What does a great regional venue look like? A report from D&D10.

Following her weekend at Devoted and Disgruntled, house’s Marketing and Engagement Coordinator, Sarah Wilson, shares her report from the session ‘what does a great regional venue look like?’ which she called on Sunday morning.

Devoted and Disgruntled 10: What are we going to do about the performing arts? 24th – 26th January 2015.

This session was borne out of an interest to talk about the possibilities of regional venues in positive terms. With recent ‘venues vs artists’ and ‘I’ll show you mine’ discussions I felt that venues had been the focus of much negative attention and criticism in sometimes unfair circumstances. Bad practice is occurring in some venues across the country, and there is a requirement for venues and artists to work more transparently, but the focus of this session was to move away from this and imagine a fresh start for a venue which could open somewhere regionally tomorrow.

The term venue was chosen to highlight the physical space in which to present theatre / performance. We didn’t get to the details of how big this would be, but we agreed that making it bigger than 400 seats would pose big challenges. We also don’t know where in the UK this venue would open, but didn’t neglect to highlight that the location impacted on almost every decision made by the organisation.  The venue would work in partnership with other regional organisations and wouldn’t adopt the exclusion clause.

Refreshingly, the first word into the mix was audience; with the point that a venue must engage with the local community and be a civic space which represents the surrounding area. Acting as a meeting place between artist and audience, the venue would challenge, engage, offer new horizons and spark debate within the local community. There would be space for people to spend time in the venue whilst not watching or participating. There would be nice coffee. And the venue would be open all day every day. We were off to a good start.

The Albany in Deptford was mentioned as a venue engaging well with their community, examples being their Meet Me at The Albany project and their £1.00 ticket allocation sold to local people through Deptford Market.

Coming back to our venue and its artistic programme, a view wasn’t taken on the type of performance we’d stage, but whatever programmed would be researched, thought-through and backed by the whole organisation. We explored how to make a programme financially sustainable, and agreed that it was ok to mix the programme with cover bands, comedy acts and local hires to pay for the art. Many people commented that this mix would aid audience development, as people already in the building would more likely attend a show on the basis of trusting and knowing the organisation.

Establishing a mixed programme of work sparked debate around the ethics of offering artists ‘one night stands’ which could promote financial risk rather than artist development. The question ‘should people tour less, should programmers programme less?’ was put forward, alongside the difficulty this would pose for companies who rely on sprawling one-night tours each year.

Northern Stage was highlighted as a venue trialling a new programming model where artists connected to the region spend weeks with the venue rather than a few nights. Giving fewer artists more time and money could help a smaller group of artists better, and perhaps this method should be tested in other venues. What about the artist as the programmer? Should more artists be placed at the helm of a festival or season? This was noted as an exciting prospect both artistically and in relation to audience development.

With the agreement that this venue would have a responsibility to the surrounding community, we discussed our responsibility to the local artistic community. Simply doing a casting call locally would make a big difference to the development and livelihoods of performers or artists. But what happens if there isn’t a large creative community on the venue’s doorstep? There were people around the group who felt frustrated that they weren’t able to engage with their hometown venues after residing in London for such a long time. Perhaps this venue could bring those people home too, and pair their homecoming with local artist collaboration which is exciting and genuine.

Our conversation ended with a debate about the role of NTLive within the venue. NTLive seemed to touch on almost every aspect of the venue’s running; the programme, the audience development and the financial resilience of the business. NTLive is a big contentious issue and clearly needs some more research and discussion. We didn’t have a unanimous vote on whether this venue would programme it, but a consideration of where the venue was in the UK was noted as crucial whilst discussing a yes or no move.

Local access to the NTLive resource is important to consider, as village halls in Jersey or rural Devon arts centres have a responsibility to their audiences to offer an opportunity to see this scale and quality of work. However, in instances where NTLive is replacing ‘live live’ theatre performances in suburban arts centres it’s clear that more research is needed to determine whether it is benefiting or subtracting from audience development for contemporary theatre. A research piece entitled ‘Is NTLive a gateway drug?’ was posed, and a conversation with The Audience Agency about whether they have or are planning to explore NTLive audience conversion is now on my things to do list.

We didn’t end with every detail confirmed for our great regional venue. What was made clear was that even with blue sky thinking it’s not easy to know you’re making the right decision for your artists and community. However, taking the time to consider both artists and community from the very seed of a venue is clearly crucial, and it would be interesting to know how many venues across the country were built on this foundation.

Thank you to the many people who drifted in and out, and those who stayed for the whole conversation. Feel free to comment below or share further thoughts @se_wilson.