Big things happen in unlikely spaces: the dynamism of township theatre in the UK touring scene

Big things happen in unlikely spaces: the dynamism of township theatre in the UK touring scene

Tangle's Christopher Marlowe's DOCTOR FAUSTUS at The Bike Shed. Photo: Paul Blakemore
Tangle's Christopher Marlowe's DOCTOR FAUSTUS at The Bike Shed. Photo: Paul Blakemore
Date Published: 21 March 2019

By Anna Coombs, Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Tangle

Founded from a cottage on a beach in West Cornwall in 2009, Tangle began as an international theatre project, prioritising the creation of inter-cultural arts activity in an area historically poorly served and remotely located. Ten years on, we are the only NPO in South West England dedicated to the presentation of African and Caribbean touring theatre.

We deliver touring theatre in two distinct formats. With both, the removal of the fourth wall and the ‘reach out and touch’ proximity of stage action means that there is an incredible dynamism established in the relationship between the performers and their audiences. Tangle Company, our professional ensemble of actor-singers, perform newly commissioned poetic and musical adaptations in multiple languages without design, lights or recorded sound. Travelling to pubs, residential homes, schools and community centres, they generate interest in the larger scale works that follow. These productions have ambitious practical lighting, live music and fully flexible sets that can scale up or down, travelling to both traditional theatres and more unconventional settings without compromising quality (2018 saw Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS reimagined for three actors, playing to sell-out houses). The model has become a powerful way to reach people right on their doorstep as well as in urban centres where audiences are more established.

In conjunction with this work sits AMPLIFY, a talent development project building sector skills off-stage, with specialist placements in recorded sound and practical lighting design, a resident director scheme, Educator Training for arts professionals keen to develop workshop practitioner skills, Tangle Café and our new Artist Support Network, enabling theatre makers to share ideas and problem solve.

In South Africa’s Apartheid years, live performance became an important way to protest against legalised racial segregation. Today, township theatre remains a vital political and social tool. We have picked up on the concept as a way to develop strong connections with artists (we’ve commissioned over 30 and nurtured the careers of more than 300) and to open up meaningful dialogues with audiences of all kinds.  

This approach has unlocked a huge appetite for inventive and powerful African and Caribbean theatre across England’s largest and most rurally dispersed region. The work has had a lasting impact. We have enabled a culture of accessibility that sees a large cross section of the public unconsciously overcoming the barriers affecting people of colour in ways that are both moving, and profound. This is not surprising to the team, because Tangle is more than just a theatre company – we are a family, a community and a movement. Building audiences for the future, we offer pathways to achieve goals and ambitions in areas of limited visibility.

Despite the current challenges to touring, this work shows that if presented imaginatively there is a hunger for great theatre in what might be seen by mainstream programmers as the most unlikely of settings. Our recent Transforming Communities report demonstrates how the touring programme is bringing fresh approaches to the art form and generating high demand in a diverse range of localities.

For a variety of reasons, people are attracted to the shows like pins to a magnet. And like the best theatre companies we don’t underestimate them. We work together to find the most exciting formulas for development. This springs from a Township belief that big things can happen in unexpected places. Audiences constantly surprise us with their sense of imagination. In an increasingly difficult climate, keeping hold of this attitude is more important than ever.

Anna Coombs.jpg
Anna Coombs, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Tangle

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