January 2014 - Elizabeth
Lyn Gardner has written an excellent article today about how live screenings of plays and opera do not put people off going to see the real thing. She’s absolutely right. Experience generally leads to appetite which leads to more experience which leads to more appetite. The greater the variety of ways to experience theatre, the better things are for all of us, makers and audience members alike. It’s all good.
I run a small-scale touring company with the express purpose of reaching audiences who struggle to get access to professional theatre. We tour rural areas: village halls, fields, colleges and pubs taking our work into the heart of a community. We do this because people living in geographically isolated places struggle to have the same access to live arts their urban counterparts enjoy. Transport, pricing, time – all these things conspire to deny opportunity. So I’m thrilled that live screenings give our audiences more opportunities to experience theatre in places near them. And I’m delighted the income venues get from live screenings (including bar sales) helps them afford to programme more live theatre in turn. But some of the infrastructure surrounding screenings can’t help but pitch one against the other. The good news is, the problems are completely solvable.
For example, the day of the week. Venues that host live screenings generally get two opportunities to do so – the live night itself, and then an Encore screening at another time of their choosing. The Encore screening is usually time-limited so the venue has to do it within a few weeks of the live date. Generally the Royal Opera House live screening evenings are a Tuesday and NT Live a Wednesday. This is great for small companies like us. We’re unlikely to pack out a small arts centre on a Tuesday anyway. Thursdays and Fridays (occasionally Saturdays) are our busiest nights so this means we’re not in competition with each other. Result.
The Encore screenings are a bit trickier. They can be shown on any night. Most venues, understandably in order to maximise revenue, choose to do these at a weekend. Less good for us. In addition, the time limit on Encore screenings is getting longer. I’m not entirely sure but I think this is something to with licensing rules. When it started venues had to do one repeat screening within a couple of weeks, now it’s stretching to more than one over several months. With the Donmar and the RSC beginning to do live screenings and the Royal Court and other companies shortly following suit, the week is looking more and more crowded. The big companies could do the small companies a favour by protecting the weekend dates for both live and Encore screenings. This would mean audiences see a live screening mid-week and live theatre at the weekend. We could even work together and offer a ticket deal for people who come to both. Everyone wins.
Advance planning is the second catch. The big companies plan their programmes far in advance. The RSC know their shows and dates for the next two to three years. We know ours for the next eight to ten months. When live screenings started, it was on a one-off basis. A venue could pick one show and book it in for a four months or a year’s time. Now we’re seeing packages on offer, where venues have to commit to screening three or four shows from one company over a year. They can’t just have one production; they have to have the lot. So they end up clogging up the calendar (three NT Lives, four RSCs etc.) further in advance than we can talk to them about our tours. This makes sense for the big companies who want to develop a regular audience for their work (and who don’t want to have to choose between their many brilliant productions) but it’s a problem for us.
Earlier this year, we were booking our spring tour (seven months in advance of it going on the road.) We hit a stumbling block – the dates for War Horse clashed with a touring week – the week we’d pencilled for our regular local venues. The clash wasn’t just the one night of the live show, but potentially across the other nights they might do their Encore screening too. Added to this War Horse is on a Thursday too, not a Wednesday. Of course the venues don’t want to miss the opportunity for their audience to see War Horse (and nor do we, we’d quite like to see it too). But we can’t possibly book our tours that far in advance. As more and more venues sign up to be able to host packages of live screenings from more and more companies, the harder it becomes. One local venue helpfully shared with us their live screening programme for the next eighteen months. A lovely offer but I can’t plan our work around the production calendars of the bigger companies. So you can see the contract thing is a bit of a pain. Could the big companies not insist on venues taking more than one show? Could they share their plans with us much further in advance? I’d love to talk to them about how to resolve this.
A final concern is the vocabulary used. As I’ve said above, live theatre and live screenings can happily co-exist if everyone is responsible and there is joined up thinking across the industry. The danger is when people talk about the two things in the same sentence. Peter Bazalgette was asked about the decline in regional touring on the Today programme a couple of months ago and his answer was ‘Well, there’s NT Live’. They are not the same thing and shouldn’t be talked of as such. This is a slippery slope for audience and funders alike. There has been a decline in regional theatre touring over the last few years and live screenings must not be thought of as the answer. Two different art forms serving two different purposes.
We were discussing live screenings and the challenges they pose at a board meeting a few months ago and someone (rather unhelpfully I thought) said: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if one day a big theatre screened one of our shows from a village hall?.’ It made me cross at the time, but then I thought, well, why not? If both really can co-exist, then the relationship should go both ways. So I got in touch with Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court and rather brilliantly, she cooked up a plan. She arranged for the Royal Court to host a live streaming on their website of our last show, Milked by Simon Longman. It wasn’t a live screening on the NT model, filmed with multiple cameras and beamed around the world. It was a live streaming which is simply a static camera linked to the Royal Court’s own live stream channel (like a Youtube channel) for anyone at home to log on and watch a brilliant new play live from a small theatre in rural Herefordshire. It was great. Over 250 people tuned in from around the world and our live audience loved it too.
So what about taking this one step further? How about we set up a network of theatres that screen shows from smaller companies into their studio spaces? Imagine one of our shows beamed live from Clee St Margaret village hall into Hampstead Downstairs or the Royal Exchange Studio? Then the village hall could host a reciprocal evening, screening a Hampstead or Exchange show to their village hall audience. How about the National Theatre taking shows on tour to village halls, so regional audiences can have access to their live work as well as their screened work? How about we all work together to rebalance the city-beams-to-regions model and invent a new form of reciprocal, mutually beneficial theatre-making, live and on screen. I’m in.
December 2013 - Tom Wentworth
Pentabus HQ is a very welcoming place. Where sometimes theatres can seem both intimidating and without any sense of a public face, Pentabus is the complete opposite of this with its friendly and inclusive atmosphere. It’s much more like a large Shropshire family.
I’ve been lucky enough to be a regular visitor to the company in recent months, as a member of the first Young Writers Group. This is an exciting opportunity for 7 of us to get together every three weeks for workshops, discussions and to generally chat about the craft, pleasure and sometimes pain of writing. (Plus there’s always the added bonus tea and cake!) The group really spans a broad spectrum of ages (up to 25) and experiences but, the group, led by the Artistic Director Elizabeth, is a truly supportive and open environment.
But don’t be fooled… the group isn’t just an excuse for a chinwag. We’ve also been lucky enough to take part in a really inspiring workshop from writer and performer Francesca Millican-Slater; explored how words on the page translate when working with actors and I’m already looking forward to next time’s session which will be led by writer Phil Porter. Plus there is always precious time to try our hand at a writing exercise which can often produce some surprising and delightful results. Last time we started to share some of our work and it was so nice to hear – even from tiny, unpolished pieces – just a few of the different voices within the group and I can’t wait to hear much more from my fellow writers.
Being part of the Young Writers’ group isn’t simply about the sessions themselves, there a great sense of an open door policy around being associated with the company. For example, we are invited to book the Writers’ rooms whenever we like to help push forward our work in progress; plus we’re also invited and encouraged to attend work in progress showings, rehearsals and of course productions. So, I was super-excited to be invited to see Milked last week which was both hilariously funny and horrifically bleak. Plus it was great to be able to talk to the actors after show.
So, ultimately, being in the Young Writers Group is pretty great! Perhaps best of all is that we’re being encouraged to submit our work for feedback as well as write something for the very exciting Young Writers festival next summer. Who knows what new stories will be told or what magic will be performed? I already can’t wait but until then I’m just going to enjoy everything that happens as part of this marvellous group.
A big thank you Pentabus!
Volunteering for outdoor theatre Sep 2013 - Emma Alston
Some weeks ago I saw a post on a local tourism site asking for people to volunteer their time....
I had heard of Pentabus but had never seen any of their productions... Intrigued by the idea of an outside theatrical experience I emailed offering my help.
They got back in touch, and I arrived last Thursday at the BOG CENTRE in the Stiperstones in order to meet the team... Elizabeth introduced herself and Sam the production manager...Excited and slightly apprehensive my mind was soon put to ease... Elizabeth explained in brief how the project had begun and then we set off to do the walk. Blessed with warm autumn weather we walked the route and I chatted to a few of the volunteers - nice bunch of folk...
I immediately felt part of the group, not nervous at all... The walk was fairly easy and lasted approx. 80mins, the route took us across fields and through wood and onto the heather filled slopes. We then returned to the centre for tea & cake, met Jon the sound artist and Sophia the visual artist who has made the most beautiful moulds of her own hands that will be placed throughout the route... Some nestling... some hanging.
We then put on our headphones and walked the route again, this time listening to the memories of the local women in our ears.
It all suddenly began to make sense… and the tales transported me...
At one point whilst standing next to Nipstone Rock, picking and eating winberries…it all clicked… the artist was talking about her feelings towards the landscape and I realized that I was listening to someone who was finally describing the way I have always felt about the hills /landscape but had never been able to articulate those feelings
It was magical…..It is magical.. I drove home feeling enthused and enlightened.
I feel exhilarated by the whole project. I can’t wait to lead the walks, and also to talk to my friends about it - several of whom have already booked tickets! Ahhh weather wise - who knows... but I know that whilst walking and listening... I turned my head to the sky and all the clouds disappeared.
Thanks guys for giving me the opportunity to work with you.
August 2013 - Elizabeth
For those of you that are interested, here’s a little bit about how we’ve made In This Place:
Like all good stories, it started in a pub. I met Frances Brett, a writer and archivist and we got chatting. She told me about some interviews she’d been doing with women who work in the landscape and I asked if I could read them. They were brilliant – a collection of fascinating, beautiful, funny and moving stories about women’s role in shaping and managing the countryside. Individually they were poignant, strong stories of personal experiences and achievements. Put together, they were a chorus of moments and memories that resonate on many levels. They reveal so much about the social context of women working in the countryside over many decades, and offer a distinctive, clear and coherent picture of a thriving countryside.
Frances and I thought it would be great to find a way to give more people access to this material; the next question was, how? It couldn’t be a play with characters and dialogue because each of the women has their own individual story. But nor could it just be a series of speeches because that wouldn’t make all the links of theme and content we could see. The relationship to the landscape make us think about making a show that could take place in the very landscape the women were talking about. Between them, they reference a variety of different kinds of terrain – woods, fields, farms, rivers, heath, bog. . .so we hit upon the idea of the show being a walk so the audience could move through the different landscapes themselves. And then we thought that if people were listening to the stories through headphones along the way, they could have a physical, emotional and an imaginative experience all at the same time. . . .
So that’s where it all started. I spoke to Lydia Adetunji, a playwright who has Shropshire connections and is wonderful with storytelling. I met Jon, our Sound Designer, who told me about all the amazing technology now available that could give our audience a really full, sensory experience through headphones. And I met Sophia, a Visual Artist, whose beautiful pieces along the route will enable people to think differently about what they’re seeing. Together we came up with lots of ideas and discussed various choices – whether people should do the walk on their own or in groups; whether we should have lots of voices or just a few; whether each section of the walk should relate directly to a character, or whether it could be a bit looser . . . there were lots of options to try out.
Finding the walk itself unlocked many answers – once we knew the route, lots of things fell into place. We knew we wanted it to be a circular walk so that transport was easy for everyone. We needed a base for loos and tea and tickets and headsets. We wanted the walk to be accessible for as many people as possible. And it had to be within the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which is the area that all of the women live and/or work in and who commissioned the original interviews. So then it was a case of identifying a few possible areas and pulling on our walking boots! Cath Landles of the AONB was brilliant, showing us various routes and talking through paths we might choose. We walked all over Shropshire, including around Snailbeach and over on Brown Clee Hill. One day, I stumbled across the Bog Centre and completely fell for it. It’s a Visitor Centre right up on the Stiperstones and is a charming, welcoming place. I spoke to them about whether they’d like to come on board as our host venue, and wonderfully, they said yes. So then we began to explore walks using the Bog as a starting point. Our route began to take shape. Jon, Lydia, Frances and Sophia came and we walked together, finding what would work best for our stories and our audience. Finally, we decided on our route: it takes in a variety of different terrains relating to the stories and is fairly do-able for most people, with only a couple of stiles and a few sheep to overcome along the way!
Pentabus is renowned for finding innovative and exciting ways of making theatre. We always want to be offering our audiences new experiences. Of course all of that comes with challenges – we’ve been dealing with land permissions, the possibility of plant fungal infections, biodegradable sculpture materials, radio frequencies, and pesky tree roots to mention just a few! We’ve been really lucky to have had the expertise of the AONB, Natural England, the Wildlife Trust and the Bog Centre to guide us along the way. I bet they never thought they’d be dealing with a theatre company juggling design teams, actors and print copy either!
Recording the script with professional actors last week was a wonderful day. We had a studio full of a cast of women ranging from 30 – 90, with a wealth of skill, awards, and experience between them. Jon is now editing the footage, adding in sound and music along the way. Sophia is making castings of her sculptures. And Sam, our Production Manager, is out in the wilds doing some guerrilla gardening! Our volunteers join us next week [they have a very special role to play in the whole thing!] and the week after, our first group will set out on their audio theatre experience. Hopefully, it’ll all work out and we’ll have proved that these kinds of creative countryside partnerships can give everyone an exciting new way of experiencing the landscape.
We’ll look forward to seeing you out in the Shropshire Hills.