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The new theatre – made by audiences

From: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2009/apr/06/theatre-london-bubble-company

Lyn Gardner of guardian.co.uk writes:
When I had my first child, I remember that I kept on talking about “when things get back to normal”. It took me an age to realise that this was “normal” and that my life had undergone a complete shift. I feel as if something rather similar is going on with the world economy. Talking to people working in theatre, everyone agrees that money is tight and it is likely to get a whole lot tighter over the next few years, with both funding and sponsorship affected. People are prepared for the worst. But I also detect a sense that many of them think that if they just hunker down, normal service will resume in a few years’ time, although perhaps not until after the Olympics. I’m not so sure.

Whatever happens, it means that in the coming years artists, companies and producers are going to have to be much more tenacious and entrepreneurial. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Yes, of course it is crucial to keep the pressure on both local and national government regarding funding, in case it conveniently slips their minds what a terrific return they get – artistically, socially and economically – when they invest in theatre rather than in bankers.

Even so, it is high time that theatre-makers recognised that it is impossible to thrive and produce your best work when you are hanging on by your fingertips. Rather than waiting around hoping that a few crumbs might eventually come your way, it’s better to get out there and make the cake and find new models. Nobody working in theatre would doubt the need for creativity and enterprise in the rehearsal room, so why not apply that creativity and enterprise to the business plan too? Theatre companies may have a particular mission – but they are businesses too and they can’t fulfil that mission successfully unless they have enough money.

So, it’s great to see London Bubble coming up with its Fan-Made Theatre initative, which invites audiences to buy a £20 stake in the company’s upcoming summer show. The Bubble’s promenade summer shows in London’s parks and open spaces have given me and my family enormous pleasure over the years.

Now you can help choose what the company will stage. Fan-Made Theatre works like this: in return for your £20, you not only get a ticket to one of the performances, but also a chance to submit ideas and scripts suggesting what the company might stage. The website allows discussion of the various proposals and an opportunity for stakeholders to discuss their favourites before the ideas are whittled down to a shortlist of five. There’s an opportunity for stakeholders to vote on the shortlist before the winner is selected by artistic director Jonathan Petherbridge and a team of advisers. There’s also an invitation to a party in the summer.

No, this little but ingenious idea is not going to transform arts funding on its own and neither is it new. In football, the Blue Square Premier club, Ebbsfleet United secured its future last year by offering fans a £35 membership that gave them a stake in the club and an opportunity to select the team. Music intiatives such as Bandstocks allow fans to invest money in new acts as well as in more established talents such as Patrick Wolf.

Other theatre initiatives have involved the audience at grassroots level: in 2008, Fierce encouraged audiences to choose which shows would be programmed; Pilot Theatre has developed scripts with audience input online. But this is the first time that I’ve come across somebody in the theatre combining investment and creative input. It strikes me as an interesting idea, and one that has only come about because London Bubble has had to think laterally after losing its revenue funding last year.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that the company wouldn’t have preferred to have remained an Arts Council RFO (Regularly Funded Organisation), but rather than curling up and dying it has gone out and successfully reinvented itself. If necessity is the mother of invention, this is as good an example as you are likely to find: one that combines money-making potential with an opportunity to engage audiences in the process of making theatre and not just the final product.

With many businesses already using social media to make customers partners in their development, why shouldn’t theatre do the same? For London Bubble, you have until 17 April to buy your stake but even after that there will be a chance to join and vote for the final piece, help shape it and attend rehearsals. Sounds like a good deal to me.