Originally written for The Stage.
If there’s one thing Old Vic New Voices can’t be faulted for, it’s ambition. Last year, the Old Vic Theatre’s talent, education and community arm took a season of five plays to the Edinburgh Fringe, showcased a handful of brand new pieces from the US, supported several new productions in London, created a series of short films and mounted its ever-popular 24 Hour Plays – not to mention its extensive work with schools and local communities. At the heart of all these projects, it soon becomes clear from conversation with director Steve Winter, is an impulse to bring people together and link up emerging talent.
“We’re theatrical matchmakers,” is how Winter puts it. “That’s what we’ve always been and that’s what we want to continue to be.” This statement of intent comes as Old Vic New Voices implements a major overhaul of its Talent strand, reassessing the support it offers to emerging artists. Driven by a shift from project-by-project support to initiatives that will nurture talent over longer periods, the new opportunities being introduced this year include start-up funds to get fledgling projects off the ground and a dedicated venue for projects supported by the organisation.
Alongside hooking up like-minded artists and venues, Old Vic New Voices will now be connecting emerging artists and companies with the space to develop their work, offering free slots in a rehearsal space it has dubbed the ‘LAB’. The aim is as experimental as the name suggests; Winter describes it as “a place to fail and a place to succeed and a place to try things out”. Most strikingly, the emphasis is on process rather than product, with artists under no pressure to present a performance at the end of their time in the space.
“That’s one thing we’re absolutely clear about; it shouldn’t be a performance space,” says Winter. “If there’s one thing London doesn’t need, it’s more theatres.” Instead of being driven by the end goal of a full performance, Winter hopes that the LAB will be used “to develop and make work, to allow people to get together and talk, for writers to go somewhere to write quietly, for people to hold meetings, to invite people to watch a piece of work that might need funding – anything that propels creativity forward”.
The initiative has emerged from discussion with artists themselves, who highlighted space as one of the most important resources they could be offered. “I think there comes a point with any application or any job you’re doing where space becomes absolutely key,” Winter explains. “It’s an underrated, simple idea to give space away for free, because it’s so expensive in London – it’s expensive for the Old Vic, it’s expensive for the National, it’s expensive for everybody. And so it stops and stagnates many projects that I think would go on to be successful.” To fight this stagnation, Old Vic New Voices is offering companies and individuals the opportunity to book up to five weeks in the LAB across the year, asking only that applicants tell them what the space will be used for.
The response to this offer has been hugely varied. Winter tells me that more than 40 projects used the space in the first three months, including everything from devised theatre companies to poets to comedy performers. This represents something of a departure for Old Vic New Voices, whose focus in the past has been firmly on traditional theatre artists, primarily supporting writers, directors, actors and producers. While he’s keen to emphasise that this is not a complete break, Winter is enthusiastic about the possibilities of these new influences, saying “it’s been nice to get a different energy in the room”.
The only problem with this initiative, as Winter freely admits, is how to assess its impact. “I think for us this year the measure of success will be how much work gets off the ground and to what end,” he says, at the same time acknowledging that this evaluation might not satisfy everyone. He also suggests, however, that evaluation across the industry is beginning to shift, with definitions of success no longer as clear-cut as they once were.
“For a lot of people, their barometer of success is that they’ve got a rehearsed reading together, and they’ve had people see their work and they have felt creatively satisfied. I think the way that people are getting work out there is very different, and it’s about that too. If you get 20 new Twitter followers or you have an online phenomenon, then that’s a barometer of success; if you do a piece of work in a fringe venue that has less people than you might have on your Twitter account, is that less successful or more successful?”
Ultimately, the answers to Winter’s questions are down to the artists; amidst all the changes taking place at Old Vic New Voices, the determination to listen to the needs of those they help is key. “We just want to bring them together and facilitate creativity,” Winter says simply. “In principle that sounds rather empty and worthy; in practical terms it’s massively important.” While the future of Old Vic New Voices might be far from certain – Winter would love to install the LAB as a permanent space, but at the moment it is only secured for a year – the organisation is adamant that its direction will be steered by the artists it supports. “Rather than us leading and expecting them to follow, we’re being led by them.”