The Importance Of The Showcase

Recently I have been attending a number of conferences and performances that showcase young talent or provide a platform for emerging and established artists to present work to promoters and programmers.

This work might be fully formed, in development or little more than an idea. It might use world famous scripts to get the very best out of young talent, or draw on the world around us for inspiration. One thing I have felt is clear over the last week or so, these opportunities provide an essential stepping stone for professional and aspiring professional performers, young and old alike, those with little experience and those that have been performing for years.

I started last week by attending New Directions, a showcase curated by China Plate for the National Rural Touring Forum. Having previously managed a rural touring scheme across Northamptonshire and been the Executive Director of a theatre company that has had village hall touring at its core for 40 years I was excited to see the programme. There has been a misconception in the past that village hall touring needs to be safe and middle of the road and this showcase partly seeks to address that by presenting a really wide range of work that would challenge promoters (and venues) to try something new, hence the title.

There is also a far greater crossover between work produced for village hall touring and that presented in small and even medium scale arts centres and theatres across the country than some might realise, with many artists combining touring on both circuits. Another great reason to attend.

I was particularly taken by work by Travelling Light, Francesca Millican Slater, Untied Artists and The Wardrobe Ensemble plus a pitch from Pentabus Theatre about their show provisionally title Shopping and Fracking. The event, as always with NRTF conferences provided a thoughtful and interesting two days of inspiration.

Back at home and Lincoln Academy of Theatre Arts was presenting Les Miserables at The Drill Hall. There was much anticipation over the 5 show sell out run. I was particularly looking forward to it, having seen their production of Miss Saigon last year. LATA really challenge their students, all aged between 14 and 19, with tough material and they do rise to the challenge. I would describe the standard as watching a class of drama school students close to graduation presenting their final piece of work. The talent on show was fantastic, the goosebump moments brilliantly delivered and the quality of singing from some of the leads quite amazing. Glad to see such talent being fostered right here at home. It’ll be interesting in the coming years to see how LATA helps and nurtures these performers into potential careers in the industry.

Finally on Sunday I headed across to Derby for DeParture Lounge. I was there to see a very specific piece called The Litvinyenko Project, a two handed performance piece by Two Magpies Theatre re-imagining the final day in the life of Alexander Litvinyenko, poisoned nearly 8 years ago by Polonium 210. The show was presented in the café of Derby Museum and was part of the fourth day of this festival that focussed on site specific work. My only frustration was that the timings of the shows meant I couldn’t see more. It was presented  by a partnership called In Good Company, comprising Embrace Arts in Leicester and Create Theatre in Mansfield and Derby Theatre, set up to provide a region wide development programme for artists. The four days gave opportunities for artists to network and develop skills alongside work that included new writing, Edinburgh touring and the site specific day I went to.

In our current funding climate any opportunity to connect performers, artists and companies with places that present work need to be supported and nurtured. I have seen approximately 30 pieces of work through the facilitation of these events in under a week. Imagine trying to see all that work separately. And as the biggest showcase of them all, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe begins next week let’s celebrate the chances to connect artists and venues and to foster collaboration and partnership that these type of events offer.

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NPO Decision day – Reflections

Yesterday was a rather strange day.  For a number of months now the 1 July had been etched in the minds of artists and arts leaders across England for one reason.  It was the day Arts Council England announced the decisions under their National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) funding stream to 877 organisations who applied for three year support between 2015 – 2018.

 Keeping an eye on social media on Tuesday night, nerves were beginning to take hold as people started to think about what the morning would bring, me included.  For those that don’t know, we had been told to expect an e-mail between 8.30 and 9.30am, with ACE making their formal press statement at 10am.

So nervously I sat at my desk yesterday morning awaiting the e-mail.  When it came through at about 8.40am it was good news.  The consortium of arts centres in Lincolnshire that we at Lincoln Drill Hall applied on behalf of had been successful in our application.  There was immediate elation, shared with the large number of others who had also had good news.  However the elation quickly turned to simple relief that we’d been successful.  It was further tempered as news started to filter through social network sites of organisations that had been unsuccessful.

For me, it was a different feeling to other grant successes.  There was something more fundamental at stake.  Our current long term business model is partially built on the success of this application.  If we’d been unsuccessful there would have been very different conversations in our consortium about what our venues might need to change to replace that predicted and much welcomed investment.  While I’m confident that all the venues would survive, whether we would continue to thrive artistically is another question.  So the confirmation was gratefully received.

The investment in our consortium which totals just over £600,000 over the next three years will help 5 arts centres (Lincoln Drill Hall, South Holland Centre, Spalding, Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham, Stamford Arts Centre and the Riverhead Theatre, Louth) to further develop high quality programming, commissioning and engagement with young people across Lincolnshire.  Working collaboratively will ensure that we reach more people than by working in geographically isolated silos.  It means that we can continue to take risks with our programmes, offer our audiences the chance to try new things, commission more new work and ensure that ticket prices remain affordable.  It’s great news for us and for the arts in Lincolnshire.

In the background to the process were the hard decisions that had to be made by Arts Council England with their diminished resources and this is what made yesterday for me, quite a strange day of mixed emotion.  200 organisations who applied were unsuccessful.  In the Midlands there are 4 new NPO’s and 2 new partnership museums.  7 organisations left the portfolio.  Discussions about the rights and wrongs of decisions will undoubtedly rage on.  For instance, nationally the so called Big 5 (RSC, National Theatre, Royal Opera House, Southbank and ENO) received cuts that in cash terms are quite significant, but are still small in relation to their overall awards, except for the ENO who’ve taken a substantial reduction.  Arguments about the funding split between London and the regions will also continue.  In her Guardian theatre blog, Lyn Gardner talks about a mere 2% shift away from London to the regions in terms of funding allocation and makes a point that 58 organisations lost funding yesterday, 43 of them outside of London.  Yesterday’s decisions haven’t quelled either of those particular debating topics.

In Lincolnshire it’ll be a toss up as to whether our cup is half full or half empty.  There have been discussions over many years about lower investment levels in the county compared with other parts of the region.  Between 2015-18, there’ll be £1.89 million invested in organisations in Lincolnshire through the NPO funds.  This doesn’t include funding for rural touring which was successfully applied for and will be delivered by Nottinghamshire County Council.  This is fantastic news and an increase on the previous three years.  However the increase is due to the changing shape of those organisations funded rather than huge increases in the funding itself.  There will still be only four NPO’s, just a slightly different four than 2012-15.

The total investment awarded is still an amount that falls well short of other parts of the East Midlands.  6 organisations in our region will individually receive more over the same period as our entire county (one will receive more than this each year!)  This is not to take away from their needs or programmes and is brilliant news overall for our part of the country.  It just highlights that for us in Lincolnshire the real work starts now to ensure that we use the lower investment to match the outputs of other parts of the region and country.  We now need to work incredibly hard to make sure each pound invested delivers the very best that the artists we work with, our audiences and participants expect.  That’s got to be our focus now.

Details of all NPO funding decisions can be found here.