Image by Richard Stanton
When I get through to Elizabeth Freestone on a patchy line she’s not quite certain where exactly she is: “I’m currently at Darwen Library Theatre… I got a train here this morning – I’m near Bolton and Blackburn.”
This sense of disorientation is hardly unexpected from an artistic director in the final week of a tour that has criss-crossed the rural nation, from Cornwall to Cumbria, Northumberland to Leicester and Shropshire to Staffordshire. In their biggest tour yet, Each Slow Dusk presented by Pentabus Theatre Company and written by Rory Mullarkey, offers an alternative look at World War One:
“What the play does very successfully is give people a different way of talking about the war… It lets you have new conversations about something you thought you had said everything you had to about.”
Pentabus is based in Shropshire and labels itself as “the nation’s rural theatre company”. Freestone articulates their goal by stating that: “live rural touring is always going to be at the heart of what we do. Brilliant new plays by great writers to rural venues.”
This core mission does present challenges through the nature of one night touring where “there is a totally different physical framework to each show.” From village halls to small theatres in market towns, not only are there new environments but also “totally new audiences”.
Freestone elaborates on these specific differences when playing to rural viewers: “There’s always something very special about coming directly to an audience who don’t otherwise have access to professional theatre”. Often the spectators will be intergenerational, and also be from the same area:
“People often know each other so you have a community and neighbours experiencing work together, which is something you don’t get in urban places where it’s largely a room full of strangers.”
The importance of making theatre accessible and affordable to those outside of the major conurbations has been a hot topic of late. Kirstie Davis artistic director of Forest Forge, recently took to the Guardian to kick-start the debate on the future of rural touring. Davis claims that while rural touring is coming into its own with exciting technological developments, there are also companies being left behind.
Pentabus undertook one of these innovative digital advances last year when they broadcast Milked to the Royal Court’s online channel. Unlike NT Live with its multiple cameras and global audience, this was purely a live stream for anyone to watch. And, as Freestone blogged on the Guardian, 250 people from across the world tuned in to watch a brilliant new play from a small theatre in Hertfordshire.
Freestone wanted to take live streaming even further for this tour: “What we wanted to do this time was go even more guerrilla, and do it from a village hall.” After struggling to find a good enough broadband signal and locating the right camera crew, The Palace in Ibstock have overcome the logistical issues and are due to live stream on Fri 19 November.
“It’s an example of a real grass-root type production of new writing coming out in the world that way. And it’s really special for the people who work there to be part of that.”
Freestone believes that rural and urban theatre “absolutely works both ways” and the live stream is an example of this interconnectivity. Not only are Pentabus making sure that the rural world gets affordable theatre, but “we equally want then to inject rural narratives into the urban mainstream”. This sense of flux is summarised by Freestone: “We are trying new things and making connections between the two.”
As part of these developments, Freestone spearheaded the New Writers Festival and set up a commissioning structure that “really put writers at the heart of what we do”. And now it is all paying off: “We’re now in the stride where we’ve sorted out the kind of writers that are right for us.”
The success and popularity of Pentabus is clearly evidenced in the year of its 40th birthday that has been “completely wild. Brilliant!” It appears that “when you start digging you realise that pretty much anyone who works in theatre has at some point been through Pentabus!” This anniversary has made Each Slow Dusk even more special with the audiences having people who have watched the shows for forty years:
“You can have amazing conversations about how they lives have changed and developed, and your work has been part of that journey with them. So that’s been incredible.”
With their loyal audience, the embracing of the digital and focus on writers Pentabus is still delivering its 1974 mission, albeit with a 21st century twist.
Watch Each Slow Dusk live on Fri 21 November at The Royal Court online.