Theatre Bristol was founded as an organisation in 2005, but the story of how we got to where we are now is not a straightforward one.
Here’s a little potted history how Theatre Bristol came about:
In 2001, Arts Council England published a review of the theatre sector which recommended further investment. The resulting funds were spent differently in different areas, but in the South West it was decided to invest in a series of what they called “locality plans”.
This meant that rather than making decisions from the top, the SW regional Arts Council pulled together key stakeholders in each locality – such as venue programmers, local authority leaders, higher education representatives – to work together to consider how best to invest the money. In Bristol, just the act of bringing these stakeholders together was a turning point. Some of those people had never been in a room together before, despite working in the same sector, in the same city. Shared interests were established right from the start. The first thing that group decided to do was to audit what was already happening in the city. They put this audit brief out to tender, and they awarded it to an artist, Seth Honnor.
Seth suggested building a website which could hold and make visible all this data. Anyone involved in theatre in Bristol could upload information about their work directly to the site, so it wouldn’t rely on one staff member having to know who to talk to and do all the research themselves. The website needed a name that was easy to google and find. It was about ‘theatre’ and ‘Bristol’ so, they called it theatrebristol.net.
Inevitably, that audit process threw up a number of gaps and needs. One of which was artist development. So in 2005 Theatre Bristol fundraised to test out 3 pilot “Creative Producer” roles to work directly with artists to develop their practice. The roles were designed to address area of historic underinvestment: circus and street theatre, physical and visual theatre, live art and experimental theatre.
At that time, it was Arts Council policy in the South West not to create any new regularly funded organisations. This meant that Theatre Bristol couldn’t think about itself as an organisation in the conventional way. Instead we designed our activity as a series of interlinked action-research projects including hosting theatrebristol.net, offering bespoke artist support, exploring international exchange, commissioning new work with partners like Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Mayfest and Bristol City Council; hosting regular Open Space discussion meetings, and undertaking strategic research for the sector, such as Bristol Live.
Not being a ‘proper’ organisation taught us some great lessons about collaboration and partnership working. It’s our agenda to help our partners and collaborators, including the artists we work with, be better and achieve better.
Last 5 years
After 5 years of fundraising for projects to make Bristol’s live performance scene more confident, sustainable and ambitious, we re-focussed our efforts slightly into a more proactive producer role – with artist support at the heart of this. We became a collective of producers. We dropped the art-form specialisms but kept working hard to create networks for any artist from any genre of live performance. Without a curatorial agenda, we are able to be open and honest and can start with the idea rather than the style of work.
From 2012, Theatre Bristol secured 3-year core funding from Arts Council England, for the first time in its history as of the new National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) and a Bristol City Council Key Arts Providers (KAP). Becoming a ‘proper’ organisation was great, because it meant we could plan longer term and test initiatives such as our Company Producer and Writer In Residence roles. But it’s not something we take for granted, and we have kept listening to artists and others in order to keep ourselves useful as an organisation. In 2012, we drew up a series of ethos statements which could help us hold true to our vision. These are included in our current Theatre Bristol Business Plan.
Where we are now
In 2017 we were proud to be selected to be one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations 2018-2022, and received funding from Bristol City Council under their new Cultural Investment Programme. This is great news for our continued development, but as with most of the sector the amounts we received represent a financial cut in real terms. Our priority over the next four years is to make Theatre Bristol useful and accessible to more people, while developing our organisational resilience in an ethical way. You can read about how we will do this in our new Business Plan, which will be uploaded here soon.