This presentation took place on 15th July 2015 at the National Rural Touring Conference at Wymondham College.
Hello! I’m Gareth Nicholls, and this is Philip Holyman, and we’re the co-Directors of Little Earthquake, a theatre company based in Walsall. Two weeks ago, we finished touring our latest production, which was made in a very special way…
[The curtain raiser film featuring twelve of the Young Producers taking about the process was shown here for the delegates.]
2: WHAT WE DID
What you just saw is the little film which opened every performance of The Boy Who Became A Beetle. The show was made as part of our yearlong Young Producers project in which 100 children in Years 4, 5 and 6 at five Black Country primary schools were given the opportunity to be centrally involved in the development and creation of a new production for young people and their families.
The Young Producers project has been a six-way partnership between: Little Earthquake (as the artists who delivered the creative process and made the show); Black Country Touring (who built the relationships and led the Young Promoter work); Arts Connect West Midlands (our regional bridge organisation, who are supporting and sharing the learning from the project); the Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton (the major venue); Arts Council England (the major financial supporter); and the five schools (in Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.)
Last September, we visited each group and pitched three different ideas for three different shows — the Bee Show, the Pig Show and the Beetle Show. The Young Producers voted in secret in our mobile polling station — and the eight Core Producers sat around a boardroom table (with us and their teachers) and made the final decision. No adult ever got to cast a vote. You’ve probably guessed by now that the Young Producers chose to make The Beetle Show.
The Young Producers worked with Phil on ideas for characters, events and narrative structures before he started to work on the script. They helped to recruit their own designer and composer from a field of 120 international applicants and worked with them on how the show should look and sound.
The show visited each Young Producer group during the pilot tour earlier this Summer  alongside visits to theatre spaces in the Midlands. The Young Producers worked with a graphic designer on bespoke poster campaigns for those performances at their schools, and they worked with Natalie Kidman from Black Country Touring on the marketing, Box Office, Front-of-House and stage management of those events.
3: WHY WE DID IT
We’ve wanted to make a family show for a long time. We applied unsuccessfully for a commissioning opportunity in the Midlands in 2012 to make the Bee Show, and afterwards, Black Country Touring approached us to find a way of making a family show together.
Their Young Promoter process was already well established (as it is among several other schemes here). For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, Young Promoter groups choose a show from a touring menu and promote it in their local venue to a local audience. Young Producers was conceived as a backwards extension of that — instead of selecting a finished show, the young people would be actively involved in developing what the show would be from its very beginning.
We wanted to make a show which wasn’t just an adaptation of a popular children’s book/film/TV show. We also wanted to make something more substantial in terms of production values: not the usual two-people-and-a-suitcase kind of show. We also wanted to work with young people who don’t normally get to take part in projects like this — schools which aren’t in catchment areas of larger regional theatres and who can get overlooked by participatory projects. We wanted to show young people that they could have creative careers too — that people like us were once children like them — and that if we can do it, they can, too.
4: HOW IT WORKED
At first, there was a lot of suspicion from the Young Producers — they were not used to anyone giving people their age any power to make important real-world decisions. We had a policy that there was no such thing as a bad or stupid idea: we would take everything they offered seriously. They tested the limits of that policy – and tested the tolerance of their teachers at the same time. We would get them to elaborate on anything they offered — which quickly burst the bubble of anyone being impish or provocative.
The vote changed everything — they saw professional artists taking their ideas on board and developing them, respecting them — and it increased their feelings of investment and ownership. By the time the creative team came in for their design and music sessions, they found themselves working with some very passionate collaborators who had very clear and very ambitious ideas about what they wanted.
At the same time, there was a sense from the Young Producers that we’d never manage to realise their grand visions. They all had limitless imaginations in terms of TV, film and video games — but they had a very low opinion of what could actually be done live, theatrically, in the same physical space as them.
Ultimately, the gala premiere exceeded their expectations. In June, the first performance of the show was an exclusive event, just for the Young Producers and project partners: complete with red carpet, paparazzi, VIP passes and cupcakes. It was the first time all of the groups had come together, and there was a general sense of the show being bigger, funnier, better than they’d thought it would be. There were ripples of excitement during the performance as they recognised things they’d suggested or designed which had made it into the show.
5: HOW COULD THIS APPLY TO RURAL TOURING?
At the NRTF Showcase in York last year , I heard that family shows don’t do well on rural tours because villages only have small numbers of families with children to constitute an audience.
The schools performances were the best attended ones on this tour for two reasons: because the Young Producers mobilised the audience which they had on their doorstep and celebrated the localness of the event; and because they created an environment which gave audiences of all ages something to access and something to enjoy. If there are two things which characterise the rural touring experience for me, it is those.
This was an urban tour but in many ways, it worked just like a rural one. Black Country Touring’s audience data shows that the majority of people at community-promoted shows like this travel less than 3 miles to the venue. If theatre comes to that potential audience, there’s a much better chance that they will support it.
We initially recommended the show for age 7+ based on the age of the Young Producers in the groups who were making the show with us — but based on the audiences who came to the tour, we know the show works well for much younger children (4+) as well as for adults who aren’t bringing any children with them at all.
The Young Producers were constantly encouraged to think about their own family networks — about who would be coming and what each of those people would like and what they’d want. The Young Producers built a social event package for children and families and adults which placed the show at its centre and gave different age groups an experience they could all share. Schools became hubs to engage local communities — so on a rural tour, maybe there is potential for work like this to find a home in a school hall rather than a village hall?
We’re currently looking at the logistics of touring the show — the touring period and touring model are not fixed at the moment to allow us to gauge interest from venues and schemes, which will help us to make the best case for further investment from partners and supporters.
We’re looking at how to engage people with the way we make the work, as well as with the work itself. We’re very open to the possibility of creating new productions through a similar kind of process, and not just limited to young producers: working with multiple promoter groups within an individual scheme, or with multiple schemes across a much larger geographical area, to develop and tour of new shows.
As we said, the schools we worked with aren’t the sort that usually get to take part in projects like this because they’re not based close to the venues which traditionally carry out this kind of work. We’re assuming it’s the same situation for audiences and promoters who aren’t based close to metropolitan venues, either.
We’re a small, non-venue-based organisation and it’s much easier for us in many ways to bring projects like this to you: our schedules can be more flexible as we are less bound by programming seasons or booking windows; our small staff team means participants and promoters build close and consistent working relationships with us; we are able to tailor the projects we develop to reflect the interests and requirements of the people we work with, resulting in a genuine collaborative partnership.
6: To Close
A detailed case study is being created by Kate Organ ([former] Arts Adviser to the Baring Foundation) which looks at the value and impact of the whole project, not just on the young participants but also on the art, the artists and the audiences. It will bring the results of this whole experiment together and we will make that case study available to NRTF members when it’s complete [due Spring 2017.]
Before we go, we’ve put together a little montage of images from the gala event and from the production, set to some of the original music from the show. Luke, the composer, sampled some of the Young Producers’ own compositions into this music. On behalf of everyone involved on the project, thanks for watching and thanks for listening!
[A montage of gala and production images, accompanied by music from the production, was shown here for the delegates.]