A Nation’s Theatre Debate: ‘I liked it but I couldn’t book it’ – by Thomas Thomasson

Following on from the latest A Nation’s Theatre live debate (held here last week), guest writer Thomas Thomasson shares the key points of the discussion in his first blog for Farnham Maltings.

Thomas is a freelance performer, previously working with The Graeae Theatre Company and StopGap Dance Company. He is a newly appointed associate artist for the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. He is currently developing his first play Tent  in collaboration with Helen Bendell from StopGap.

‘I liked it but I couldn’t book it’ – an afternoon conversation about the future of contemporary theatre in rural England was held at Farnham Maltings on 03 March, presented by Battersea Arts Centre and the Guardian.

This work may not include radishes (or tractors)

If you were to wake up tomorrow as the producer of a great new rural show: Seven sonnets in six and a half supermarkets (yes, I made the title up), what would you need to consider to ensure that your excellent production continues to be seen? Last week’s conversation held at Farnham Maltings offered a host of valuable questions for producers, directors, artists and promoters alike. These questions all stemmed from a central one:

How can we ensure that the very best theatre is being made and shown across the country?

The importance of ensuring that rural theatre can flourish was heightened by the following statistics offered in the opening minutes of the discussion:

17.6% of the UK population live in rural locations

23.4% of the UK are living in a local authority area defined as predominantly rural

Among many others, key discussions centred around the quality of work and what we mean by ‘quality’. How do we encourage ‘enablers ‘ within a community to assist with the promotion of work? What is the significance of the relationship between a company and its audience? As a freelance performing artist, I feel drawn to contribute to another set of questions asked: W

Why are we making the work?

For the idea? For the audience? For the venue? Something that has always strongly driven my own creativity is an emotional connection to the idea, whether it is a passion for a particular message within a  piece of work, or simply a love of the freedom of improvisation when developing a character. I feel there is a lot to be said for investment in character: as I believe this enhances both the company’s and the audience’s connection to the work.

There were various opinions expressed in the conference on the importance of challenging and inspiring those watching our performances. I would also maintain this: offering the audience a chance to see characters that they can really connect to helps inspire personal reflection and change. The audience can then leave the play feeling both entertained and empowered to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others.  In rural settings this may often include the friends and neighbours that audience members are watching the play with at the time; as it was highlighted in the discussion that people often attend such shows to be amongst the local community.

Regarding venues, given the increasing ingenuity of pieces being developed it is certainly worth asking how theatre makers might be able to adapt performances to suit varying locations. Can we distil a performance down to its essential elements? Would this affect the quality? For example, if I were to pen a comedy that radically re-examines the radish, do I necessarily need to stage this in a market or in a village hall? Could my setting for the play be as bold as my aforementioned vegetables? Personally, I am all for supporting a willingness to adapt, to change, and to reinvent something. I believe that change promotes personal growth, and that in many ways life encourages us to let go and be brave as we move into new experiences.

So no matter what our role in theatre, or what production we are making, I would offer that we continue finding opportunities to grow, to challenge, to enquire and to build. In doing so, we forge new relationships, new audiences and new ideas on what to write, on when or where, and how to stage things as we move forward with our ideas. Our collective determination to do this will continue to ensure that the work that really needs to be seen will be given an audience sooner or later.

Spoiler alert: this work may not include radishes (or tractors, as writer and conference panellist, Kevin Dyer, writer of The Iranian Feast pointed out).

Thomas Thomasson.

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