It’s a Wonderful Life is currently touring village halls in England and Wales until 1 February 2015. With just over a week to go, Hilary Fraser, promoter at Swallowfield Parish Hall, has written us a blog about about her love for the theatre, the role of a promoter and how It’s a Wonderful Life was received in Swallowfield. For more information on the tour and booking tickets for the show visit It’s a Wonderful Life.
My interest in theatre began many years ago at school. I was a keen amateur performer, and continued to act with the drama society at university, and after that with a small experimental theatre group. I was lucky enough to live near Stratford-upon-Avon for several years, and saw some memorable performances there from such greats as Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Ian Richardson. In a way, the RSC was my ‘local’ – I began by standing at the back of the stalls, then graduated to a seat in the ‘gods’. Not everyone is fortunate enough to live near a world-class theatre, though, nor can everyone afford to go, despite efforts to make cheaper tickets available.
But there is another way of making great theatre available to people who can’t easily get to the RSC or the National, and this is where touring theatre comes in. In our village we are fortunate enough to have a lovely hall with a stage, and some excellent facilities. A couple of years ago, our Parish Council became concerned at the costs of the upkeep of the hall to maintain its value as a community facility. A meeting was held with local people to generate ideas for raising income. My contribution was to offer to book and organise visits by professional performers. Knowing nothing about how this might be done, I first of all got some of my local friends onside, then approached the Parish Council to see whether they would be prepared to support such a venture. To do them credit, they were extremely supportive, and agreed to underwrite our effort as a non-profit-making community venture, thus relieving us of the worry of personal financial losses.
The next step was to trawl the internet looking for suitable shows. Though there are sites which list theatre groups and other performers who will play small venues, it can be quite a challenge to find the right show for your particular circumstances, and making contact with and building a relationship with a reliably good performer or group becomes very important. Luckily I happened to come across Third Party Productions, in the person of Nicholas Collett, who was our first booking. His one-man show, ‘Spitfire Solo’ was perfect for our needs. He is coming back to Swallowfield in April with his new show about Lord Nelson. Our other piece of luck was to be quite close to Farnham, and the company from the Maltings has quickly established itself as a favourite here.
Our village is one of three small communities in Swallowfield Parish, which is on the Berkshire-Hampshire border. Although big housing developments are planned for the wider area, the parish is still quite rural, and the sense of a village community is strong, with a variety of activities on offer, mainly organised by local people. Many of our loyal audience members are elderly, albeit still active, and we feel that they appreciate the opportunity to see good theatre without having to make the journey into a larger town or even London. We can offer tickets at a very reasonable price, and our evenings are always very sociable as well as entertaining.
My job is to source shows, negotiate with the performers, book the hall and organise publicity. Of course I don’t do this on my own! Without a small but effective team of people doing all the essential jobs, such as leafleting, emailing contacts and encouraging friends to buy tickets, managing the bar and clearing up afterwards, it wouldn’t be possible to bring shows to our village. It is genuinely a community effort. I’m also very pleased to report that we haven’t cost the Parish Council a penny – in fact we have contributed towards keeping our hall running with a small surplus overall.
Funding cuts over several years have made life very difficult for people who work in the arts, particularly for smaller regional theatres. Touring companies also struggle to keep going if vital sources of funding suddenly dry up. I feel that rural touring can offer a way for professionals to develop new work, whilst giving people who might not usually think of going to the theatre the chance to experience a live performance in their own backyard. It can be gruelling to be constantly on the move – but I hope performers get a sense of satisfaction when they really connect with an audience in often very intimate performance spaces. Perhaps there might even be a feeling of connection with travelling theatre as it used to be – rough and ready, and something of a challenge!
Our last show, just before Christmas, was Farnham Maltings’ It’s a Wonderful Life. I can say with absolute honesty that it was a triumph. The audience was seated around the set built on the floor of the hall, rather than on the stage, and they loved being part of the show. The quality of the acting shone through the many quick-fire costume and character changes, and the pace never let up. I felt we were very lucky to have the chance to experience a really memorable evening of theatre. There was a standing ovation at the end, and so many people have said how much they enjoyed it – it does make it all worthwhile to know that you’ve been instrumental in providing pleasure to so many of your neighbours. We look forward to welcoming Farnham Maltings back to Swallowfield in the future.