At the UK Theatre Awards 2019 Storyhouse were crowned the UK's Most Welcoming Theatre 2019. Our judges were overwhelmed by what they called a 'true community hub'.
Judging panellist Andrew Miller said that "Storyhouse redefined what a welcome is in a 21st century theatre" creating spaces where "there was a tangible feeling of the space belonging to people... The fabric of the building felt alive, used and loved by their audiences in every nook and corner. And those audiences were truly diverse; from children's choirs performing in the foyer to community groups rehearsing in the studio and the editor of the local paper hotdesking in the library - all giving life to the spaces. Their building is also fully accessible to all, backstage and front of house."
We spoke with Alex Clifton, Artistic Director of Storyhouse, to find out more about how they achieved this.
What about working for Storyhouse do you enjoy the most?
The diversity of work we make, of people we make it for, of people we make it with. There are so many stories and experiences, many of which really make a difference to the people who take part. I'm proudest of the impact our Young Leaders programme has under the leadership of Young Storyhouse Manager Hayley Lindley: we've raised £250,000 from The Oglesby Foundation and Bank of America and have used it to work with 137 young people, all of whom have additional needs and/or come from areas of relative deprivation. We train them to programme, manage and deliver their own events all across our building, and they fill it with the most wonderful work - which has genuinely changed the lives of many young people involved. I don’t think it hyperbole to say that some lives have been saved by this programme; certainly, they have tangibly ended in young people in work who otherwise did not have the confidence or could not find their way to do so.
Do you think being a mixed-use venue makes it easier or more difficult to be welcoming?
50,000 books on your shelves makes anywhere more inviting. Good coffee and excellent shakshuka eggs help along the way too. We are open 364 days of the year, 8am-11pm, thanks to our integrated storytelling services: we blend commercial, charitable and statutory services by running a restaurant, library, two theatres and a cinema. We have a business reason, a need, to be open, 7 days a week, 15 hours a day. We've blended our front-of-house service too: our library team can sell you tickets to our cinema or theatre; our baristas can show you to the transport section or help you print a CV; our ticketing experts will be found clearing tables. This integration is vital to being more welcoming - you'll never hear "Sorry I'm libraries; you need to speak to Sandra in theatres". We're one team, all here to help. On any given day there are around 23 staff out front helping people get involved with Storyhouse.
With a refurbishment, you had had the chance to make the building very accessible – what advice on becoming more accessible would you give to those venues who don’t have the resources to start from scratch?
We were lucky to be starting from scratch - able not to build a box office; not to have a reception desk. 95% of our tickets are sold online, and visitors take control of their own journey through a free-flowing building. Our prominent online presence is great – like lots of other organisations we have an access register online which allows customers to purchase tickets without having to address their access needs every time they book. Getting rid of a reception desk was hugely worthwhile: it changes the dynamic and removes the sense that the building is owned by someone other than the customer. We have staff all over the place who can help support visitors access our stuff; we don’t need someone enthroned behind a desk as the owner of the building. We’ve tried to make the place fulfil our “this house is your house” agenda. I think the simplest thing we’ve done to make the place welcoming, which can be done anywhere, is dissolve key points of hierarchy and control (reception desk / box office) and then to programme the building with community-curated activity: we are not asking people to come and see our work; we are letting them come and see their own work here.
Over 121 community groups use the building as their home – how do you manage to accommodate everyone?
We are here to facilitate other people’s creativity, rather than promote our own. You can see on our website what we’re doing today as an example. Everyone who works at Storyhouse is, in one way or another, clearing rooms and making cups of tea to empower creativity in our local communities. That’s true everywhere in the organisation: last year 123 local volunteers joined our professional companies on stage in shows. We employed 19 local trainee actors in those companies. 19% of our work last year was made with artists living with protected characteristics. Our library welcomes 121 community groups into the building to run boardgames groups, tell stories in Polish, sing for their babies, lead Spanish classes for over 50s, welcome LGBTQ+ curious young people, and on and on…
We designed the organisation not to make work here, but to support local communities to make work here. Our production company only employs one permanent staff member: our Associate Producer Helen Redcliffe. Everyone else (over 350 practitioners last year) is employed freelance. This model allows us to keep nimble and responsive to our communities – under Helen’s leadership we are producing 11 shows here next year, all made in partnership with different community groups. Across Storyhouse we make the work our communities ask us to make – often directly through our programme of regular Thinkins run here.
How do you collect feedback from guests? And what do you do with it?
Led by our Group Sales Officer Alex Atkinson, we work with groups across the borough including Dementia Action Alliance, Vivo Daycare, Age UK, National Autistic Society, Cheshire Autism Support and Phab Chester Social to ensure customers with access needs can use all elements of the building and programme.
We send post-visit surveys to all bookers after an event, which asks questions about their experience, their feedback and demographic information. We also add in extra questions that help us benchmark any areas we are focusing on in that year, such as public transport or awareness of our charity status.
This survey is part of the national Audience Finder platform and so directly feeds in to building a national picture of arts attenders and allows us to benchmark our data against our previous surveys, other arts organisations (regionally or nationally) or census data so we can get a really good idea of who our audience is and how we are doing. Our audiences are extremely responsive so we receive upwards of 3,000 surveys per year.
We use this data to plan campaigns and to benchmark their experience in areas such as the booking process, customer service and welcome and this is shared with all relevant teams.
As this data is focussed on theatre attendees, we also supplement this with additional surveys in the building for those using Storyhouse for other purposes such as studying, joining a community activity or just relaxing. This survey is also modelled on the audience finder questions so that we can compare data effectively.
Feedback is also gathered through reviews on Facebook, google, tripadvisor and similar sites. We monitor these regularly and share comments and feedback with relevant departments. We also invite customers to share feedback through our website. This information is replied to promptly, discussed with the wider team and used to help us understand what we are doing right and where we can improve.
How do you ensure you stay relevant to your immediate community?
We have signed formal Memoranda of Understanding with 12 local charities and organisations, who work with communities who are traditionally culturally marginalised – homeless 16-24-year-olds, adults living with learning disabilities, vulnerable primary school children, addicts in recovery... We give these partners priority access to our spaces for free and programme work in partnership with them into all our spaces. We have relationships with 116 community organisations and charities locally, who programmed and curated work here last year in partnership with us. They programme festivals and regular events here: 23 local charities work with our Communities Manager Nicola Haigh to programme Kaleidoscope - work of, by and for those living with disabilities or long-term health impairments. Nicola runs similar festivals and programmes of, by and for immigrant communities, childless adults, early-years parents, women and others. On stage, we have employed gender-balanced and minimum 15% BAME representative companies since 2011 on all our productions (across 46 productions and 252 actors employed in that time). From this year we are applying the same stipulation to our creative teams and authors (8 commissions for writers over the next year). Our stages look like the real world around us: critical to our local relevance.
This all comes together to mean we benefited from 27,797 hours of volunteer work last year, worth £589,000 to our business. These local volunteers programmed, performed, event managed, ran our building themselves. It is them who makes Storyhouse work.
You clearly do a great job of making the public feel welcome - how does Storyhouse make its staff feel welcome?
You'd need to ask them, of course, to see whether we really do. But we are trying to build an organisation that does what we strive to do to our city: build communities, nurture a creative democracy. So that means, like lots of other organisations, we try to make this place feel like a family, working respectfully and proudly together towards understood shared objectives; regular parties and walks in north Wales help with that. We promote transparency and accountability and try to create democratic platforms for our teams. So we have the Equality and Diversity Group, chaired by our Digital Content Officer Ellie Franklin, in which elected staff members scrutinise all our work from this perspective; we do monthly Town Hall meetings where staff can interrogate myself and Chief Exec Andrew Bentley on any issues - including asking questions anonymously via an online platform. Then I guess it's about sharing leadership in our work; so for example, everyone gets Duty Management shifts. Whatever level your role in the organisation, you get the chance to lead Storyhouse from the front and engage directly with our punters. Through the written reports that these managers produce, they can drive changes to our daily operation.