BWW Interview: Mike Tweddle On The Future For Bristol's Tobacco Factory Theatres
Mike Tweddle previously co-founded touring company Out of Chaos, BE Festival and international ensemble Babakas. Eight months ago, he succeeded Ali Robertson as Artistic Director of Tobacco Factory Theatres in Bristol.
What brought you here?
I've been aware of Tobacco Factory Theatres for over 10 years, I'd been touring as an independent theatre-maker, and this was always on my wish list of venues to go to. I had a strong sense of this great organisation and was looking for change in my career. I'd been on the road for a decade and it was time to get out the van!
I trained at Lecoq, so I had a physical and visual background, but I'm also interested in revitalising the classics - I could see within Tobacco Factory Theatres all of that. This place epitomised a great opportunity.
Did you have a set vision when you arrived, and if so, has that changed?
The vision was something I had to think about a lot for the interview process. I came in with ideas around international programming and how to build on the achievements of the past few years. There have been all sorts of new challenges in the first eight months, and I've had to change expectations a lot.
When you say change your expectations, how do you mean?
Well, lots of people aren't aware that Tobacco Factory Theatres' subsidy funding accounts for only around 3% of our budget. We're reliant on our extremely supportive and loyal audiences here. People in Bristol seem quite up for taking creative risks and eclecticism has always been a cornerstone of the programming. But there has to be enough of a hook or familiarity to what you're proposing, particularly in the main space.
Beyond the main space performances, the building has always felt like it's teeming with activity - is that set to continue?
I feel this place is welcoming and informal in a way that's exciting. There are already a wide variety of uses beyond the main space. You have to be very careful on a Wednesday with hot cups of coffee as there's lot of tiny ballerinas and their parents wandering the corridors! We have dance classes and yoga classes as well as meet-ups and other events. I love that we have this flexible building. It means we can and should accommodate all kinds of different activities.
How do you see it developing in future?
Firstly, we're planning towards having a second theatre, probably with a capacity of close to 100. It will be a flexible space with retractable seating, giving not only the opportunity for two wildly different types of theatre happening, but also it will be a space for education, artist development, co-production and performance.
Beyond that, I'm interested in the fact that the South-West has a high concentration of creative people. Some we know about, some we don't. I want us to be part of that community, and we have an ambition to produce more and make more work ourselves. As much as possible, we want that to be made by local theatre-makers.
So do you see yourself taking the reins?
Directorially? Yes, that's part of the plan. It hasn't felt right to rush into that. I'm new to Bristol and this type of a job. Lots has changed in these first eight months and there's been lots to think about, but certainly in the future.
Talking about the future, it feels to me there's a real buzz around regional theatre at the moment - do you feel that way too?
I do feel like that too, but I've always felt like all the best secrets and hidden gems are outside London. Leaving London and going to Birmingham earlier in my career was revelatory for me - it felt like an exciting place, and there was so much great work happening there. There are so many regional theatres like Bolton Octagon and Leicester Curve that are doing brilliant work and flying high.
What's your view of ticket pricing, like West End 'premium' seats?
Well, I find I'm put off by expensive ticket prices and I could probably afford them. I think a lot of people are discouraged from engaging with live performance by expensive prices. It's a careful balance to strike. We have to charge enough to survive and also not undersell our work.
We're talking a lot about pricing at the moment. We don't want to change the spirit of our affordable pricing, but we think there may be scope to perhaps increase the full price ticket, in order that we have more free tickets to give away.
Every venue is different - each depends a varying amount on ticket revenue. For us it's about 80% of our income, so it's massive. Across all our ticketing events we averaged out over the past three years at 80% attendance, which is amazing outside of the West End really. We don't want to lose that.
Finally, which production are you especially looking forward to this season?
We're bringing in a play called The Island, which is an Athol Fugard work. It's set on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner) during apartheid and tells the heart-wrenching yet beautiful story of two prisoners who are coming to terms with their situation, but also trying to put together a production of Antigone. It's unique and a really special play.
Find out more about Tobacco Factory Theatres