Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Not Against Theatres

Yesterday I was on the phone to someone talking about BABYLON, a new show we're making. The person on the other end of the phone was someone  I like, respect and who knows a lot more about theatre than I do, has spoken to far many more theatre-makers than I have, and has a far better notion of what is happening nationally and internationally than I do. 

She asked about BABYLON. I told her it was a folk show touring pubs; that we're taking our new show on national tour to as many pubs as we can in a month. She asked why. I said that we we had managed to make some good friends, other companies or touring schemes who had been willing to take a punt and help get BABYLON in to their local - brilliant people like Point Blank, Fine Chisel, Greenwich Theatre and Theatre Orchard. And she asked why I thought all these people we're starting to make work in that way - or build those sorts of networks.

Of course, making work in pubs is nothing new. There are pub theatres everywhere. But I'm 25 and have grown up going to theatres. I live in the middle of North Yorkshire in the countryside and, as a kid, we went to the theatre - the building. I have been lucky enough to work in theatre full time since I graduated - and almost full time before that. We've worked in a lot of theatres. I work in a theatre now, York Theatre Royal, a wonderful big building - a regional producing theatre. But, instead of theatres, we have actively chosen to tour our show to pubs, and seemingly so are other people. Why? It's a good question. 

My initial answer was economics. That's a good answer for most things at the minute. But it's true. I think it probably is cheaper to create a show for pubs - or at least the outlay is cheaper. However the potential income is far lower. But, if you're making work in a pub then you're not asking people to drive for an hour to then spend £25 to come and sit in a big dark room with you; you're asking people to walk across the road and spend £8 tops. My second answer was audiences. Taking a show to an audience, rather than getting them to come to you. Again, old news - this is a brilliant idea which every rural touring scheme and company in the country will swear by. But it's true. I see people at shows in our local pub - take Midnight At The Boar's Head by Fringe First winning company, Fine Chisel - who I would never see in a proper big theatre. So it's partly that. 

To be honest, though, it's because I like it. It feels right. 

On the 2nd of January, Joe Hufton (the director), Amos Jacob (the stage manager) and me spent the day sorting our rehearsal room. It involved shifting laundry, boxes full of pint glasses, logs that were in there drying, a cat which needed to find a new shed to live in, clearing and cleaning the various detritus the cat had left behind, and lifting an actual vintage car outside. We're rehearsing in a brick barn out the back of The Fauconberg Arms. It's very cold but it's very wonderful. There's a beautiful view over the North York Moors. Last night, I found the cast wrapped around the piano, by the fire in the bar, writing a new song with a pint. Ed can be found chopping wood outside. This all feels very normal, very relaxed. A very lovely place to be. 

And I think that's it - I/we feel at home here. Maybe I/we don't feel at home in theatres. Or our work doesn't feel at homes in theatres. Theatre buildings are wonderful places, but there are an odd, learnt set of rules and expectations that go with them. Theatre: 'What time does your show start' - '7:30' / Pub: 'What time does your show start' - 'Probably around 8 but we'll play a few songs and wait until everyone's in, they can bring their food in with them.'

We're very lucky. We have small grant from Arts Council for this tour. So we can work how the pubs want us to. Some have separate rooms, some a space around the corner, some just have the one bar. BABYLON, our show, doesn't have a tech spec, doesn't have a minimum playing space, doesn't need a blackout, it doesn't have a set financial deal - it can play anywhere because we genuinely want it to play anywhere. We want it to play to people, to communities, and we want to try and play where communities gather. 

People gather in theatres to see theatre. People gather in pubs to talk and chat and drink and eat. Often, theatres are empty pretty soon after the show has finished. Almost no pub I've been to closes it's doors at 11pm with the bar having been voluntarily vacated. 

In some ways it's hard work because we're making a new network - working in lots of pubs who don't put on theatre, who haven't had a company tour there before. But it's an experiment, the beginning of something, hopefully. And, looking at the worst case scenario, if noone turns up, I'd rather be sat in an empty pub than and empty black box. But fingers crossed we'll be in pubs full of wonderful folk. 

But never in a million years would I want rid of any theatres whatsoever. Theatres and theatre buildings are hugely important. I remember Joyce McMillan saying that you could tell what industry had failed by what buildings the arts were using - old churches, old factories, empty shops. If the theatre buildings fail then we're in a sorry state of void affairs. But in the last month two pubs which support the arts in Manchester  - The Black Lion and the Lass O Gowrie - have closed. We were touring to The Black Lion and that's where we rehearsed and opened our Some Small Love Story / Beulah tour. For us, these buildings are as important. 

The next five and a half weeks are exciting. We're off to perform in 25 pubs around the UK. Some old, some new, some borrowed. Some ticketed, some on fees, some Pay What You Think. And perhaps 'pubs' is the wrong word - we're off to Slung Low's HUB too - so 'spaces which belong to and are used by a wide bunch of people' might be better?

If it goes well, we'll keep doing. In a few years we might have figured out why. But, I think, right now, it just sort of feels like the right place for us to be heading. BABYLON is a show about communities, about sharing things, about the importance of people, about taking decent care and consideration of each other. It's also got a bunch of damn good folk music in it. Pubs feels like the right place to be. And let's not get too worthy or clever about it - it's damn good fun. And it should be fun.

www.theflanagancollective.co.uk / @FlanCol

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