PANTO time is when most children get taken to the theatre but a new consortium of North East venues is keen to make it a more frequent occurrence.
The North East Children’s Theatre Consortium aims to increase theatre provision for young audiences across the region and raise the quality of what’s on offer.
At a time when stories about budget cuts have figured prominently, the consortium looks like an initiative to lighten the gloom.
It is the brainchild of Miranda Thain, creative producer of the region’s specialist theatre company for young people, Darlington-based Theatre Hullabaloo.
Miranda says the idea was driven by the appetite for children’s theatre across the region and the fact some venues were programming work that wasn’t very good.
TV spin-off shows and “large stadium stuff” may pull in family audiences but Miranda believes they don’t always offer much mental stimulus.
Partners in the consortium, she says, “share the belief that children and young people have an entitlement to regular access to theatre of the highest quality in order to stir their imaginations, inspire their hearts and challenge their minds”.
Plenty of that sort of work can be seen in the annual Takeoff Festival of theatre for children and young people which has taken place in the North East since 1997 and is also masterminded by Theatre Hullabaloo.
The 2012 festival took place in Durham, following the closure of Darlington Arts Centre, with a three-day conference and shows by various British and European companies over six days.
“There are lots of little venues in the North East that programme a variety of work, including theatre for children and young people, and we invited them to come and talk to us about how we might work collaboratively,” says Miranda.
“Just as we started to talk about this the Arts Council came up with a new fund called Strategic Touring to encourage different theatre touring models. We decided to apply for funding, having agreed to work with these other venues, and were very successful in securing £166,000 for three years.”
The consortium, led by Theatre Hullabaloo, includes Arts Centre Washington, Gala Theatre, Durham, Darlington Civic Theatre, Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre, Lamplight Arts Centre, Stanley, and Middlesbrough Town Hall Theatre.
“It’s very exciting that the Arts Council is willing to support an initiative like this which involves different venues with different levels of resources,” says Miranda.
“It’s great that the venues are supporting it too because some of them are under threat from local authority cuts.”
The objectives of the consortium, whose work over three years will be evaluated by Teesside University, include the provision of an ambitious programme of theatre for young audiences, raising the profile of such work and working with the individual venues to build audiences in their area.
There’s another motive, as Miranda explains: “We are really hoping that in three years’ time we can establish the North East as one of the hotspots of children’s theatre in the world.”
Already, she says, there is considerable demand for children’s shows at North East theatres, with box office takings often exceeding those for adult productions.
But the consortium aims to put on more challenging work, encouraging a sense of adventure not just among children but among their parents.
In signing up to the consortium, the theatres have embraced the challenge but Miranda acknowledges that it’s sometimes easier to book – or to buy tickets for – shows that ride on the back of successful TV programmes.
“A lot of it is to do with confidence,” she says.
With some good shows under its belt and positive word-of-mouth, she hopes the consortium will develop a reputation for top quality and build trust in its audiences.
Miranda believes a North East circuit of venues will make it more attractive for theatre companies to visit the region.
She also envisages more work being done around a production.
“We’re looking at an extended programme of activities so you don’t just see a 50-minute show but get the opportunity to do other things in the venue afterwards.
“We are also hoping to develop a loyalty offer so that if, for instance, you make four visits to the theatre, you get a fifth visit free.
“We want to encourage the idea that the theatre isn’t something that just happens at Christmas.”
The 2012 Takeoff Festival included 52 performances of plays from many different places, including Theatre Hullabaloo’s own production of The Elves and the Shoemakers which went on a successful tour at the end of the year.
More about Theatre Hullabaloo and its projects can be found on www.theatrehullabaloo.org.uk