Opening the National Theatre’s Doors to Devised Work
Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of From the Ground Up podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded within the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leave a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging the truth and violence perpetrated in the name of this country, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time and for each of us to consider our roles and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.
Dear artists, oh my goodness, one international interview followed by another. Today we have Stewart Pringle from the National Theatre of London. This is the final episode of season three and for me it’s a bit poetic as this episode leaves off where my thesis left off. Since 2018, I’ve had the National Theatre in the back of my head as a catalyst for creating theatre and you’ll hear us talk a bit about their process as an incubator for generating new work. They came into my mind long ago when I first learned that War Horse was developed there. It was then that I sort of looked around and said, “Why aren’t we lifting up ensembles like this at larger theatres?” Stewart is senior dramaturg there where he oversees the development of so many companies in their processes, among other new play development. He brings up some really amazing points that I won’t spoil now.
He also mentions at least three handfuls of theatre companies and artists that have had their work developed at the National. I’ll include these notes on the show page, but let me mention them now here. The Old Red Lion Pub Theatre, Breach Theatre Company, Emma Frankland, Leeds Playhouse, Nottingham Playhouse, Sheep Soup, Octagon Theatre, New Diorama Theatre, Ken Campbell, Wardrobe Ensemble, Gecko Theatre, Simon McBurney and Complicité, the National Portfolio Arts Council, Eve Leigh, and Ontroerend Goed, who we interviewed in the last episode. It is a small world. You’ll also hear him reference different theatres at the National Theatre, including the Dorfman Theatre, which is a 450-seat flexible auditorium. Okay, our second international artist in two episodes, Stewart Pringle from the National Theatre of London, England, coming to your ears right now. We chatted on November 21, 2022. Enjoy.
What we like for them to come in with is a question, really, or a problem that needs solving and then we can hopefully help them find the right people to answer that question and give them the time to puzzle it out.
Jeffrey: Well, again, thank you so much for joining me here. This is a real treat and I’m really excited to chat with you today. I’d just like to get started getting to know a little bit more about you, Stewart, and find out how you found yourself at the National Theatre of London.
Stewart Pringle: Yeah, I suppose I found myself here by a very roundabout route. I grew up in the North of England, in Northumberland, in a very small village. I was there doing quite a lot of drama at school and things like that and always thought that might be something I wanted to do, but didn’t really know in what field, I’m not that good an actor and not that good a singer and all of that stuff. Went off to university, studied English literature, undergrad, and did a master’s in American literature and did a lot of theatre while there and then moved to London and spent about five years trying to get into theatre, which was a long-winded process.
I ran my own theatre company, set up a theatre festival, and then started kind of writing plays for the theatre company that I was running and then eventually working all sorts of jobs in advertising and teaching and immersive theatre and anything I could find really.
And also at the same time I was working as a theatre critic, basically because I couldn’t afford to go to the theatre and I wanted free tickets. And I also enjoyed, I guess, applying critical thinking to work that I was seeing. So I was a theatre critic in the background for about four or five years for various places. And then I guess I decided to make the leap and was lucky enough to get a job running the Old Red Lion Pub Theatre in North London, which I ran for three years, a great time. Nearly killed me, but it was great.
And then from there I moved to the Bush Theatre and became the associate dramaturg. It was the first time I’d ever really used that word about myself and certainly the first time I’d ever had that title. Was there for about a year and a half. And then I moved to the National almost five years ago now, a theatre I’d always loved but had no idea about how it worked internally. And I think I moved here partly because it’s a brilliant theatre, but more because I think I wanted to know how a large organization like this made theatre, really. It’s been an exciting journey of discovery.
Jeffrey: You find yourself working particularly on new works then, is that true?
Stewart: Yeah, largely. I mean it’s a combination of things, really. The way that the New Work Department—as it’s called at the National Theatre, which is the building that I’m in now—functions, is that basically everything new that goes on the National comes through this building in some way. So it may be originated here or it may be originated elsewhere and come into here, but anything that’s new on the stages will come through here somehow.
And that’s everything from a totally new play commissioned by us and developed by us to a new version of an existing play or even say a cutdown of an existing play, a new cut of a Shakespeare play or whatever. And the dramaturgy team here helps facilitate those developments of work. So some of it, occasionally we’ll be working on a reimagined classic or cut-down version of an existing play. But the meat of what I do here is new work.
Jeffrey: And you have your own building entirely for new work. Is that true?
Stewart: Yeah, that’s it. It’s this building here. It’s an old paint frame building where they used to paint the sets for big, big shows in London. And it’s now, since the eighties, been basically run as a kind of semi-autonomous wing of the National Theatre, which in the current administration under Rufus [Norris], is created to largely make work for the stages of the National. But yeah, it’s a whole building. It’s got two very large rehearsal studios, one smaller rehearsal studio and a sort of plethora of smaller rooms, meeting rooms, a library to where we hold the archive for National Theatre and also all of the kind of administrative rooms and resources required to essentially run three full-time workshop spaces pretty much fifty weeks a year or something like that.
Jeffrey: Are those workshop spaces full, for the most part, throughout the year?
Stewart: I would say if you went through the whole year and took all of the workshop spaces—there’s three spaces—I would say it’s half to two-thirds full, I would say. We’ve usually got a least one workshop in. This week, for instance, we have three full workshops in all three of the spaces and then all of the subsidiary spaces are also taken, which is why I’m in this echoey room today because in every other room there’s someone doing something. It’s run like a theatre, really. And runs in spaces like a program, tech teams are applied to them, support staff are put in place to facilitate the work. And then sharings take place.
The only difference between it and a theatre is that there’s no audience, or no public audience. But it does feel like a theatre in a lot of ways. We have a technical department, we have producers, we have administrators, we have dramaturgs and associate artists and yeah, it’s just the audience that’s missing.
Jeffrey: So there’s no stage in this space, it’s just all for the work?
Stewart: Yeah, exactly. There’s no permanent stages and the rooms can be kind of turned into whatever they might need to be there. There are sharings quite regularly on a Friday afternoon, we tend to share work that had been created during the week, so there’s usually something to watch on a Friday afternoon, and that’s also the time in which we bring the stakeholders, the artistic director, the senior producers, everyone like that, from the main building, bring them over to see what we’ve been cooking up basically, and to help make decisions on what we might want to put forward in the future.
Jeffrey: Gotcha. So you’re not necessarily workshopping things in the moment to be brought over to a mainstage. Is that true?
Stewart: We are doing that. Basically, workshops here can be at any different point of a show’s development. At the kind of most early stage, it might be a bunch of people in a small room with a big paper on the wall working out what they’re going to create. It builds up from that to, you know, we have readings for new plays that we’re excited about. But then from there we also go up to workshops to test out various production questions and elements of a show, all the way through to workshops, which are, once a show’s been programmed, once it’s building up towards going into rehearsal, we hold large workshops here to answer, again, the kind of nitty-gritty of production— “How do you make a horse on stage convincingly?” “How do you create an ocean with eternity in it for the new gaming project?” or whatever.
So the workshops can be anything and we build them in a very bespoke manner and they’re everything from just a bunch of chairs in a circle to fully realized kind of constructed sets and environments, whatever’s needed really to get the play to where it needs to be to make the journey onto the stages.
Jeffrey: Can you talk to me a little bit more about how the Generate program fits into that? So you’re talking about multiple projects, multiple new works happening in workshop processes the whole time. Are they all part of the Generate program or can you isolate what makes the Generate program different than the other workshops that are happening?
Stewart: So before Rufus, who’s our current artistic director—Rufus Norris—before he took over, the studio had a much looser connection to the main building. It would create work, some work would be created here and then make the journey to the main building. Work like War Horse was begun here in that way, but a lot of projects and artists came into the building just to experiment, essentially. And the work was never intended for the stages here. And there was a separate literary department in the National Theatre, which would occasionally cross-pollinate with the work of the New Work Department in the studio.
When Rufus took over, the National Theatre Studio, this building, became the New Work Department, absorbed the Literary Department. So everything in new work now occurs here. And the intention was that everything we do in this space, more or less, almost everything is pointed at the stage. So everything we develop here must at least have a possibility of finding experience in the stages. In practical terms, there was still a certain amount of work which came in here which would be supported in a more casual way, which was maybe a company which had very specific production requirements but without the resources themselves to realize them.
We’d come in and we’d help them out in some way. For instance, a theatre which used to work out of the Bush Theatre was doing a show, which the leading role was Sarah Gordy, who’s a wonderful actor, who has Down syndrome. And they weren’t sure how to provide the kind of necessary support around Sarah to be able to perform the show, in terms of having a possibility of having line feeds if required. Never actually required them but we needed to build the possibility of it in. And so they came to the National and said, “We can’t afford to build this technology, can we have a week with you?” And that space was provided in that way.
But the majority of work was pointed at our stages. And when the pandemic occurred, when the pandemic began, rather, I should say, obviously the theatre closed and it meant that all of the shows that we were building and the kind of shows we were building for the stages started creating a little bit of a backlog as a lot of theatres had. And suddenly the kind of amount of slots available between now and the end of Rufus’ time as artistic director in a few years became really cramped.
And also we found that, as everyone knows, the entire industry, not just the National, but the entire industry was in a kind of place of financial difficulty, of sort of shrunken budgets, of uncertainty about audiences and all of those other things. And so the decision was made, in order to both answer the question of what you do you do with all of this kind of engine power and a limited amount of slots to create work for, as well as how do you support the wide ecology? The decision was made a third of all of the time and money that this building has would be pointed outside of the National Theatre and largely actually outside of London.
You’ve got a big responsibility as the National Theatre. It says it all over the walls. You’re supposed to be national; we’re a big concrete lump in London. There’s a problem there. And the Generate program is I guess another way of how we can try and make the theatre truly national. So it means that a third of everything we do now is companies and theatres and artists coming in who are making work, which is very specifically not to be considered for our stages, but to be made to hopefully help to provide some kind of extra support and bandwidth for the larger theatre ecology in the UK and particularly for the theatre ecology outside of London. We do do some work with London theatres, but generally with the Generate thing, the idea is that Rachel Twigg, who’s the senior producer here at the theatre, and myself will go out and find companies from outside of London who are making great work and give them the opportunity to help develop work which they’re planning to produce.
It’s not intended for work which is speculative. Any show that goes into Generate has to have a route to production planned. So it’s for work which is going to happen at a theatre or other space within the UK, new work and work which could benefit from a week or so of time and financial resource to help it blossom, I suppose.
Jeffrey: Got it. So you actually, or somebody else, will be out sort of scouting for different productions around the area, around Europe, around England, or just anywhere and everywhere?
Stewart: Yeah. Most of the focus is within the UK and it’s largely within England at the moment. It’s a combination of scouting and relationship development as well as we also receive pitches from theatres and theatre companies. Part of what we try to do here and part of what my role is here is to try and increase the national reach of the studio and the National more generally. So we have a good relationship and a good network with other theatres within the UK and we’ve invited people to pitch ideas to us that could be appropriate for the Generate program.
But yeah, it’s also about going out and finding those companies and I guess that’s part of what we do as a national theatre anyway, is we spend quite a lot of time, or as much as we can, getting out of town and seeing work and seeing artists who are not within London, both in terms of what shows and artists we want to bring into our theatre but also just to have some kind of sense of the theatrical landscape within the country.
Jeffrey: And with Generate, you’re looking for companies in particular that might be making... Are they making in a traditional fashion or are they making in more of the ensemble or collaborative process?
Stewart: Well, I guess it’s all sorts of companies and making work in all sorts of different ways. But generally, the National Theatre doesn’t work with a huge amount of ensemble companies and companies who work in non-tech space ways. Although we do do work outside of text-based practice, most of the kind of bread and butter of the National is still text-based, partly because I think there’s not vast amounts of work being produced which can fill the scale of our stages which is non-text based, I mean to be argued, but certainly that’s been the kind of received wisdom.
So in a way Generate has been an opportunity for us to open up our doors a little bit wider to companies who come from a devised practice, from an ensemble practice, who are approaching theatremaking in a different way. And that’s one of the exciting things I think for Rachel and myself is that we both come from a background of loving and working in theatres which supported more experimental work and non-text-based work, devised work, all of that.
That hasn’t always been the kind of itch that could be scratched within the National Theatre. And it feels like Generate really gives us that opportunity to get these great exciting companies in who naturally are then are going to cross-pollinate with our own practices and our own processes and provide inspiration for the building, as well as gaining hopefully some support from it.
We’re not looking for pieces that have already had a production, generally. We’re looking for pieces which are in the midst of their journey. And what we really want to do is be able to apply this financial support and spatial support at a kind of crux moment for them. It’s the bit where you go, “We would love to be able to do this but we just can’t quite make this moment work” or “We’re not quite able to work with a chorus in a way that we hoped” or ‘We can’t really get the choreography where we’d like it to be because we’ve only got three weeks to rehearse it and a limited,” et cetera.
We hope we can step in there and go, “Look, with our help, can you maybe realize that?” And also, being realistic about the way that arts funding works within the UK, is our help going to allow you to leverage more support further down the line? Can the fact that we’re backing it, supporting it, giving you a relatively small amount of money— The top end of our expenditure on a Generate program is about £10,000, and we can’t do that many of those per year. But hopefully that will allow them to then, whether it’s via the arts council or other funding bodies, help fill in the future, make the money go further and grow out the support that they have. So we’re looking for projects. We’ve had all sorts. We get a lot of musical projects to come into us, but really from all kinds of companies. And what we like for them to come in with is a question, really, or a problem that needs solving and then we can hopefully help them find the right people to answer that question and give them the time to puzzle it out.
Jeffrey: Are you paying the artists and are you covering their housing? If they’re coming from outside of London or if they’re coming from outside the area, what sort of support are you covering them with, then?
Stewart: We always pay a standard rate to every artist who works in the building. So we pay them that rate per day that they’re working on for everyone they want to bring. And also we do provide some subsidy in terms of transport and housing. We can’t pay for everything, but there is some support built in there for companies outside of London. The majority of companies who we’re working with also have some of their own financial support that they can bring in.
But yeah, we sort of give them the same deal that we would give any company making work at the National Theatre, is the idea. And it’s always a negotiation. We go through a process of parametering anything that happens here in the same way as we do for activity that is pointed to our stages, but we want to be able to give them as much as we can and for them to get the absolute most out of it. Sometimes that isn’t huge amounts and it’s just some money for some actors and sometimes it’s really full on and more involved.
Jeffrey: Can you share some companies that have worked with you recently?
Stewart: Yeah, I’m trying to think who I can talk about. For instance, Breach Theatre, who are a devised theatre company who I’m actually on the board for so I feel I can talk about their projects a little bit more safely. But they came in and did some time on a new musical they’re developing about Section 28 and about the criminalization of homosexuality and education in the 1980s. It’s the biggest show they’ve ever done. It’s much more complicated than anything they’ve ever made before. It’s a musical, it’s got a large cast, blah blah blah. They were able to come here, try that out, and also offer a sharing at the end of it, which allowed them to bring some potential other funders and people like that into the room.
This week, for instance, we’ve got a really brilliant artist named Emma Frankland, who’s got a new version of the play Galatea, which she is bringing to the Brighton Festival next year. She’s working here to build out the choral elements of that and think also a little bit about the way in which that story intersects with ideas of refugees and immigration. So we’re supporting that this week. We’ve had theatre companies like Northern Stage have been down, Leeds Playhouse, Nottingham Playhouse. We’ve also had musical group called Sheep Soup came and spent some time here working with us.
So it’s a big variety of companies and I think the idea is that it’s both the major kind of regional theatres where Bolton Octagon came down to try— They just did a version of The Book Thief musical, which they brought down and we gave them a week which allowed them to really build that world of that musically. So yeah, it’s a mixture of regional houses, theatres outside of London, but also companies who are creating work in a different way. They don’t necessarily have to be affiliated with the National Theatre, or sorry, with a theatre themselves, to come down here. There can be companies making work independently as long as they have a credible route to production for that show.
Jeffrey: Are there any other theatre companies around UK, around Europe, that are doing anything like this?
Stewart: It’s hard to say really. Because the way that the National works is so different because we’ve got this separate building, because we’ve got this New Work Department. We always feel like a slightly different approach to making work and supporting artists than other buildings. But I suppose we’ve looked at the ways in which— I think there’ve been amazing developments in the last few years, just talking about London specifically, in people answering some of the questions maybe at a smaller scale than we’re doing in terms of the companies they’re working with. But actually in some really bold ways.
There’s a theatre called the New Diorama Theatre, which is run by a really inspirational man named David Byrne, which did, if anything, a bigger project than Generate, in some ways, in which they gave away tens of thousands of hours of rehearsal space for free for companies which applied in the center of London, and rehearsal space is the thing which is desperately, desperately needed in London. It’s extortionately expensive and it really does strangle, I think, a lot of the creativity possible in this city. And the New Diorama gave away tens if not hundreds of thousands of hours of space away for free to companies regardless of whether they had a future life plan for their show.
And I thought that was— It only lasted for a year. It was a collaboration with British Land and various other stakeholders, but I just thought it was the most inspirational example of how you can think outside of the box and you can break accepted rules like, you know, you need to pay for rehearsal space. You know, what happens when you take that away. And I think they were working at companies usually at an earlier part of their career than the Generate program’s opened, too, but that’s the kind of thinking at the grassroots level which is I think necessary to create a really diverse and exciting and representative set of artists in the new generation.
The National Theatre does a huge amount of work to try and increase its national scope and I’m very proud of all of that. It’s the work that I think is most important that the theatre does, is the work it takes in the schools, the work it takes on tour to other theatres, the work it takes into cinemas and live and everything like that. That’s the stuff that I think is really, really vital. And as someone not from London at all and not even from the south of England, it’s something that I think is the most important work that we do.
But we can’t be everywhere and can’t be doing everything. But Generate, it’s really lovely. I think the first shows that we supported through Generate started to happen on stages. As I say, [inaudible 00:22:34] show early this year and things like that. And it’s just lovely to see the National Theatre’s fingerprints, even when very light, on a project that is making a real difference to a community which we’re not necessarily able to, as directly, reach.
And Rufus made a big point when he took over here being like, “The tagline of the National Theatre is ‘National Theatre is for everyone, a National Theatre for everyone.’” That’s a really laudable ambition and I feel like Generate is another part of trying to make that happen and another way that that happens that maybe isn’t super visible to the critics and the general public and the press and all of that. But I’ve always felt like the National is sort of an iceberg institution, is always what I say, and all of the biggest and best stuff is under the surface and I believe that this is another example of it.
Jeffrey: That’s great, that’s great. I’m kind of melding two questions at the same time in my head here, so forgive me if this comes out wrong, but this is going to be a mess potentially. Good thing I can edit all of this.
Stewart: Yeah, exactly.
Jeffrey: Right now it sounds like, with the Generate Program, you’re getting them to the next step. So they’re already in the place where they can develop something further. It could be a bit of writing the text or working on a technical moment or doing something. So it sounds like, let me give an example. I’ve heard of different programs assisting a group from outside to the extent that they can no longer take it on tour because it’s impossible for them to. They’ve built it up so large that it’s impossible for them to possibly tour. What they really need are a couple of stage cubes and some music stands, but you’ve been given a proscenium arch and ten neon signs. So it sounds to me like you’re working with them within the confines of what they need in order to make sure that they’re going to have success when they return to their location.
Stewart: And that’s one of the reasons that we try to be very explicit about the fact that the Generate program isn’t just a backdoor way of pitching shows to the National Theatre. We’re not interested in people coming in secretly hoping that the show goes on in the Dorfman, but just doing a week here. That’s very much not the point. The point is that it’s realistic and practicable for them to take into whatever its future stage is.
I guess that’s probably one of the reasons why we say it has to be a show with a credible and confirmed route to production. I’m not really interested in us taking a brilliant devised company who are on a really excellent journey to future success, bouncing their show out of any theatre that’s ever going to book them. That’s very much not what we’re about and we have to be careful about that. And I think that’s part of the process of selecting companies to work with. It’s part of the process of being very realistic with them and open with them at an early stage about what their expectations should be and what kind of project is appropriate.
But we have in the past turned down projects, I think, in which the extra resource might actually be a hindrance. And it’s a huge part of the journey, in a kind of literary management/creative producing role or whatever, within the National Theatre, it’s very important that the kind of scale of the building and the scale of what it does doesn’t create unhelpful fluctuations within the really nourished and successful generation of a career or a trajectory for either an artist or a piece of work. You have to be aware that you have quite big footprints and you need to not end up damaging something which is being built delicately and carefully and has a route to its own fulfillment.
And my belief is very much that not every show and not every company needs to be working at what we call a mid-scale or certainly not at the large scale. Something I end up talking about quite a lot with friends who work in devising settings is that the ambition of every devising company is not to produce work large enough to go on in a thousand-seat theatre. I fundamentally believe that it’s not a measure of success, how many people can watch it at the same time. It’s a very different metric and some of the best work I’ve ever seen was one-on-one work in which I was the only audience member. Whether that’s Ontroerend Goed or whether that’s a work by artists like Andy Field, the form and content question is not one which I feel is useful to conflate with an idea of growth at all costs.
I don’t believe in growth at all costs in any respect, certainly not in the theatre. So I think we want to make sure that any kind of time and resource that we put behind something is going to help it become the best version of itself. And that’s the same—artist, companies, projects. And the best version of itself is not necessarily the one that can fill Birmingham Hippodrome. And that’s part of the negotiation. That’s why we don’t say yes to everyone, one of the reasons we don’t say yes to everyone. And it’s part of the curatorial responsibility of the building and of the Generate program to ensure that it’s its own best form, not a presumed best form.
Jeffrey: Yeah, right, right, right. That’s great. Also, I just interviewed Alexander from Ontroerend Goed.
Stewart: Oh, amazing.
Jeffrey: So glad to hear his name again here.
Stewart: An absolute legend. I think he’s absolutely brilliant and they’re such a fantastic example of a company who have not just kept making bigger and bigger shows but keep making their shows better and more interesting and are quite happy to follow up a huge immersive show with a solo bit of poetry. They’re intellectually, artistically rigorous in a really thrilling way. We’ve done work with them here in our digital department, which has been really exciting. I just think they’re brilliant. Yeah, a great example of why bigger is just not better, necessarily, in theatre.
Jeffrey: Wild, wild. Yeah, he was telling me about a new show that may just show up in a box and that’s it.
Stewart: Right, right.
Jeffrey: And I’m like, that sounds brilliant. I would see that.
Stewart: Yeah, they’ve made me do some of the weirdest and some of the most unpleasant times I’ve ever had in the theatre. But some of the better ones have been Alexander’s fault in one way or another, I think.
Jeffrey: I’m kind of curious, how is ensemble-based work regarded in the UK, or devised work?
Stewart: I think it just tends to be… We’re such a text-obsessed culture and we vacillate between being, I suppose, a writer’s culture, which we naturally lean towards, I think, because of the weight of the canon and things like that, and a director’s theatre at that more rigid theatre kind of mainland Europe way. But neither of those things is devising theatre. And I think devised work has a long and illustrious history in the experimental fields within the UK.
And I’m not even sure how true any of this is, now that I think about it, because people like Ken Campbell were making work for large stages that use devising processes and things like that. I slightly suspect that the way that we think about devising an ensemble work now is the same way everyone does, which is that we feel like we just invented it or we feel like it’s sort of the hot new thing.
But I do think it tends to find itself confined to smaller spaces and I think a lot of that’s about the way in which literary departments, well the name “literary department,” suggests fairly heavily that the devising work is going to struggle to get through. But we tend to assess work initially at a reading stage before we invest. And devised work requires an investment prior to there being anything to read, generally, or anything substantive to read. So I think the theatre industry in the UK sometimes struggles with it and so it ends up in, I suppose, more art house–like spaces.
But there’s always exceptions to those rules. Companies like Wardrobe Ensemble making large-scale devised work or at least mid-scale devised work based on popular titles and things like that. I think certainly once you start pushing into the dance world and you end up with really well thought-of companies and companies like Gecko who we’ve worked with in the past who do do big-scale work. That can find its way into fairly mainstream spaces.
But even when you see that it tends to be for shorter runs, it tends to be in more of a festival context or whatever. We have a nervousness about putting non-text-based work front and center in our big spaces and that’s something that I don’t think— The National Theatre does reflect that to a certain extent I think. And I think that’s sort of chicken and egg really, but I think there’s a nervousness around audience understanding that process and that kind of work. We still just fete our writers most of all, which is wonderful, they’re one of the greatest resources the country has. But I think it can sometimes be at the expense of devised work.
I’m sort of speaking for myself rather than the National now. But I think people are opening up to it. But then as I say, I think they probably have been opening up to it since Peter Brooks’ day, and I don’t know what stage of that we’re at right now.
Jeffrey: One of my favorite things someone told me is we call things “physical theatre” and people say, “Oh, so what do you call physical theatre in Europe?” And they just say “theatre.” It’s just theatre. You don’t have to classify it. And so there’s sort of this broad idea that the work that is non-traditional has to be classified in some way or put into a pigeon hole in order to better understand it. Whereas really you’re just after ideas. All we’re ever trying to do is communicate ideas. And I think that’s so fascinating. I think you’re right and I’m really going to take that with me, that “literary department” sort of isolates a particular way of working. That’s interesting.
Stewart: And it’s really weird, isn’t it, because audiences don’t care. Once they’re watching it, they don’t really care. It doesn’t really matter to them, whether it was written by someone or devised by someone—they receive the story and the experience. It’s another one of those ways in which you feel like marketing and critical culture and everything like that, and literary departments and dramaturgs and everyone, they’re all collaborating really to kind of create a situation in which devised work’s harder to find an audience for. But all works, everything they watch, is devised to an extent. The work of rehearsal room is a devising process. It just might start from a firmer text.
But if you look at something like Lehman Trilogy, which was obviously written by Massini, adapted by Ben Power, directed by Sam Mendes, but so much of much of what the audience receive when they go and see Lehman, wherever they see it, in the National Theatre production, was devised in the room. That was the movement of it from a cast of thirty to a cast of three or the transformation of a poem into a play, that was part of the process of that room. And that’s devising. I mean if devising means anything. It’s just that there was something, a more substantive bit of material, to build from, I suppose.
Jeffrey: One of the things that I think prevents a lot of potential devising at a larger regional theatre here in the States is just the amount of money that it would take for development. Perhaps because of the actors’ unions or otherwise, we’re held to a certain number of weeks of rehearsal on a certain rate of pay and a certain— Which is all important and whatnot. I’m not saying it’s not, but it does prevent a lot of things from actually being generated or devised in a more traditional setting.
Do you think that that is something that is a big concern at National Theatre or some of the larger theatres?
Stewart: Yeah, I think it’s definitely a part of the reason why it’s maybe sometimes viewed with a little bit more caution. Well, cards on the table, my wife runs a devised theatre company so I kind of hear a lot of the other side of this and they work a relatively small scale in the UK in sort of OffWestEnd theatres, but they’ve also made work for the Schaubühne in Berlin and Schauspielhaus in Vienna and kind of spreading out into Europe. But their process to make work within the UK, they have a three-week rehearsal period and probably two weeks of workshopping in advance of that. So even if you tot it all up, you’re talking about five weeks in the room, which is less time than a show that the National spends in the room.
We’ve got a big musical that we’re making for next year and that’s been in development for nearly ten years here, and that’s text based, that’s got a great writer and everything like that. It’s based on a great book, and I don’t know how many weeks it’s taken in that time, but it’s comparable to War Horse, and you mentioned War Horse earlier as a National Theatre success story, but again that was a play based on a book and with two directors and all of that and took hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds of development over years and years and years to create, and was hugely successful. There’s no particular reason why a devised work takes longer than that, I think.
It’s more, I think, you’re slightly taking a bet as a theatre when you commission a bit of work. When you bring artists in, you’re taking a little bit of a gamble. It’s part of the process. Not everything we build here goes on our stages and we try and minimize the amount of work that doesn’t go somewhere that is developed here. But most things, even the majority of things that get developed here, won’t go onto our stages anyway. And even the things we hope will, and there’s wastage always, but hopefully it’s not real wastage because it goes elsewhere or whatever.
But that’s a reality of making theatre and I think we’re just not very good necessarily or very trained at working out what a good bet is in devising theatre, compared to a script. A script is like quite a lot— Quite a lot of the cards are down already when you have a script and sometimes none of them are down with a devising company. So the companies who are making work at really large-scale places and have commensurate budgets are ones which have such impeccable track records, like Simon McBurney’s Complicité and companies like that who— Because the cards that are down are Simon McBurney’s making it, or Kirsty Housley and Simon McBurney are making this. And that’s a pretty good bet. And the idea—it can be quite small then—that gives you that feeling of trust.
But for the majority of artists, we want a little bit more down on paper first and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing but it feels like part of the reality. I think it’s a lack of confidence in what you have to make the decision on to spend the money.
Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s great. I just wrote down Complicité. You are reading my mind right now. It’s great, Stewart. Yeah, I mean, I think you’re right, we kind of do work on faith in some way. You’ve got to trust the process, you’ve got to trust what the art is going to be. But you’re right, you have to have some knowns to take that sort of mitigated risk in some way, it feels like. Because that’s where it all lands.
We started this conversation, started talking about COVID and having to think about the budget in a real way and thinking about those risks that we take and the shows that are certainly going to show profit. But you started a little earlier, you mentioned different funding sources. Can you talk about maybe who are some of the bigger funders in your world? The UK and Europe have a very different system than our nonprofit model in the United States. Can you talk to me a little bit about who funds the work?
Stewart: Yeah. It’s recently just changed a little bit because we’ve had a new budget allocation from the Arts Council. But essentially the UK has the Arts Council, which is a sort of NGO, non-government organization, which takes money generated by the government or various other sources and allocates it to the arts within the UK and that’s kind of everything from museums through to experimental dance companies. And some companies it provides money to based on the money that they apply for. So a company will apply for, say, 25 percent, 50 percent of budget to create a show and then something like a fifth of them will be successful, maybe a little bit more than that, and will be given that money by the Arts Council.
But larger organizations belong to what’s called the National Portfolio, which is a number of companies and theatres which are funded with a regular stipend from that Arts Council, which can run anything from fifty grand a year, fifty thousand pounds a year, sorry, to millions. And the larger the organization, generally the larger the stipend. So the one that the National Theatre’s on, I’m going to get this wrong because it’s just changed, but I think we received something in the region of fourteen or fifteen million pounds a year from the Arts Council.
So there’s a huge amount of money, it’s about the most amount of money any theatre is given in the UK from the Arts Council. But our operating budget for a year at the National is a hundred million. So it actually represents, in terms of money provided by the government and the taxpayer et cetera, that actually represents only about 15 percent of the money which we need to operate. And a big chunk of the money that makes up the rest of that comes from ticket sales. A huge amount of that money, in fact, comes from ticket sales. I don’t know the exact breakdown for the rest of it, but certainly box office is vastly important to the financial stability of the National Theatre, how well shows sell here, how well shows sell abroad.
We have National Theatre Productions, which is sort of a semi-autonomous production company, which exists, can make a profit, can feed some of that back to the National, which— It’s National Theatre Productions who are taking Lehman Trilogy to New York, who are taking Ocean at the End of the Lane around the country and around the world. But War Horse, for instance, has been piling money into National Theatre’s coffers for a long time. But you’re looking at a huge amount of money that needs to be made up by everything that isn’t the government.
Obviously, we then have donors, we have corporate sponsors. There are a number of different income streams outside of just box office and the Arts Council. But things like bar revenue, we’ve got a very successful Riverside Bar, we’ve got shops, we’ve got merchandising, we have National Theatre Live, we have National Theatre at Home now. There are lots of different strands to what the National does, but the most important thing, the thing I think is most significant, particularly when you look at the National in comparison to similarly sized organizations within Europe, or at least similarly artistically ambitious organizations within Europe, in particular, is that we have to make of our— The vast majority of our money comes from the profitability of the National Theatre’s productions and other similar activities.
If you take a theatre in Vienna or Germany or whatever, during COVID, they are fully funded in that period and they have actors who are within their ensembles or whatever who are paid their salary during that period, or the vast majority of their salary, and just don’t work. Within the UK theatre scene when COVID hit, nobody had any— No work, no money. That’s how it worked for freelancers, so suffered hugely during the pandemic.
But what’s really significant is I think that the amount of money which the National Theatre has to generate itself versus what’s given by the government has increased exponentially over time. The organization now is required to make the vast majority of its money from ticket sales and that commercial pressure on... We’re in the subsidized sector, but that doesn’t mean that we’re fully subsidized. I think that isn’t always fully understood, is that, really, we’re in a hybrid version of it. Yes, there is really substantial and hugely gratefully received state funding for the National Theatre and we know how lucky we are to be here when a lot of companies receive far less, if any funding at all.
But the screws are on to make the money. There’s no plan B, really, if we can’t make successful work the audiences want to see. It means that we serve a lot of different masters as a theatre. We want to be artistically ambitious, experimental, we want to increase the diversity on our stages at all times and we also have to make sure that the bottom line is looked after. That chunk of money from the government isn’t going to pay a hundred million pounds worth of artistic development and staffing.
Jeffrey: That’s wild. Thank you for all that. It’s so much bigger than I ever imagined. I mean, it always is. It’s like, let’s talk about every single government structure and financial possibility. But thank you for outlining that so clearly. I really appreciate it. I don’t want to assume anything, but I would think that you would have a pocket of money that would just be dedicated to new work. So then I’m wondering if that may or may not have influence on what may show up on your National Theatre stages, mainstages.
Stewart: I mean, we have a separate budget for everything that we do here, so to an extent it’s protected, but certainly in coming years, we’re going to have to look increasingly closely at expenditure and how much projects cost versus what they’re likely to pay out. We’re aware that we, as exciting as it might be to only develop, I suppose, extremely experimental and slightly niche work here, given that we have the resources, the pressure is also obviously—or the will and pressure, I should say—is here to create work which has commercial appeal, to an extent. But we don’t really need to think about its commercial appeal. It just needs to have audience appeal.
I think particularly after COVID, particularly with what the UK’s going through just at the start of an absolutely dreadful cost-of-living crisis where spare money to spend on going to the theatre is going to be in really short supply and so we have to be promising audiences a really great night out quite regularly. It’s got to be something that people genuinely want to see. People have so much choice now in terms of what they do, and I think after COVID as well people got out of the habit of going to the theatre as much and people found that they could live their lives without going to the theatre and still be cultured people who have plenty to say at the dinner table or whatever.
And so it’s more important than ever, I think, that our stages are genuinely tempting. I fundamentally believe that National Theatre can’t just serve people what they ought to be eating, but it has to serve things that they want. And that’s the joy working here as well. That’s the thing that I enjoy about this place that I maybe haven’t always been able to find elsewhere is that giving people a really good night out is so important to our business model and you’ve got to think about what that is and how do you make that all of the things you would want it to be as well as a good night out. And that’s a real challenge, but it’s an exciting one, I think.
Jeffrey: Yeah, absolutely. All of this said, anything you can tell us about that you’re really looking forward to, either on your stages or maybe something else that you’ve seen recently?
Stewart: What am I looking forward to that’s coming soon? Well, I’m seeing Clint Dyer’s new version of Othello on Wednesday, which I’m very excited about. First preview for that. I love Othello. The last version of Othello, which I saw at the National Theatre, had Roy Kinnear and was absolutely—as Iago and I think Adrian Lester as Othello—was absolutely stunning. We’ve got Giles Terera playing Othello this time, Paul Hilton playing Iago. It’s going to be just gorgeous, I think. I haven’t seen a second of it, I haven’t been working on it, so I just get to go in and watch one of my favorite plays done by these incredible artists. So I’m excited about that.
It’s a new version, a new adaptation of the script. I mean, it’s not been rewritten, it’s been heavily edited and there’s a new interpretation, but yet it’s very new and very bold from everything I hear, and that opens for previews on Wednesday, so I’m excited about that. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time commissioning new musicals over the last year or two and they’re just starting to bear fruit and I’m starting to see and hear the first bits of those, which is really exciting.
The huge musical that we’ve been working on for ten years I watched a workshop for two weeks ago and it was absolutely exhilarating and I just think it’s going to be the hugest hit when it comes to us next year. I can’t say any more about it, other than I think it’s going to be a joy. Yeah, it’s some of the best artists in the country working at the top of their game and that’s always, always really exciting.
Jeffrey: Very good. Cool. Awesome. Stewart, thank you so much for your time today. It really does mean a lot that you took time to chat and we could talk through some of these big things. Anything else that I didn’t give you a chance to say that you’re bursting to say out loud?
Stewart: No, just thank you so much for having me. It’s a real joy to talk and, yeah, anything else that would be helpful to know, always just drop me a message.
Jeffrey: My only experience with the National was a production of Cyrano de Bergerac in 2006 or so, 2006 or 2005 or something like that. I guess I just dated myself too, but I don’t care. But it was so delightful and I can just imagine where you are and I can just imagine the space and just the awe that I had walking into the National, and so it’s really nice to revisit and re-feel those feelings and now know you, who walks around the space on the daily, is really nice to think about. So thank you again so much for your time and—
Stewart: Thank you. Well, if you’re ever in town, give me a shout and let’s grab a coffee or something. It’d be great to hear more about what you do out there and if I’m ever in Milwaukee, I’ll let you know. I’d love to be in Milwaukee.
Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
You have to be aware that you have quite big footprints and you need to not end up damaging something which is being built delicately and carefully and has a route to its own fulfillment.
Right out of the gates, I have to say that this is sort of a chance to really look at partnership in a really great way, think about all the partnerships and connections that Stewart had prior to coming to the National and now he gets to expound upon them and use them in his work. How fantastic. I really appreciate how Stewart found his way to his position at the National Theatre. It just goes to show that a career path in America is very similar to European processes as well, and for him to discuss how rehearsal space is cost-prohibitive feels like a very true connection to modern Western issues as well.
I really appreciate how Generate works. By bringing in groups who have planned performances ahead of them, but need the space to continue to create. To me, that is a great partnership. And the fact that Stewart and his team go out and scout that kind of work is really fantastic to me. I’m hearing parallels to what Diane Rodriguez did with Patricia Garza as mentioned in season two episode one, and also to how UNIVERSES connected with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
It is such a great reminder that ensemble-based work isn’t always made for the scale that the National Theatre works. And the way he talks about it, that not every ensemble wants to be seen that way is a great reminder of perspective. What does success mean for your ensemble theatre? We’ve been hearing that in a unique fashion from several folks, and I think it’s worth exploring next season and beyond. I also really love the reminder that the term “literary department” is really committed to literature. It is hard to put physical theatre in that box. An issue of semantics and the present perception of how new work can be created is so fascinating.
It reminded me of an interview with Declan Donovan [Donnellan] of Cheek by Jowl, listen out for their podcast Not True, But Useful... on how “literary” is such a key term in the theatremaking movement and process that we currently have. Also, I’d like to amend something in here that, from all the conversations I had, I know I said that things may be cost-prohibitive, but as Stewart was sure to point out, we put investment into text-based things all the time, and it is a common misperception to believe that it is more expensive. Theatres can choose how they want to allocate their funds, and taking the leap to believe in a devised process can be such a benefit to all artists and organizations. We sometimes spend as much time and resources as developing one playwright’s words.
Finally, let me say that Stewart linked this back to Ben Cameron from season three, episode five, about how there are so many choices that people have these days in terms of what to watch. So let’s make it worth it for this audience. Okay, this is it for now. Season three is a wrap, but I’ve got interviews already in the can for season four, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, please do let me know what you’re interested in hearing about. How can we continue to document these processes and movements all over the world? Hit me up at ftgu_pod and ensemble_ethnographer on Twitter and Instagram. Artists, it has been a pleasure to be with you again in this season and I hope to be in your ears again soon. Our lightning round is coming up, but let me say I wish you well and look forward to connecting with you again here on From the Ground Up.
I don’t believe in growth at all costs in any respect, certainly not in the theatre.
Jeffrey: Can you tell me your favorite salutation?
Stewart: “Hey,” as in “Hello.” I mean I use quite a lot of surfer slang largely because I’ve got a really bad memory for names and in the theatre industry you learn so many names. So everyone’s like, “You do talk a bit one of the Ninja Turtles,” and I’m like, “Well, that’s a carefully honed strategy to avoid embarrassing myself at large theatre gatherings.”
Jeffrey: Oh my gosh, Stewart, you and I are one and the same. I am like, “Yeah, hey you.” What’s your favorite exclamation?
Stewart: I think I say “wild” a lot, as in: “Wild.” I use that a lot in a way that I’m trying to kind of limit. But I think I use that as a kind of all-purpose exclamation. I don’t quite know what the socially correct answer is to something, whether it’s good or bad. I think it’s pleasantly neutral in terms of what my actual opinion of the statement which has been made.
Jeffrey: What a wild circumstance.
Stewart: Yeah, exactly. It means nothing. It means nothing.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite transportation?
Stewart: I have a folding bicycle, which I acquired a year ago, and her name is Coral. She’s a Brompton.
Jeffrey: What would you be doing, if not theatre?
Stewart: Maybe either TV or radio, probably. Something storytelly, I guess.
Jeffrey: What is the opposite of a senior dramaturg at the National Theatre?
Stewart: Somebody who spends all day working on their feet and with their hands because it’s a very sedentary- and computer- and comfy chair– and rehearsal room–based role.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?
Stewart: I don’t really like ice cream very much, but I suppose probably like with honeycomb in it. We call it “thunder and lightning” in the Lake District. I don’t know if that’s a common term, but yes, stracciatella with honeycomb in it. That’s my favorite.
Jeffrey: And then last here, what does “ensemble” mean to you?
Stewart: I use it in a lot of different contexts. I suppose, for me, an ensemble is a group of people brought together with a common endeavor, whose work continues beyond the end date of that endeavor.
Jeffrey: This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. You can find, like, and follow this podcast at @ftgu_pod, or me, Jeffrey Mosser, at @ensemble_ethnographer on Instagram, and @KineticMimetic on Twitter.
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