‘When we began, three men and a dog were watching shows... now we sell out’

David Edmunds.
David Edmunds.
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Wherever you live, you deserve to see the best new contemporary stage work. Nick Ahad reports on a company that’s making it possible.

You may have heard; we’re living in worrying times for the arts.

Funding is being slashed, the Arts Council is attempting to mitigate the impact of centrally imposed cuts and companies are being forced to find new ways of not only creating art, but of surviving at all.

Is there a danger that while artists are fighting the cuts, Rome might burn? What if the result of arts organisations (understandably) pouring all their energy into arguing the case for their existence – is that they take their eye off the creative ball?

In the performing arts, for example, would it mean that theatres end up programming an endless loop of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat for their audience because it’s well-known and gets bums on seats? Man cannot live by cheese alone.

While the big picture is a war for theatres to convince funders of their necessity, there are smaller battles happening to make sure that British theatre continues on the upward trajectory that has in recent years seen our stage work conquering Broadway and beyond.

Step forward David Edmunds.

An independent producer, whose company Dep Arts is based in Leeds but also programmes work around the county and country, Edmunds has been given almost a quarter-of-a-million pounds as part of an Arts Council scheme called New Realities, to broaden the palette of work available to audiences in towns around Yorkshire.

Working in towns that might be considered the less artistically glamorous of the county, he has been charged with making sure that people from Barnsley, Hull, Bradford and Wakefield have as much variety in their creative diet as those living in Yorkshire’s larger metropolises.

“You put something like contemporary dance in your big cities – Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool – your trendy usual suspects, the law of averages and the concentration of people means you are likely to find your audience,” says Edmunds.

“But what about in Hull and Barnsley, places where that sort of work is a harder gig? It’s much harder graft trying to sell that sort of work in those sorts of places, but, for me, when you get those audiences in, it’s really rewarding. Their understanding of the work and the artistic rigour is just as relevant as an audience in a big metropolis, so surely it’s just as relevant to take work to those places?”

The argument might be made that if this work is going to be programmed into places like Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, then why not let the people interested from the less well served towns simply travel in? It’s not an argument that holds much water with Edmunds.

“First of all, the Arts Council’s mission is ‘great art for everyone’ – how can that be achieved if you are only programming the work we’re talking about in big cities? We want to take it to people,” says Edmunds.

The real reason for his evangelical zeal about taking work into these places comes from the fact that when he was growing up, it was in a Midlands town that was off the well-beaten touring track. Once he got access to exciting, bold and brave theatre, he never looked back, but it was thanks to the serendipity of having a forward-thinking teacher who introduced a class to contemporary dance that Edmunds discovered his calling.

He doesn’t want to leave to chance the possibility that the young people of those towns who don’t automatically get tours of contemporary work will witness something equally life-changing.

The Arts Council itself recognises the importance of removing luck from the equation, and last year announced a Strategic Touring Fund. It was to pump £45m into a scheme to encourage collaboration and ensure that ‘more people across England experience and are inspired by the arts, particularly in places which rely on touring for much of their arts provision’.

It is from this fund that Dep Arts has received £218,000 to work over the next three years on bringing work to five partner venues in Yorkshire – The Civic, Barnsley, Hull Truck Theatre, Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, Wakefield’s Theatre Royal and Northern Ballet in Leeds.

So why Dep Arts? The company was born six years ago by Edmunds, who had worked at Manchester’s Lowry Theatre, and as a producer for Phoenix Dance. He was there during one of the periods when the Leeds company was flying particularly high, and his job was to look after the touring the company was involved in – nationally and internationally.

When the artistic director Darshan Singh Bhuller left, Edmunds decided he would strike out on his own. Dep Arts quickly established itself as one of the leading independent production companies in the North.

Although he doesn’t make work, he has on his books touring theatre companies like Rash Dash, Ellie Harrison, and Balbir Singh Dance Company. He acts as a go-between, organising the tours for these companies, while they are left to concentrate on simply making the work.

“We are responsible for around 400 UK tour dates each year and another 120 international tour dates,” says Edmunds, who now employs six full-time producers working from the company’s base in the Yorkshire Dance’s building in Leeds. “It was a no-brainer that we work with the Arts Council on this project – touring is just what we do.”

So how does it work and why is it needed?

Touring theatre shows is an expensive business. Not that most audiences would notice, but a significant proportion of the work in theatre brochures you might see is bought in to the theatre. In some places – like Barnsley Civic – the amount of work made by outside companies and brought in is more significant than in other places. If you don’t have that touring work, then the cultural menu provided for people in the area is severely limited.

There is an added element to this. If you are a theatre that’s bringing work in, particularly in these financially difficult times, then you are likely to book the safe stuff, the work that will guarantee an audience – hence the reference to Joseph earlier.

Sam West, former artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, has recently argued that the reason we need funding to help artists at the early stages of their career is that, if we want to keep seeing hits on the scale of, for example, War Horse and Billy Elliot, then the artists that will one day write those money-generators need to make the smaller work first to learn their craft. Edmunds believes this – he also believes that “if you build it, they will come”.

“In touring there is a culture that you turn up to a venue, you don’t see anyone from management, you do the gig, three people turn up, you go home. The venue hasn’t bought into the show properly, so doesn’t know how to promote it, it’s all a bit unsatisfactory. But that’s just the model that touring theatre has used. It’s like a one-night stand,” says Edmunds

“We have been working with the companies that we produce and the venues that show their work to create much more of a relationship, so that there is a lot more in it for everyone – the companies making the work, the venues showing it and the audiences who get to see it.”

The reason, perhaps, that Edmunds and his company has been entrusted with more than £200,000 of public money to create these partnerships is not just because of his track record, but because what he’s describing has been a demonstrable success already.

For the past four years Dep Arts has been working with Hull Truck Theatre to programme contemporary dance into the venue, in a city that doesn’t have a particular history of the art form.

“When we began it was three men and a dog watching contemporary dance shows we took to the city – and the men were all related to the performers,” says Edmunds.

“But Hull had faith in what we were doing. Now the contemporary dance shows that we take to the city are performed in the theatre’s main stage and the studio – and we sell out. That has happened because we invested, the theatre invested and the authorities invested. People argue that contemporary work doesn’t have an audience – well, of course it doesn’t if you programme it on a Monday night, with no publicity, no tradition and expect an audience to just turn up. If you commit to it, commit to the audience they will be loyal.”

Dep Arts will use the public funding to work with the five partner venues across the country and present 72 shows over the next three years.

Initially, the work might not 
be all that popular, but as has already been demonstrated, commit to it, and the audiences will find you.

Edmunds’s background is in contemporary dance, although he now produces work that might largely be described as simply ‘contemporary’.

“The Olympics opening ceremony featured work by Akram Khan, a contemporary dancer, so even though people think of contemporary work as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’, it really isn’t – we just need to give people the opportunity to see it.”

The Avant Garde made accessible

The Arts Council created the Strategic Touring Fund in response to research showing that where you live has a profound impact on the chances of you attending arts events.

There are considerable differences in how much people are engaged with the arts in different parts of the country – people living in Bradford, for example, are significantly less likely to have access to the arts than those living in somewhere like Manchester.

Dep Arts will work with a number of companies, including Rash Dash, Rosie Kay Dance and theatre-makers Dan Bye and Ellie Harrison, to bring their work – considered more avant garde – to some of these less well-served regions of the county.