“I started my job – as the Artistic Director and CEO of national portfolio theatre company tiata fahodzi – on the exact day, in 2014, that Arts Council England launched the Creative Case for Diversity and – supposedly – the moment “measured action on diversity in arts and culture goes mainstream” and a re-expressed commitment to representative programming, workforce, leadership and audiences. I can’t hear the words creative, case, for, diversity without getting agitated and I’ve written endless threads about the problem with the creative case discourse but it was at this launch conference that a seed of thought, which I’ve been watering for over three years, was born.
The impressive Dawn Walton, of Eclipse Theatre, said – on a panel that day – that audience development is as simple as inviting people to your party. And I thought – like the viral gif of The Wire’s Wee-Bey reaction – wow, yes yes yes.
And then I thought – looking around at my own organisation and beyond – hang on, you don’t throw a party without having some friends first.
Theatre is one of my best friends. I adore her. I adore the way she makes you feel like you are the only one experiencing her, in that place, at that moment – like your very first experience of love and heartbreak. I’ll wake up at 5am to stand on Portobello Beach in Edinburgh watching performers wade through the river for her, I’ll miss my last train back to Watford after watching 1500 pigeons fly near a sewage museum at dusk for her, join a queue of thousands only to have to see Angels in America in the wrong order (because it’s the only way and I got caught up in the chase) for her, spend all my disposable income on Hamilton for her and, yet, she can be so very tricky.
She’s the kind of friend who can play really hard to get. She’s the kind of friend that you’re not sure how you became friends in the first place – people are always a bit surprised that you hang out – and sometimes her way of showing she cares is to be a bit mean and you leave a date worrying if you really like each other at all. She’s the kind of friend you get a bit tense when introducing to your other friends or family; sometimes she’s on top form, full of charm, and others she’s a bit much, you know, and you spend the whole night watching them watching her and making soothing apologetic faces to everyone. She’s that friend.
Currently, in my eyes, she – theatre – is also the kind of friend who throws a party and then scrambles to make friends on the eve of the party so as not to be left embarrassed standing in an empty room clutching a bottle prosecco, fighting back the tears, having spent hundreds of pounds on a new dress, crates of beer, and a buffet full of finger food.
Then, when doing the ring round in the 6.45pm – desperate to look popular and relevant – she’s met with silence because historically she – theatre – has said her parties are only for a certain type of person, who looks and speaks a certain way, who knows the rules of a party, who has a party dress and already knows the address and the special code to get into the building.
Only that won’t cut it anymore – and she knows it. She’s lonely – her old friends are dwindling, dying, leaving and less and less people know the special code. People have started throwing their own parties, in their own places and spaces. So, she’s buying lots of self-help books, listening to podcasts and doing workshops but – really – still she thinks her parties are the only parties worth coming to. She’s that friend.
At my most cynical, most tired, most beaten from the fight to make sure that we all – everyone with no exceptions – get to see ourselves in our full complexity, where shortcuts fail to function and where theatre offers understanding and feels relevant to the lives we live – think the sector I’ve devoted 15 years to has no genuine interest in people who look like me. They don’t really want me in their bars, on their stages, in their offices, in their auditoriums, around their board tables. Because, the kind of exclusion we’re fighting is abnormal. Diversity – and by that I mean simply difference and variety – is unremarkable so it takes a lot of hard work to have built a sector where there is mono/all (insert race, class, gender, sexuality, disability) anything and yet – in 2018 – we’re still seeing all white seasons, still lying to ourselves and each other about the world we live in today, still making it really hard to be in cultural buildings. Ask me about the time an old white man asked me about the status of my mobile phone (on or off) despite the fact it was nowhere to be seen, as soon as he sat down beside me. Ask me about the time I watched an autograph-seeker make a Nazi salute to the black theatre security guard and the theatre management staff suggested, when I reported it over email later, that I be the one to report it to the police. Ask me about the times I’ve been hyper-visible and, yet, invisible in theatre buildings run by my colleagues.
But, at my most optimistic, I believe that we all want more – and different – audiences, if only because it makes good business sense. However, we’re all limited by resources and therefore forced into a short-term, show-specific, parachute in-and-out, theatre-as-saviour evangelist model when thinking about audiences who have yet to make a relationship with venues or theatre as a form. The current model sees relationships made – or half-made – and then inevitably neglected as the attention has to move onto the next show, not just ineffective and unfulfilling for both venue and audience but also hindering, rather than supporting, the true development of authentic relationships with audiences. With each approach, the relationship gets more strained. Something else needs to happen. There has to be another way.
You don’t throw the party then make friends to fill it, you live your life in authentic relationship with people, find things in common, make friends and think – I’ve got loads of friends, I’m going to throw a party. And then – if you’re a genuine and valued friend whom people like to spend time with – they come, without having to be coerced, bribed or given a ticket code. Even better, they bring a bottle and a friend. We believe – at tiata fahodzi – that if we get to know our future audiences and engage them in friendship first then – like all rewarding friendships – they’ll seek out opportunities to spend more time with us, there will be no hard sell.
Making friends is easy, right? Well it used to be – when you were a cute little 4.75 year old with a fearlessness, generosity of spirit and a soggy biscuit to share but it only gets harder the older you get. When you google “how to make friends”, there are about 4,060,000,000 results (0.53 seconds) so everyone’s got something to say about the science of making friends but most of the four billion agree that to make friends you need to:
- be social and open to friendship.
- make yourself available to those you encounter through shared experience – location, purpose, activity etc.
- talk to – and with – people about yourself and them.
- ask to spend more time with them.
- pursue common interests.
- demonstrate loyalty – being prepared to make sacrifices of time and energy for friends.
- be a good friend – initiate activities, remember birthdays, ask about the other person, be reliable, a good listener, trustworthy.
- be your best self for them.
- keep in touch.
- be consistent.
What might that look like for a theatre company based nowhere, but also everywhere? At tiata fahodzi, we’re asking what’s the equivalent of meeting each other at the bus stop, running into each other in the local supermarket? Is there an equivalent or are those places exactly where we – a theatre company – need to be? And then, how do you become as essential in their life as the supermarket, church, youth club, the dentist? All before we even begin to think about throwing the party / making a show and how to sell it.
So, over the next four years, we’re putting our money, time and resources where our mouth is and where our heart is. We are preparing to launch a brand new role for tiata fahodzi: the Friendship Producer who will lead our new friendship model – centred around a key idea of ‘doing life together’ and creating shared moments of connection and relationship with our national African heritage diasporic community, developing our multi-local personality across England.”
natalie ibu is the Artistic Director & CEO of tiata fahodzi.