Detectives amongst bookshelves:
Touring theatre in libraries across Hertfordshire

As theatre director Nicola Pollard explains, it can be challenging to access live theatre across some regions in the UK. To provide greater theatrical access opportunities for local families, combined with a means of welcoming families back into libraries following the pandemic impact, Nicola tells us how she brought theatre to libraries across Hertfordshire through the Book Sleuths in a Bind touring production.

Book Sleuths in a Bind: Theatre & libraries

Accessing live theatre in Hertfordshire isn’t always an easy task. We don’t have a huge number of theatres, few producing houses, and we don’t have a rural touring scheme. But, like every county across the country, we do have a substantial network of libraries. Since November 2020 I’ve been working with Hertfordshire Libraries on an interactive, touring theatre show for families. It’s been challenging, demanding and absolutely worthwhile.

Hertfordshire Libraries wanted a bespoke cultural offer to entice audiences and service users back into their spaces after the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. They were seeking something for families, that could tour to libraries of all sizes and showcased libraries and all they offer. After much brainstorming, and a very welcome chat with Julia and Karen at Creative Arts East, we formed the idea of an interactive, detective-themed show for families with children aged 7 to 11, to be played in the October half-term break. The ACE bid was successful, and so, the Book Sleuths were born.

An actor of Book Sleuths in a Bind is performing in a library, playing a detective in an armchair

Content and Challenges

In this first outing, the Hertfordshire Book Sleuths, Ally and Sam, are on the Case of the Missing Reading Rug. This (fictional!) rug is central to all library events – without it authors won’t read and children can’t enjoy wonderful stories. Unfortunately, the Reading Rug has mysteriously disappeared, and it’s down to Sam and Ally to find out whodunnit. The audience are duly recruited as fellow Book Sleuths, learning the Book Sleuths’ salute and donning their imaginary thinking caps. As the case progresses, the audience participate in various activities to help solve the case: creating an e-fit from the description of the suspect; sharing knowledge of books and authors; decoding curious lines of numbers; solving a riddle; examining evidence found at the scene of the crime and completing a rhyme. To do this, each child is given a Sleuth’s Sleuth Proof, containing a pencil, stencils for their E-fit face and paper for sleuthing notes. Eventually, as in all good mysteries, the case is solved, and the rug returned to its usual spot.

Aside from the creative challenges – such as, where can we hide a rug in a set consisting of a chair and a whiteboard?! – there were also challenges in the producing side of things. This was a completely new venture for Hertfordshire Libraries, and my first time working closely with a local authority service. Secondly, as I’m sure many of you have experienced, reaching potential audiences is a huge part of the battle, especially in areas where live theatre isn’t necessarily part of people’s lives or consciousness. Schools are normally terrific partners on library projects, but we were aware of the impact Covid would have on their capacity to engage. It surprised me to learn quite how many people interact with the libraries on Facebook, which was a key marketing tool. We also utilised the libraries’ newsletter, which goes out to thousands of people, and their website. We provided as much material from the rehearsal room as we could, including video postcards for each library, and a show trailer. Also, every library marketed the performances with posters and bookmark-flyers, featuring an original, eye-catching illustration by Robin Kingsland. The results of this marketing varied across the tour, some libraries reached their audience capacity, but others struggled. Our sales data shows that there is a correlation between areas with high numbers of low-income families and low ticket sales. There is much work to be done in certain areas where sales were at their lowest.

“We feel very lucky to have been able to produce something live in 2021. It’s certainly been a rollercoaster of learning curves”

Two actors of Book Sleuths in a Bind are performing in a library
Two actors of Book Sleuths in a Bind are performing in a library. Between them, there is a big board with clues.

Success for the sleuths

However, sales on the whole were strong – especially at a time where Covid is still prevalent. Over 500 people saw the show in total, across 19 performances at 15 different libraries. More than half of the audience were children, usually aged between 6 and 10. Also, much to my relief, the story and the interactive elements were a success! Three-quarters of adults who attended said they were ‘very likely’ to attend a family event at Hertfordshire Libraries as a result of their experience at Book Sleuths, 89% rated the show as 9 or 10 out of 10. 97% of children said they enjoyed the show, with the majority saying they ‘really enjoyed’ it. One young Sleuth commented that they ‘cherished every moment’, another said they liked joining it as it made the show ‘more fun’. There were frequent calls for more activity of this kind in the libraries. I’ve also been told that library staff, from senior management to library managers, are fired up and excited by the prospects of what they can offer families in the future.

As I write, we don’t know what the next few months will look like with Covid-19. It is sobering to hear of all the ramifications of the virus and the associated lockdowns and restrictions. However, this project was a successful first step for Hertfordshire Libraries, and there are hopes for future projects of a similar nature. A great deal has been overcome, fires have been lit, families tempted. We feel very lucky to have been able to produce something live in 2021. It’s certainly been a rollercoaster of learning curves, but hopefully there are further Book Sleuths adventures to come.

Book Sleuths in a Bind: A Very Puzzling Case was a collaboration between Hertfordshire Libraries and Teasel Productions. The project received Project Grants funding from Arts Council England. It was co-written by Nicola Pollard and Kate Miller, and directed by Nicola Pollard. The set and costume designer was Nancy Surman, the actors were Allie Croker and Dominic Charman.

Two actors of Book Sleuths in a Bind are performing in a library

26 January 2022

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26 January 2022