It celebrates its 25th birthday next year and is a finalist in this year’s Lancashire Tourism Awards' ‘Cultural Venue/Organisation of the Year’ category. Fiona Finch reports on the enduring and innovative success of the Spot On touring network
There’s no business like show business.
But to get a taste of top theatre, fine music or delightful dance why should you have to travel to cities and towns?
That is the thinking behind Spot On, Lancashire’s rural touring network, which seeks to bring high quality live performances to a range of church halls, community centres and pubs near you.
Its ambition is to ensure any county resident can access one of its shows within a five-mile radius of their home.
In recent years its remit has been extended to include libraries, so Spot On shows reach a range of more urban venues too.
Sue Robinson, a director of independent arts company Culturapedia, which manages Spot On, said: “We’re a bit like a dating agency, so we support nearly all volunteers or volunteer librarians in village halls and libraries to have the skills to book and promote theatre, music and puppetry. We find the companies that want to perform in these (venues) and put them in touch with each other.”
Sue and team provide a menu of performances which could be available, are suitable for the size of venue and affordable: “We find the artists, do the admin and make it as easy as possible so volunteers have the fun.”
That fun and reward comes in large part from making the event happen in their locality, meeting the performers and seeing the delight of an audience.
Sue said: “The rewards for the artists are they have a relationship with their audience – you’re in their ‘home’, like you’re a guest in their home. They have to adapt to how people work in these villages and libraries. If you’re in the audience you can talk to the artists afterwards over a cup of tea or a glass of wine.”
Costs for tickets are kept as accessible as possible in the £8 to £10 range and the organisers are pleased to save the audience travel costs.
Sue added: “We all know it’s an hour from Manchester to see a show – you’ve got to be able to afford that (travel) time and afford that money.”
Put simply instead of moving the audience around the artists move around.
She reports that audience members get a taste for Spot On events and come back for more: “We mostly have core audiences and also new audiences that find us. It’s like finding a secret club.They feel they’ve unearthed this treasure and want to be part of it. It’s very cosy. You’re walking into a community venue and it’s relaxed, welcoming and friendly.”
Venues are encouraged to mix up art forms – hosting music and dance as well as drama and children’s events – space permitting.
Sue said “Some of our venues are very little. Calder Vale village hall probably fits in 50 people. Clayton Green library would fit in 60.”
The smallest venue is the Dog Inn at Belthorn: “It can fit in 40 if you just have one or two performers.”
Spot On gets funding from the Arts Council and Lancashire County Council as well as Wyre, Ribble Valley, Fylde Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council.
Inspiration for which acts will appear on the menu of prospective performers comes from attendance at festivals ranging from the Edinburgh Fringe to Take Off and the Just So Festival.
There is also an international connection with The Atlantic Presenters Association on the Maritime East coast of Canada. The link goes back 14 years and has seen a range of musicians and performers appear on county stages. Sue said: “We get references and we look at the quality of the writing and performance. Even though it’s in a village hall it’s a professional standard performance.”
Venues range from Ingol and Clayton Green libraries to Dunsop Bridge Village Hall, Bleasdale Parish Hall and The Dog Inn at Belthorn. Apart from quality selected shows have to be quickly put up and put-downable, as venues may be squeezing performances in between other events and meetings and libraries have set services to provide. The props and equipment must be easily moveable too, as Sue explains: “They’ll travel around the county in a small van. Our challenge in a sense is we’re just a website, then we pop up for one night then go and then pop up somewhere else.”
There are two show seasons, autumn and spring. Sue said: “Generally it’s a six month cycle – we’re doing the menu for spring 2020 now, that takes three months to do and then performers are on the road over the next three months.”
She notes the performances have the added advantage of being staged in a less formal and relaxed environment.
She recalls how they were contacted to ask if a performance would be suitable for someone who had suffered a brain injury and might not cope with formal theatre setting: “Because it’s so relaxed they were able to stay...Someone may be isolated, lonely or widowed in a village. They can just walk down the road and have a night out.”
* Spot On’s first digital commission Hit The North, a short film by digital artist Matt Wilkinson is on tour now. Forthcoming shows include: Love Letters from Blackpool at Eccleston library on November 9 and jazz quartet The Busquitos at Longton library on October 19. See www.spotonlancashire.co.uk
* Spot On is managed by Culturapedia which in partnership with Cheshire Rural Touring Arts forms the Cheshire Lancashire Touring Partnership.