Chloé Elwood – Executive Producer – Bristol Old Vic
Hi, I’m really pleased to be here today. Thank you for inviting me and for having Bristol Old Vic as part of the conversation here today, it’s really brilliant. I have lived most of my life in and around Bristol, so my first experience of the theatre, I think, was Cinderella at the Hippodrome, where, amazingly, the sight of Jim Davidson as Buttons failed to put me off theatre for the rest of my life!
Lots of my formative experiences were at theatres in the region, so things like Theatre Royal Bath, which school would take us to, or the Salisbury Playhouse, also, Bristol Old Vic. I was really lucky, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge that it was my great good fortune to go to a school that really valued drama education and got us out around the region to see as much as possible.
So, the first time I worked in a theatre, it was front of house at Plymouth Theatre Royal and the first time I worked at Bristol Old Vic it was front of house, in the immediate aftermath of leaving university. I had left college with virtually no idea of how I intended to make a living, which is not uncommon, and it was while I was working at Bristol Old Vic that someone asked me if I would like to produce a show. I didn’t really have the first clue as to what this might mean, but enthusiastically accepted and that was probably that really, I had found the role in which I wanted to work and, without question, the industry in which I wanted to work.
Producing is a really funny role, because it is one for which there is very little formal training and nobody really ever assesses you and you’re very rarely subject to any public scrutiny. I’m probably not alone in feeling that I sort of just make it up as I go along, but suddenly I’m here, having recently re-joined the team at Bristol Old Vic in this new capacity. I say ‘recently’, it was February when I started, and April when I finished my previous job, and it was August when we finally moved to Bristol but I’m hanging on to the ‘newness’ for as long as I can because it’s a really special time when you join a new organisation, you can see it really clearly, people give you the advantage of being new and just let you get on with it and there’s also an expectation that you’re going to come in with solutions rather than more problems, so I’m hanging on to the ‘newness’! It’s a new role with, for me, a terrifyingly broad remit. I’m trying to condense it so I can just feel where the edges of this new job are. It’s a bit like being in the middle of the ocean and trying to find the shore somewhere but not really knowing which direction to swim in. On the one hand, the task is to support Tom Morris, pouring more resources into planning the work that we produce ourselves and that we programme around it and so I’m very much thinking about the breadth of offerings that Bristol Old Vic is obliged by its responsibly to the city to offer, and also by the result of its funding. On the other hand, I’m also here to think about making the most of the work at we have made and where it might go beyond our stage, and how it might have a future life beyond Bristol.
Having not had any experience of programming since my first proper job at the Oxford Play House, I’m a bit wide-eyed at the massive task that programming the theatre presents. I’m really, really passionate about lots of aspects of programming, about work for young people, about work that truly represents the cultural composition of our city and about dance and of course the challenge is to achieve all of those things and more within quite limited resources for subsidising visiting work. Our programme budget has the ambition of delivering a surplus to the running accounts every year, so between our received work and our own productions, some of which obviously need subsidising, and some of which are conceived deliberately to put funds back into the building, there’s a very delicate balance to try and strike.
Over the last 18 months we’ve literally programmed the business out of trouble after a major production drastically underperformed last year. But over the 18 months to come the balance is overwhelmingly in favour of our own work. Bristol Old Vic celebrates being 250 next year, which is an almost unique milestone, it’s really precious, so it’s important this year more than ever that we’re presenting a balanced programme and using it to widen and develop our audience.
I’ve come from five years’ at the National, which is a theatre which has an obligation to and the ability to offer something for everyone. It’s an interesting point of reference now that I find myself working in Bristol, where there’s certainly the stated ambition to do the same, but simply not the resources to be able to deliver such a huge brief. We don’t have the funding, available theatres or the depth of audience in a much smaller city. London can offer a theatre unique to every type of audience. The Bush can do new writing, Almeida can offer reimagined classics, Tricycle can do political, the Unicorn can exclusively offer work for young people. Bristol Old Vic has to cherry pick from those types of work and establish its own distinct style as a producing house. It’s an impossible task to consistently work to that level and to deliver such a huge brief. But, when we consider the region as a whole, perhaps we can start to think about how we can between us cater to all those specific audiences.
So this is where the question I’ve been asked to consider today becomes really interesting. If we think collectively about how we can all contribute towards a thriving and broad ecology across our region, for our three key stakeholders; our audience, our artist and our staff and personnel, I think we can start to have a really interesting conversation.
In terms of communicating this range of output to our audiences, we probably have to be quite broad minded about how we employ our marketing team and their resources. It probably means that the bigger organisations, of which Bristol Old Vic is one, need to function as more of a hub for the art that is going on in the region rather than stand-alone entities. I think those are difficult things for us to do. Especially when resources are really scant, certainly we’ve already got a marketing team that’s straining under the burden of our own programme. But if our websites and front of house displays were able to direct people to the art that is going on around them and not just inside our own theatre, then perhaps that would be really helpful. We can think about what is happening in towns and cities and villages around us. If we were able to segment our data, so that people who habitually booked for new work or classic texts or dance or children’s shows were directed to similar work that’s happening at other venues, maybe that would be a development. My marketing team would absolute kill me for suggesting this! But maybe that’s something we need to address in terms of the resources that we’ve got, and also in terms of the really real restrictions of data handling.
So what about the benefit to the artist? What might be the benefits to them of us working more collaboratively? Bristol Old Vic has a policy of working with local artists through Bristol Ferment, which I’m glad came up here earlier today, which is our artist development strand and we’ve also got a commitment to casting local actors in our work, which is both morally proper and, of course, it’s more economical. I’m working with Tom to prioritise the work of breakthrough local artists on our main stage. But what I’m really interested in is how work with a specific resonance in the South West is seen as widely as possible. I’ve got a really specific example. Every year we send out an invitation to writers in the South West to submit a script which is read anonymously, from which are selected five or six writers to work with our literary department for a whole year in a way which is entirely bespoke to their needs. There’s no prescription for what will come out of that year, it doesn’t have to be a finished piece of work, it doesn’t have to be for the theatre, it is simply about developing the practice of the individual writer, in whatever way they need. For these purposes, the South West is defined as: Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Somerset, Bath and North East Somerset, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Isle of White, North Somerset, Plymouth, Poole, Portsmouth, South Gloucestershire, Southampton, Swindon, Torbay, and Wiltshire. Broad church! As a result, of one recent year of work a playwright called Bea Roberts produced a play ‘And then come the night jars’, which was ready for production by the end of the year. Bristol Old Vic didn’t have the resources to put on even a small production of the play, so Bea touted it elsewhere and it won Theatre 503’s playwriting award. Happily by the time it came to produce the show, Bristol Old Vic was in a position to co-produce and it played with us for two weeks at the beginning of this month. Did anybody see it? [responds to audience member] And? [audience member gives positive response] Good, great! I’m going for ‘utterly heart-breaking and beautiful’, but there we go! It’s a two hander, set on a farm during the foot and mouth crisis, about the destruction of the farming industry and the decline of rural communities. It was really loved by our audience and across two weeks in our studio it probably reached about 800 people. I think it’s a play that’s got mass appeal across our region. People for whom the crisis it describes isn’t an abstract historical event, but a real tragedy that they lived through. It’s obvious to me that the show should tour, extensively, to village halls and arts centres across the breadth of counties that I just listed.
Now, Bristol Old Vic doesn’t have the resources or the expertise to plan, manage or deliver such a tour. But, there might be someone in this room who does. There might be someone in this room who knows someone who does. I think it’s not just about ‘Night Jars’, there should be a network of touring opportunities for a lot of the work that’s generated by our Ferment department. We really should be promoting local artists within our community and sharing their voices across the region. I’d love to talk more about this to anyone who’s interested.
Finally, what might be the benefit to our staff working more closely? I think, again, this could be really exciting; we’re all a centre of expertise in one way or another. We should be openly sharing opportunities for learning and staff development where possible. Bristol Old Vic has loads to offer – opportunities to crew on a main house show, to work with our marketing team to deliver a city wide campaign, to shadow the legendary Fred Stacy in our workshop, to learn how to duty manage a bigger house, to gain experience at producing at scale, come and work with our outreach department and our young company. We could facilitate all those things if organisations could find time for their staff to take a secondment. We’ve often talked on team days about being a teaching theatre, so I know that there would be huge enthusiasm within the team for offering any kind of professional development on that sort of scale. I’m sure that there are people within our team who could identify reciprocal opportunities that they’d be keen to explore elsewhere.
The really brilliant thing about the theatre industry, and I’ve been struck by this many times in the last year since leaving my very narrow focused role at the National and engaging again in the wider community across the country, is how supportive and how non-competitive it is. Yes, there are moments when, for example, sister organisations like Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory have to be very careful not to programme across each other and to compete for audiences but, in general, no organisation needs to achieve its success at the expense of any other. It’s good for Bristol when Bath Theatre Royal are doing well, when the Tobacco Factory is doing well and when other local venues are making good work. It’s good for all of us when the standard of theatre is generally high and reliable. It gives audiences the confidence to keep coming back and to try something new. It’s also amazing how willing we are as a community of colleagues to share advice, to try and develop projects together, to pool our ever diminishing public subsidy and find new ways of making it go further. I think we work in an amazing generous and broad minded industry, and the reasons that I see goodwill fail are often to do with the huge remit that we now have and the very real limits of time and energy. I certainly speak for myself when I say my good intentions are hampered most often not by scant resources, but more often by the sheer scale of my remit and the fact that I just can’t do it all. I hope that’s an admission of non-superhuman-ness that many people also share.
I say this partly as a note to myself, not to get carried away with lots of brilliant ideas but we shouldn’t waste this precious energy that we have got in lots of fantastic sounding but ultimately undeliverable ideas, possibly like some of the ones I’ve talked about (!). But, we should think about what would genuinely be really efficient and valuable for us all to engage with and what will make the most differences to our audiences, our artists and our staff.