[Part of Meet The Humans, a series of blogs investigating how artists and programmers in the theatre industry can talk to each other without anyone screaming or crying. Supported by Unlimited.]
What Her Job is
Live Art Programme Manager, Dartington Arts
What She Programmes
Live Art (her definition of this is “all art that is live”, including theatre, music, spoken word, etc) that can “tackle some of today’s very real challenges and explore the ‘big’ questions in an imaginative, innovative and transformative way.” (No current programming policy webpage, but hopefully one is in the works).
How She Programmes
Curated programme of touring shows and residencies by artists she feels meet the above criteria best.
When She Programmes
9-12 months in advance. No shows in summer.
Do’s and don’ts of talking to Becca
- Try to trade off your track record instead of focusing on the show you’re touring. “I don’t care how established you are.”
- Send videos if she can’t make your shows
- Be visual – send pictures or information that really demonstrate how the show looks on stage
- Pitch a show that isn’t made yet if you want to, but make sure it meets the above criteria.
Fun Facts About Becca
She’s doing a sculpture course, and wants to move to Berlin.
“It’s a good show, but we just couldn’t get an audience in for it”. This is the perpetual cry of the programmer. Or at least, it’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot of times in response both to any and all of my touring shows, and many other artists’. This feels deeply frustrating at times on a political level – the public funding intended to allow organisations to take risks seems to stop short before it reaches the artist – the theatre gets a guaranteed income as a recipient of NPO or local authority funding, but the artist must live or die by the market. Socialism for the theatre building, capitalism for the theatre maker.
“But Jack”, says the straw-man I have constructed to try and give this article a false sense of balance. “Why should a venue be responsible for the fact that people don’t like your weird shit? They have financial pressures too. You are the supplier, and if the product was more marketable, and not feature-film-length monologues investigating town planning or grime musicals about the textile industry the 1810s, it would fly off the shelves and the vendors would clamour for it.”
Whether you agree with my hay-based colleague or not, there’s an assumption in his statement that underpins a lot of thought in the small-scale theatre world. Programmers are usually curatorial in their role. This usually means that, like a séance leader or shaman, they channel the thoughts of their potential audience members, their tastes, their interests, their reaction to a piece of art, and the audiences speak through them to give their pre-emptive verdict on the show you’re pitching. Sometimes this voodoo mastery is backed up by genuine audience data, sometimes by anecdotal experience, sometimes by programmers deploying their personal tastes with the confidence that enough people out there will share them. But either way, the logic dictates that this gauntlet of audience astral-projection must be run before the show can meet the public.
But at Dartington Hall, something quite different is happening. In a remote village in south Devon, on the grounds of a country estate, in a repurposed college building, someone is programming weird shit. Belgian game-theatre about banking elites. Seances inside shipping containers. Underwater contemporary dance. Panto at Christmas? Fuck off, get some of this epic fairytale bloodbath with unabashed bestiality in it. Becca is finding the most provocative, challenging stuff she can. And it is selling out. Between November and January, 4000 people have been through their doors to see stuff.
I can’t get my head around how exactly this is happening, and neither, it seems to a degree, can Becca. When I ask her what the secret is, she replies “I have no idea”. Clearly the unique situation of the programme plays a role. It’s funded entirely by the Dartington Hall Trust, meaning some of the constraints of public funding are absent. Becca knows this may not last forever: “In the long term, I’m going to have to prove that the whole thing can break even [on ticket sales or other funding], but at the moment we’re in a real halcyon time”. There’s also clearly something gained from the legacy of Dartington College, a centre of body-painted performance-art weirdness founded in the sixties and sadly closed in 2008. But I’m still in awe as to how much these numbers buck the apparent trend of my industry. I ask her if there’s any audience development tricks she’s using to drum up trade that she could pass on. Her advice? “Just do it, and tell people about it”. Surely it can’t be that simple?
Perhaps it could. Perhaps we’re framing our thought about audiences wrong. What if we viewed attracting audiences less as a perpetual balancing act between high art and the lowest common denominator, between what “we” like and what “they” like? What if instead we view it as our job, our mission, to provoke, to challenge, even to be controversial? What if we provided the weird, and let the market handle the normal? That way, whatever the box office sales, a civic function would be served, conversations would be had. Public funds would be explicitly supporting a non-commercial kind of art, rather than commercially unviable organisations. Is this idea naïve? In one place at least, it seems to be working. And not in north London, in fucking Totnes.
Becca has further radical plans in terms of audiences. She’s going to do the unthinkable and ask them what they want. A big town hall meeting is planned for April with artists, staff, stakeholders and the public to figure out what they should do next. This concept really gets my inner anarchist going. What if every major theatre in the country did this at least once a year, and was bound by its results? What would their programmes look like? They might have even more panto and cover bands and less weird shit than before. But if we learned anything from recent times, it’s that democracy throws up some unexpected results.