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Catching up with the Touring Network

Five years ago, we spoke to the Touring Network, an organisation that supports, represents and connects a vibrant community of independent promoters and performers to present high quality live performance across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

A lot can change in five years, and so we had to pleasure of catching up with Jo McLean, Chief Executive Officer, to talk about the journey they’ve been on since then as well as the future of the organisation.

It’s been a busy few years for you! Tell us about the developments with the Touring Network since we last spoke.

Yes, since then the structure of the organisation has changed. Previously it was a promoter-only network, but now it’s a promoter and performer network, and the reason for that change was two-fold. It was responding to the fact that performers need support to enable them to tour really effectively, as well as promoters needing support to help them programme effectively, or to build their capacity.

We’re still not like any other rural touring scheme - we don’t really consider ourselves a scheme as such. We are essentially capacity builders; supporting and helping people deliver the things they want to deliver in the Highlands and Islands.

We also recently launched a new membership structure so now there are three distinct tiers and it doesn’t matter if you’re a promoter, performer, venue or agent.

It’s basically geared towards different types of support; we spent quite a bit of time analysing what sort of people are in the network and what types of support they need.

Can you tell us about the wonderful film you’ve had made?

The film was part of our 20th anniversary celebration which was in 2018. We ran a Heritage Lottery-funded project to examine the impact that promoters have made in the Highlands and Islands over the last 40 years, which is how long the network has been in existence.

We worked with a researcher who gathered loads of different stories, footage and archive material, including posters and photographs, and then we asked a filmmaker to make that lovely film. It really was a celebration of the impact promoters have had in the region.

What is important to you as an organisation and how has this fed into your strategic development?

Strategically, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at how we can support the vibrancy of the region. There’s so much going on in the Highlands and Islands already; we’re really aiming to connect everybody up, support them and to make sure they’re visible. One of the next stages for us is to look at our audience facing work. At the moment we have a What’s On guide, but we’re developing partnerships that are going to raise the visibility of members in the future.

We’ve restructured some of the support we have. We do have pockets of financial support, currently through our Supported Programme, and we also we have a seed fund so members can apply for funding to support a change of practice or develop something that’s different.

We’re a digital first organisation, and we no longer have an office. We’ve been working for a long time trialling all our digital systems and two years ago we dispensed with our office completely. We are able to represent the network much better in a dispersed way. It does have its challenges, of course, but we’ve worked hard on how to make it work effectively and it really works for us.

Everything we do is about ensuring that the support we have is as sustainable as possible. We just released our newest online tool called the Know-How which has been in development for quite a few years. Previous to this, we helped in the development of Tourbook, which is the online showcasing platform for everyone who works with live performance. That was an important part of our development as well and is a standalone platform now; but remains a tool that we use to ensure that our members have access to know what’s out and about and available.

Two chairs emblazoned with the Touring Network logo sit on the beach

Could you tell us more about the Gathering?

Yes, the Gathering is in April next year on the Isle of Skye, in partnership with Seall - we host it in a different promoter community every 18 months. We have a showcasing event for one of the days, which to-date has focused primarily on dance and theatre. The showcasers then go into our supported programme collection, and that is the work that we will offer bursaries to promoters for - to underwrite some of their risk. When acts have showcased and been seen by bookers - they tend to find it much easier to understand those shows and they go on to tour really well

What would you say tends to be most successful type of show that gets toured in the Network, or is the range of programming the important aspect?

I think the range is the key thing. We find that with promoters, there’s not one that’s the same, so we can’t put a broad brushstroke over what people like to programme, and we don’t choose for them. They programme independently and they always have done.

We can guide and we can put together collections, but it really does depend on how well they know their community - and lots of them know their communities really well so they know what to programme and what goes down well.

We’ve been focusing on dance a bit for the last couple of years and through the Supported Programme we measure the average audience figures - we’ve seen them more than double in the last 2 years, so that’s been an interesting development on that front. I think it’s hard to say, but it’s just high-quality work in general that goes down really well - audiences are discerning, so high quality work is the key.

It sounds like it’s been an incredibly busy and strategically important past five years for you. Can you tell us about a highlight?

Well we’ve been doing lots of strategic projects, and one of those has been a project called BRAW.

It was a 2-year project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation which was examining how to create meaningful experiences with rural communities and also looking at artistic vibrancy. We worked with urban-based artists to develop work in rural communities, connecting with the community, and making work that was somehow inspired by the context they were in, and then touring that.

It was an interesting program that’s brought up lots more questions than we had to start with! It was really successful, and in different ways for different people. We worked with Saffy Setohy a dance artist, Vanishing Point Theatre Company, and with Heather Marshall who has her own company called Creative Electric and who was supported by Birds of Paradise.

Can you talk a little about what’s in store for the future?

We’d love to develop the Gathering. Currently the showcase focuses mainly on theatre and dance but one of our aims is to develop a music showcasing event. We’re in the early stages of talking about that, and we’re in discussion with a number of partners that we might be able to do that with, to make it a significant event focused on programming high quality new music in intimate venues.

We’re also continuing to expand our membership; making sure our services are visible and available to a wide range of people so that we can support as many people as possible to be connected and visible in the highlands.

You can find out more about the Touring Network, including more on membership and their projects on their website:

The Touring Network website

Image and video courtesy of the Touring Network

This article was published on 06 Nov 2019