Taking professional shows to small venues in towns and villages will help tempt people back to live performance after Covid, says Kate Lynch, director of the Highlights Rural Touring Scheme

THE last 18 months have been a devastating and uncertain time for the arts. But as audiences return to theatres and to music and arts venues, the green shoots of recovery are tantalizingly close. Although the next few months remain unpredictable, it is a real joy for artists and audiences to be back in shared spaces for live events.
But for many people in rural areas, the opportunity to experience a professional live arts performance remains challenging – for some, the prospect of sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers in a large venue post-lockdown is worrying, for others the lack of public transport or the cost involved makes a trip to the theatre or a concert venue a non starter.
I live in Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria, where easy access to arts and culture is limited – something that is mirrored in many rural villages and towns across the north of England.
A recent Arts Council England report showed that, despite 18 per cent of the country’s population living in rural areas, less than three per cent of the £1.6bn provided to the main arts organisations is spent in these areas.
Thankfully Teesdale is blessed to have The Witham, in Barnard Castle, and the many grassroots community groups and enterprises prepared to work tirelessly to bring arts experiences into the very heart of their communities.
At Highlights Rural Touring, we work with more than 50 rural communities across County Durham, Cumbria and Northumberland to light up village halls, schools and community centres with professional music, theatre, dance, comedy and storytelling.
Our touring activities are sustained by an amazing army of passionate volunteers, dedicated to providing high-quality arts events in the places that they have made their home.
Far from being a poorer cousin to large-scale arts venues, rural touring brings entertaining, thought-provoking and diverse performances to the doorstep of rural communities.
Audiences of neighbours, friends and curious visitors can share magical performances in the intimate and reassuring surroundings of their own village hall.
Our autumn season is a heady mixture of fantastic regional and national theatre companies, outstanding musicians, stunning dancers and one anarchist cook.
Last week at the Scarth Hall, in Staindrop, there was Gav Cross’ Twisted Tales for Terrible Children to enjoy while this week you could head to Cotherstone Village Hall for some beautiful folk music from The Bookshop Band.
Later in the season, there are funny shows from some BBC Radio 4 regulars or you could enjoy more musical offerings and be transported to other worlds by some of Britain’s best theatre companies.
Rural touring can reduce social isolation, break down age barriers and develop community cohesion. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this feel more needed than ever before.
And it’s not just about the performances – it’s about spending time with family and friends, meeting people you haven’t seen in months, joining new conversations and supporting the local economy.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be taking you behind the scenes of rural touring – sharing the stories of our volunteers, artists and audiences here in Teesdale.
In the meantime, check out your parish magazine, community Facebook page or the posters on your village noticeboard – try something a bit different and play a part in supporting rural touring and in bringing your village hall to life.
Highlights Autumn Season includes 73 performances from 19 professional companies and performers across the north of England. For the full programme and to book tickets visit www.