Arts within the reach of all – Artsreach
Nick Churchill looks at the extraordinary array of work shown in Dorset thanks to Artsreach
Published in April ’14
Above the stage in Briantspuddle village hall there used to be a cistern with a chain that was just out of reach. It’s not there any more, sold for a tenner following the village hall refit, but its existence was known about far beyond the village boundaries, or even those of Dorset itself. It was just one of those things that performers from all over the world have remarked upon as a result of their involvement in productions for Artsreach, Dorset’s rural touring arts organisation, which takes upwards of 150 shows a year into village halls the length and breadth of the county.
For instance, the return visit of Norwegian contemporary dance company Panta Rei Danse Teater in November was part-funded by the Norwegian Arts Council and followed the company’s successful Artsreach tour in 2011. The performance, I Wish Her Well, brought cutting-edge contemporary dance to Gillingham, Buckland Newton and Cranborne in front of audiences barely 50-strong.
‘That’s what Artsreach is about – these little moments of magic that happen all year round in village halls that remain invisible to most of the population,’ says Artsreach director Ian Scott.
‘When this idea was first floated in 1989, there was an idea that village halls were under-used and a rural arts touring scheme would help bring new life to communities, although that changed slightly with the Millennium Grants that saw a surge of improvements in village halls and many new ones built. Regardless, our job is to bring high quality arts events to rural venues in Dorset and to make sure they are accessible to those communities.’
Artsreach is part of the National Rural Touring Forum, a network of similar organisations working together to bring professional theatre, music, comedy, dance, film and puppet shows, as well as visual arts exhibitions and workshops to rural communities by working with local promoters who keep a percentage of the box office for the venue.
‘Shows are subsidised, so we aim to keep ticket prices around £8 or £9. Of that about £1 is subsidy. We receive funding from the Arts Council, from Dorset County Council and from Purbeck and West Dorset district councils, but this is a recession and it’s increasingly difficult to be certain of that funding. There’s always a need to be business-like and the answer is not always to cut budgets, sometimes the best value is achieved by spending more. So, it could be that we spend slightly more on a show that plays to more venues, possibly in a deal with a partner organisation in Devon or Somerset, that recoups more through the box office than a less expensive show that doesn’t play so many venues.’
Such are the funding arguments that swirl around the arts world from top to bottom. What’s clear is that audiences respond well to quality shows appearing on their doorsteps and average audience numbers are surprisingly constant. It has taken 20 years in some quarters, but village hall shows are no longer the sole preserve of am-dram or whist drives.
‘In fact, there’s very little overlap – the local drama groups are very much the do-ers, their shows are their chance to perform, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will go to watch others perform,’ says Artsreach visual arts co-ordinator Yvonne Gallimore. ‘The lifeblood of the organisation though are the volunteer promoters. It’s not just the shows, but they meet and greet performers, often arranging hospitality and when that show is something like The Iranian Feast or RSVP, the bhangra band that came last year, that involves special dietary considerations, they publicise the shows, put up posters, use the parish magazines, there’s a lot to do.’
Last year nearly 11,000 people went to 157 Artsreach shows, slightly down on the year before. Average audiences in the last few years have ranged from 75 to 85, but last year that fell to 70, largely because of the bad weather that rendered some venues inaccessible and saw seven shows cancelled. Artsreach audiences are typically aged 40-plus, but there’s an increasingly large proportion of under 12s, a measure of the popularity of children’s shows and workshop events – of 501 workshop spaces available last summer, 480 were taken.
‘It’s always in our minds when we set prices to keep the family ticket accessible to working families, possibly at the expense of senior citizens,’ says Ian.
‘Our promoters are invariably quite well known in their communities so there’s a great deal of local support for them. The audiences have some faith in them so for instance when they’ve enjoyed seeing a musician such as Chris Garrick with the Budapest Café Orchestra they came back to see him when he returned with a contemporary jazz quartet and again when he came back with The iFoxes with Alec Dankworth and an Irish piper.
‘But all our venues are different. For example, some operate a bar and a raffle, others don’t. The audience knows the person they spoke to on the phone to reserve their seats will probably see them on the night – it’s very personal and totally unlike going to a theatre or an arts centre.’
Of course, village halls are not theatres and it’s probably a mistake to try to make them into mini-theatres. Burton Bradstock’s promoter Norman Saunders-White certainly thinks so and recently presented We Will Be Free, Neil Gore’s Edinburgh Fringe hit Mummers play about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, with the two actors performing on the floor at the same level as the audience.
‘Well that was their suggestion, but it worked very well. In the past we’ve had audiences actually on the stage. You can do things a little differently in the village hall,’ he says.
‘I like to pick something I know will be popular and then I try to take a risk, or Ian will twist my arm – although he’ll deny it – into taking something more outrageous. We had Adolf, Pip Utton’s one-man show about Hitler, a few years ago and that caused one or two problems, not least because the posters for the show featured a vast swastika. I put one up, as I usually do, at the garage and within an hour I had a call from the police asking me if I was starting up a Nazi party. I explained it was a piece of theatre and suggested he would benefit from coming to see it.
‘In the event we had very good audiences for it, with only one or two walking out because they didn’t stay to see the denouement where the point of the piece was revealed.’ (For the avoidance of doubt, Prevent Genocide International, the global education network for the prevention of crimes against humanity, described Adolf as ‘a searing indictment of fascism.)’
Utton was back in Dorset for Artsreach late last year appearing in Chaplin at Bourton and Nether Compton.
‘I get out and talk these shows up around the village, encouraging people to come, it’s all part and parcel of it, I love it,’ enthuses Sue McCarthy who has promoted for more than fifteen years, initially in Stour Provost and for the last eight years or so in Nether Compton.
‘There’s a constant battle with the television, but some people you’ll never get to come out – that’s a shame because I genuinely think they are missing out. We had the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Resonate Strings here and the tickets were only £8. We were packed out and rightly so, that’s incredible value to see world-class musicians, and far better than anything on television.
‘Nether Compton village hall is an old barn and it has great acoustics for music so we always have a classical show and jazz, then a small theatre show and a children’s performance. Perhaps I’m a bit timid with the bookings, but I know my audience, at least I think I do. We don’t do tickets so people can reserve seats and are kind enough to let us know if they can’t come.’
Although Artsreach is not primarily a producer of material, artists and performers are able to develop work as a direct result of its patronage. Tim Laycock, the Dorset folk singer, performer, storyteller and actor, is a veteran of more than 100 performances for Artsreach and has also participated in scores of workshops such as The Story Tree workshops with visual artist Lal Hitchcock.
‘It was a story collecting project, going into schools and village halls to collect stories and Lal would work on building a tree that was decorated with stories and images, rather like a Christmas tree is decorated with ornaments. These are fantastic exercises in documenting Dorset’s social history and ensuring it has a future,’ says Tim.
‘I recently found myself talking to old folks on Portland about fish and there was a couple who told me that come September/October they would land squid and eat them and they called them ‘quiggles’. Now, I know a bit about Dorset history and culture, but I’d never heard that. Not only is it a great name for squid, but unless these things are recorded they could be lost to time.
‘I am working on a West Gallery music project with Phil Humphries of The Melstock Band as part of the South Dorset Ridegway project, with people of all ages enjoying workshops singing in this traditional style. Artsreach has a vital role to play not only in bringing performances from all over the world to Dorset, but also in celebrating the county’s own culture and local distinctiveness.’ ◗
❱ For the latest Artsreach programme visit www.artsreach.co.uk