Method and process v’s instinct and sheer luck – How to programme for rural touring

This week sees the culmination of over two months worth of work; hours of research, one to one phone calls, emails, youtube clips, soundcloud excerpts and good old fashioned paper post sifting. How did I celebrate completion of this HUGE piece of work?…. I sent an email.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a lovely email, hopefully conveying the excitement of the task at hand. It demanded a thorough read, it even stated a deadline for responses and it contained 4 lovely attachments, all brimming with information.

Now I know the emails are all nestled patiently waiting to be read in in-boxes across Lancashire, I can cordially announce the month long period of Spot On Autumn 2016 show selection now open! (It doesn’t really feel like a suitable end to a two month project but I’ve become used to it. It comes around every six months and being really honest, I’ve already started work on the next one.)


So how does one go about curating a menu of tasty treats for village halls and libraries in Lancashire?

First step, get to know your venues, your promoters and their audiences. You can’t possibly begin to choose artists for venues without first having an understanding of the type of things people visiting those venues like; the things they’ve previously enjoyed, the things they’ve previously hated. It’s really important to meet the promoters hosting the events, see their venues and get a feel for the kind of work that excites them. It’s also really important to have conversations with audiences, see the work in situ and read the feedback after each performance.

Secondly, see lots of work – well, as much as your budget and your capacity allows. I make it to Edinburgh Fringe for a good few days every year, I attend scratch performances when I’m invited by companies with new work to sell. I’m heavily involved with PANDA and their pitching project. I go to The Lowry, Axis Arts Centre and all manner of other performance spaces in search of new work and new contacts. I’m a member of the Big Imaginations Consortium which brings programmers together from across the North West to discuss children’s theatre and collaborate on booking tours.

When seeing new work is out of the question I have lots of other avenues to find out more about a show I might have an interest in, or a company I’ve never heard of before. My colleagues involved in rural touring are invaluable. We talk, we share leads for quality work, we work together to commission and to block book shows.


What exactly am I looking for?

Things that catch my eye when I’m programming are very varied, it’s definitely not an exact science.

First off, is the subject matter something of interest to our audiences? It might be a straightforward reproduction of a popular play, it could be a piece of new writing, a band playing skiffle music, a dance company who finish with a ceilidh for all. Whatever it is, it has to have a unique selling point, it needs to address why our audiences would want to buy a ticket.

Does it have a good marketing image? If your poster doesn’t sell your show then nothing will. Continuity of an image is really important, so hopefully the image our promoters see in the menu will also be the image in the brochure and the same image on the posters.

How long is the show? I do programme shows that don’t have an interval, but it does tend to make it harder to sell to a rural venue. That’s because our promoters feel it’s important to sell a whole evening of entertainment to their audiences. If promoters are getting people out of their homes and into the village hall for a night they want them to feel like they’ve had their money’s worth.

How technical is the show? If you don’t tour with your own lighting and sound equipment it’s unlikely we’ll be able to host you. If you have two versions of the show, one for fully equipped theatre spaces and the other for spaces with no tech, then don’t send us the technical rider for the theatre – it makes me worry that you’re not prepared for touring to rural venues.

How many performers are there? Last season we hosted 8 Tibetan Monks in three venues across Lancashire, but generally we take companies of between one to five performers. If you are a 20 strong Male Voice Choir we probably aren’t going to be able to accommodate you on the tour.

When is the best time to send our information? Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time. I accept applications from companies and artists all year round, but when I’m reaching the point of programming I’m more focused on where I have gaps in my menu. Occasionally the lucky company who just happened to drop an email to me that week are the ones who make the menu rather than the company who have doggedly emailed me every month for a year.

And finally, sometimes I ignore all of the previous information and go with my gut! My feeling is that if it interests me and catches my attention, it will most likely attract my promoters too. If I was to spend hours deliberating over the intricacies of which venue might like which company, I’d never get anything done! I also have to trust my instincts to encourage the promoters to try something a bit different. I recently read an article in the Guardian about the challenging work rural venues are taking on and Gavin Stride gave a wonderful quote which I’m taking with me whenever I programme, “When I give the audience what they want, I disappoint them”, this is my new mantra.