I visit a uniquely successful Open Innovation incubator – in the Arts

If innovation is of the essence to the performing arts, the ’Studio’ of the National Theatre – which has a unique reputation as a powerhouse of creativity and innovation – seems to be a playground of collaborative experimentation – like no other. Seemingly best described as a semi-curated space for creative collaboration, by artfully managing to bring together those who might in some way contribute to one another, it readily attracts people who can benefit from the simple safe spaces that it offers in which to experiment, ‘to dream, to work, to sweat over ideas that aren’t ready and to hone stuff that is nearly there’ – a vibrant, active, welcoming place for unexpected and interesting things to happen for a wide range of artists in the nation’s performing arts. 

  The National Theatre’s Studio is a building beside the Old Vic that used to be the latter’s paintframe, but is now a unique powerhouse for original work in the performing arts in the UK. It was described to me as a ‘development house’, like a semi-curated playground for people whose ideas look to the curators as if they might burgeon there, whose essential ingredients are ideas, potential and space.

Nicholas Hytner describes it thus: ‘The Studio is the National Theatre’s engine room. It’s also an irreplaceable resource for the whole of British theatre. Actors, directors, theatre-makers of all sorts – and above all writers – use it to dream, to work, to sweat over ideas that aren’t ready and to hone stuff that is nearly there’; and it does so ‘under the radar’, where there is no explicit objective or goal, thus allowing them ‘to fail’ – from which further development, the next idea, or the next project might emerge. 

About a third of its work is for the NT, a third for the wider theatre sector across the UK, and the remaining third on ideas that seem to have a future but have not yet found it. And its work encompasses people who play most if not all of the roles in theatre, from actors to writers, composers, designers, directors and producers and even including researchers and historians.

Primarily it is about creativity via collaboration and collaborative experience. Some of what happens in the Studio takes the form of semi-curated collaborations (eg writer with composer, chef with actor, established writer with abstract performance artists).

The core staff – of under ten people, each with dramatically different backgrounds and experience are above all else interacters and matchmakers, ‘playfully curious’, and lateral thinkers with associative minds. They are very active in going out and seeing work, to learn about everything that is new in the arts world, that seems to have potential and that might succumb to collaborative development.

And from the knowledge that they acquire and from their considerable experience, they invite people to get in touch and pitch their needs – individuals, groups, even organisations that have open minds and collaborative cultures, with a view to their spending time in the studio – often in unlikely and unpredictable pairings – just to see what happens from their workings together, or to develop some work-in-progress. 

These opportunities for experimentation are much sought after and the pressure for space is considerable, putting heavy responsibility on the expertise and experience of the staff for making decisions about the allocation of spaces. Directors, designers and actors are readily attracted the 500 yards from the NT itself often just to draw inspiration from or to contribute to the playful atmosphere that the Studio exudes (everyone gets the same daily fee.)

The Studio contains two separate performance studios, the smaller of which is furnished with digital technology and comprehensive rig, and for movement, but without the prospect of much scenery; and is more suited to working on ideas and concepts. The second is larger and more like a theatre space where ideas for theatre are experimented with in terms of how they might be portrayed and how they come over. The third space is generally used for reading scripts aloud (although the room is currently being used as the ‘War Horse’ production office, a ground-breaking production that was substantially developed at the Studio.) These spaces are used primarily by writers, directors and producers trying out their ideas about something, simply to see what happens if you do it this way or that – without any particular goal; and thus, the failure to make it work is neither here nor there, except as perhaps representing a milestone in progress, from which a new problem or opportunity emerges.

There are other spaces – of various sizes: a smaller room, currently being used for two weeks by a small young group with a new idea but no home base in which to work it out together; and yet smaller ones (with no ornamentation – Peter Brooke’s The Empty Space being a universally pervasive theme) – one currently occupied for several weeks by a writer, and another by an historian writing a treatise on Gender in the Theatre. And then a further section of the building houses the Archive of the National Theatre. There is a small and carefully tended roof garden, described as a ‘thinking space’. And there are office-type rooms, meeting rooms, break-out rooms, dressing rooms and music rooms.

On the ground floor, there is a kitchen and a Green Room, and an area where every Thursday sees a significant but totally informal joining together – to eat lunch and to talk, when some group will show a performance-in–progress, which will be followed by lively discussion and comment, (and which will often spark new projects).

The Studio also has an educational role. It runs a programme for Staff Directors (one of whom is attached to one of the three NT theatres) to provide them with the opportunity to learn craft from an NT director, as well as occasionally to develop a project of their own. And there is an annual two-week course for some twenty emerging directors, chosen on the basis of recent work that the staff members have seen, in which specific experts contribute to their development, and which helps them to benefit from meeting their peers. And the Studio works in this context with the individual departments at the NT (Literary/Casting/Music etc)

As to the future, the closure for six months of the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the NTs three spaces, has led to an opportunity to use the Square – the space formed by the L-shape of the National Theatre – for performances of a different kind. In temporary buildings, they will be smaller, shorter runs, and less dependent on scenery and technology, and hence simpler and more experimental, and that might carry over into the Cottesloe itself. As such, they take a place in the current fashion for performance art that pervades many genres, inspired in part perhaps by the overbearing developments in personal communication.

       With many champions, the Studio has a unique position among a small number of discreet organisations that play a similar role (eg Arts Admin and Metal), but none so comprehensively or so egregiously.

Related posts:

Incubators in the Arts (2011) see http://goo.gl/hldCr

Watering Holes – the BBC’s creativity labs (2010), see http://goo.gl/9l2ov

 

Copyright 2012 John Whatmore

 

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