Producing theatre: from an arts centre perspective

ARC Stockton

Adapted from a speech at Theatre Futures, an Arts Council England (North) event held in Leeds in October 2015

ARC is a multi-artform performing arts centre in Stockton on Tees. We aren’t a traditional ‘producing theatre’, but we have found ways to commission, produce and tour new work, despite not being funded to produce.

As someone who has only ever worked in arts centres, I always envied producing venues for their ability to influence the work they staged – they got to make their own work, whilst arts centres had to buy it ready-made.

When I worked in the South East, there was plenty of work available to tour to us, much of it being made on our doorstep. But when I moved to ARC in Stockton, somehow much of that work just didn’t seem relevant any more.

ARC is situated in one of the most deprived wards in the country, where 52% of residents have no qualifications; 30% have a limiting long term illness and 58% of residents live in rented social housing.

I wanted to present work that resonated with our local community, both reflecting and challenging it, but with so little theatre ecology around us, we had to find ways of producing our own work to meet this need.

There are two key things that enabled us to do this:

The first is our building. ARC has a fantastic building, with three performance spaces, a dance studio, cinema and other workshop and meeting spaces. We have been able to invest some of this space in making work – it’s probably the single biggest investment we have made in terms of supporting new work, more than £75,000 worth of in kind space per year. Right from the beginning, we invited artists – local and national – to come and spend time: with us, with our local artists, and with our potential audiences, to use our space to develop their work. This marked a shift, internally, from being a building where theatre is presented, to being a building where theatre is made.

The building also facilitates our business model, which is the second key enabler. Like most arts centres, we operate a cross subsidy model, where surpluses from some of our activities – including comedy, music, cinema – are used to subsidise parts of our theatre and performance programme, as well as some of our creative learning activities.

The mix of performance and other spaces supports this cross subsidy model, enabling us not only to present different artforms, but to be a true community centre within Stockton, hosting multiple activities at any one time – some income generating and some subsidised. Room hire and catering are obvious income-generators for us, but are also part of our audience development activity. Our health commissioned arts programme makes a contribution to core costs, but also enables us to increase our reach, enabling more older people to come to ARC and enjoy creative activity.

Alongside our building and business model, there have been three other parts to our successful producing activity: the way we have worked with artists, venues and audiences.

Whenever we meet artists, we are honest about who we are and what we can do. We often say ‘we can’t take scripts, find directors and actors and produce your show’ but if you have an idea, we can help you try and achieve it. Our ethos is to help artists help themselves. We sometimes call this collaborative producing – we provide space, advice, guidance, help artists write funding applications, help them work out who their audiences are, how to reach them, and help them find partners. Alongside this in kind support, we sometimes give artists very small amounts of money to enable them to come and spend time at ARC during the development of their work – our largest cash commission to date has been £5k but more usually it’s under £2k. This clearly limits us, in terms of the scale of the work we can support, but it does help artists lever other funding.

For some artists, those who we believed could make a contribution to ARC’s artistic policy and programme, we started to do this work for them – we found partners, wrote the applications, booked and managed the tour. We now produce and tour around 3-4 shows per year, supporting artists to draw in 100% of the funding from external sources – from partners, from trusts and foundations, and through their own GftA applications and crowdfunding campaigns – but we make a significant contribution in terms of our time, space and expertise.

Incidentally, the thing we give artists that they value the most is belief in their work. And that doesn’t cost us anything.

I believe one of the most important things we do – and can do – with artists is to help them think more about audiences. We work with them to understand their target audiences, and encourage them to find different ways of connecting with them, both before, during and after their shows. If we are going to attract new and different audiences, we need to find new and different ways of talking to them. This has to be a shared responsibility between artists and venues. It’s not about artists ‘doing the marketing’ – venues should have functioning marketing departments – but it is about artists knowing who they want to reach, and why, and developing ways that together we can use to reach them. Whether it’s Skyping artists into a community class to say hello and invite people to come and see their work, to developing personalised messages for the people of Stockton – we need to work with artists to do this.

The second part of our work has been about venues. Right at the beginning of our shift towards producing, we recognised that whilst it would be great for us to produce work in Stockton, that suited our programme and audiences, without platforms elsewhere it would not be sustainable. We set up our first venue partnership project, Bridging the Gap, in 2010, which provided a combined package of in-kind support, including rehearsal space and the opportunity to perform across three venues. That project is now entering its sixth year, works with seven venues and has supported eight new pieces of work. We use the same model to support new work across the North, with The Lowry and Theatre in the Mill, and in 2016, will be rolling out a national version with two new partner venues.

Five years on, we are now running nine different venue partnership projects, and they have all been vital in enabling us to support artists to make new work.

The final part – and where this all started – has been about audiences. Working with artists throughout the creative process, from the first idea to the execution of it, enables us to develop our audiences alongside it. Our audience development work is very targeted, we seek out individuals, groups and organisations that we think would be interested in the subject matter of the show, and we talk to them about it. We can do this so much better if the artist is talking to us about the show as it develops, and increasingly artists are involved in this work too. ARC’s theatre programme – with the exception of live broadcasts – is made up entirely of new work, so it’s a hard job persuading people to come and see something they have never heard of, performed by someone they have never heard of – but we have found ways of persuading them – not least through removing the financial risk through our Pay What You Decide pricing scheme, which in the first six months saw audiences for our theatre programme increase by 58%.

More than 75% of our theatre programme is now made up of work developed in association with ARC. – something we are very proud of and that we believe helps us to deliver our artistic vision: to present work that is contemporary and relevant, that helps people understand the world as it is today, and excites people about the future.

Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive, ARC Stockton