Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Laura Horton: Theatre Stories

By | Published on Monday 24 May 2021

When the pandemic hit – and it became clear that it would be a long time before things were ‘normal’ again in the world of the cultural industries – we understood immediately the devastating impact it could have on those who work in that area. Audiences and communities have been affected too, of course, and in deeper and more complex ways than simply the loss of sitting down to enjoy a performance.

Early in lockdown, writer, PR, and Plymouth Laureate Of Words Laura Horton began a project that would examine the ways in which theatres have an effect on local people. A year later, she’s poised to launch a campaign beginning 24 May, called ‘Theatre Stories’, with the aim of highlighting the importance of theatres to communities, and to change people’s perceptions about who theatre is for.

I spoke to Laura to find out more.

CM: It sounds like you have big plans for ‘Theatre Stories’. Can you start by telling us what it is, and what’s happening now? What will we see from the campaign in the coming weeks?
LH: ‘Theatre Stories’ is a digital campaign to collect and amplify the stories of people who are engaged with theatre but who are rarely heard from, aiming to change public perceptions about who theatre is for.

Through community-engaged theatres, companies and extensive outreach, I’ve collected stories about the impact of theatre on people’s lives so far through workshops and social media.

I’m currently working in conjunction with Derby Theatre, Mercury Theatre, Northern Stage, Theatr Clwyd, Theatre Royal Plymouth, The Space, Arts Council England and with producer Lizzie Vogler. I hope to expand the networks as I grow the project.

CM: Can you explain how this all began? What started you down this road and what were the first steps you took?
LH: It started in 2020 when news emerged that jobs were at risk at Theatre Royal Plymouth. I was fearful that we’d lose a brilliant producing venue in the region and knew I needed to throw myself into something that felt positive. I put a call out on social media asking people to send me their positive stories about the theatre.

CM: When you first began, what were you hoping to achieve?
LH: At first I really just wanted to find stories that evidenced how powerful theatre and the arts were, to send to the government and to share on social channels. I was just hoping to shine a light on the fact that the theatre impacts a lot of people from all walks of life.

CM: How successful was the project initially? What kind of response did it achieve?
LH: I collected more than 75 stories about how the venue had changed people’s lives; I was really thrilled by the response and range of stories. I sent them all along with a letter to my local MP and the Secretary Of State For Digital, Culture, Media And Sport. There was so much power in the tales that I used my PR experience to share them in regional and national press with consent from participants.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the people you have heard from and what kind of stories they have told?
LH: The stories were really wide-ranging. I heard from people who had struggled with mental health and how the theatre groups they’d joined had contributed to their wellbeing. I spoke to people who had been homeless and engagement with the theatre had enabled them to find confidence and support.

For other people it was about sitting in the theatre bar and talking to other people. A lot of individuals cited loneliness as a reason for attending the theatre, it gave them a sense of belonging. For some, it was nostalgic, with particular memories or shows with loved ones.

CM: How are the stories shared? Can everyone access them?
LH: I’m sharing the stories across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, on a website and then through a media and marketing campaign. As we progress the project I have lots of ideas for other ways for growth.

CM: To what extent do you think you can affect how people view theatre, and who it is for?
LH: If one person reads a story and re-considers who theatre is for, I’d consider that a triumph. I’ve already had so many messages from people saying they’ve been inspired to find out more about their local theatres, people who hadn’t considered involvement before. So I hope over time the tales might have some impact.

CM: You’re working with regional theatres on this. Do you think people view regional venues as less important, more dispensable, than theatres in the capital, despite the fact that they can be so important to local communities?
LH: I’d love to say no to this question, but there will be some people who feel like that. Hopefully this campaign will change their minds.

CM: Do you think the pandemic’s effect on the industry hit regional venues harder?
LH: I worry that smaller venues and companies can be overlooked. I hope we don’t slide into a media landscape that only promotes celebrity-focused work or shows in larger London venues.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about you, now? How did you end up working in the arts?
LH: I always loved the arts but had no idea how anyone could get involved, or in fact what jobs even existed. I eventually got a job as an usher; from there I volunteered to work as a shredder and then was asked to help out in the marketing department. That led to a career in PR. I worked at Theatre Royal Plymouth, National Theatre and Somerset House before embarking on a freelance career.

I’ve since worked with some amazing companies and organisations over the years, too many to name. Alongside this I’ve always written but struggled with the confidence to share. Over the last two years, though, I’ve really pushed myself out of my comfort zone and after many rejections, I will have my first full-length play, ‘Labyrinth Diet’, staged and streamed from 8-12 Jun at The Space.

I moved back to Plymouth a few years ago and in January 2020 I became Plymouth Laureate Of Words, as the first playwright. Engagement is important to me and through local charity Millfields Inspired, I’m running playwriting workshops with primary schools in Plymouth. The monologues the children have written are being performed by local acting students from Plymouth Conservatoire. We’re premiering the plays in the schools soon and I can’t wait.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
LH: I’d like to develop my writing career and continue to grow ‘Theatre Stories’. I want to find ways to use my creativity and communication skills to create new ways of working and supporting the arts. I’m also looking forward to exploring digital content in new ways. I made my first film last year and that has definitely galvanised me to explore filmmaking. I have two years as Laureate and I’m really excited to continue running workshops and for upcoming commissions.

CM: What’s kept you going during lockdown? What are you looking forward to now that restrictions are easing?
LH: Nature has definitely kept me going and in particular birds, strangely. I looked after a seagull with a broken wing during the first lockdown. Long walks have helped, takeaway coffees and too many doughnuts, long chats with friends, writing and ‘Theatre Stories’. I’m so excited to have a large glass of wine in a theatre bar and experience live work again soon.

You can follow ‘Theatre Stories’ via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, plus on the ‘Theatre Stories’ website here.

Tickets for Laura’s play ‘Labyrinth Diet’, on as part of The Space’s Foreword Festival of new writing, can be booked on the venue website here.

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