Grassroots globalisation

Gavin Stride is director of rural UK theatre company Farnham Maltings. Here he explains how international exchange is beneficial to rural theatre and why it must always be a two-way street. 

My mum used to say ‘caste your bread upon the water and it will come back as buttered toast’. I never really understood what she meant but I was reminded of her as I sat reflecting on the work we are doing to support theatre companies to work internationally.

Caravan is an initiative – led by Farnham Maltings, funded by Arts Council England (ACE) and the British Council – that has worked for the past ten years to help the independent theatre sector get work overseas. Our main activities are a biennial showcase within the Brighton Festival, a mentoring and training programme, guides to working in particular places and, latterly, running exchange programmes.

Our original purpose was to generate new overseas income strands for English-based artists, and some companies continue to tour to new places as a result of our showcases. However, we have come to realise other benefits too: caravan reaffirms a sense of purpose, develops new networks and opens up companies to new artistic practice.

We have also learnt that producers and festival programmers are as interested in exchange as they are in buying work; it is as likely for a festival organiser to see a production and be as curious about the artist as the show. They might want to talk about making a local version of a piece, commission a future idea or introduce the company to an artist associated with their festival or community.

This led us to re-think caravan as a starter of conversations. We should be as concerned with how we open England up as a place welcome artists, share ideas, collaborate and learn, as we are with exporting works. If we are to truly benefit from working internationally we need to build mutual partnerships, collaborations and friendships that have the potential to lead to a kind of ‘grassroots’ globalisation.

I think Turkish author Elif Shafak put it best when she said: “If we’re going to learn anything at all we are going to be learning it from people who are different. I have nothing to learn from someone who is exactly like me and I am worried that in Europe, in America, all across the world there is a tendency right now to see sameness as safety. They’re not the same thing. If we build communities of same looking, same speaking people it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be safer. We need diversity for democracy”

As a start to this process we have created a guide to touring in the UK, downloadable from our website; we act as visa sponsors for companies wanting to tour into the country; we develop international residencies opportunities; and we have begun to create a model of reciprocal partnerships – particularly with PuSh in Vancouver, and ACT in Shanghai. Now if an artist is presenting work with a partner we look to match them with a local company, explore residency opportunities and identify chances to bring artists from that partner to the UK.

We’re currently working on a year of projects with South Korea – funded by ACE and Arts Council Korea – which includes a programme of six-week residencies, the creation of new work, and the presentation of work in the UK and South Korea.

We start with a tour of Factory Girls by the Yangson Project from Seoul across the South of England. They will be presenting their show, set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, in places such as Poole, Portsmouth and Farnham. It is a playful, passionate and beautifully crafted piece of work made in a completely different place for a completely different audience.

We have learnt, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it takes a lot of time to make things happen, but that the process of working with people unlike ourselves is one of constantly clarifying what we are doing, why and how. This is a fantastically useful exercise at any time. I have been constantly surprised by my own lazy assumptions of what other people should know. Working with Yangson has helped me understand the things I think I thought I knew.

And I have discovered that my mum was right: the more generous one is, the more prepared we are to listen and help others, the greater the return in terms of other people helping us achieve the things we want.

Factory Girls is coming to Farnham Maltings on 28 September and touring the UK until 13 October. 

Gavin Stride is a director and producer of new theatre, predominantly for rural communities. He has taken work to the National Theatre, to Reykjavik for the European year of culture and to Lingfield village hall and he knows where he is happiest.

For the past twelve years Gavin has led Farnham Maltings as a creative organisation that supports the development of artists and audiences across South East England and beyond. He is the director of caravan, a programme of work designed to help artists to think and work internationally.