This blog contribution by Chris O’Connell, playwright and artistic director of Theatre Absolute in Coventry offers a very interesting and personal perspective on the question of ‘access’, reaching new audiences and facilitating engagement with the arts, which are at the centre of cultural policy and arts funding debates. Yet, these are also topics that are at the heart of the cultural value question, and it is good to be able to hear the voice of a creative producer who is not publicly funded in this debate. In times of seemingly unavoidable cuts, might the experience of The Shop Front Theatre be a pointer to a different way of working for arts organisations that place engagement with their local audiences at the top of their creative agenda?
In 2009, Theatre Absolute took time out from the UK’s small scale touring circuit and began to explore, get closer to, and understand who our audience is or could be, and how best, or better, to build relationships with them. In 2008, Theatre Absolute produced my play Zero. In 2009 Oracle Productions in Chicago bought the rights, and I was invited to their premiere. I’d checked them out on their website, but hadn’t really absorbed their fundamental practice – not until I got off the El Train and arrived at the address they’d given me: I was staring at a disused shop with the title of my play, and my name, written across the window. No obvious ‘theatre’ building then – but a company blazing a trail, along with five other companies, in the Lakeview district of the city, making what they termed ‘store-front’ theatre. Setting up permanent long term bases in empty retail units and embedding themselves within their community, they were presenting a new affordable interpretation of how theatre and theatre making can relate to community, and audiences.
This experience coincided with an ennui from Theatre Absolute, after 15 years of national small scale touring, and a desire for new ways to make our work as a company, and for me as a writer. On returning to Coventry, producer Julia Negus and myself negotiated with Coventry City council, and in November 2009 we moved into a disused fish and chip shop restaurant in the City Arcade, in the heart of the city centre. It had been empty for some months. We secured and still have a rent free deal, and pay discounted rates, plus our utilities. It’s an unfunded space in which we make our work on project grants, and which other user groups and theatre companies hire, or visit with touring shows.
Presenting art or making theatre in shops is not new, although theatre in shops can often be pop up and gone within the duration of a project. But this idea of us having our own space in a shop felt like a unique way forward for the company: affordable, flexible, light touch, long term – we could make work when we wanted, about what we wanted. It was a cultural provocation. On the outskirts of the city is Warwick Arts Centre, ten minutes up the other end of Corporation Street, the Belgrade, and in the heart of a shopping arcade, opposite ARGOS is Theatre Absolute’s Shop Front Theatre offering an alternative response to theatre making. To all intents and purposes it IS a theatre, it just happens to be a shop with 10 huge windows along its front, domestic voltage, a 12 foot high ceiling, no scene dock, and no discernable stage. Over the last four years we have built an audience base offering them breakfast time shows, 10 minute shows, lunch time bites as well as traditional performance times – that has grown and is growing. Alongside their views on the work they see, audience feedback talks about the atmosphere, the environment, the experience, they like this idea of a theatre in a shop.
And people have been coming to see both our own and touring visiting productions. Since 2009 approximately 7,500 people have attended a theatre or arts event at the shop. One may think that’s not a lot, but that could have been remained an empty shop and those 7,500 people not have experienced affordable high quality theatre, spent money on the local economy, or contributed to the cultural offer of their city. For example, 80% of the people who came to see the last two Paines Plough shows that have toured into the shop had never seen a Paines Plough show. The demographic of our audience has changed and is most tangible in the age of people attending – ie. from 13 to mid 80’s, often sat alongside each other and experiencing all kinds of work. Visiting company’s, and ourselves, don’t make much in the way of earned income; our ticket prices range between £3 to £8, we seat maybe 40, 50 at a push, and operate a box office split.
However, we are able to make genuine contact with those who come. For example, one guy spent his last £6 on the Paines Plough production of ‘Hopelessly Devoted’. He knocked on the door of the shop after seeing the poster in the window, he’d not heard of Paines Plough, he wasn’t a ‘theatre person’, he hadn’t been in the shop before, but he knew of Kate Tempest because he was a musician. He was down to his last £6 and had just pawned his bass, but I was able to persuade him to take a punt on what we were offering at the shop, because he’d knocked on the shop door and I was able to talk to him. Being at the shop has helped us make a point of having conversations with our audiences and understanding what they can afford, what they like, and what they can pay. So social media, marketing, direct print and conversations all have equal weight in generating our audiences. This is just one example, there are others such as the audience member who is now a board member at Theatre Absolute, and the audience members who are now volunteers helping with events at the Shop Front Theatre.
The big question for us is how do we sustain this success? Neither the Local Authority (LA) nor Arts Council England (ACE) give us any core funding so it all happens via the energy of myself and Julia Negus working voluntarily. As the rising consensus on subsidy for the arts illustrates, one might argue that the LA and, in particular ACE, need to assess the nature of their spend, focusing equal priority on grassroots delivery, as much as focusing on national institutions and an ailing building based theatre network. In the meantime, what the shop front theatre has taught us is that you can find and develop new audiences. Our model flies in the face of ACE’s rhetoric of distribution and its bums on seats mentality; with a cap of 50 people per show, ourselves and visiting companies will never secure high audience figures, but isn’t this what subsidy is equally about? In the Arts Council’s document ‘Great Art For Everyone’ one of the aims expressed is that More People Should Be Inspired By The Arts. This aim doesn’t always have to be predicated on more NUMBERS, the word in there that’s equally important is INSPIRED. It goes back to what we’ve learnt to do at the Shop Front Theatre: we’re not retailers like other shopkeepers, but we welcome people at the door, we trade experiences, build relationships with our audiences, and have conversations.
Chris O’Connell is Artistic Director of Theatre Absolute, and co-founder of the Shop Front Theatre, Coventry. His work includes ‘Always’, ‘Arcade’, (Theatre Absolute) ‘Hymns’ (Frantic Assembly) ‘cloud:burst’, (Royal Opera House, and New York premiere), and ‘Car’, ‘Raw’, and ‘Kid’, Edinburgh Festival, 1999-2003. ‘Car’ and ‘Raw’ won Fringe First Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals 1999 and 2001, and ‘Car’ a Time Out Live Award for Best New Play on the London Fringe, 1999. He was writer-in-residence for Paines Plough, 1999-2000, and Playwright in Residence at Birmingham University, M(Phil) in playwriting, 2005-2006. His plays are published by Oberon Books.