Blog: Why rural theatre is thriving

Audience numbers for professional shows in rural UK venues are growing, according to new figures from the National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF). Jack Bond, who works for the organisation, along with rural touring schemes Spot On Lancashire and Cheshire Rural Touring Arts, explains why it’s so important that innovative theatre tours beyond the big cities.

Figures gathered by the NRTF have shown that audiences going to live arts events in rural areas have risen by 26 per cent in the past decade.

There are 26 rural touring schemes across England, Wales and Scotland who hosted 2,856 live performances in 2015/16, with a total of 332,140 people attending those events.

For those unfamiliar with the way rural touring works, I’ll talk you through the process. The majority of my work is with Spot On Rural Touring, the scheme responsible for Lancashire, but the process is pretty much the same across all schemes.

We work with promoters, many of whom are volunteers, who are responsible for their local village hall or similar rural venue. As a rural touring scheme we build a ‘menu’ listing different professional shows that are touring. This could be anything from theatre or music to dance and live literature. We send the menu out to our promoters, they pick the top three shows they would like to have in their venue, and we go about working out who can have what and when.

Promoters are absolutely critical to the success of rural touring. They are local people who know their audiences better than anyone (many will be friends and family) and they are able to select work they believe will be suitable for their community. They are also aware of what will be the most effective marketing strategy for that area, which can be anything from telling your mates down the pub, to putting a poster up in a local shop or advertising in the local parish newsletter.

The NRTF estimates that there are around 1,659 promoter groups across England, Wales and Scotland, who all together worked approximately 112,568 volunteer hours in 2015/16. Of the 1,659 groups, 43 are designated young promoter groups, which allow under-25s to get involved with programming a venue too.

The work that these promoters put in up and down the country has made a massive contribution to increasing audiences in the sector.

So why do people come to rural touring events?

For starters, it means that they can experience high-quality art on their doorstep without having to travel to theatres in the surrounding towns and cities. It’s a great night out in their local community, where they will likely be surrounded by other people they know and they sometimes get the chance to meet the artists and performers after the show to chat with them and maybe share a drink.

On the whole the venues are very intimate spaces where they can witness the show up close and personal, something that is rare in conventional, larger theatre venues.

It is also a fantastic opportunity for smaller scale companies and artists to be able to tour their work. Often if a show is picked up by several rural touring schemes, companies can be touring right up and down the country from Scotland to Wales and right down to Cornwall.

The range and diversity of work on offer across England, Scotland and Wales is staggering. During the current spring season in Lancashire alone our programme features The Chef Show, a play set in a curry house which features a local chef cooking live on stage, Blind Date, a dance performance from French-Canadian company Les Bordeliques, starring former Cirque du Soleil performers, Churchfitters, a British/French folk trio whose array of instruments includes the unique ‘bing-bong’ machine made out of hack-saw blades and Reynard The Fox, a family show performed on The Fabularium’s traditional wooden cart.

It’s quite the artistic smorgasbord! The picture is very much the same across all of the NRTF’s member schemes.

With such a diverse collection of shows on offer, it’s maybe not surprising that audience numbers are on the up. If you’re unfamiliar with rural touring I really would recommend it, whether you live in a rural area or not. The NRTF website has a map with all the schemes on and contact details for each one so it’s well worth checking out what’s on offer in your local area.

The NRTF is a member led organisation that works strategically with partners to develop work and deliver high quality art experiences that strengthen rural and other communities.