Getting Better Slowly – A Commissioning Perspective. 

Since we re-opened in 2004 Lincoln Drill Hall has been committed to providing communities across our city with a wide breadth of arts performances to enjoy, entertain and sometimes we hope challenge and provoke debate.

Most of this work has been produced elsewhere and we’ve merely provided the space to present it.  More recently we’ve been involved with a number of other venues in dipping our toes into commissioning work from a number of companies, usually providing small amounts of money to help new pieces of performance develop, with the ambition that these might tour.

As my background is largely in producing theatre, I have been really conscious since I’ve lived and worked in the county though that there has been a relative lack of produced theatre and performance coming out of Lincolnshire.  Companies such as Zest Theatre and Rhubarb Theatre are producing more touring work, there are a number of emerging companies and artists from the University of Lincoln seeking to produce their own work and we work closely with Jamie Marcus Productions on our annual pantomime.

However, Lincolnshire lacks a big regional producing house like neighbouring cities such as Hull or Nottingham.  Certainly, Lincoln Drill Hall has neither the facilities nor budgets to consider huge amounts of in house production, but I have always been keen in my three and a half years at the venue to find opportunities to become more closely involved in the creation of new work that might have a touring life and therefore a legacy for our involvement. .

In October 2015 we appointed Adam Pownall as our new Artistic Programme and Participation Manager. One of the exciting things for me in Adam’s appointment was that he was an artist as well as a programmer and was in the early stages of developing a piece of work that drew on personal experience of Guillain Barre syndrome, particularly the recovery process.  That piece became Getting Better Slowly.

For me this provided Lincoln Drill Hall with an opportunity.  What if we were to support our own Artistic Manager to create a piece of national touring work?  Could we question and test our normal practise and perceived way of presenting art by being the place where the work was rehearsed and premiered. What challenges would this present to my team and more importantly what opportunities to change some people’s perceptions of the venue and the way we work could we find?

And so along with colleagues in venues in Spalding, Louth, Grantham and Stamford we found some money to support the development of the work.  The Drill Hall also offered up 3 weeks of space in the building for the project team to rehearse, tech and premiere the show, supported by our in house technical, marketing and sales teams. We also afforded space for Adam within his role to produce and tour the show.  An added benefit to me was working with artists such as Tilly Branson and Adam McCready whom I’d worked with previously at New Perspectives Theatre Company.

Personally, I believe the benefits for the venue have been incredibly worthwhile.  Our logo and profile has appeared in over 20 venues as part of the national tour which can only be good for the venue and county’s profile.  The two performances at the venue drew a mix of existing and new drama audiences and exceeded our usual numbers for theatre.  It was good to challenge the perception of what we are there to do and certainly feedback from a number of our regular audiences has been really positive.  Our involvement in this work has also led to the GAIN charity booking a full day conference with us in February 2017 that wouldn’t have happened without this piece of work – the day will see a reprise of the show which has obtained funding to undertake an international live streaming that will place us and the project on a wider platform digitally.   I also feel that we have proved that we have the skills within our organisation to become more involved in other production projects in the future.

That isn’t to say that we don’t have things we have learned to take forward into future projects. There was inevitably pressure placed on the venue from the split in Adam’s day job and multiple roles on the production.  This unique situation was right for our first foray into this level of co-production, as it allowed us to keep that core link between our involvement and the work itself, and afforded Adam the space to develop a very personal piece. It did ask questions of our capacity to deliver the rest of our programme though.  We’ve already started answering those questions, discussing how future work in this area would look to support external artists/producers rather than our core staff perhaps.

From my point of view there is also a more simple piece of learning relating to the level of detail needed between a producing venue and the artist.  Quite simply, we probably needed to write more down to create a clear delineation between the role of producer/actor in the show and Artistic lead of the venue.  That would also help the rest of our in house team to know clearly what expectations were for future projects.

Overall though, I am delighted with the outcome.  I believe the organisation has proved a point.  We can support the making of work more integrally than simply as a space to present and that we have the skills to support artists wanting to create new work over longer periods of time.  That for me bodes well for the future.




IETM Valencia – A Crossroads

This time last week, I was representing Lincoln Drill Hall at the most recent gathering of IETM – Informal European Theatre Meeting. Along with the other eight founding members of Future Arts Centres, this was the first step in delivering an Ambitions for Excellence award we’d received from Arts Council England focusing on developing new international collaborations and work for arts venues in the UK. The 3 days session was entitled Crossroads, and sought to debate whether business approaches, self sustainability, tangible measurement of ‘value’ and growth focused audience development risked loss of artistic integrity, losing remaining public investment in the arts and authentic relationships with audiences. 

It drew a diverse range of theatre makers, independent producers, programmers, live artists, policy makers, academics and others from across the continent and beyond to the beautiful Spanish city of Valencia to meet, debate, network and discuss these challenges within the framework of a changing political landscape. It was a meeting designed to ask the big questions.

I’d been warned though, by colleagues who’d been to other sessions before that a experiencing IETM can be quite difficult the first time you attend. As I reflect on my experience I’d have to agree. I was unsure really on returning to the UK where I, or the venue’s work fits into the picture or discourse created. I found the sessions I attended – there was a huge choice of subject sessions on offer – to be rather unsatisfactory. I’m not sure I came away from the process feeling that I’d learned anything new or revelatory, there was nothing tangible that I can grasp that would prompt an immediate or fundamental change in the practise of our organisation. Unfortunately I and a number of colleagues found some sessions didn’t translate in reality to their descriptions in the programme brochure.

That though, is not to say there was no value. It is apparent that in certain areas, UK arts practise appears ahead of other countries. This appeared true for instance in the way we evaluate , measure impact and define value in the work produced. It seemed to me also that, whilst acknowledging a lot of work to do, the U.K. Sector is advancing strongly in our approach to diversity – The Arts Council’s Creative Case for example proactively challenging arts organisations to embed diversity in its widest sense throughout their work.

IETM also curated a programme of work for us to enjoy and two pieces I saw were particularly strong. Birdie was a multi media live art piece that used the migration of birds as a metaphor for present day human migration and was incredibly slick, powerful and beautifully delivered. The other, The Son I Want To Have was very sentimental, but a joyful, inspiring and uplifting show about life and family and who we want to be. Including a number of community performers in the cast it ended with the back doors of the theatre being opened and the final scenes playing against the backdrop of the city.

I also met with Jolita, the director of Arts Printing House in Vilnius. This I hope is the start of a longer and deeper creative conversation between our venue and theirs, one that I’d love to involve members of our own Lithuanian community in Lincoln with, to see how European collaboration can enhance both of our work and our audiences experience of the arts.

So overall, yes IETM was a difficult experience for this first timer, but one that also had a number of positive outcomes.