Anticipation. You know you’re in for a treat. There’s a hum of chatter. Rows of chairs filled with locals from near and far are gathering for great theatre and great music.
The anticipation is well founded for those like me who have seen Highlights productions before: the variety, the inventiveness, the talent, the slickness of the productions is astonishing. Perhaps more surprising is that it all happens in our village hall at Bardon Mill, with its glass roof built as a community project on the site of a reclaimed colliery yard.
Local volunteers move chairs, deal with tickets and run the bar. Many of the members of the audience know each other and this adds an extra level of support for the organisers, the performers and the rest of the audience that is absent from the big theatres in the city and the concert halls of less familiar places. This is Highlights, a production company that aims to thrill rural audiences with top quality music and theatre on their doorstep with prices a good deal less than a round of drinks.
The scene that I have just painted unfolded as I sat in my seat waiting for the lights to go down for a Highlights show at the end of last year.
Live theatre has been absent from venues great and small this year and so we contacted Highlights Co-director Rosie Cross to find out how this rural production company had fared in the past and how it planned to tackle a challenging future.
I wanted to find out how Highlights puts its programme together and the impact it has on the communities it serves in Northumberland, County Durham and Cumbria,
Cross told me that putting the programme together was always an exciting process
Twice a year, in preparation for the two seasons (roughly January to May and September to December) Highlightscurates a ‘menu’ of all kinds of art forms – drama, music, family shows, comedy, storytelling, spoken word and dance. The volunteer promoters and their committees decide what they feel would work best in their particular village. The promoters need to be mindful of the physical constraints of their hall. Some have a tiny village hall with an audience capacity of 50, where a larger scale drama would simply not fit! Others have quite large halls and are well equipped with stage lighting and backstage facilities.
Highlights presents what’s on offer for the next season at a ‘menu launch’ event.
A volunteer promotor had this to say about one such event:
“Attending a Promoters’ show menu launch event is a bit like opening a box of chocolates. You know your eyes will light up as you get to see everything, you know you’ll get a bit of guidance, but then you know you’ll be left to just sit back, feel spoilt, and get to pick the ones you really like”.
I asked about how audiences responded and about what was the impact on the lives of people in rural communities. Comments included
“Excellent to have quality performances at local venues”
“Lucky that I am able to see wonderful entertainment like this so close to home”
Many people point out that if it weren’t for the Highlights performances coming to their village, they would have to make up to a 90 – 100 mile round trip to go to a theatre, concert hall and then pay for parking and so on.
Cross mentioned many who talked about the feeling of well-being that they experience. Audience members often said that the experience was relaxing and uplifting and that they felt energised. Other comments included:
”I feel humbled, inspired and better informed about global issues”
“The staging felt intimate so you felt involved with the dancers/actors and could appreciate their movement skill”
“I’ve never experienced opera before. The goose bumps I got from it means I will have to go again”.
It was clear from Rosie Cross that Highlights held a winning formula, but I wondered what the future held bearing in mind the current restrictions on public gatherings and communal venues. She was very upbeat about the future despite the obvious challenges.
“In a Covid-free year we aim to deliver around 160 performances per year and around 20 participatory linked activities, reaching around 9,000 people. This year numbers will be different! Since the lockdown we have been keeping in regular contact with our promoters, signposting them and our audiences to different online cultural events and opportunities.”
“We cancelled 13 scheduled performances between mid-March and the beginning of June. We paid artists and companies between 75% and 100% of their agreed fee.”
“Without an Autumn season, we are looking at other ways that we can deliver to our rural communities during this time.”
Cross went on to describe plans for the coming months. Projects include
- Commissioned live online performances, with interaction between the audience and the performer
- Rural Touring on the radio in partnership with BBC Radio Cumbria
- Creative Engagement Online – online workshops and activities to encourage participation, showcased on our website and on social media.
- Spring 2021 teasers – online videos and workshops to help showcase the forthcoming Spring season.
- Symphony of the Countryside – a listening and recording initiative in partnership with Cornish rural touring network, Carn to Cove.
Highlights is tentatively planning a Spring touring programme, but with the knowledge that there are still countless unknown factors…
You can find out more about Highlights on their website
UPDATE from Highlights on 22nd Sept 2020
With local lockdowns and new restrictions still making it difficult to get out and see culture, why not join us from the comfort of your home for a special performance on Friday 2nd October.
Keeping the Lights on by Ragged Edge Productions
A special live online event featuring a trio of short audio plays combined with a panel discussion for the audience to participate in.
Directed by Stefan Escreet with sound design by Mark Melville.