How to bring performers and artists to your village hall

Transcript: Season 2 / Episode 14

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Putting on a live performance or an artistic event is a great way for village and community halls to draw in visitors. But where do you find the talent? Hi, everyone, I’m Johnny Thomson and welcome once again to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now we all love a bit of performing art, whether it’s a play, a stand up comic, contemporary dance or a photography exhibition. And in Britain, there’s no shortage of talented people out there, but finding them and arranging for them to perform in small rural communities can be a bit of a task. However, there is help out there village halls wanting to put on such events and today I’m joined by Holly Lombardo and Stephie Jessup, who are both from the National Rural Touring Forum and who’ll be telling us about how they work with halls in rural communities to help put on wonderful shows and events. Hi, Holly, and Stephie, thanks for joining me today.

Stephie Jessup 01:05
Hi Johnny, thanks for having us.

Holly Lombardo 01:06
Yeah, it’s great to be here.

Johnny Thomson 01:08
Now, Holly, let’s begin by talking about the National Rural Touring Forum or NRTF. What is it your organisation does and perhaps more importantly, why do you do it?

Holly Lombardo 01:21
Thank you. The NRTF, the National Rural Touring Forum, has been running for 25 years now and we’ve just had our 25th birthday. And it’s a, it’s a charity that is also a national portfolio organisation, which is the regularly funded organisation of Arts Council England. And we’re set up to network and support high quality and innovative work going into rural communities across the whole country. So we’ve got over 500 members, and they range from rural touring schemes, which are the arts development agencies and programming hubs of rural tours, and there’s 30 of them across the country. And basically, the schemes are the organisations that they don’t live in a venue. And they operate in their surrounding villages, but also rural towns, small towns, but the most important thing is that they’re really seated at the heart of those communities they reside. We’ve also got promoters, we call them, who were the people and groups who host the shows and the events and the artists, in the spaces. These can be anywhere from libraries to pubs, outdoor spaces, community centres, schools, but we really are probably best known for village hall touring. And also importantly, we have artists as members, and some producing houses as well. Arts organisations, festivals and creative groups. So, we really are we’re set up to kind of support that ecosystem that delivers these high quality experiences in the communities.

Johnny Thomson 03:13
Yeah, you can bring all bring all these groups and people together. And what your role Holly at NRTF?

Holly Lombardo 03:19
Sorry, I’m the Director of the NRTF. So we’re a very small team. We really are just the equivalent of two full time members of staff. So there’s myself as Director, Stephie is our Communications Manager. And we’ve got a Project Manager and a Finance Manager as well. But we are, we’re based, we’ve always worked remotely, even before COVID. So we’re based all over the country, all four of us are in different places, which sort of echoes the membership and the organisation.

Johnny Thomson 03:53
And Stephie, tell me what you do at NRTF?

Stephie Jessup 03:57
So at NRTF, I’m the Communications Manager, which is a grand sounding title. So that ranges from everything from shouting nationally about the work that all our members do to communicating with those members and people that want to find out more about rural touring. So I give a lot of advice directly to artists and to village halls and other venues that are interested in finding out more about how they can work within rural touring.

Johnny Thomson 04:24
Yeah. And Holly mentioned the 30 regional touring schemes that form part of your network and I understand you’re part of one of those as well, yeah?

Stephie Jessup 04:37
Yeah. So, I also am the Creative Producer for Spot On Lancashire, which is Lancashire’s rural and library touring network. And yeah, we are responsible for putting on professional performances and other arts events in rural venues and other community spaces across Lancashire.

Johnny Thomson 04:56
So I guess at that level that’s where a lot of the interaction between the artists, the performers and the village and community halls, for example, takes place, yeah?

Stephie Jessup 05:03
Yeah. So the rural touring schemes are the people that are on the ground, within locations that are really making those shows and performances happen along with their promoters and their venues and the artists. And then the NRTF is kind of the national body that supports that and fills in the gaps and finds those extra projects to help.

Johnny Thomson 05:25
Wonderful. How many rural venues overall then would you say that you work with? And you mentioned Holly before about thet’re spread all throughout the UK, yeah?

Holly Lombardo 05:37
They are, yes. We use well, village halls I know that we use about 1,000, well our members use about 1,000 village halls. And that makes up about 10% of all village halls in the country. So one, that’s a lot, but also there’s obviously a lot who aren’t yet using this network to programme. Although it doesn’t mean they’re not programming performances, they’re just not yet involved in the NRTF and the local schemes. But there’s hundreds and hundreds, thousands of spaces across the country and they change. You know, sometimes one village hall will take up one event, or two, or we might find a new library space. Stephie mentioned a project, so there’s a project run by a scheme in the south east, Creative Arts East and Applause Rural Touring, called The In Crowd Project, which is about taking spoken word into pubs. And so there’s new spaces opening up all the time in pubs and public houses and things like that. So, that’s really exciting. And it’s taking work to a new audience potentially. And then we’ve also got The Tail Project, which is Touring Arts In Libraries, and that’s run by the NRTF and that is also about sort of opening up new work in new spaces. And importantly, as a kind of the artists and the performers have to be very adaptable to kind of turning up and finding how to fit in, how to fit their work and their piece into the space that’s being provided, which every time they travel somewhere on a rural touring circuit will be completely different to the place they went before.

Johnny Thomson 07:23
Yeah, absolutely. It’s obvious you put a lot of effort into getting performers and artists out there into rural communities, so tell me, why do you believe access to the arts in these places is so important?

Holly Lombardo 07:35
So there are, there’s lots of barriers to those living in the countryside, to access live art and culture. And really the NRTF and the network is addressing some of those, which can be anything from kind of financial and travelling to large cities and in big institutions, it costs a lot of money, not just for tickets, but the travel, possibly accommodation. The time it takes to get to these larger theatres, it could be a barrier, and the distance, you know, people maybe don’t want to travel 60 miles to see a show. And then there’s the social as well. So not feeling that larger venues and cultural institutions are for them, or they don’t feel welcome, or it’s not not somewhere they feel particularly comfortable. So there’s all sorts of barriers and rural touring is about levelling out those opportunities and access to the top quality, creative experiences of which we keep talking about. And to shows for those who live in rural spaces and rural areas.

Johnny Thomson 08:42
And Stephie give me a give me a sense of the diversity and the variety of the performers and artists that you work with?

Stephie Jessup 08:51
Yeah, so I mean, we’re not afraid of taking on an adventure when it comes to rural touring. So you have, the way it works is that a scheme that covers an area so as I said, we cover Lancashire, and a lot of the schemes tend to cover sort of county lines. We go and we find out who’s touring, where are they going, what dates are there available, and we put together a menu of those professional shows that we then put out to all the venues that we work with and they can choose the shows, which works best for their community and their village hall and their incredibly busy venue diaries. And on that menu, we do want something for everyone. So we have everything from music, theatre, family work, we’ve done circus, we do contemporary dance. We’ve done installations where artists take over a village hall for a whole day and basically anything that you would find in any major arts venue in any city or urban centre, you will find happening also in village halls thanks to rural touring.

Johnny Thomson 09:58
Any well known talent or anyone who perhaps started off rural touring, and then went on to become a famous name on TV or anything like that?

Stephie Jessup 10:09
Well, I think it works both ways. We find in our cast that there were people that you will recognise from soaps on TV or British drama. And you also find that it works the other way. So people will be watching TV, and they will suddenly spot someone that they had in their village hall. I mean, that’s the life of most performers, really, isn’t it?

Johnny Thomson 10:30
Yeah, yeah.

Stephie Jessup 10:31
We have a lot of champions, as well as rural touring. So Ian McMillan, Kate Fox, Holly had a whole conversation with Miranda Hart I believe about village halls as well. These are great spaces where a lot of people that go on to work in the arts and performances, it’s where they cut their teeth, it’s where they maybe started off in their local community players group… I did, that’s how I ended up working in the arts. And rural touring is just the part of that circuit. And I’ve forgotten the word that I want to use, but it’s just a part of that life of performances, and we treat the village hall just as much as we would treat any London’s theatre or big arts venue, we expect the same high quality level of performance for all our audiences.

Johnny Thomson 11:20
But I guess that the experience of a live performance or an exhibition in a village hall can be a lot different from those much larger city centre venues, right?

Stephie Jessup 11:33
Yeah, it’s much more personal and intimate. There’s no hiding. And one of the things that we say a lot is that if you’re going to a theatre or a performance venue, you’re going to visit the artists, you’re going to their space where they feel very much in control and they know all the ins and outs of that building, and you only tend to see one room. And you go and you sit in the dark and you might have a drink at the interval. But chances are, once the curtain closes, you leave and go home for the night. Whereas with a village hall, we’re asking the artists to visit the community and visit the audience in their space. And our community promoters, so might be the village hall committee, they’ll often cook a hot meal for the performer before their show and sit down all together and chat and get to know one another. The performers will often stay behind after the show, and have a drink in the bar with the audience. And it’s one of the things that people that are on the circuit performing absolutely love about rural touring, because when do you normally get a chance to truly go and speak to your audience? And when normally, as an audience member, you get a chance to really find out how did this performer end up becoming a world class violinist? Or how did they get into acting? And it really, it all comes together. It’s very equa, there’s no this is my space or your space. It’s, we just all want to find out more about each other. And it’s also one of the places where in that village hall audience, there are people there that didn’t, that came along and had no idea what it was they were coming to they came along to support the village hall, or to see their neighbours or because our promoter told them too. And because of that you get an audience that might not consider themselves to be theatre people, really truly engaging with the work and talking to the performers afterwards. And it’s quite special in that way.

Johnny Thomson 13:31
Yeah, I guess Holly that’s one of the one of the great things about it isn’t it, it’s a great opportunity to attract all kinds of visitors to your village hall? And variety, because you can attract a younger audience or people from much further afield, for example?

Holly Lombardo 13:47
Yeah you do, you find a whole families coming to shows, which is you know, it’s not always the same in a blackbox urban space. You might get two people deciding to come by tickets, whereas it’s a whole family outing quite often in a village hall. But you know, it’s not for everyone, village hall touring, ii’s not for all artists, they have to be prepared for that immediate feedback. And there’s a lot of training happens across the country. So we, we run artists labs at NRTF, but also so do lots of schemes across the country, just to make sure. It’s very important that artists understand the complete nuances of touring into these spaces before they attempt to kind of crack on with a tour across the country. Because it is very different, as Stephie was saying to a black box theatre, where you have got the fourth wall and you’re disconnected from your audiences a little bit. But this one, you are very much amongst them and with them and that’s the beauty of it.

Johnny Thomson 15:00
It’s a different kind of feedback altogether. It’s not just applause, it’s almost like a fine toothpick I would imagine at times.

Holly Lombardo 15:09
Absolutely. Yeah, quite often.

Johnny Thomson 15:11
Yeah. And being so local, this must also encourage people in rural areas to perhaps sample something they may never have tried before, which is also a wonderfully positive thing as well, yeah?

Stephie Jessup 15:22
Yeah, we’ve got a statistic from our last pre COVID survey from across the country and it’s something like 50% of our audience members have been to a rural touing event in their village hall, at least once before in the previous 12 months. I mean, most people probably don’t go to the theatre that often, for all those reasons that Holly said before, and people go back because they are excited to see what’s coming next. They’re excited to try something new. And it takes a lot of the risk out of going and giving something a try. Because at the end of the night, even if you didn’t love the show, or it ends up not being quite your cup of tea, you know that it’s been people at the top of their game performing, but also, you’ve still had a really good night out within your community.

Johnny Thomson 16:13
And it’s funny how these things can sometimes become your absolute passion. Previously, before you never sampled it, you might have been doing it down, I don’t know. It can be surprising when you open yourself up to these things. And I think that’s the great thing about what you do is really, you’re really taking this out there into the heart of rural communities and encouraging people to try stuff like I said, maybe never thought of trying before.

Holly Lombardo 16:44
We have some anecdotal feedback on on that from a project called The Rural Touring Dance Initiative, which has been a partnership project with organisations like The Place in London with Take Art, which is a scheme on the south coast, with China Plate and, and various others as well. And one of the statistics and it sounds a bit cliched, but it is one of our responses… was there was a farmer in rural Cumbria, who was who didn’t, they said that they didn’t, you know, it’s contemporary dance, it’s not in his in his sphere of things that he would go to. But he came along because it was in the local village hall and now he’s a real contemporary dance fan. And you think, and he’ll seek it out now as well. So it’s that kind of, that kind of anecdote and those kinds of real life changing moments for people when they get to see.You know, we can’t underestimate rural audiences and their want for professional quality work coming to their areas. They, people in rural areas really love good work as well as people who live in cities. So we don’t underestimate the audiences in rural spaces. And they have every right to see some of the best quality contemporary dance in the country as people who live in London. And that was one of the… that’s why we set up the royal touring dance initiative. And it’s just one of many projects in that style and interventions that happen through rural touring.

Johnny Thomson 18:19
Yeah, wonderful. Now Stephie as Holly mentioned at the beginning, there are there are a lot of halls out there that are already aware of your work, but there’s still many who clearly don’t know about you and what you can bring to their rural community. So, if there are any halls out there, who are wanting to put on more events, what should they do? And where can they find more information?

Stephie Jessup 18:48
Yeah, so I mean, the statistic that Holly said at the top of the recording about there being 1,000, village halls. That’s 1,000 that take a show and a year.

Johnny Thomson 18:59
Which is amazing!

Stephie Jessup 19:00
So that’s not to say there’s not an awful lot more that know about it. But there’s only so many shows to go around, and so much funding as well. But I guess if you are sat there thinking, I have never heard of this before. And there will be people that haven’t heard of it before. On our website, which is, you can see a button on the homepage that says browse all schemes, and you will find your local rural touring scheme from that page. I mean, they’re the people to go and talk to if you’re really interested in putting on a show in your venue. There are one or two areas in the country that aren’t quite covered by a scheme. In which case, please get in touch with us because we can link you up in other ways whether that’s because a professional touring group have got dates spare where they can fit in an extra tour or whether it’s because we know of another project in that area that can help. We always try and point people in the right direction.

Johnny Thomson 19:59
And a final word of encouragement for for village halls in rural communities from you Holly?

Holly Lombardo 20:05
Yes, so we also work with ACRE who some of the village halls will know and they run a week called Village Halls Week, which is normally at the end of January. So that is another space to celebrate the work that village halls do and the we always have a kind of performance day in that. It is you know, they’re is like Stephie said, there are waiting lists with some halls, but there are ways to also get work if you’re not working with a scheme. So, there’s lots of artists on our website as well that they can browse and artists members who mostly have done some kind of rural tour. But a word of encouragement, it’s brilliant, it’s a great organisation to be part of. And the shows are really good quality. And at the moment, there’s nothing more important than community engagement, and getting people together again, in what whether they’re audiences and they’re helping out as volunteers. They’re feeding or looking after the artists when they arrive. There’s a way for the community to get involved in rural touring. And it’s really great. Yeah, we were starved of love for so long and there must be a great thirst for it out there now. Yeah. Tremendous. Well, thank you both so much for coming on today. I think what you do is fantastic, because, you know, I imagine there are many people out there who absolutely love the performing arts, but may find it difficult to access. And also what you do really helps halls to put on something different in their rural community as well. So thanks for everything you do it NRTF.

Stephie Jessup 21:46
Thanks for having us

Holly Lombardo 21:47
Yes thank you, thanks for having us.

Johnny Thomson 21:50
It’s been it’s been lovely chatting with you both.

Holly Lombardo 21:52
Thank you, and you

Johnny Thomson 21:53
And that brings us to the end of this episode. Keep submitting your entries to our Wonderful Villages Awards. There’s five awards all together, including an unsung heroes and young persons awards, so keep them coming in as you could win £1,000 or your local village, church or community hall. You can find more information about the Wonderful Village Awards on our website. Many thanks to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcasts possible, and whose services you can discover more about at And to online booking system provider Hallmaster, who also sponsor our podcast and can be found at You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again soon with another episode. Please visit to subscribe, sign up for updates, link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until the next time. Goodbye for now.