Now Showing: Creating an atmosphere you wouldn’t get in a theatre

An Audience with Henry VIII, RGR Productions/Foundry Group, performed at Allhallows Church 20/2/16

Mark Scudder, from the Isle of Grain, describes the experience that led him and his wife Noleen to become Now Showing Volunteer Promoters, and presenting Shakespeare in a 1000 year old church.

My wife Noleen and I became Now Showing volunteer promoters in Spring 2015, as part of the Isle of Grain Friends of All Saints Church group. Noleen came across the scheme, which invites promoters to work with Applause Rural Touring to put on work in their villages, and the Friends decided they would try it out both as a fundraising project and to raise awareness of the group.

There’s very little arts provision where we live – the nearest theatres are in Strood and Chatham and those are both a 25-minute drive away – so we thought people would be interested in seeing quality work on their doorsteps. But the thing that really pushed us to go for it initially was that it was risk-free financially. Ideas Test covers the cost of the first show booked with Applause so the group was able to keep the door takings to put towards the next show.

It was a challenge to start booking shows because we had no frame of reference. We had to determine what we thought would sell tickets and not just what we wanted to see, so we formed a sub-committee of six people ranging in age from 70s to 40s to go through the Applause menu. One of the things that seems to have a universal appeal is humour so we decided on Storm in a Teacup for our first show. It was an almost wordless performance of choreographed humour set to music so we felt it would appeal to a lot of different people. It was actually based on a Chekhov play but people didn’t need to know that to enjoy it.

The next discussion we had was about what price to charge for tickets. People used to travelling to the theatre in Chatham or Strood would know tickets are usually quite expensive. However we couldn’t price ours similarly because people who don’t go to those sort of shows wouldn’t pay that much – and this was all about bringing culture to people who wouldn’t normally be able to experience it. We decided to charge £8 for adults and £5 for OAPs and children under 12 and began getting the word out through as many channels as we could find including Facebook, village magazines and word-of-mouth. The Friends group includes a handyman and a window-cleaner and they have been fantastic at letting people know what’s on, as well as getting feedback afterwards.

We had a brilliant turnout for that first show in Allhallows Village Hall and the audience were really impressed by what they saw. Sixty of the 80 people who came filled out feedback forms and their responses were nearly all positive. Unfortunately they didn’t all return for the second performance we put on and we decided that in future, we would need to raise the price of tickets to ensure we broke even. We also wanted to work towards our initial aim of increasing membership of the Friends group so we raised the price to £10 for adult tickets and £7 for OAPs and kids but offered a £2 discount on each ticket if you became a Friend of All Saints Church.

We’ve staged another four shows since then, both in the village hall and in All Saints Church, and we’ve been really pleased with audience numbers.  It was really quite something to put An Audience with Henry VIII in a church that’s over 1,000 years old and it made for an atmosphere that you wouldn’t have got in a theatre.

Applause and Ideas Test make things very straightforward. Although it can be daunting at first, the menu is slick and the process is easy. We’ve found it’s harder work to arrange a strawberry cream tea at the church than an Applause show when all we have to do is turn up on the day, put chairs out, greet performers and audiences, and take tickets.

We now break even every time, which means we can keep putting on work and the programme has become a real talking point in the village. When people see each other in the in street they’ll often discuss what they have just seen. As a volunteer promoter, it’s pleasing to think you’re involved in something that’s enriching people’s lives. Okay, it may only be to a small degree but these shows are sometimes the only theatre people go to and it’s great to be able to bring them high-quality work. I’d advise anyone thinking of becoming a volunteer promoter to go for it.

If you’d like to have a chat about becoming a Now Showing Volunteer Promoter yourself, contact Bethan Tomlinson, our Now Showing Coordinator.