Risking Together – Developing work in a regional setting
Working in a regional setting can often be a difficult scenario for artists; with so much focus on London within the arts, it can feel like there is a lack of support and resources for those who are not working in the capital. But with the arts scenes in these areas being potentially less competitive and saturated, should we be doing more to support the development of regional work?
Parabola Arts Centre in Cheltenham recently hosted Risking Together, an event aimed at generating discussion regarding the challenges of developing contemporary work in regional settings. Having recently moved from London to the South West I attended with a vested interest; there is a discernable difference between the ecology of work being created and discussed in Plymouth and London, and there definitely feels a need for discussion to provoke action in order to encourage the development of work in such settings. With provocations centred on the development of work, touring from regional bases and finding audiences in regional settings – and with attendees drawn from across the UK – the potential existed for serious debate to be had in order to encourage action which would support artists in these settings.
There is undoubtedly a draw to relocating to major cities – and London in particular – when intending to develop networks and to immerse one’s self in a broad spectrum of work; the larger a city, and the greater the investment in its cultural offer, the more there is for an arts community to engage with. Within regional settings there are a number of cities which do offer a great deal to their regions – from the ever-growing arts scene in Bristol to the new developments such as The Lowry in Salford and Leicester’s Curve Theatre, there are growing resources to those in more far-flung corners of the map. However, what of rural communities – is enough being invested in these communities to support artists development, or are we seeing a greater focus on the idea of venues becoming hubs to whole regions? In turn, if venues are talking to and supporting each other less in regional settings, do we run the risk of seeing smaller rural venues and companies going to the wall?
Much of the focus of Risking Together was on the idea of risk-taking in a regional context. As there are often more limited resources in smaller regional settings, there is in some respects a need for artists to take personal (often financial) risks in order to create their work – a risk which often seems greater due to there being less of a support network or safety net should this fail. However, resources aside we should be encouraging arts communities within these setting to support each other as much as possible in order to aid the development of work – by developing strong arts communities in regional settings a wider ecology of voices can develop, who can offer reciprocal support in the development of work. Much has been made of the idea of resource-sharing in light of the swathe of recent funding cuts, and this is particularly important in regional settings – with resources and money being even more thinly spread, sharing will not only help artists create work but will also help strengthen the sense of community between these artists. At present, it seems artists and companies do a good job of avoiding the risk of seeing others as ‘competition’ when creating work and applying for funding; we should strive to ensure things remain this way, or else we run the risk of not supporting artists throughout their development as we instead focus on immediate results and valuing the arts on a set of specific criteria.
There is an increasing trend for venues to offer space for companies to present works-in-progress at scratch nights, which can be a vital element in supporting the development of new work. In regional settings this can be hugely vital in allowing work to reach its full potential; where performance spaces may be limited, it reduces the pressure on artists to present work as ‘finished’ pieces, and allows them the opportunity to try ideas out in a more public setting and to gauge whether or not they can be further developed or abandoned. Work should be allowed to grow naturally in the time it needs, rather than putting pressure on artists to present work within an expected time-frame – if we impose time restrictions on work which is already being developed within a number of other perceived restrictions, then we risk stifling the creative risk-taking which many artists need in order to develop their practice. With many regions also seeing a lack of critics in attendance – particularly from national outlets, whose regional presence is ever-dwindling – this also helps open a critical dialogue around their work which may be less present with full performances. The need to open the critical dialogue with audiences, artists and critics is vital for the development of work at any stage, regardless of the setting; creating an environment where audiences are encouraged to become a part of this feels to me like an important concept which regional venues and companies should seek to expand upon.
Whilst focusing on regional work, we should also consider how the regions are connected to each other; we need to avoid insularity when creating work, particularly when thinking about possible touring. Regional communities will often have their own existing audiences, and venues should be willing to share their knowledge of these audiences to companies wishing to tour to them; when visiting an area you have no personal knowledge or experience of, it is vital that those with this knowledge are willing to share. Artists touring often do so a great financial risk to themselves, particularly in the early stages of their careers – the more we can reduce the risk to them through supporting them, the more inclined they may be to tour. If we encourage and support touring, then we help increase the ecology of work being created until artists can become self-sustaining – and who can then in turn support other artists who wish to develop and tour work. In addition, we should also seek to find ways in which different regions can become more connected; although there are obvious physical barriers between opposite corners of the British Isles, we are more connected than ever through the internet to the extent that we can increase dialogue between regions. Initiatives such as House in the South and Black Country Touring in the West Midlands exist to support both artists and venues within their regions with touring and receiving work, and provide templates for successful models of work which could be rolled out across the UK; their support can free up artists to spend more time creating work and less time at a desk, which can be liberating to artists with limited time and resources.
A key element to supporting the development of contemporary regional work is the need for open channels of communication between artists, venues and stakeholders; there needs to be the potential for established and perceived notions of how things are done to be challenged, and we need to support those who wish to take risks where there are potential benefits. As we increase dialogue between all parties we create a sense that work is being encouraged to develop and flourish – which will help create much stronger regional networks, and will in turn provide artists with more resources to help them create work which excites and challenges those who engage with it.