Some things I’ve written for publication.

Why UK theatre should stop worrying and learn to love European shows

Tour booking can be a pretty thankless task, especially for emerging companies. When the company you’re working with is Spanish, this becomes even more of a struggle as I’ve seen whilst booking the upcoming tour of Locus Amoenus from ATRESBANDES. European theatre is perceived as being high risk, that audiences will find it too challenging and too foreign. Yet, the growing number of events, festivals and venues presenting European work would suggest otherwise. LIFT is now in its 35th year and while it’s not surprising that the capital has a platform for international work, it has been joined by the likes of Flare in Manchester, BE FESTIVAL in Birmingham, now in its sixth year, GIFT in Gateshead and Gloucestershire’s Jolt.

As a producer working with Spanish companies, I’ve begun to ask myself why European theatre can be such a difficult pitch to make. Why can’t venues and audiences see past the foreign label and see simply theatre? A conversation at one of Improbable’s Devoted & Disgruntled events was where the initial idea for BE FESTIVAL was mooted so D&D’s three day Open Space at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in January seemed to be the ideal place to open a conversation on overcoming the difficulties of bringing European work to the UK.

Unsurprisingly, the language barrier featured heavily. In terms of foreign language work, shouldn’t we be talking to audiences about the language of theatre itself, not the language it’s performed in? There wasn’t any support for the suggestion that we can only truly appreciate work if it’s in our own language. Many people will happily go and see a subtitled film, so why not theatre? Opera seems to have got over this particular hump and has attracted new audiences as a result. Welsh venues such as Chapter in Cardiff or Aberystwyth Arts Centre don’t have the same qualms about language or surtitling as they are used to presenting work that is translated. It’s not just audience attitudes towards non English language work that needs to be challenged, but within in the theatre community itself. Is there a sense of superiority about the quality of British theatre that means that we unconsciously mark down work not in English?

European companies at international festivals from Short in Rome to Sarajevo’s MESS are presenting work in a range of languages, including English, finding creative ways of addressing language. One example is ATRESBANDES’s Solfatara, performed in Spanish but which made a virtue of its need for surtitles, blurring the boundary between translation, narration and commentary to become a fourth character. Increasingly, language isn’t even a factor as more European companies, including ATRESBANDES, are producing work in English, so as to make their work more accessible internationally.

The tendency to talk in terms of “an audience” as a singular entity was something that was echoed in several other sessions across the weekend. We aren’t properly aware yet of just how diverse our audiences are in terms of language. There is huge mobility across the EU and, referendum permitting, this will be the norm for the next generation. Cities like London and Birmingham are already super diverse and old categorisations of ethnicity and assumptions on language are becoming meaningless as communities are much more fluid and intercultural.

In terms of venues finding ways to mitigate the risk of programming European companies, there is already much to learn from the growing number of festivals and venues that have successfully developed international programmes, using a variety of ways of engaging with new and existing audiences.

The programme at Flare in Manchester is more at the live art end of the spectrum, so its audience are already risk takers, happy to try something new, wherever it’s from. Their programme is an extension of the type of work that venues like Contact are already presenting.

Slung Low’s HUB in Leeds has developed a strong European programme over recent years. They attribute the pay what you decide model as a key factor in its success as this removes the risk for audiences, making it easier for them to try something new. There was lengthy discussion in another D&D session on how venues such as ARC in Stockton are using this method of payment, and are already seeing increased audience engagement and attendance. In Slung Low’s case, a trusted relationship with their local community also adds to their audience’s confidence in taking a gamble.

The BE FESTIVAL model has a different but equally successful approach. Each night of the festival features four 30 minute pieces, usually including one dance and/or circus piece which spreads the risk for audiences. The inclusion of a shared meal in the middle adds to the sense of community and being fellow travellers. When the festival moved from the industrial surroundings of AE Harris to Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2014, the festival not only kept its own audience, but also saw some crossover from The REP’s existing audience, particularly in the 50+ category. This appears to demonstrate a new offer that The REP’s traditional audience felt comfortable in trying out. The Best of BE FESTIVAL tour offers a programme of three short pieces selected from the festival, offering a low risk package to venues, which has begun to establish its own touring circuit.

Discussion on these and other experiences of touring and programming European work led to the suggestion that a consortium might be the answer to support venues and visiting companies alike. There are initiatives supporting particular aspects of touring work such as House and the National Rural Touring Network. Another interesting example in another artform is the World Music network Making Tracks, that works with a consortium of venues committed to a number of tours each year. Making Tracks selects artists and produces the tours to create a simple package offered at a flat fee. This makes booking much simpler for venues, with no additional costs for accommodation and so forth, and removes any dealings with foreign tax arrangements or non sterling payments. There is funding available in many EU countries from national or regional organisations such as Creative Catalonia to tour work abroad and ACE’s Grants for the Arts can be accessed by EU nationals so long as they have a base or partner in the UK.

A consortium would provide a means to share best practice, raise awareness and strengthen links across the sector. It would be able to offer support and advice to visiting European companies who are unfamiliar with the subsidised touring model here in Britain. The notion of travelling from venue to venue is new to them, as are British venues’ expectations around marketing for example, where venues usually take care of everything, including the production of print.

All new and emerging companies face the issue of being an unknown quantity when trying to get their work booked, but companies from outside the UK are particularly disadvantaged. UK based companies have at least grown and developed on their own turf, their reputation spreading by word of mouth. European companies have to have reached a certain level of development before they can take their own risk of travelling to the UK, so they arrive onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere. A consortium could pool its knowledge and experience to curate an offer that other venues would feel confident in booking.

The session at D&D was ultimately very positive with a number of potential partners for a possible consortium identified. Notes from the sessions and the many positive outcomes from the full event can be seen on the Devoted & Disgruntled website www.devotedanddisgruntled.com

A version of this article appeared in The Stage on 11th February 2016.