performances).

Support & training: Advice on data focussed audience development initiatives. ‘Word of mouth’ marketing scheme e.g. Arts Ambassadors, theatre clubs

Cluster goals: Better sharing of events and cross promotion. Cluster have set up a Microsoft Teams to continue the conversation and to offer advice.

Future meeting: Might look to meet on more local levels with a similar county wide event in early 2023.

Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire & Buckinghamshire

Thu 16 June, The Old Fire Station, Oxford

Topics discussed: Lack of technical/operations & community engagement staff to run full events programme. Engaging with homeless charities to provide training, job opportunities and free tickets – sometimes creates a negative impression with audiences however. Working with councils & local businesses to regrown the night time economy in local towns. Concerns across Beds & Bucks for lack of local arts provisions, audiences travelling to larger towns (Dunstable, Milton Keynes) to see theatre.

Support & training: People having a loyalty to a particular performer rather than the venue. Focus on Audience Centred Experience Design and better selling your hospitality offer

Cluster goals: Greater collaboration on combined county-wide events listings online

Future meeting: Oxfordshire has strong venue network already in place so future meetings might be directed more towards the Beds & Bucks end of the cluster. Plan to meet again later in the year.

If you are keen to be included in future regional cluster meetings, please email jonathon@housetheatre.org.uk to make sure you find out more details.