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.

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Beginnings and Endings

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Let’s start with a beginning.

Sitting in the stalls of the newly plastic-swathed Lyric Hammersmith this September, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such palpable anticipation in the moments before a show. As suggested by the words “Secret Theatre”, most of us in the audience did not know quite what to expect. The curtain was eventually raised to reveal the performers in a line at the back of the stage, dressed in plain white shorts and vests. Accompanied by a sinister, clinical voiceover, these figures rushed forward to drink from bowls of water, scrambling over one another in a desperate, animalistic struggle. What followed might not have been the best show of the year, but it is hard to think of a more memorable opening.

As I attempt to craft some sort of assessment of the year in theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre project feels like an apt emblem for the change that is slowly pressing in on multiple sides. This time last year, writing another of these deeply subjective round-ups, I reflected that 2012 felt like a year of “small tectonic shifts”. While those shifts might not have precipitated a violent eruption of change across the landscape of British theatre, the last 12 months have nonetheless seen ripples of movement – just more gradually than perhaps anticipated.

Unlike the noisy, thrilling arrival of Three Kingdoms last year, the changes of 2013 have been subtle and structural, hinting more at future promise than present fulfilment. Chief among these changes is the exciting wave of new artistic directors who have either taken up post or been announced: Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, Rupert Goold at the Almeida, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, Sam Hodges at the Nuffield. Whether these appointments will really offer the shake-up they hint at is still to be seen – though the early signs of Featherstone’s tenure are encouraging – but the collective urge for new ways of working is clear.

The impetus towards change is also characteristic of one vein of work that has particularly stayed with me this year. The phrase “political theatre” always feels like a misnomer – isn’t all theatre political in some way? – but a clutch of angry, thoughtful and passionate productions in 2013 have dealt specifically with ideas of political change and protest. How to Occupy an Oil Rig playfully explored the demonstration (in every sense), while Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with my Father offered a decidedly personal perspective on protest – almost reducing me to tears in the process. And another kind of activism is at the heart of Bryony Kimmings’ bold and brilliant Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel project, which twice bowled me over with both its raw emotion and the galvanising ambition of its aims.

Elsewhere, the potential for future change was more lightly hinted at. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dan Hutton and I noted the theme of hope that threaded its way through several of the productions we saw, complicatedly paired with both critique and irony. Contrived as this narrative perhaps is, it is one that has retrospectively haunted many of this year’s shows, inflecting my way of watching and thinking about theatre. From its very explicit presence in what happens to the hope at the end of the evening to its troublesome ghost in The Events, the question of hope has been a key feature of much of the most interesting work I’ve seen over the past 12 months.

Chris Goode's The Forest and The Field ©Richard Davenport

Closely linked to hope is the idea of community, which is often vaunted as being at the heart of theatre as an art form. We share the same space in the theatre, after all, so we must be a community of sorts, right? This was tested in various ways by much of the best theatre of 2013, be it the stunning yet gentle intellectual interrogation of Chris Goode and Company’sThe Forest and the Field or the joyously communal celebration of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – which arguably nailed the whole thing by staging itself in a pub and throwing in some song and dance for good measure.

Similarly to Prudencia Hart, music was a key ingredient of the fleeting community forged night after night in Edinburgh by The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project; food took the same role in Only Wolves and Lions, reminding me of the simple community we build when we cook and eat together. It’s not insignificant that that last example was part of Forest Fringe, a gorgeous instance of transitory artistic community in the midst of this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. This community also offered up countless other small scale theatrical highlights of the year, among them Ira Brand’s delicate contemplation on ageing, a consideration of our addiction to virtual communities in I Wish I Was Lonely, and Deborah Pearson’s haunting The Future Show.

One show that managed to be both small and epic was Grounded, the absolute standout production of the Fringe for me. The remarkable Lucy Ellinson once again looms large over my theatregoing memories of the year after her compelling delivery of George Brant’s tightly written, blistering monologue, all the while imprisoned within the striking grey cube of Oliver Townsend’s design (as an aside, cubes seemed to be big this year – see Chimerica). Ellinson also dazzled, though very differently, in #TORYCORE, a deafening, devastating scream of rage against the destructive policies of the coalition government.

And it was not only the politicians of today who found themselves criticised in theatres this year. Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, a number of pieces have already directly or obliquely approached her legacy. Theatre503’s quickfire offering of short plays produced a decidedly mixed bag, although Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho’s glorious drag queen rendering of the Iron Lady has deservedly lingered in my memory. The difficulty of discussing Thatcher’s legacy was addressed in all its complexity by Mars.tarrab’s brilliantly titled The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, while perhaps the most striking visual representation of Thatcher came courtesy of Squally Showers, a show that touched on her and her politics only indirectly. Yet somehow, in the image of a performer in a Thatcher mask holding aloft an inflatable globe while surrounded by the detritus of a wild party, Little Bulb wordlessly directed a powerful judgement at the world left to Thatcher’s children.

Little Bulb's Squally Showers

Squally Showers also provided plentiful helpings of sheer joy, a theatrical quality not to be underestimated. Alongside the charming eccentricity of Little Bulb’s latest show, the Edinburgh Fringe also offered the utterly bonkers but irresistibly endearing Beating McEnroe,which will forever leave me with the glorious memory of Jamie Wood pretending to be a tennis ball. An equally joyous moment to imprint itself on my mind this year emerged from Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, in which I screamed with laughter at the four male performers’ move by move recreation of the dance in the Kate Bush music video, while the final scene of rain-drenched anarchy in the RSC’s As You Like It topped off a production that was a delight from start to finish. And no assessment of theatrical joy in 2013 would be complete without pausing to remember Zawe Ashton’s frankly inspired rendition of ‘Where Are We Now?’ in Narrative, a show that achieved the rare feat of being both absolutely hilarious and intellectually meaty.

While it may not fit neatly within the thematic threads I’m attempting to loosely weave through my overview of the year, any consideration of 2013 has to include a mention for Headlong. The company has had a ridiculously successful 12 months, encompassing the slick, stylish storytelling of Chimerica, a bold and theatrically astute new interpretation of The Seagull and – best of all in my opinion – the complete headfuck of Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s stunningly intelligent adaptation of 1984. I’ve missed out on American Psycho,but from the outside it appears to offer a striking end to a fairly extraordinary year for Headlong.

As averse as I am to naming any one production “best”, when looking back over the year I find my mind dragged time and time again back to Mission Drift. For many this hardly counts as a “new” production, having first been seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, but this summer’s run at the National Theatre’s temporary Shed space was my first opportunity to see The TEAM’s dizzying trip through 400 years of American capitalism. Fast-paced, sexy and beautiful to look at, Mission Drift can also justifiably be described as epic, an adjective that I rarely find myself applying to theatre. Its scope, energy and excitement has become my personal benchmark against which to measure the year’s theatre, and very little in the subsequent months has equalled it.

As I opened this narrative with a beginning, I might as well close with an ending. Looking ahead to 2014, February will see the dismantling of The Shed, whose garish red silhouette on the South Bank has come to stand for vitality and experimentation at the heart of an institution often associated with tradition – as the narrative it spun to celebrate its 50th anniversary did little to challenge. One can only hope that The Shed’s spirit of innovation, together with that of Secret Theatre and Vicky Featherston’s Open Court festival this summer, finds a way to continue into the next 12 months.

I also contributed to a collective look back at 2013’s theatre with the rest of Exeunt’s writers.

Table, National Theatre Shed

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Originally written for Exeunt.

It seems appropriate that the first show in the National Theatre’s new, temporary performance space on the South Bank should announce itself just as plainly and unassumingly as its venue. Table, the world premiere christening The Shed, is about just that, using a tough wooden dining table as the focal point for a domestic tale that straddles the generations. Tanya Ronder’s play, tracing 115 years of one family’s tumultuous history, zooms in on the stains that can’t be scrubbed away, the grit that remains lodged in the grooves of the wood and the messages carved indelibly on its surface. Her eponymous piece of furniture is living history, speaking just as loudly as its human owners.

Katrina Lindsay’s design furnishes the intimate interior of The Shed with not one but two tables, the raised wooden space of the stage mirroring the sturdy domestic linchpin that sits upon it. Hewn with love and breathless hopes for the future, this stubbornly resilient item of furniture begins life as the creation of carpenter David Best, made to sit in the home he makes with his wife in late nineteenth-century Lichfield. From here, it is passed down from generation to generation, journeying first to a convent in Africa and then back to England and a hippy commune in Herefordshire, before finally ending up as the battered, beloved centrepiece of a family home in South London. Along the way it witnesses sex and betrayal, deaths and births, the grime and the mess and the joy of human life.

Ronder packs a lot into the play’s two hours and 20 minutes, at times resorting to the crowbar. From troubled nuclear families to a convent of missionary nuns, from a commune dedicated to alternative living to a gay couple with a half-Asian daughter born through a surrogate, there is a determination to portray as many different living arrangements as possible over the span of six generations. While this tactic provides colour and continual interest, the limits of plausibility are occasionally stretched, and some scenes – such as the painfully stereotypical commune, complete with goat’s milk and bed-swapping – seem inserted purely for laughs. The first half of the show is tight and cannily plotted, engaging the emotions with impressive rapidity, but as the narrative goes on the grip progressively slackens.

Although Ronder’s plot may run away from her, Norris’ sensitive, precise direction offers up some heart-catchingly beautiful moments: the presciently precarious, delicate image of David’s short-lived bride ascending a row of chairs in her wedding gown; the use of the table as a womb giving birth to the next generation, from which a protectively curled performer tumbles, Bambi-like, all helplessly flailing limbs; the gorgeous sequences of song that cradle the piece, smoothly linking scenes while nodding to ritual and familiarity. The production also benefits from a set of uniformly committed performances from its cast, who wring extraordinarily vivid characterisations from Ronder’s series of fleeting snapshots.

For all that this journey through the generations might be contrived – and, make no mistake, it is – the slightness of its meandering plot is balanced by a charm that begs forgiveness for its flaws. But when the smile fades, this production still leaves us wondering what it might be saying about the family, a unit of living that receives just as much of a bashing over the years as the table that unwaveringly anchors it. Are we damned by what we inherit, both in terms of the traits passed down to us and the upbringing we receive? Ronder’s generation game would seem to suggest so, as each successive member of the Best family kicks against what has come before but inevitably makes similar mistakes; generation upon generation of children knowingly or unknowingly wronged by their parents. And by the end, even our old friend the table is endangered, at threat of being replaced by a sleekly functional sliver of glass from Ikea. History might be deeply ingrained, but we are all too good at forgetting.