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Black Theatre Live: The Benefits of a Consortium

This is a guest post from Jonathan Kennedy, Executive Director of Tara Arts.

There’s no question that in the arts, we thrive when we lean on each other for support. By partnering with other arts organisations, we can work together to build strong initiatives and share our expertise and resources to deliver the best possible performances to our audiences. For Tara Arts, and many other organisations, a consortium is the perfect way to do this.

In essence, a theatre consortium is a collection of organisations coming together with a similar aim. In our case, it became clear to us two years ago, that the national touring of Black, Asian and minority ethnic theatre was significantly diminishing on the small scale, while in the mid-scale was in even more of a sustained crisis.

As we were faced with the challenge of extending greater opportunities for Black, Asian and minority ethnic companies and acknowledging a thirst from the artists to be supported to tour regionally, it struck us that a consortium model would be the best way of ensuring longer-term commitment to arts and audiences.

So the story of Black Theatre Live began in autumn 2014. Supported on the one hand by seven regional venues and on the other by a three-year award from Arts Council England’s (ACE) Strategic Touring initiative, the Black Theatre Live consortium was formed, with the simple aim of changing hearts and minds about the intrinsic quality and value of Black, Asian and minority ethnic produced theatre.

As a group we are able to do so much more for Black, Asian and minority ethnic theatre. Here’s some of the benefits of acting with a consortium of arts organisations.

Access to a mix of the eclectic

The Black Theatre Live consortium is a deliberately eclectic mix of theatres, which between them have something to say about touring and modern diversity nationally. Poole, Margate, Derby, London, Hexham, Bury St Edmunds and Peterborough represent seaside resorts, urban sprawl, market towns and cathedral cities; a distinctive picture of modern Britain.

The theatres range from those who produce and those entirely reliant on touring shows, theatres that are ACE funded as well as those who receive no ACE support, theatres that are charities as well as those who are part of larger leisure companies and most importantly theatres that have a broadly white local demographic as well those in diverse localities.

From the outset, it was important for the shows we supported to reach both white and diverse audiences, irrespective of local demographics, to give shape to a deeper sense of modern diversity in Britain.

With this central mission driving the consortium, Stratford Circus (London), Queen’s Hall Arts (Hexham), Derby Theatre, Theatre Royal Margate, The Lighthouse (Poole), Key Theatre (Peterborough), Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds and Tara Arts (London) came together.

Strategic benefit and finding new opportunity

Now in its second year, it has become increasingly clear that Black Theatre Live offers an active mix of strategic benefit and new opportunity for the partner theatres in the consortium.

To date, Black Theatre Live has toured Macbeth (mid-scale) and She Called Me Mother (small-scale). In 2016 the tours planned are The Diary of a Hounslow Girl (small-scale) and Hamlet (mid-scale). In addition, each of the consortium venues will commission a regional Black, Asian or minority ethnic artist to develop a new show, one of which will be selected for touring in 2017-18.

A distinctive dramaturgy is emerging, taking the classics and new writing by these artists across the country. To date it’s clear the significant benefits and opportunities are endless.

New audiences

A major aim of the consortium is to develop core and new audiences for the eight theatres. Independent analyses from the first year, through the Audience Agency, confirms Black Theatre Live’s tours are absolutely reaching new audience demographics and is doing this ahead of the national average. In comparison with UK Theatre’s most recent report, both tours sold 5% more tickets than touring in other regional venues.

Survey results show 16% of audiences surveyed for Macbeth were Black, Asian or Minority ethnic and 26% for She Called Me Mother. These compare favourably to the national 14% Black, Asian or minority ethnic population (2011 Census plus The Audience Agency reports).

Developing relationships and changing perception

Over the longer-term, the consortium aims to change the perception of the wider theatre sector. We are doing this through a range of audience development programmes which include:

  • Street Teams representing each tour, promoting and advocating for the venue among local businesses and community gate-keepers.
  • National and regional marketing and press campaigns profiling Black Theatre Live and each venue’s part in its success.
  • Streaming the shows online and in select cinemas.
  • Forming strategic and lasting relationships with new audiences and communities, for example, Queen’s Hall Arts in Hexham is working with families living on the military barracks in Northumberland and Derby Theatre is working with Black and Asian women from across the city.

Working collectively, economies of scale and extending opportunity beyond Black Theatre Live

By working together, the consortium is able to access tours, which ordinarily would not be affordable to each theatre alone, particularly on the mid-scale with casts of nine or more. We each guarantee the fees and commission budgets and taken together this provides assurance to the touring company and larger ‘buying power’ for the theatres.

With the kudos of the Black Theatre Live commissions, the tours to date have reached a further 23 theatre’s nationwide who have programmed the tours expressly because of the consortium’s backing.

Sharing learning and expertise

Twice a year we bring together the Artistic Directors, Outreach and Marketing staff to review tours just completed and work with the next company on tour to plan future campaigns.

Working with our partner consultants Mobius PR, Hardish Virk, Stage Text, Pilot Theatre and the Audience Agency, we are developing a holistic understanding of how to best target and reach a diverse range of audience sectors.

The networking and sharing of expertise is proving a hugely valuable benefit for the core theatres. However, we want to ensure this isn’t retained as the privilege of only those involved, so we share the reporting freely through the website research pages.

Spreading our work far and wide

Although relatively young, the nascent consortium has been invited to contribute to work at the Edinburgh Festival, British Council, Brighton Fringe, Talawa Firsts, Z-Arts and Home in Manchester and Trinity Arts in Bristol to enable further Black, Asian or minority ethnic artists and sector development for touring across the country. Conversations are now underway for international collaboration in 2017.

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In a nutshell consortium working can and does bring tangible benefits, extends opportunity and shares best practice for artists, audiences and partners.