Restoke – Go and See; 
Liam Evans-Ford - Creative Producer, Blood and Chocolate

We have begun our go and see’s starting with a trip to the picturesque city of York where we had heard rumours of a wonderful promenade performance with a cast of 200 community and professional performers called ‘Blood and Chocolate’ (http://www.pilot-theatre.com/?idno=1183) The performance was repeated over three weeks and sold out before the opening night (hence we never got to see it!). So we were interested in how the city embraced this participatory project and if there was any learning we could bring back to Stoke-on-Trent. 

We met with Liam Evans-Ford Creative Producer for Blood and Chocolate and based at Pilot Theatre.
Pilot Theatre initiated the project, having been established for over 30 years they primarily produce touring work with an emphasis of reaching young people. Pilot wanted to undertake a new project which connected with York, where the company is based, and tell a meaningful story for the city. As an NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) they receive regular arts council funding, and teamed up with 2 other NPOs to deliver this project (Slung Low and Theatre Royal). An interesting find about Pilot Theatre was their pioneering approach to technology, they have developed techniques in successfully streaming live performance and are now employed by both arts organisations and local authorities (to broadcast political events) which means they have been able to diversify their income streams.

Although working in a very different structure to Restoke, we were still interested in what can be achieved in the duration of a participatory projects. Successes in this particular project seemed to lie in Liam’s understanding of the local culture and community through having delivered large-scale community arts performance (he was also creative producer for York Mystery Plays in 2012). He puts success in private giving down to finding the ‘fit’ of a project with a business. Blood and Chocolate told a story of the Lord major sending Rowntree chocolate tins to York’s soldiers fighting in the war. This story, along with strong community engagement, meant they secured a donation from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) as well as additional income and support from a local chocolate themed attraction as well as a new independent chocolate house. 

There were many different levels of involvement, from enticing corporate packages to simple stickers in windows and a donation of £50 from businesses on the performance route. Incentives included logos on promotional material (including many bus sides) and acknowledgement in the souvenir brochure. It was noted that business and culture seem to be pretty intertwined here, with people from both sectors meeting and networking regularly allowing informal introductions of project ideas and partnership building. The engagement was a huge part of this and Liam acknowledges the huge culture of participation in arts projects in York. He puts this down to the tradition of the Mystery Plays, which would originally be acted out by the community and hosted by local businesses in a promenade procession through the city. This tradition seems to have stuck along with its appeal to local businesses. 

One of the most interesting things we learnt from Liam, however, was their attention to the skills of volunteers and participants who were catalysed to take on some of the challenges of marketing, building audiences and fundraising. This included teams of volunteer photographers documenting the process, people handing out flyers and manning sandwich boards during on site rehearsals and even the participants fundraising themselves for the project (eg. cake sales, ‘click through’ blogs and badge making!)

So this led us to think about the culture of participation in Stoke-on-Trent. We have had great success recently in gathering a cast of over 40 performers, not to mention crew and volunteers for our last project and for the arrival of the Olympic Torch in Stoke-on-Trent in 2012 our consortium cohorts B Arts paraded through the streets with over 1000 community performers! Not to mention the countless choirs, drama groups, dance schools and arts groups in the region…. so participation is well and truly alive here too!
Community is perhaps the real key for Restoke to connect to routes of private giving, both from individuals and local business. The participants in our work reach further out into the community than we ever could alone, offering important and real networks. With a bit of extra planning and foresight this resource (for want of a better word!) could be utilised in building our audiences, funding and impact. This potential in making the most out of the communities that come together through our work is something that really excites us, not only is it beneficial to the income of the project but also empowers the people involved and deepens the level of investment they have in the project.

We are already in the process of applying this knowledge to our work as we sit here writing a new funding bid, we’re taking a (small) leap in building private giving into our project which will see us experiment with some of the learning that ‘Making it Work’ has allowed us to explore. Fingers crossed!!

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