And the winner is: Ruth Mackenzie, winner of a Reed Elsevier award for arts fundraising, argues for fresh sponsorship ideas

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The Independent Culture
TWO MEN with fish on their heads are improvising at the Nottingham Playhouse. They are rehearsing the theatre's next production, Improbable Tales, and they treat the news that Nottingham Playhouse has won a Reed Elsevier Award, worth pounds 10,000, as too improbable a storyline. Far more interesting is the suggestion from a child about the first fish to climb Mount Everest.

Regional theatres aren't expected to put on shows where a cast of improvising actors, comedians, musicians and the stage crew make up the story in response to audience suggestions with a different script each night. Nor are they expected to break records for sponsorship and win national prizes. London scoops most sponsorship nationally and festivals lead the art form league table, with theatre trailing a miserable sixth. In fact Nottingham Playhouse is the first organisation outside London to win one of the awards, as well as the first theatre.

At the press conference for Improbable Tales, which takes the danger of Whose Line Is It Anyway and applies it to a whole evening in the theatre, the journalists were divided between those who thought Nottingham Playhouse had gone mad and those who, despite their own script of worldly-wise cynicism, got carried away with the excitement of the event. Yet it is precisely the excitement and danger of making new theatre that has brought new audiences and new sponsorship to the Playhouse. Youngers plc, a branch of Scottish & Newcastle, had never sponsored the arts but went into partnership with the Playhouse on a pounds 150,000 three- year deal and part of their sponsorship will be the benefits and fun of Improbable Tales.

The other winner last night, Lord Sainsbury, won't find it as difficult as some journalists to grasp the principle that innovation makes sound business sense - for years he's known that the introduction of new products can not only shape the taste of the public but also bring in financial rewards. In sponsorship, too, he's led the way into new areas - in particular arts education.

We had first-hand experience of just what such sponsorship can achieve last year, when we won a Sainsbury's Arts in Education Award for an innovative theatre writing project. International Childsplay involved 1,500 children and artists from 12 countries who worked together researching and creating new children's theatre pieces. They worked with art forms ranging from South Asian dance and story-telling through commedia dell'arte to African drumming and giant carnival puppets; they worked with best- selling writers like Michael Rosen and on traditional tales like Cinderella, transformed by the manic Italian ensemble Teatro Kismet. Their production was the theatrical equivalent of pesto, once tried, never forgotten.

That scheme broke the stereotypes both of regional theatres and of sponsors. The stereotype says we should both be cautious, investing only in the tried and tested. The reality is that in 1993 Nottingham Playhouse has offered only living writers, including premieres by outstanding artists like Alan Bleasdale, Sandi Toksvig, Kumar Saswat, Annie Griffin, Germaine Acogny. The reward has been an 88 per cent increase in earned income from the box-office and sponsorship.

The stories of sponsors only backing art by safely dead artists should now be well buried. And the fish that climbed Everest? Well, it died too. But Mike McShane was very moving as a dying fish.

'Improbable Tales' opens at Nottingham Playhouse on 13 May and runs until 12 June, with a different cast and story every night.

Ruth Mackenzie, executive director of Nottingham Playhouse, and Lord Sainsbury are the 1992 winners of the Association of Business Sponsorship in the Arts / Reed Elsevier Awards, which were announced last night.