Tobacco Factory Theatres

More people in the south of Bristol are going to be able to access the arts and learn new life skills – that’s the Challenge Fund dream of Tobacco Factory Theatres’ Bryony Roberts:

“We’re very much rooted in south Bristol. Our home is within a mile of some of the highest deprivation in the UK. We’re looking to really engage with local people by bringing them here to the theatre, but we’re also about getting out and offering activities in their own areas as well”.

The organisation, which is approaching its 20th anniversary, has been successful in its application for Challenge Fund. And Bryony, who is Director of Get Involved, says they will be using it to help those right on their doorstep: “It’s really important to be rooted in with the people who are walking the street, walking past you every day.  Bristol is a brilliant cultural city. There’s an awful lot on offer, but a lot of it happens in the city centre. In terms of south Bristol, it can feel very cut off here. 

“We feel a real responsibility to ensure that there are opportunities being offered here. We are making those connections and making really strong links with our communities and that’s very much part of us as an organisation.”

Tobacco Factory Theatres is based on the first floor of an old factory, which was left abandoned when tobacco manufacturing moved abroad in the 1970s. Unlike many of its neighbours, which were either demolished or turned into flats, the building was saved and renovated specifically as a creative, mixed-use community building. The gamble paid off and it’s already helped to rejuvenate the area.

From humble beginnings, Tobacco Factory Theatres has grown from strength to strength. As well as producing its own work and hosting touring productions, it now engages with more than a hundred and twenty young people each week through its Youth Theatre alone. The remarkable growth in numbers this year is thanks to the Challenge Fund and the ambition is to increase this to 3,000 over the next three years.

From one ‘spit-and-sawdust’ theatre space there is now a main house, a studio theatre – the Spielman which was built in 2018 specifically to provide a space for children, young people and local communities to use as well as to present shows – and a thriving engagement programme including six Young Theatre Maker companies – one based in a nearby community centre.

But, as Bryony explains, it is not all about star-making and being in the spotlight: “It’s about giving them the skills to not just be performers, but also create their own theatre through devising, through writing, through choreography.

“When they start working as an ensemble their confidence, public speaking, team building and resilience skills are worked on straight from the start. Then as they get older, we encourage them to get involved with producing and marketing their show as well as music, lighting, design and more.”

A comprehensive week-long work experience programme is also available. It’s joined-up with other performing and arts organisations in the city and introduces the youngsters to the vast array of opportunities available in creative industries – increasingly a major source of employment in the UK. They also have the chance to study for a Bronze Arts Award. Young/Emerging Producers are able to work towards the Gold and Silver.

Bryony says those they work with get a good insight into the arts scene in the UK, as well as the chance to show off what they have learned: “That’s one of our strengths as a theatre. For example, the Young/Emerging Producers get lots of opportunities to shadow and attend rehearsals and they also work as part of our programming team. So, they go out and they go to London, they go to other parts of the UK, they travel around Bristol.

“For their annual SPARK Festival, they took over the whole floor!  As well as our main performance spaces, they also used our meeting rooms, staged one-on-one performances in our dressing rooms, and put on shows in the bar. We found this attracted a completely different audience to a lot of our regular shows.

“It’s a really fantastic way to really engage with young and emerging artists and young people interested in the arts”.

And, she says, it’s not just children and young people who can get involved: “In 2018 we worked with an adult community company who were part of our in-house production of A View From The Bridge, which was brilliant and we had a community choir that were part of our in-house production of A Beautiful Thing.”

The Challenge Fund will give the theatre the opportunity to build on an impressive body of work and also secure match-funding with other organisations. It’s already enabled them to programme theatre for children and young people. In one season this year alone, they welcomed 73 performances of 10 different shows specifically produced with children in mind.

Bryony hopes it’ll enable them to give the very best experience to their community: “With help from the Challenge Fund we know what we’re offering is of the highest quality. We’re not having to scrimp and save. When they’re engaging with us, they’re getting the very best experience that they can possibly have.”