10 Years of ThEAtre Bristol
DocumenTEd by Mr G Johnson
For the better part of the past YEar, I've spent a lot of time looking into the story Theatre Bristol. This is a condensed version of that story, and YOu can find the rest of it on wWw.theatrebristol.net.
All content @ 2015 Graham Johnson
BegInNIngs Theatre Bristol didnâ€™t start out as what it is now. It grew from an Arts Council initiative to promote theatre in the regions. In the south west, the decision was made not to take a top down approach. Instead, funding was given to various localities to take their own action.
Bristol was one of these localities.
The first thing that needed doing was simply making the sector visible to itself. That said, it became clear pretty early in the process: There were a lot of people to make visible.
A co-ordinator was appointed (Seth Honnor, to be precise). The way he decided to proceed was to create a website to serve as a user-generated audit of Bristol's theatre scene.
Thus wWw.theatrebristol.net was born
This seems like a good point to talk about
WhAt does Theatre BristoL Do?
In essencE, Theatre Bristol is a petri dish. Its team create the conditions for theatre to happen in Bristol. Whether that theatre takes the form of performance, live art, circus, street theatre, the old familiar stage or something else entirely.
They've also been called a piece of software everyone uses. And it's hard to sum it up better than that. Besides the original aim of making the sector visible to itself with the user-genErated website, they ofFEr advice, they comMISsion and produce new work, they inspire people, they run events, they develop national and international exchange opPOrtunities, and they figure out whole new ways of working.
Unfortunately, or possibly fortunately, being the spare brain for a city's theatrical sector doesn't get you noticed.
Throughout all of Theatre Bristol's work, they've maintained a level of invisibILity. That is to say, you may well have experienced work that wouldn't have existed without Theatre Bristol, and you might have no idea. It comes with the territory: They aren't a venue, or a funder or anything like that. They just exist to help the people who make and do*.
* Writers, circus artists, puppeteers, live art artists, producers, directors, designers, technicians, funders, stage managers, musicians, composers, thinkers, administrators, bookkeepers, fundraisers, critics, enthusiasts, supporters... everyone who's interested is welcome
That's not to say their work has gone entirely unrecognised. Besides the gratitude of the people they help in Bristol's performing arts world, they have been acknowledged on a larger scale.
In 2012, Theatre Bristol secured 3 year funding from the Arts Council as a
(or NPO for short)
This was a major moment in their history. For the first time, they had financial stability and grounding to support them through long term projects and initiatives, such as the Company Producer role, residency programmes and long term commissions. This isn't something they can take for granted though. To hold on to that funding and to use it to make a difference, it's essential to listen to artists and adapt to their needs.
a k al
OpEn Space u bo
ho s We If you're not familiar with it, Open Space is a method used all over the world to get positive results from discuSsing sensitive matters. A key aspect of how it works and differs from conventional debate is that the agenda is set by all the participants.
Theatre Bristol hold open space meetings in venues around the city, and theY caLl them
They exist as a regular space where people interested in theatre in Bristol can come and say what theY're up to (as well as what they're not up to but should be). They're free for alL interEsted in attending.
I was talking to Jan Winter (former C.E.O. of Circomedia and Theatre Bristol board member), she recalled something from an open space hosted by Circomedia. There was a lot of uproar in the sector over events at the Bristol Old Vic, and concern over what the future held. One attendee of the open space made this very clear when the opportunity to propose topics came up.
'We're not herE To talk about TheatRe, wE're here to talk about Bristol Old Vic!!!' Fortunately, the man running the space was able to take this in his stride, and whilst operating within the open space princIPles, maintained that actually quite a lot of people were there to talk about theatre thank you very much.
Creating conditions for discussion, support and awareness is one thing. Or even a few things. But it's not all Theatre Bristol do. Since 2009, Theatre Bristol has commissioned and produced work with Mayfest, Bristol City Council for The Bristol Do, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol Old Vic, and Temple Quarter. That's quite a lot of work. We're just going to take a glance at some of that work.
In 2009 Theatre Bristol and Bristol Old Vic worked together to commission 5 live performance projects from Bristol artists to appear in Bristol Old Vic's programme in 2009/2010. There was an overwhelming response with over 100 applications, the selected artists were: The Tragic and DisturbingTale of Little Lupin by Luci Gorell Barnes Buzzard by Timothy X Atack White Caps by Champloo Make Better Please by Uninvited Guests Pedestrian by Tom Wainwright Most of them went on to tour nationally and internationalLY.
Since 2011, Theatre Bristol has worked on several commissions with Mayfest. The first in 2012 was called Save Me. For the duration of Mayfest, Search Party positioned themselves up to 500 metres apart and enacted a semaphore soap opera for 2 hours a day, where passers by helped form the story. It's been programmed both nationally and internationally since. 2012 saw Made Up, created by Byron Vincent and Molly Naylor. Byron and MolLY wrote and performed bespoke stories for people who ordered them. They spent Mayfest working for the people of Bristol.
2013's commission was Hook, Skip, Repeat by Jeremiah Krage and Heidi Dorschler. Passers by were invited to help crochet enormous, intricate webs which were installed around Bristol's buildings and green spaces. Since becoming an NPO, Theatre Bristol has been able to look at longer term commissions. This time the selected artist, Nikesh Shukla took residency at Mayfest 2014, featuring on Mayfest Radio. His commission, Salt In The Sugar Jar took place during Mayfest 2015.
2016's commission has been selected, and will see Selina Thompson create salt.
In 2010 and 2011, Theatre Bristol teamed up with Tobacco Factory Theatres to put together S.I.T.E., a studio residency programme for 4 artists/companies. Aimed this time at mid career artists who had 3 professionally produced shows under their belts, the residency invited them to make a new show. All kinds of performance work was welcome, leading to the selection of: Ed Patrick: Kid Carpet and the Noisy Animals Toby Hulse & Vicky Andrews: My Secret Garden Dancing Brick: Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice Full Beam Visual Theatre: M Butterfly The idea was to provide the space, ideas, time and expertise to make their shows happen (It's in the name, y'know) and led to some truly innovative and inspirational theatre. Kid Carpet and the Noisy Animals and My Secret Garden both went on to tour, again produced by Theatre Bristol.
One of the projects Theatre Bristol produced but did not commission was Once Upon A Time by Agnieszka Blonska. Thoughtful and passionate, it used the bodies of 2 dancers and a trapeze artist, all over 65, to take a look at the passing of time, to celebrate and challenge our relationship with aging. With a particular stigma around age in the performing arts, Blonska sought to question this with the performers' stories of their own lives.
Theatre Bristol aren't just a law unto themselves. They are governed by a Board of Directors. This doesn't mean there are people telling them what to do: far from it. But it means there are people who will ask the hard questions. Why is Theatre Bristol doing what it's doing? Who is it for? Is it financially secure? Does it have the support it needs? They're a vital part of Theatre Bristol's structure, and allow it to function with perspective.
After working on Once Upon A Time with Theatre Bristol as a creative consultant, Jo Hunter was flattered to be invited to the Board. Having that intimate insight reinforced her image of the organisation's existence as an invisible team, who carefully consider their work rather than charge into any decision.
A key part of Theatre Bristol's practice is the Artist Support programme. It's another thing that's hard to narrow down what it is. Simon Day, the Artist Support Producer tried though. A mentor? A critical friend? A counsellor? A sounding board? They're definitely an ally.
That said, it can be pretty intimidating for the artist. They won't always know what to expect from the meeting, so there can be excitement, curiosity, even worry.
They always maintain an objective stance on projects they are involved in. And that's what makes Theatre Bristol different.
In the words of one artist, he went into the meeting room with a spaghetti brain, which Simon was able to sort out.
Once you've got your spaghetti brain sorted out, things do tend to get a bit easier.
Sometimes sorting that spaghetti out is easy. A matter of asking the right questions. For example, 'You have this plan, it seems good, What's stopping you?
There's a real chanCE the answer is 'Nothing.'
In 2012, Theatre Bristol hired Mel Scaffold as its Company Producer. This was an experimental role and is kind of the next stage of Artist Support. It cuts out the limbo stage after companies have gained success, touring, getting commissions and funding, but don't yet have the funding structure to hire a producer. That's where Mel steps in.
It may seem odd to have someone producing many companies in this way, but it really works. At the end of the day, it's all about the people, and whether they're right for each other. The right question isn't 'can they do the producing?', it's 'are they a person you could sit down and have a drink with?'
A pretty good philosophY for life all round, I'd say.
you've , e l p m For exa
Action Hero is the collaboration between Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse.
They've been around for about 9 years now, making performance art and theatre, touring across 5 continents. They've worked with Theatre Bristol a lot, and are just one of the companies currently supported by Mel. They learn a lot from Theatre Bristol, and vice versa.
Throughout the years, Theatre Bristol has had many homes. It's been hosted by various organisations, including Circomedia, Bristol Old Vic and Tobacco Factory Theatres, and at other times was sort of homeless. This occasionally led to confusion over whether or not Theatre Bristol was pairt of the host organisation.
Situated on York Road in Bedminster, It was pretty hard for me to imagine Theatre Bristol being based anywhere else when I realised they hadn't always been there. My imagination can be a bit limITED though, so maybe that one's on me. Bursting with energy, it's a great enviroNment for artists To come in for a support meeting, for Theatre Bristol to discusS how to help the sector, and for them to do it. It helps that other companies are in the building too. No more lonely days when nobody's around to talk to. That gets old pretty fast.
As part of the Creative Employment Programme, Theatre Bristol offer an internship as an arts assistant, primarily working with Sarah Kingswell, the General Manager of Theatre Bristol, assisting with administration tasks, event co-ordination, fiNance, alongside helping to run the website. When they're not doing that, they're assisting the producers with their projects and artists. Or playing with Betty the office dog.
The Creative Employment internships all have some key requirements in common: applicants must be 18-24, and registered as unemployed.,
They then last 6 months: a perfect springboard into the realm of the professional arts world.
ith w t ou g n i y out a b l a p ings alk h t t o f g o d t n e i e k n a ill Spe t s e w time,
There is one phrase that's stuck in my mind since I started attempting to document the past 10 years of an organisation that almost defies description. It's echoed over and over in my mind since I heard it, and I kept asking everyone I interviewed what they thought of it.
I'm not sure what had me so intruiged. The idea of an organisation that actively tries not to exist, the pure altruism there was bewitching. But I think the question I was asking people was the same question that kept me so very interested: The answer for me, talking to all these people with their stories of these invisible heroes of the sector, was a resounding no. The answers from the people I spoke to were generally a lot more considered and intelligent, but they tended to go to the same place.
''Can you see a Bristol that doesn't neEd Theatre Bristol?'' Bristol's theatre sector is evolving, and that isn't going to stop. While it may have grown from a stroppy teenager into an amazing adult, it will continue to need help. It may not always be called Theatre Bristol, and it may not look like it does now, but there will always be a need for some kind of organisation to foster the conditions for theatre in this city.
The way Theatre Bristol works is changing too. Simon Day, the Artist Support Producer has been working on how the artist support programme will function when he steps down later this year (it may well have happened by the time you read this)
Rather than hire a single new producer to fill the role, instead it will be split over 6 artists over 3 years. These Artist Support Associates will come from different disciplines and backgrounds to truly represent the sector as it is now.
The idea of this is that it will start the growth of a more self-sufficient sector. With the artist support coming from the artists, ThEre may come a time when the support will always come from within. Maybe one day, it might even mean Theatre Bristol isn't neEded anymore.
One thing is certain. Theatre Bristol will continue to be an organisation with a beating, human heart. The kind of organisation that goes for Christmas walks rather than Christmas meals. The kind of organisation that understands people and how to help them. The people who helped me dig up all these stories were:
Sarah Kingswell, General Manager
Tanuja AmarasuriyA, Co-director
Katie KeelEr, Co-director
Mel Scaffold, Company Producer
Simon Day Producer (Artist Support)
And let me tell you, theY're amazing people. And lovely. Don't forget lovelY.
While I'm thanking and acknowledging people, I must mention Jan Winter, Gemma Paintin and Jo Hunter for being so patient with me in our phone interviews. I'd definitely be leaving out important information if I didn't thank Rosanna Cook and Aiden Strickland, the Arts AssiSTants at Theatre Bristol over the time I've worked on this project. I think the Arts Council, the original Steering Group and mostly Seth Honnor deserve a hearty round of applause for bringing Theatre Bristol into being. And to keep to an old cliche, thank you for reading. It's time for my curtain call. I've been Mr G Johnson, and you can find me at www.MrGJohnson.com Ten years is a lot to sum up, so I've had to keep most topics quite brief. For more in depth information on an awful lot of the subjects in this book, www.theatrebristol.net should satisfy your thirst for knowledge.