Re-open Sesame?

One of the media questions at yesterday’s press briefing spoke of this week as  a turning point.  Announcements of minor relaxations of lockdown restrictions, confirmation that some schoolchildren could go back to school and a roadmap to reopen some businesses in the coming weeks were all made.

The Chancellor also backed this up with confirmation on the plans for the remainder of the Furlough scheme on Friday, with a telling remark that confirmed that the scheme in its current form would end in October.

But for the arts sector there still appears to be absolutely no clear path out of the pandemic, or a clear sense from other countries further down the restriction easing path, of how we might seek to get venues re-open, artists and freelancers back making art or audiences back enjoying live art in our arts centres, theatres and galleries.

There has been a wide range of media coverage of the issue. Playwright James Graham appeared on Question Time on the 21 May and spoke eloquently on the need for significant additional government investment to support our sector through this. On Thursday Front Row on Radio Four concentrated their programme on how and when venues might re-open. It also discussed some of the ways organisations are looking to offer art in alternative ways during the continued closure of theatre and arts spaces. It’s really worth  a listen.

For a venue looking at how and when to reopen there has been one crucial issue at the heart of discussions.  This has been raised by everyone from Nica Burns and Rufus Norris running large scale venues right down to the owner of The Boiler Room in the Front Row piece.  Social distancing will realistically mean losing around 80% of the capacity of most auditorium spaces. And that immediately makes most venues economically unviable. But the reality of the picture for most venues isn’t simply about just social distancing.  There are so many pieces to our jigsaw.

Ensuring the venue is Covid secure will be important. The experience of going to the theatre isn’t all about just sitting and watching the show. The welcome, the bar, the toilets, the atmosphere are all key parts of our enjoyment of that experience. And that experience will have to be massively regimented to be done safely. You must arrive in a very narrow window to take your seat. It’s likely you’ll be unable to go to the toilet once seated.  You’ll have to wait to be told exactly when you can get up and leave. Can a venue risk having its bar open?  Will the experience in the new normal actually be any good? Can you realistically run multiple shows on a day and be able to carry out the necessary cleaning of an auditorium between each show? These are just a few of the questions we’re considering.

And artists will also have to adapt too. Much smaller cast sizes for theatre or numbers of musicians in bands will all have to be regulated. Playing to tiny audiences will have an affect on the way a performance is conceived and delivered. What is the future for youth theatres, traditionally comprising multiple casts with large numbers of children?  No doubt artists will adapt to create work that can fit the parameters of the new normal. Smaller lighter shows that could be performed multiple times a day to smaller audiences perhaps? But this is another pressure on the sector to maintain ‘experience’.

All of us running venues have another real challenge to ponder.  And that is the timing of re-opening. The Southbank Centre recently announced it was likely to have to remain closed until at least April 2021. Curve in Leicester has already announced cancellation of all productions until the end of October. Selladoor has announced postponement of all tours until next year and that the theatres they run in Peterborough and Devon won’t reopen at least until the Christmas season. So how do we play this?

Even if, in the remotest of likelihoods the Government announces that theatres can re-open in July (when they hope to move to step 3 of easing restrictions) with no Social Distancing – something that no-one believes will happen – it isn’t as if everything will snap back on overnight. Those producing work will need at least 12 weeks we’re told to get shows back up and running. Will audience confidence be there? No-one in reality I think expects audiences to immediately return to pre-Covid 19 levels quickly.  Audiences need confidence in the venues having new and safe protocols in place, as well as confidence in their Government and peers that people will behave in a safe and rational manner.

An article in last week’s Sunday Times Culture section raised a key point. There will be a moment in the next couple of months where huge financial commitments to Christmas shows – usually the lifeblood for most theatres – will need to be made.  No-one though will realistically be able to ask those producers to take such large financial risks with no certainty that sufficient audiences can attend, if the show can go on at all. There’s a link to the article here, but remember, they have a paywall.

For any venue reliant on predominantly one night performances made by others, any such announcement on re-opening might come too late for much of our autumn programme.  Some promoters of comedians, bands, speakers and theatre companies are already approaching us about rearranging for 2021. I can foresee a moment when re-opening becomes legally possible but not practically possible as the next six months of programme has already been reduced to a level that makes re-opening impossible.

The arts sector is completely interconnected. The biggest and most commercially focused venues are linked to the most radical and small scale arts spaces. Independent and freelance artists are the lifeblood of communities up and down the country, leading innovation and socially engaged art creation, feeding arts centres and theatres regionally. We cannot survive without them.  We are all essential to create this ecology that is the envy of the world. Producer and theatre maker Linda Bloomfield wrote this recently which encapsulates it brilliantly.  And we haven’t even touched on the financial contribution that the sector makes to the economy.

So this is something that the Cultural Taskforce needs to address really quickly. Taking into account all parts of the jigsaw and with the Chancellor’s conviction that Furlough will end in October, how do we save our sector – and I mean all of our sector – if the reality is that it’ll be 2021 before shows can start properly and longer for the sector to engage audiences in sufficient numbers?

Everyone involved as artist, organisation, audience member needs to speak loud, speak proud and not let up in the coming weeks and months.

 

We’ve Fought The Immediate Fire – What’s Next?

At the end of last week Boris Johnson announced that he thought the UK was past the peak of Coronavirus.  There’s obviously still a long way to go in the fight against the pandemic, but there has started to be increased talk of ‘phase 2’ of the UK response. Pressure from some quarters has started to grow for the Government to publish details on how and in what way the current lockdown may be eased. What businesses will be allowed to open when, how will plans for schools be realised and in what ways will all of us as individuals be able to start returning to ‘the new normal’?  We’re all keeping our fingers crossed for announcements we’re told will come this week.

As an integral part of the hospitality and leisure sector, we in the arts are thinking about this too.  If phase one was immediate firefighting, shoring up cash in the bank to offset sudden and complete closure, learning about furlough and making sure we could ride out the immediate weeks of pandemic, our phase 2 will be about how we, as a venue in the arts sector sector might look to re-open and quickly regain the trust of audiences in a post lockdown world.

Since the PM announced people should avoid going to theatres on the 16th March our earned income through ticket sales alone has dropped by 94%. If you narrow that to the period until the end of July it’s essentially 100%.  We are currently closed until the end of June. Even if we were allowed to open publicly in July, the few shows we have remaining in the summer are already looking at significantly lower audience numbers. That has a knock on effect on the investment possible into those productions and their contribution to our net income.  A lot of the spring/summer programming that we had to postpone has moved into the autumn, but what if theatres can’t open until September or October? We’ll be looking to move shows a second time.

And what sort of performances are we possibly looking at post Covid-19 anyway.  It’s been amazing to see how much work has been made available on line during this lockdown period through streaming platforms. Catching up on shows from NT Live is great, as was being able to stream a production I was due to see with my son from Pilot Theatre. A 2016 production of Getting Better Slowly, that premiered at the Drill Hall has also been streamed as has work from other companies that we had programmed prior to the pandemic.

We work in a creative industry and artists are looking to respond creatively.  We’re hoping to repurpose some of our Lincolnshire One Venues funding to create a bespoke digital commission later in the summer. This should help us to reach audiences with product made directly for the medium on the assumption that restrictions will be lifted gradually and even once they are, it will be longer before people  possibly come out to events as they did before. However, there is no commercial basis for work made this way currently. Today we’ve announced our participation in an international Beatbox project taking place on line over the next 6 weeks via our Faccebook page. These are all great creative responses, what our sector has always and will always do brilliantly. 

They’ll help us stay in touch with new and existing audiences and hopefully reach those who remain isolated.  But planning to replace the financial bedrocks on which we all rely and that have disappeared over recent months is much harder to predict.

And this is really the problem that we’re facing when trying to plan the future even beyond the next couple of months.  No-one knows for sure what will happen.  Rufus Norris, the Director of the National Theatre said in an article recently he hoped theatres might re-open in June or July.  We certainly won’t be re-opening until July at the earliest.  Talking with colleagues, most seem to think it more realistic that it’ll be September before we can look to re-open fully.  Other larger venues are considering scenarios where it is 2021 before they can offer any meaningful programming.

And when we do have more clarity on when that date might be, what are the other factors that need to be taken into account?  Around half our audience comes from an older age demographic.  What if that cohort is asked to shield themselves for longer?  Other countries are easing lockdowns on theatre, but limiting capacities.  At Lincoln Drill Hall our fully seated capacity is 365.  What if you can operate with 50% capacity.  That loss of seating has devastating consequences on some of the artists we have booked already, making their appearance financially unviable. Certainly we couldn’t absorb a loss of 50% capacity for any length of time, if at all without significant additional government support.

In order to bounce back from this quickly, we would certainly need sales levels to return to the pre-outbreak levels almost overnight, and I’m not convinced that this is realistic. No-one has a clear idea of how public confidence will be in gathering together anyway.

Anecdotally we’re finding most people getting in touch with us are willing us to re-open as they want something to look forward to. Research carried out with audiences in America recently suggested that confidence in returning to a venue would be enhanced for most respondents by their existing trust in their local venue. This was closely followed by venues having clear commitments to social distancing measures and provision of products such as hand sanitizer within the building.

We have an amazing autumn season lined up and we’re all raring to go in getting people back into our wonderful venue, taking part in the huge range of activities that we offer.

But the key word in all of this is one we come back to time and again – clarity.  We need some hard answers soon to be provided to help all of us plan realistically for the medium term.  And it is something that there simply isn’t any of at the moment.  What we’re facing in the arts is being mirrored across hospitality, leisure, retail and other sectors.

The Government has responded really quickly to the immediate threat to business across the board that this pandemic has engendered. There is though, a seemingly justifiable call  on Government to offer additional and longer term support for hospitality, leisure and retail businesses, that this will be needed to give the wider sector a real chance.  For so many of us, the real substance we need now is how that support will translate beyond the autumn and into 2021, because the ramifications of Covid-19 won’t end when the pandemic has been brought under control. They’ll be felt for all of us for a long time to come.

Togetherness in Turbulent Times

A quarter of the way into 2020 and it’s safe to say that on 1stJanuary no-one could have predicted where we would be as a country, or indeed as a planet by the end of March.  The world has changed immeasurably and there is no real understanding of what might emerge out of it.

Even before the Covid 19 pandemic changed our lives, the arts sector was starting to prepare for major changes. Let’s Create, a new vision for the next 10 years had been published by Arts Council England. Artists and organisations were examining this and how their work could align to the new priorities of individual creativity, community led work, collaboration and continued quality.

I had spent the first three months of the year with colleagues from organisations in Lincoln exploring how a new vision for cultural delivery in the city might look, one that was much more joined up, co-ordinated and wider reaching in the range of activity it did.  It was a vision that we hoped could sustain our artistic ecology and allow it to flourish. Most importantly it would engage with and impact upon huge numbers of people in the city – more together than we reach separately.

It is a bold vision that would require real long term trust and significant investment from stakeholders already stretched, but with a pay-off that could see Lincoln as a major regional cultural hub. I’m proud of my role in the creation of this vision, it’s a really exciting opportunity. Then the true scope of the threat posed by Covid 19 became all too real and everything is now on hold as we all try and comprehend the serious nature of this virus, it’s spread and impact on our lives.

In a heartbeat, with the words ‘People should avoid going to theatres’ our world changed. We, along with the vast majority of theatres, arts centres, museums and galleries, closed our doors with immediate effect.  The announcement was made at 5pm. We had a youth theatre show planned for 7.30pm. We pulled it by 5.45pm.  that’s how quickly thing were moving.

In the two weeks hence, I’ve learned new words like ‘Furlough’ and become really familiar with programmes like Zoom as attention turned to how to protect our staff and ensure we continue to operate effectively during this period.  Attention switched in a heartbeat from artistic planning and programming to refund processes, cancellations and trying to move as many events as possible later in the year.

At Lincoln Drill Hall we’ve committed to prioritising any of the contemporary performance pieces we’ve had to postpone for re-touring next year.   Where those artists don’t have core funding then we’ve also offered to pay part of their fee to help them to meet costs that can’t be recouped.  We’ve moved the major commercial shows that we can to protect ticket sales and minimise refunds.

We’ve cancelled our programme currently until the 8 June. Subject to ongoing advice, we sincerely hope we’ll be back up and running after that.  All our advance programme beyond from that date remains on sale. We hope that once we are through this period people will want to come out and really enjoy themselves so our programme will be crucial in helping communities in coming together again to do that.

I’ve made sure that communication with our staff team, participants and audiences is crucial, especially now as we’re in the midst of lockdown.  Protecting mental health remains so important and that ability to connect with each other when we can’t see each other in person is key.  Our staff team is starting a virtual film club via our staff Facebook page and I’m going to host an online quiz night for them soon. We stay in touch via text, phone and Social Media. One of the highlights of our year is our annual summer musical. The Producers continue to rehearse the West Side Story cast online. Youth Theatre leaders are setting kids online challenges to keep them creative.  Stories from across the country show artists and organisations responding to the crisis with vigour.

Our Social Media channels are already our key way of communicating with our audiences and we’ll continue to use that method.  Like most ticket selling venues, we’ve asked customers with tickets to consider donating that ticket money to us to help us through this period. I’ve done it for tickets to shows I’d booked in the coming months. I’m completely overwhelmed with the sheer number of people who have done that and the messages of support we’ve received. It just further proves that Lincoln Drill Hall is such an important part of our community life. We can’t say thank you enough. While we remain closed, we have offered the venue to our local NHS if needed.  The venue has been used as a makeshift hospital before and is absolutely available again if needed.

At this time it is about our community however that is defined, coming together. The response from communities of artists, in continuing to create and make content available on line has been unbelievable. Just last night I spent an hour watching a gig on Facebook live by an old University friend.  I can’t wait for BAC Beatbox Academy’s Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster to broadcast on the BBC. At home, we’ve planned as a family which of the NTLive shows we want to see on You Tube when they’re broadcast.

Our stakeholders in Lincoln have rallied together.  We’ve been in regular touch with funders to ensure that cash keeps flowing into the business at a time when sales have stopped.  The City Council, Arts Council England, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation have all quickly responded to ensure that we will receive grant money quickly to help us through this period.  Along with the rest of England’s arts community we wait with baited breath to see how the Emergency support package announced by ACE might further help to support and sustain us.  That was incredible leadership shown in a testing time.  It will be controversial, it will affect many positively, but equally there’ll be lots of artists whose plans will now need to be placed on hold or changed altogether.  However, they took tough decisions and decisive action, which for many will be reassuring.

But we need to be realistic too.  Lincoln Drill Hall faced an uphill challenge to stay open before Covid 19 changed our lives. At the beginning of February we marked the first anniversary of our Be A Brick fundraising campaign to help save the venue.  We hadn’t quite made our fundraising target for the year which was £130,000.  However thanks to the incredible support of thousands of people, businesses and Trusts and Foundations we were close enough that the funds raised had bought us a further twelve months to help us put together new partnerships.  Our fundraising target remains in place for the new financial year and will now be greater.  We still need to raise that money to ensure our future into 2021.

We are confident that we can sustain ourselves through the pandemic. After that, once we re-open, we’ll all have to assess quickly what the new future holds.  I truly believe that we’ll come out of it stronger as a country, as a sector, as a venue and as individuals.

For Lincoln Drill Hall, we’ll need to revive the new vision I talked about at the start quickly and get all our partners round the table again. We’ll need to get our creative programmes back up and running with speed.  We’ll need to keep our programming varied and exciting. We’ll need to galvanise people to start booking to see performances quickly. And we’ll need to continue asking for our community to donate to support the venue. The incredible sense of togetherness that is being fostered whilst we are apart will need to thrive when we are back together.  That way, we give our communities the best chance to access the best art and culture they deserve.

Supporting Artists to Thrive.

One of my passions working here at Lincoln Drill Hall is finding ways for our venue to support the creation of new theatre and performance.  Lincoln has a different infrastructure to a lot of surrounding counties.  There isn’t a large regional producing house, such as Nottingham Playhouse or Derby Theatre for example.

The network of small arts centres based in market towns around the county is presenting really interesting professional work for their communities, but the vast majority of it is made elsewhere and bought in to the venue, often for just one night.

Over the last seven years, both on our own, and through a collaboration of five venues in receipt of funds from Arts Council England we have committed some of that money to seed fund small companies and individual artists to create new shows that will tour the county and hopefully nationally as well.

Currently, I’m delighted to say that we’re supporting the development of new work by four Lincolnshire based artists creating exciting, dynamic new theatre for audience of all ages.  Although the money we have available is limited, whenever possible we’re also offering space in the venue to develop, rehearse and try out their work, assistance that for some artists is as valuable as money. And some of that work is gaining national attention.

We’ve supported Zest Theatre in the production of their current touring show Youthquake.  The most ambitious production yet from this amazing Lincoln based company, Youthquake rehearsed and opened at the venue in October before embarking on a national tour that has taken in London, Brighton, Barnsley, Bath, Norwich and Canterbury, before heading up to the North East in the New Year.

Zest Theatre presents Youthquake

We’ll also soon be announcing a brand new collaboration with Zest for 2020 as part of a national arts response to the 25th Anniversary of the National Lottery – of which the arts is one of the good cause recipients.

With Lincolnshire One Venues, we’re supporting Georgina Jones, who has been awarded Arts Council Funding to develop a new solo show …Ish, exploring growing up as a woman in contemporary Britain. I saw an early version of the show at Departure Lounge Festival in Derby and really loved it. Finding out that Georgie is based in the county made it all the more exciting – and important – to support the show.

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We’re also supporting Barmpot Theatre, a wonderful theatre company making work for young children.  Their new production of Nature Elly, a Co-production with Little Angel Theatre in London, has received support to develop and try out the show, to provide workshops in nurseries and schools across the county and to tour Lincolnshire in autumn 2020. And we’re also supporting another Lincolnshire children’s theatre company Rhubarb as they look to develop a new outdoor piece of theatre to tour festivals and events next Summer.

And in the Spring of 2020, we’ll be providing space for Lincoln theatre maker Kieran Spiers to research his new solo production, before showcasing the work in progress in our studio later in the year.

Each of these shows is also supported by other theatres and organisations. Collaboration is key to making art and it’s so exciting to be involved with multiple other partners in getting these new productions to the stage. We’re playing a small part in helping to develop the practice of artists living and working in the county.  That’s so important as Lincolnshire grows artistically and culturally.  Retaining artistic talent here can inspire future generations of artists to believe that rural counties such as ours are viable places to make and create theatre.

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We’re also helping to raise the profile of Lincolnshire as a place where great theatre is made as well as presented. More people are hearing about us as these shows take life and tour the country. Maybe we will grow Lincolnshire’s reputation as a place to initiate touring work for other parts of the UK. It’s an on-going project, one – as I said at the start – I’m passionate about delivering.  For Lincoln Drill Hall to be even a small cog in this activity is rewarding for me as a venue director, but more importantly, essential for the continued growth of the arts in Lincolnshire.

Photos:

Youthquake – taken by Phil Crow.

Georgina Jones.

 

25 years in the Arts – Time flies when you’re having….fun?

Last week I was lucky to be asked to go and speak with a group of third year students at the University of Lincoln, about my career, Arts careers in general and the work we do here at Lincoln Drill Hall.

Preparing my presentation really got me thinking though. I suddenly realised that I graduated from University in 1994, making this my 25th Anniversary working in the theatre and arts sector. In that time, – apart from a two-year hiatus working for a Local Authority Housing Department – I’ve worked in a wide range of jobs across the board of theatre and arts roles, apart from actually performing.  I did that bit when I was a teenager and am happy to tell you about the time I played the back end of a train at a Royal Albert Hall gala night another time.  But it got me thinking about where I am now, how does that square with my ambitions whilst at University and what lied ahead.

Well, to start I suppose, it doesn’t really tally at all.  When I went to University, I wanted to be the Radio 1 Breakfast Show host.  I loved Radio growing up and had worked in both Hospital Radio and at my local BBC Radio station as a sports assistant and cinema reviewer among other things.  But there weren’t the opportunities in terms of Uni courses in Radio at that time, so I applied for Drama as it was a related field in terms of performance and also something I enjoyed.

However, through my University years my priorities changed.  The one thing my course taught me was I didn’t want to be an actor, but had less idea about what I did want to do.  University ended up being a truly formative experience for me, most of my long-term friends were made there, so my priority changed to simply not having to move home after graduation.

And that led me to the career I now have.  In order to stay in London at the time I started working for Ticketmaster, which led after a while to working in the Box Office of the Prince Of Wales Theatre in the West End.  Those three years helped me to focus on what I did want to do. I knew I wanted to work in the making of theatre, but not as an actor. So back I went to college to complete a post graduate diploma in Stage Management at The Guildford School of Acting.

I spent four years freelancing as an Assistant and Deputy Stage Manager, then following the Housing Department interlude moved to Lincolnshire and have spent that last 15 years as an Arts Officer in a Local Authority and then running a small-scale theatre company and then Lincoln Drill Hall.  As I said to the students it’s been more a series of career jumps rather than a career path.

During the Q and A at the end of the talk one student asked about career highlights. Well, I met my wife working at the Lyric in Hammersmith, had my best time working in Stage Management with the team at The Haymarket Theatre in Basingstoke and am immensely proud of the output during my time at New Perspectives.  I’m also really in awe of the team I have at Lincoln Drill Hall, who’re fighting to keep the doors open to this iconic Lincoln venue in the face of huge challenges.  I’ve worked with some famous (sort of) people over the time and will never forget my acting/ASM debut playing the title role in the play Corpse in 1999.

As I look back over the 25 years (and counting) of this so called career, yes lots of it has been fun. Not all of it, but certainly a lot of it. And even the bits that weren’t, with hindsight and time have elements that I can look back on with extreme fondness. The site of an actor dressed as the Pope stood in a doorway and informing the whole Stage Management team that we’d made him look like a complete Tw*t (without a hint of irony), whilst not much fun at the time is now, 20 years on one of my favourite memories.

And looking forward is interesting.  My current role means I’m working with very different parts of the sector than I was when I started out.  A colleague said the other day that it’d be interesting to see what would happen if people working in the subsidised arts sector had the backing to allow us to fly, rather than fight fires and honestly, that is what it feels like a lot of the time.  The current climate for the arts is precarious and has been for years.

However, I am always made right when passionate creative artists perform their work here. As I write this, Zest Theatre are preparing to premiere their new touring production of Youthquake at the end of the week. As with all their work, created with young people across the UK it’ll be vibrant, dynamic and exciting theatre on a scale that they’ve not work at before and I’m proud that we are playing a small part in the continued success of this Lincoln company.

So although we might find it a struggle at times, and certainly feel that our value is not always recognised to the extent that it should be, whilst there are audiences wanting to see the work we present and there are artists responding to our world in interesting and accessible ways then we will continue to fight to provide outlets for creativity for our community. I’ve still got some spark after 25 years.

And as for the next 25?  Well that’ll be a different story won’t it?

 

Creating our Be A Brick campaign.

At the beginning of February we launched a public fundraising campaign at Lincoln Drill Hall.  Consistent reductions to public funding for arts organisations that have affected venues and organisations across the country have also placed significant additional risk on our budgets and operation.

Our venue has been absorbing year on year reductions since 2013 and has reached a stage where the pressures on our fundraising activity to replace the gap in our income has become potentially unsustainable.  Along with my team we spent a long time putting the campaign together. Be A Brick we felt was a simple, memorable, hashtaggable campaign that could capture the imagination of our audiences and communities alike.  There were some really important factors though that we needed to consider to ensure the maximum impact from the campaign when launched.

Firstly, the tone of the campaign had to be positive, that the ask of our community was to support the ability for the organisation to thrive.  That positivity had to run throughout. We know that our principle public funders have been absorbing their own reductions and in the current economic climate their decision to continue funding at any level is welcomed. However, we needed to make clear to the public that the venue that Lincoln has loved over the years is at real risk.

Secondly, what were we asking people to give to. What would be lost if we weren’t there. There are the 300 plus performances that take place each year in the auditorium of course, but we are one of a number of venues in the city, so to one extent if we didn’t put those on, audiences could choose to go elsewhere.  But Lincoln Drill Hall has always been about so much more than just the performances.  As a professional community arts centre we have strong civic role to play in the life of the city, offering more than just shows so we chose to focus the campaign on all of the other activity we offer. Chances to take part, a safe space to enjoy yourself and make friends, outreach work we’re developing with partners in the city.  We believe that the city would start to lose its heartbeat without Lincoln Drill Hall.

Thirdly we needed to consider both the amount we were asking for and what people got for their money. We considered the socio-economic make up of Lincoln carefully and looked at the range of audiences we attract.  We felt that asking for a small amount annually would give us the best chance for a large number of people thinking it was affordable to them. £10 per year is still a big ask for some, but an amount that we felt the majority of people could respond to.  In terms of our current annual fundraising need it also sounds like a small sum when we’re looking to raise £130,000 every year, but when you consider that we sell around 50,000 tickets each year if 1 in 3 of our audience donated then we’d hit our target easily.

Lincoln Drill Hall was gifted to the city from the time of construction in 1890, so we decided to offer the chance for donors to sponsor a virtual brick, to feel a real ownership of their arts centre.  We did worry about some people turning up with hammer and chisel asking to take their brick away with them (and a couple of people have asked just that), but our ever growing virtual brick wall of donors is another testament to how we are perceived.

Finally, we need to anticipate some of the questions that people might ask when a campaign of this nature went public.  So we thought we’d create a simple film trying to make clear the realities of financing a small scale arts facility.  You can see the film and messages from a number of famous faces here.

To say we’re delighted with the initial response would be a huge understatement.  In the first two months we have raised over £15,000, well over 10% of the annual total.  We are planning a number of other activities across the year, from a fundraising variety night in the autumn, to a talent show in partnership with Lincoln’s Indian Society.  We’re also delighted that supporters of ours such as the amazing Jo Tolley are fundraising on our behalf, organising sponsored walks and charity balls.  Our wonderful technical team are planning to tackle the three peaks challenge in the summer.

And of course we continue to fundraise through other sources. We have a number of trust and foundations to whom we’ve applied for funding to help develop the sustainability of your arts centre the success of which will also help us towards our total.

We truly believe that for any city to truly thrive, the range of high class arts and culture available to residents and visitors alike is crucial and needs to be sustained, protected and given the conditions in which to thrive.  Cultural venues are a major part of that mechanism. Colleagues and supporters in other city venues are facing similar challenges that also need all of our attention to secure high class arts and entertainment.  We will continue to fight for that future. Thank you to all who’ve donated so far and to all those who will do in the future.

2019 – A Defining Year For Lincoln Drill Hall.

Just before Christmas CityX published a short blog I’d written looking at some of the highlights for Lincoln Arts Trust from 2018.  There were many, from hosting the only BBC Prom outside of London, an amazing production of Les Miserables in the summer, introducing a new Pay What You Decide programme that made all of our contemporary performance free up front with donations encouraged, to our most successful pantomime yet in Peter Pan.

However, now that the dust has settled on Christmas it’s time for our organisation to look ahead to 2019. Artistically it’s a really exciting year, mixing high quality big names such as Russell Watson, Jason Donovan, Fairport Convention, Rachel Parris, Ed Gamble and The Grimethorpe Colliery Band with exciting new theatre and performance from Vamos Theatre, Sonia Sabri, Lost In Translation Circus and Circus Xanti. Following last summer’s Les Miserables, we are looking forward to the same company, Jamie Marcus Productions, presenting CATS, once again with a cast comprising only young performers.  Our participatory work, giving people the chance to take part in the arts through youth theatres, workshops, dance classes both at Lincoln Drill Hall and other locations will continue to grow.  There’s lots to look forward to.

However, behind all that the reality of running a small charity reliant on public funding means that the financial challenges of keeping the organisation running in the way that our audiences and communities know and love is increasingly difficult.  2019 will be a crucial, future-defining year in our existence.

The Finances.

Next year we need to fundraise at least £130,000 to balance our books. If each one of the 45,000 people who come to see a show here added a donation of  just £3 to each ticket purchased, we’d smash the fundraising target for the year.

Let me explain.

We are a small venue with a capacity of 365 seats.  That means technically we have 133,225 available seats to sell if we opened every single day of the year with a performance. The average ticket price at Lincoln Drill Hall this year is £13.27.  And of that amount around 75% (quite rightly) goes to the artists and performers creating and presenting the work. We have a commitment to ensuring that across the board we offer the people of Lincoln affordable access to the arts.  The highest price we’ve sold a ticket at is £45 (Russell Watson), but we’ve had a number of free events and over 10,000 tickets each year are available for £12 or less.

So by doing a quick bits of mental arithmetic if we sold every seat, every night of the year at that average price we’d gross £1.76m from box office of which we retain around 25% or £441k. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a venue that sells out every single seat every night of the year. Last year it cost £800,000 to run our organisation, so even if we achieved total 100% sell out we’d still need to find an additional £359k to help us break even.  In reality though, with the size and types of shows we do and the fact that we do need to have some days off we actually have around 74,000 available seats this year. We’ll sell between 45 – 50,000 seats so we’ll retain around £149k from ticket sales.

The Public Funding.

Some of the gap has always been filled with public funding for which we are incredibly grateful. Arts Council England funds us through their National Portfolio. We receive around £49,000 per year to support our contemporary and risky performance programme and some of our participation work. Currently we also get an additional £8000 to deliver additional programmes of outreach work.

Our principal funder has always been the City of Lincoln Council – recognising that a thriving, varied arts and cultural offer is crucial to a modern developing city.  When I took up post in early 2013 the funding they gave was £277,000 per year with an expectation that this would rise at roughly 2% per year.  However, due to reductions in their own funding, instead it has reduced annually. Next year when we could have expected around £319,000 from them, we’ll receive £201,000,  a difference of £118,000.  Cumulatively by March 2021 (the last year of current reduction) in real terms we will have absorbed over £540,000 in funding cuts.  We’ll be looking to fill an annual gap of at least £140,000 every single year.  For a small charity that is simply not sustainable.

So what are we doing?

We’ve overhauled our ticketing and seating system to maximise the income we think is realistic from ticket sales. It’s not realistic to simply double or triple our ticket prices across the board, as audiences couldn’t afford it and we’d lose one of our charitable aims regarding affordability.  We do believe that we could add between £20-£30,000 each year.

We’re looking at new partnerships with organisations in the city that we can work with to open up new streams of revenue.

We’re fundraising. Philanthropy to arts causes, I was recently told, stands at about 1% of all charitable giving – and from that about 60% goes to 10 large organisations. So it is difficult, but my team and I are looking to constantly increase the fundraising that we do. However, even without the reductions to our public funding, we needed to fundraise at least £30,000 each year to break even.  As mentioned above, next year that figure is £130,000 minimum.

We’re ensuring that we’re valuable.  Follow this link to hear some stories about why people love Lincoln Drill Hall.

Providing opportunities for everyone to have a safe welcoming haven in which to enjoy engaging with the arts is key to our work.

Working out in the community will become more of a focus.  Already we’ve developed a relationship with the YMCA delivering youth theatre, Arts Award sessions and other opportunities for young people using their facilities in Lincoln to engage with the arts. Working with Lincoln’s Cultural and Arts Partnership we are looking for opportunities to bring new arts projects to communities across the city, including the continuation of the Arts Council Funded project, Mansions Of The Future.

We’re not sitting still, and haven’t been for the last 6 years as my team and I fight every day to preserve this amazing facility for Lincoln, but we need the support of the people of our city like never before.

What you can do?

There are loads of ways you can help. Buying more tickets (season tickets are available) and  encouraging friends and family to try us out. If you become  a friend or a member every pound you give helps us reach our target. If you introduce us to a friend or to your business you’re helping us to grow our family of supporters.

However, crucially and at its simplest, we’re asking our supporters to donate in addition to buying tickets.  One way of doing this is so simple and is to add a donation to your booking. As mentioned above, if each one of the 45,000 people who come to see a show here added just £3 to each ticket purchased, we’d smash the fundraising target for the year.  We’re also developing specific fundraising campaigns, following on from the Big Give Christmas Challenge, that gives us all the chance to ensure that this beautiful space remains an essential part of Lincoln’s future.

Work with us.

My trustees, staff and I will continue to fight for our organisation, to ensure that Lincoln Drill Hall thrives and really is Your Arts Centre in the city. Without this significant change though, Lincoln Arts Trust and therefore the Drill Hall in 2020 may be a very different organisation than the one we have now. I for one think that would be a real loss to our wonderful city.

Is Panto Our Most ‘Arts Council’ Show Of The Year?

A couple of weeks ago a post popped up on my Facebook page imploring artists and arts professionals not to turn their noses up at pantomime as for hundreds of thousands of kids it can be a magical experience that will make them theatre lovers for life.

It got me thinking about our own Christmas offer at Lincoln Drill Hall.  This year we’re presenting our 12th pantomime in association with  producer Jamie Marcus Productions and it’s Peter Pan.  Watching one of the early schools performances this week I was once again mesmerised by how our auditorium had been transformed  for the Christmas period as we welcome around 14000 people through the doors.  My technical team have not so much gone the extra mile as run several marathons to ensure that this year’s show continues to deliver amazing quality for the widest audience.

Panto cast 2

In fact, this then got me thinking about how pantomime sits within the overall programming of a venue such as ours. Our artistic offer is led by high quality popular culture. However we remain firmly committed to offering Lincoln audiences the widest breadth of arts and entertainment so we offer a smaller programme of contemporary performance that forms part of our agreement for funding with Arts Council England.

panto cast 3

And as I watched the show this week I began to think that there is a strong argument that our pantomime delivers more closely against Arts Council England goals than a lot of the work that we present each year that I’d say was directly funded by our grant.

For example, Goal 1 for ACE is that excellence in the arts is thriving and celebrated.  Panto does that. The production values and investment therein is huge. The effects, calibre of our cast, sets and technical elements are all of the very highest quality. Goal 2 is about reach, Great Art For Everyone. Well panto attracts by far the widest demographic of audience from across the city and beyond and from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. We’ve welcomed school groups from rural villages and parts of our city that fall well within the highest areas of deprivation in the country and offered them an arts experience that will stay with them. As one parent mentioned to me the other day, ‘the kids were talking about the BSL interpretation all through the afternoon and the next day’.

Panto cast

And that leads on to the Creative Case for Diversity.  Panto affords us the opportunity to offer shows that we can’t regularly in other parts of the season with one off performances.  This year we have 3 signed performances, a relaxed and autism friendly performance and are in discussions about audio description for next year.  But more than that, this year we’ve cast a deaf actress in the role of Tinker Bell.  This isn’t a move to tick a box, but a well thought out piece of casting. Tinker Bell historically communicates only through the ringing of bells, so to add signing to that ‘silent’ part seems absolutely natural.  Phillipa Russell is amazing in the role. She signs her lines, Pan and other cast members sign back and the audience have opportunities to learn bits of sign language too.  To see 300 kids signing ‘I believe in Fairies’ is a really moving moment to witness.

Tink and Pan

Goal 5 for ACE is achieved as panto engages with more children and young people than anything else we present and it is also a key production in helping to deliver resilience as it contributes the single biggest amount of earned ticket income to our budget each year.

I quite often get asked about commercial work and quality work with a misguided assumption that the two are mutually exclusive. They’re absolutely not and I hope that Lincoln Drill Hall will always seek to present the widest range of work for the people of our city. And I’m not for a moment suggesting that Arts Council directly subsidises our panto. But for me, our annual Christmas extravaganza delivers really closely to all of the outcomes that Arts Council aims to achieve. So before anyone dismisses this oldest of art forms as outdated, cheap or an irrelevance, why not check where your nearest panto is and go and have a look. My instinct is you’ll actually have a pretty amazing time and certainly one you’ll remember.

Building our Audiences – Pay What You Decide

Here at Lincoln Drill Hall we’ve reached the end of our first Pay What You Decide season of work.  As the dust has settled and the 6 productions included have carried on their tours across the UK I’ve had a moment to sit and analyse the impact of our approach. Has it achieved what we hoped? Did we extend our audience reach? Is it a strategy worth persevering with?

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Oddly Moving: He Ain’t Heavy

The initial answer is quite simply yes.  Comparing this season of 6 shows to a similar season of 6 earlier in the year has seen some real growth.  In the Spring/Summer season we sold 233 tickets in total with audience numbers ranging from 19 to 77.  We made £1580 in sales for those tickets.

In this season of Pay What You Decide we ‘sold’ 433 tickets to the work and took donations totalling over £1700.00 achieving both of my main aims for taking this approach – more people seeing the work and maintaining the same level of income from donations as we had through traditional ticket sales. This season the work took place in a range of spaces, from our main auditorium to the Room Upstairs and in our café.  We reached over 50% of capacity, a huge leap from previous numbers.

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Dante or Die: User Not Found. Image Justin Jones.

That is a huge boost for us, but there were other positives too.  The breadth of audiences increased, with more students from Lincoln College, The University of Lincoln Dance and Drama courses and local schools engaging with the work.  We know that there were a small number of people who booked for the entire season of work, and I know from talking with some of them that they would have maybe chosen only one or perhaps two shows to go to had traditional ticket pricing been in place, because 6 shows at £12-£14 each wouldn’t have been affordable.

Through the season we continued to strengthen our new partnership working with the YMCA at the Showroom.  One of the visiting companies undertook a Circus Workshop at their venue and the YMCA brought a group of young people to see a show exploring LGBT+ people navigating the asylum system. We also presented some of the work with Compassionate Lincoln, again making clear the remit that I feel the venue has to community engagement and development.

Maison Foo_Thing Mislaid

Maison Foo: A Thing Mislaid

For me Pay What You Decide is about bridging a gap.  By which I mean a gap in what is on offer to audiences in the city.  We are asking audiences to take big artistic leaps, to have faith and trust us when we place value in the contemporary performance we present here.  We are asking them not to stay at home in front of the telly, or go and see a West End Musical that will be comfortable and familiar.  We’re asking them to come on a journey to explore our society, politics, the world in which  we live.

So as a programmer I’m placing a value on the passion and resources the artists are putting into making that work, for instance ensuring that fees are paid to those artists.  There have been interesting conversations about whether by Paying What You Decide, audiences could be devaluing the work if they donate small amounts.  I don’t agree.  I think the art is devalued if the effort the artist has put into creating it, isn’t performed in front of more than 15-20 people.  The experience for the show, the performers and the audience is devalued. Audience are already making a value call on a show with a £14 ticket by choosing not to come at all.

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White Slate Theatre: Re:Production.

A bigger audience, donating at the end creates a better experience for all involved, thereby increasing the value of the art and the experience. Semantically you could call it different things; some use Pay What You Want – which I don’t think is really much different, or Pay What You Can Afford – which perhaps could be seen as stigmatising to those who perhaps can’t afford much.  The wording can be played about with.

The crunch is though, that around 200 more people have experienced this work than probably would have done if they’d had to pay up front.  That alone allows us to start building larger audiences for contemporary work, which in turn ensures that artists creating the work feel value.

And that’s why we’ll continue this strategy into Spring and Summer 2019.  Between February and June there’ll be a further 8 productions presented as Pay What You Decide.  Again there’s a real mix, from Mask Theatre to Indian Dance, from family circus to work exploring possible outcomes of a post Brexit world.  All the details are on our website www.lincolndrillhall.com and tickets are available now.

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Kev Fegan: Bess The Commoner Queen. March 2019.

Pay What You Decide – A Gamble or Good Sense?

This season at Lincoln Drill Hall we’ve launched our first formal season of Pay What You Decide shows.  6 productions in our autumn programme – all really high quality interesting contemporary performances – have tickets that up front are free.  We’re asking our audience to trust us, try one or more of these performances and only pay us what they think the show is worth once they’ve seen it.

It’s a model used by a number of arts centres already.  The Arc in Stockton though was the first to apply the strategy to whole season of work, with results that have seen audiences and revenues grow.

Local press in the city picked up on this initiative with verve and I found myself doing three different interviews with our local BBC station and an interview with the main commercial station in the city too.  One thing they all asked me was, Isn’t this a bit of a gamble?  What happens if no-one leaves any money?

The answer to this question is always the same.  Any time a venue like ours books a contemporary theatre show we are in effect taking a gamble.  We might know the work or the artist we’re booking, and we can ask audiences to trust us, but this contemporary work, often devised, often combining multiple art forms, with unfamiliar titles and with actors audiences haven’t immediately heard of is a risk and quite honestly, in Lincoln for many years has struggled to draw large audiences.

There are of course exceptions to this. The Damned United from Red Ladder Theatre for example sold 90% capacity earlier this year, drawing on a huge resurgence in football in the city over the last two years alongside our proximity to Nottingham meaning that there re a good number of Nottingham Forest fans for whom Brian Clough remains a hero.  But we continue to seek audiences for this work, supported in part by our NPO funding from Arts Council England.

PAYD_Autumn2018_SM

 

But the gamble is in taking the work, not in encouraging larger audiences to attend by removing the financial barrier for them up front.  For me it’s about widening the audience base.  We have very little financial return on this work, so I’d rather look to have more people seeing the work and engaging with us as a venue,  than persevere with fixed ticket prices that possibly make up the minds of many potential audiences not to book.

And the work is great.  Three of the shows are coming on the back of strong runs at the Edinburgh Festival, garnering award nominations and a slew of 4 and 5 star reviews.  They cover a wide range of subject matter – from starting a family to seeking asylum to considering our on line identity.  They embrace new technologies – two are introducing new captioning technology within their work.

Early signs are good. When comparing these six shows to six in the first half of our season that between then sold 223 tickets with audiences for some around the 19 – 20 mark.  5 of the 6 shows this season are already above that, and the advance ‘sales’ for the opening performance taking place today (19 Sep) have reached 80.

Generally I believe that for most work price isn’t the major deciding factor in someone’s choice – especially when the production is familiar.  However, there is a growing base of evidence that by gaining the trust of your audience you’ll grow that audience and keep them coming back.

So yes, Pay What You Decide may be a gamble, but if it is, we’re saying to our audience, we’re taking that gamble so you don’t have to. We believe it’ll be worth it in the long run.