Category Archives: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain

The rewards of rural touring

Originally written for the February House Theatre Guest Blog.

Fol Espoir developed Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain in collaboration with Steeple Aston Village Hall

Fol Espoir developed Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain in collaboration with Steeple Aston Village Hall

As well as being a freelance director I run Fol Espoir – a theatre company that tours to regional arts centres and rural networks across the UK. Small-scale touring is not exactly the glamorous end of the arts industry. On tour, we normally play a new venue every night – which means lots of driving, get-ins and a different bed every night. If we’re performing in rural venues like village halls, we’ll also be setting up our own lights and sound, getting lost in back-country lanes, and trying to perform on a stage that might have no cross-over, no wings, and a storage cupboard masquerading as the dressing room.

Despite these challenges, touring Fol Espoir’s work to far-flung communities is of deep importance to me. I grew up on a small island where my only access to theatre was the few companies that braved the overnight ferry. Those shows are embedded deep in my understanding of what theatre is, and I still have vivid memories of them today. As an adult I also want to make Fol Espoir’s work accessible to as many people as possible – wherever they might happen to live.

It helps that small scale touring, particularly to rural venues, is one of the most rewarding ways I know to present work. When we take over a village hall, we’re doing more than providing a night of live entertainment; we’re giving everyone in the area an excuse to come together, socialise and strengthen the ties that make their community strong. We’re also made to feel incredibly valued. In regular theatres you can often feel like one more act on a busy schedule. When we play a village hall we’ll might be the only professional act in that area for a while – the audience understand the effort we have made to bring them our work, and the organisers (nearly always volunteers) ply us with pre-show coffee and post-show beer, cook us dinner, help us find local accommodation and get incredibly excited when we host the evening’s raffle. There’s an event-like quality to the evening, nearly always a big turnout, and the joyful atmosphere you get when everyone knows everybody else. These perks make up for all the hard work, and the impact we’re having on local communities is clear.

We booked our first tour off a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is probably still the most direct route into small-scale and rural touring. If you are braving your fortunes (and bank balance) at Edinburgh, preparation is everything. Research what venues are likely to be interested in your work (for example by checking out the tour schedules of similar theatre companies to yourself), email programmers well in advance of August, and understand that there’s not much money in touring at this level, so cast-sizes need to be small. If Edinburgh’s not for you, there are many other ways to get started – for example by developing a relationship with a regional venue, or applying for local scratch nights, emerging artist schemes, mentoring programmes or writer’s groups.

To find out more about rural touring, I’d recommend the National Rural Touring Forum‘s website – especially their introduction pack Rural Touring In a Nutshell. Until 14th February you can also apply to be part of their 2016 New Directions Showcase – where companies perform small excerpts of their shows for rural promoters. Bear in mind that not all shows are going to work in a rural setting – village audiences encompass a huge range of ages, and are mostly up for a ‘good night out’ where they can socialise, have fun, and be entertained. That’s not to say more challenging work doesn’t tour to villages, but it’s undoubtedly a tricker sell. If you think your works comes under that category, it might be worth chatting to the NRTF about which rural schemes will be interested – like conventional theatres, each scheme has its own programming flavour. Having an interval in your show is also a big bonus, as is a willingness to deal with the sometimes lengthy booking process that most rural networks operate.

The past few years have not been kind to the arts, but since 2013 Fol Espoir has completed two tours that took in over thirty venues each, and our November 2016 tour of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is already fully programmed. In other words, there is still hope. While it may not be glamorous or easy, small-scale touring is still alive, and comes with rewards of its own.

More about Fol Espoir at http://www.folespoir.co.uk

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And we’re off!

British Cover

It’s a little over a week since I arrived home to find an envelope waiting for me from the Arts Council. We’d applied for funding to develop a new show, and I’d like to say there was a moment of fear, perhaps anticipation as I peeled it open; but the truth is you don’t even have to open the envelope to know. Rejected applications get a short pro-forma letter – perfunctory, polite, and disheartening. Accepted applications however get that magical YES-letter plus a lengthy contract and financial questionnaire, in duplicate. The envelope waiting for me was thick with paper – we had scored a winner! Then my flatmate told me our landlord was selling and we’d be homeless pretty soon – life has a way of keeping you in check.

The show we’ll be making is ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain’, inspired by the 1942 pamphlet of the same name. Given to American troops on their way to Blighty, the Instructions were a crash course on the quirks and customs of British life, featuring everything from cricket and ‘indoor amusements’ to Sunday afternoons in the country. Our plan is to tour in late 2015, and for the moment, we’ve been awarded enough money to spend two weeks developing ideas, followed by a work-in-progress performance at The Theatre Chipping Norton.

We might have our funding, but there’s a lot of hard work to come. The last week has been full of meetings, phone calls, and all the joyous administration tasks that even a small show like ours requires. It’s a precious time though – before we get bogged down in all the details we can dream about what we really want to achieve. For me, that boils down to two things: creating a fun, silly show that takes an irreverent look at what it means to be British; and working hard to create quality interactions with the audiences and venues we tour to.

For the show itself, I can’t wait to work with Dan, Jim and Matt from The Real MacGuffins. They’re a fab comedy trio full of ridiculous witticisms, idiotic imaginations and a finely-honed inter-personal dynamic (i.e. Matt is the butt of every joke). They love to work directly with an audience, and I know that together we can create a joyous evening of entertainment. More than that though, I want the show to bring together communities that might not normally connect. Theatre, especially if you’re playing in a village hall miles away from the nearest town, is one of those rare times when communities come together with the sole aim of having a good night out. I’m imagining panto-style interactions, audience-members split into competing teams, and a big song and dance at the end. Theatre’s a social occasion, and I want Instructions to tap into that spirit.

As a theatre company, it’s not only a chance for Fol Espoir to deliver another great show, but also to deepen our relationship with our audiences. Our last show Winston On the Run toured to a huge number of venues. Perhaps because of this, it felt like we were in and out of theatres in the blink of an eye. This time we want to be of better service to the communities we tour to – offering workshops, post-show talks, educational activities for schoolchildren and more obvious ways in which people can stay in touch with us once we leave. I want Instructions to be more than just a show. I want it to be an event.