Northern Insight catches up with Ali Pritchard, founder and Artistic Director of Alphabetti Theatre to discuss why theatre is so important to the fabric of a city and the business support that NE1 is providing
Arts organisations have been one of the sectors hardest hit by years of recent austerity and political uncertainty caused by among other things, Brexit. Small arts organisations in particular are on a knife’s edge as austerity and cuts bite hard. They may be more adaptable but because of their size they are also more exposed and have less security.
At Alphabetti Theatre here in Newcastle they are managing to ride the storm by filling a gap in the theatre market in the city and working hard to extend links and reach outside of the confines of the theatre. The team is being supported in this task by the help offered by Business Improvement District company, NE1 Ltd who recognise the importance of a thriving theatre community and grass roots cultural organisations for the contribution they make to the fabric of the city. A city’s rich cultural identity is enhanced by grass roots cultural organisations that enrich the city making it cooler, more diverse and interesting.
Since Alphabetti was launched six years ago, it has enjoyed support from NE1 Ltd and from other organisations in the city and the wider region, allowing the theatre to grow significantly in a relatively short space of time.
The theatre has a novel proposition, based on St James Boulevard in the city opposite fellow artistic venue and long time supporter, Dance City it is open 6 days per week, 48 weeks of the year. The team works with over 1,000 artists targeting over 9K audience members. In 2018 alone it staged over 240 performances, 30% of which were their own productions. Its growth is huge compared to other theatres and cities. While traditional theatre audiences are in decline Alphabetti continues to buck the trend making work that continues to attract healthy audience numbers financed through a novel, ‘pay as you feel’ funding model. Instead of having a set pricing and ticketing structure Alphabetti audiences are invited to pay what they feel they would like to pay at the end of each performance.
Financially this may not be the best or most secure form of funding but audiences respond well to this trust scheme and people tend to pay more when they pay what they feel. The money balances out across all donations averaging between £9 – £12 per donation.
Their success in part has been down to the gap they fill in the market. What prompted the creation of Alphabetti in the first place was the huge gap in the ecology of performance arts space in Newcastle. Other more established and traditional theatrical venues did not have the capacity or the scope to develop smaller productions not through lack of interest or desire but due to lack of facilities and wherewithal.
This became particularly evident when as an aspiring artist emerging from Northumbria Uni, Ali Pritchard approached established theatres looking for support they all said the same thing ‘I Like the idea invite us to your next show’.
Ali realised that if every venue was saying this to him they were saying the same thing to every artist who approached them and clearly there was a problem.
To support artists to help themselves, Ali wanted to provide not just a venue and rehearsal space but to offer crucial support for budding theatrical artists to help them hone their craft, identify their audiences, raise funding and make sure audiences turn up to watch their shows.
They secured funding from Newcastle Council’s Newcastle’s Cultural Investment Fund to help deliver this support which offers a modicum of security that in turn is passed on to the artists.
There is also an exceptionally strong and supportive theatrical and creative community in Newcastle and with support and help from NE1 Ltd, the team at Alphabetti are now working hard to forge wider links across other industry sectors in the city.
The city benefits from this cross fertilisation and Alphabetti’s business model depends on it they don’t have big marketing budgets for outdoor advertising campaigns or for social media marketing instead they rely on people walking through the door and enjoying what they see when they do. The team is confident that they can win people over with the work they put on, in the atmosphere of the bar and in the spaces available for private hire.
It is important that they continue to attract audiences to the venue and get them through the door. Alphabetti is currently working with the Bank of England on a series of their business networking events. Alphabetti is being used as a quirky space for the Bank to hold a series of talks for businesses. Events and income generation of this sort creates a new income stream for the theatre which provides more financial stability which in turn helps audiences and artists in a delicate eco-system.
Alphabetti has some exciting plans for taking the theatre out into the city this summer in a collaborative project with NE1 Ltd. The hope is that it will introduce new audiences to the theatre, strengthen links with other events and organisations in the city and grow the future of theatrical performance in the city.