Building Innovation

NORTH14 group photo credit Topher McGrillis

Originally written for The Stage.

Theatregoers and theatre-makers alike can breathe a sigh of relief as The Shed, the National Theatre’s temporary riverside venue, is granted a longer life. The 225-seat space could now be open for up to another three years, extending its programme of new and experimental work. Under the National Theatre’s associate director Ben Power, this little red powerhouse has stretched the remit of the theatre’s programming since opening last April, bringing in exciting new artists and different ways of working.

But The Shed is not alone. Across the country, a range of subsidised venues are investing in innovative, experimental programming, developing the next generation of artists from within their walls. From festivals to scratch nights, artist residencies to audience development initiatives, these regional producing houses are dedicated to developing the theatre ecology around them, even in lean times.

For Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, new ways of working with artists are not an accessory to the theatre’s core work – they are essential. “The old systems simply aren’t of use,” he says simply, referring to how funding cuts have altered the landscape. In their place, the venue is looking at strands of work that feed the ecosystem of young artists – such as its NORTH scheme for performing arts graduates – and offer the space for new companies to test their work in front of audiences.

This latter need is filled by the theatre’s Stage Three space, which Campbell is developing into a fringe venue for the city. The work on this stage will not be produced by Northern Stage, but instead the venue will be thrown open to Newcastle’s young artists. “Unless there’s a space for those artists to get their work on and make their mistakes in public, they aren’t going to evolve,” Campbell explains the intention. “Unless those young artists can grow an audience at the same time as they’re beginning to grow themselves as artists, nothing is ever going to change.”

For Emma Bettridge, curator of Bristol Old Vic’s artist development department Ferment, it is equally important to offer artists the opportunity to evolve within the theatre’s programme. She describes Ferment’s work as “an ongoing conversation with artists”, emphasising its flexibility in response to artists’ needs. “It’s become about working with artists that we’re really excited about and facilitating them in whatever way is suitable for them,” she explains.

One development in which Bettridge has been instrumental since joining the Old Vic is the backing of more work to full production. It is essential, she stresses, to get the work seen and give it a longer life, as well as connecting it to larger audiences. This is partly achieved through the two Ferment fortnights of work-in-progress showings each year, but Ferment also now supports between six and eight productions a year.

Elsewhere, festivals have become an important outlet for experimental and often unfinished work. Two such examples are Transform in Leeds, produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and the New Wolsey Theatre’s Pulse Festival in Ipswich. Both festivals feature a mixture of finished productions and works-in-progress, placing the work of young artists alongside more established companies.

Rob Salmon, associate director at the New Wolsey, explains that the theatre has honed the Pulse Festival over the years in order to be able to simultaneously support bold programming and retain an audience. The festival now supports a mixture of high profile work and embryonic scratches, combining these different levels of experimentation in a way that manages the risk for theatregoers. Similarly, this year’s Transform Festival includes full-scale commissions, visiting shows from mid-career artists and showings of work in development.

What both Salmon and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s associate producer Amy Letman are adamant about, however, is the need to extend this kind of work beyond the isolated pocket of a short festival. Salmon has recently started up Pulse Presents, a strand of work that keeps the festival’s spirit alive throughout the year. The aim behind it, he says, was to “keep that work ongoing rather than it being something that crashed into the programme at one point in the year and then disappeared”.

Letman agrees: “I think the key thing is people know that there’s an ongoing commitment and desire for this work, and that it’s not something that flashes up and that we do once, but that it’s an ongoing part of our programme. The fact that the work is coming back helps to develop the audience.”

For all of these theatres, they understand this commitment to pushing their programming and supporting new artists as absolutely key to their artistic purpose. Asked how this work fits into his vision for Northern Stage, Campbell responds, “it is the vision”. Meanwhile Peter Rowe, artistic director of the New Wolsey, describes it as the theatre’s “particular mission” to help companies make the leap from small-scale to mid-scale work.

These sentiments are echoed by James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who tentatively suggests that theatres like his have a leadership role in their regions. “The problem with leadership roles in the past with big organisations is that they set an agenda which is about how you should do it, and that isn’t what I mean by leadership role. What I mean by leadership role in a city, in an area like this, is that our leadership role is about facilitation, it’s about collaboration.”

In times of stretched funding, that notion of collaboration could become increasingly crucial. Importantly, in all of these examples it is the theatres’ status as larger, regularly funded organisations that allows them to take the necessary risks in showing and developing new work. About the necessity of subsidy, Bettridge is unequivocal: “We fill a gap for risk-taking. We always need to have a subsidised pot of money that can we can invest in the ideas stage.”

Photo: Topher McGrillis.