Mentoring – a tricky task to organise and manage


Linking startups to the very mentors who might help them with their issues of the moment is a key role; and one of the most valuable roles of managers involved in innovation.

Jon Bradford of Techstars and Nektarios Liolios of Startupbootcamp, where mentoring is an integral part of the programmes, used to have address books bulging with potential mentors. But that is rarely the case into-day’s startup nurseries.

If mentoring is in essence about helping people to make progress, Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi was a classic example. He was not only one of the most productive scientists ever, but also, and intriguingly, mentor to six other Nobel Laureates. Einstein, Ghandi and Martha Graham are among many well-known people who have benefitted from mentors.

Leading startup nurseries of to-day, like the Central Research Laboratory and Imperial College see mentoring as an integral and essential part of what they offer; and its management as increasingly vital. To attract mentors they depend more on their reputation and their personal links. And they then have to manage the ‘matching’ problem.

Many are the stories of startups getting vital help from chance encounters, friends, other startukps, and visitors to the accelerator/incubator itself, as well as from mentors; and not least over a good boozy lunch!

Imperial’s I-Corps programme, like all I-Corps programmes (US), sent its startups at an early stage of the programme to find and meet a hundred interested parties (now made easier by the likes of Zoom.)

But mentors have been described as ‘difficult to recruit; their motives…not always clear; and mostly unpaid they are not necessarily reliable.’ Moreover ‘they play a number of different roles. They and their own experience are difficult to match to entrepreneurs; and to their changing needs. And they are not easily accountable.’

But they find it rewarding. MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service in Boston has created a club-like area where its mentors meet together and exchange stories about their mentoring escapades and what they have learned from them.

MIT’s VMS, and now Imperial, form small mentor teams for each startup. And they ensure that evaluation and reviews take place regularly (for which action learning is an ideal medium). And the fast-changing stages of startups can each call for different mentors.  

Brent Hoberman, a co-founder of is encouraging people like him – with extensive experience of startups, to share their tales of  ‘blood, sweat and tears’ on mentoring platforms – where they can also contribute to workshops, advice and training sessions. And so professionalise the work of Mentors.

As MIT’s Mentoring service suggests, it is a matter of attracting potential mentors and then making the most appropriate use of their different experience and talents, and their often widely different contributions.

This has become a joint challenge – to heads of mentoring together with the heads of innovation/development programmes. And it is difficult to manage because of the fast changing needs of young businesses, and because of the many different characteristics of potential mentors.

Mentoring clearly needs constant review, for up-to-the-moment challenges – not as an ongoing prop. And it needs better understanding. (‘Mentoring – lowest prices’ says Amazon’s sad Google heading!)

Mentoring service management is expected to become more pervasive and more highly valued, but as yet there is no sign of anything in the UK like MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service.


PS I’d love to hear your tales of mentoring, and menteeing. – and your insights.

John Whatmore, March 2021


A giant startup factory – the first of many


A powerhouse of innovation opens its second initiative – a huge startup factory, five times the size of its first; and unveils plans for a number more, with a model that meets needs in many locations.

The new Central Research Laboratory opened its doors in Hayes in 2015 – on the site of EMI’s eponymous lab. In partnership with property development company U+I, Mat Hunter’s conception was of an innovation community that was focused on the development of physical products, and was not either an Incubator or an Accelerator, but both. And since then, the evolution of online communication has transformed the nature of that community (and has highlighted the task of managing it).

Its second exemplar, now under the title of Plus X, opened in Brighton in May 2020 – over seven stories, with space for five hundred desks, five times as many as at Hayes. Almost three hundred people tuned into its recent online Demo Day. The aim is to create an entire scale-up community. It has four workshop spaces, along with associated expertise managers and product development people. It has been established with some public funding, ERDF funds and match funding from U+I.

It meets several aspirations: importantly, it enhances a part of Brighton that was run-down; its work with the university is in line with the latter’s objectives in relation to the local community (it could attract candidates who might before have headed for London); and in the same way it supports and benefits Brighton’s image.

Plus X is now an organisation that is independent of specific sites, and aspires to establish 25 such sites in the course of the next five years, three or four within the next twelve months. Its next, the Plus X Powerhouse, its Head Office – at Hayes, will open by the end of 2021. Its business model is that of a managing agent, leasing property, earning revenue for managing the space, and sharing in the value created.

U+I will provide Plus X with a pipeline of sites to manage, with Greenwich, Manchester and Birmingham among early prospects. Plus X is currently working on some twenty sites – with local councils, other developers and different partners, including private landlords. It is at present a team of 35 souls including its two co-founders and two co-CEOs, and it has a small Board of Directors.

Like many great innovations, Plus X is a private sector initiative, driven by self-propelled entrepreneurs in the tradition of the great industrialists, working here with others whose interests match up with their own.

John Whatmore

February, 2021

I’m retiring: as past my sell-by date! But…


I have written regularly about innovation for a number of years. I was Chair of a very early VC group. I wrote first in the form of a newsletter – with links to useful news items; but over the last nine years and while a Nesta Associate, people and programmes that support startups and scaleups have been my focus.

If you would like to tell me about your particular interest, I would be happy to try and link you to relevant stuff (, though the startup world moves on fast.

I would also be happy to explore special interests in this field on anyone’s behalf.

Best wishes to you all, and good luck, cos you need that! (Is that an interesting topic: how does a startup make good luck?!)

John (

PS I do have one more blog up my sleeve – about the topic that I have addressed most frequently: namely mentoring. This time last year Imperial, a potential source of new businesses perhaps greater than any other in the UK, launched a big new mentoring scheme. There is a distinct divide: between those for whom full-on mentoring programmes are of fundamental importance, such as Seedcamp, Techstars and Startupbootcamp, and on the other hand, many programmes for which mentoring – in various forms – plays a minor part, or none at all. Imperial consulted MIT about their Venture Mentoring Service (widely franchised throughout the world, but as yet unused in the UK) and designed and adopted a version purposed to become a major element in its startup/scaleup programmes. Signs are that it is not going as planned, but Imperial is just now decidedly coy about its progress; but has agreed to talk to me about it later this year. I regard this as a vital topic, so more anon. JW


Barclays has run Accelerators with Techstars for several years


Barclays innovation initiatives are housed not in Barclays offices but in startup oases, and with startup regimes

Barclays runs four startup initiatives, the first in London, the second in New York; one in Tel Aviv and another in Mumbai. The first two are based round a 13 week Accelerator programme – run by Techstars, and located in co-working spaces – called Rises.

Now in its sixth year, and with its eighteenth cohort, the London programme, and the New York Accelerator programme now in its fourth year, have seen 180 startups through their programmes (now at about 30 a year). These provide unique access to Barclays, to its investment bank and to its clients and partners.

Applicants will normally have problems that are associated with the bank; and each must have a clear business owner in the bank. Billed as about the future of Fintech, they tend to be about efficiency or sustaining innovation. The current programme has 10 participants.

The first month of the programme is dubbed Mentor Madness Month. In one day they each meet some half dozen mentors and get consolidated feed-back. They then have to follow up with each of them. Barclays claims to have 4,800 mentors in all. Three to five mentors are attached to each startup. (Techstars features ten in its current programme). At the end of the programme the startups rate their mentors – to Techstars. The second month concentrates on growth – in which they work with their mentors. And they present their business proposition at a final Demo Day.

Startups need to reach a commercial relationship of some kind with one or more customers if they are to raise VC funding for their next steps. Since January 2019, Barclays has been able to invest up to £10 mn in ‘strategically relevant companies’ in each programme.

Rise London provides work space for 175 aspirants in some 50 companies, including

  • the desk spaces and café;
  • well-attended and frequent events;
  • connectivity: Fintech Fridays are a monthly opportunity for the startups to interact with visiting mentors and for ongoing conversations with the community – of successful founders and experts, some of whom may become investors. ‘A stable of Unicorns attracts good trainers.’

Barclays claims to have a related online community of 7,500. And participants remain members of Techstars community for life – with access to a variety of events and to ongoing mentorship.

Originally opened four years ago, October 2019 saw the re-launch and expansion of Rise New York, a state-of-the-art space that includes an auditorium and a recording studio, that can also host over 100 FinTech and enterprise tech companies. (It had once been Barclays Group Innovation Office’s intention to open many more Rises by this time.)

John Whatmore, 2020












An Accelerator on internet marketing


An Accelerator programme full of startups seeking to commercialise innovations in internet marketing As social media increasingly become the prime source of contact between people, so campaigners are exploring different ways of using this to their advantage.

Despite its ability to provide information that is personally relevant to individuals, internet marketing has been severely hampered by its abuse of personal information. But “If you can deeply understand and predict someone’s personality that is a very effective way to do marketing and sales campaigns,” says one of this Accelerator’s founders.

The Accelerator programme is focused around just four ‘intensives’: week-long boot camps where founders work together on core areas of business development. Through these events, and the resources available in between these times, such as coaching and mentorship, founders particularly value the building of relationships with each other, with the Accelerator team, and key stakeholders in their market. The Accelerator has recently been working closely with 11 start-ups to refine their sales and fundraising pitches, sharpen their pricing strategies, and connect with key stakeholders.

Among the Accelerator’s 36 startups (to date), all internet-focused, are:

  • a social listening platform (customisable)
  • a startup with expertise in understanding and predicting personalities
  • another on crafting and testing messages designed to influence
  • a startup that helps identify and use friends and supporters and their networks/communities
  • a startup about interacting with conversations, and helping people to contribute to and influence particular issues
  • businesses with experience in the use of e-mail, text, video, social media and specialised ads.
  • startups with expertise in designing and managing internet campaigns to reach and engage with specific audiences.

Though none focus specifically on imaginative newscasting.

Alongside the Accelerator, other benefits include

  • follow on investments;
  • fellowships that allow individuals to explore ideas to solve specific problems;
  • regular convenings with political and technology personalities;
  • a large, experienced board of advisers; and
  • regular research and analysis that advances the use of technology across progressive politics.

Based on the US West Coast, Higher Ground Labs is supported by Democrat funds, and $15mn has apparently been invested so far in this project. Presumably Democrat campaigners have privileged access to all this expertise.

To make matters tougher, ‘Google has just introduced new rules under which campaigners need to create content captivating enough that people pay attention and take action the first time;’ ‘….retargeting is no longer an option’.

“We have to be careful that we are not creepy and manipulative, but if you can appeal to someone’s core values that is totally fair game.” commented one of the founders.


John Whatmore


Inventors Clubs have a role


Inventors Clubs offer help to inventors – who are often ‘floundering about on their own.’ Inventors Clubs offer to people who have an idea for a new product opportunities to meet up and present them to each other, and to ‘staff’ with experience of supporting such ideas. They depend mainly on their own tenacity and on the experience, the contacts, the support skills and the support offered by the ‘staff’.

The British Library’s Inventors’ Club series is designed ‘to help people refine, protect and commercialise their idea for a new product’. Meeting on Monday evenings once a month, its aim is to give budding inventors the opportunity to network with others in the same boat, hear from speakers who have successfully commercialised their inventions, stay motivated and share insider hints, tips, expertise and experience.

It is primarily about introductions, networking and expertise sharing, but it is constrained by the fact that it is not confidential or IP protected. (But the Business & IP Centre does provide a range of support services for the protection of Intellectual Property.) Meetings are carried out under an NDA agreed to when you sign in for the meeting.

One participant started his journey by booking a one to one meeting at the British Library with Bob Lindsey which led him to consider manufacturing options, securing IP protection and the introduction to the Kingston Invents inventors’ group.

Bob Lindsey – ‘a technical wizard’, is a chartered Engineer who has spent over twenty years advising entrepreneurs on getting their new products to market; Mark Sheahan has been the British Library’s Inventor in Residence for over 13 years, and Barry Slayford – ‘advises on all parts of the journey from initial idea to market launch’.

Kingston’s Round Table of Inventors, which meets in the evening once a month, offers ‘a chance to air your concept/ invention privately to approximately 20-30 or more friendly fellow innovators’; and they are there because they too have an idea for a new product.

All attendees sign a Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure Agreement allowing you to speak openly about your concept without compromising your ability to apply for intellectual property enabling you to get feedback on your idea before investing in patents/ trademarks/design registrations.

At each meeting there are two presentations each of 20 minutes – 20 minutes presenting your concept and 20 minutes for a mixture of open questioning/suggestions/ brainstorming. If you’re not ready to give a full presentation and just want to air an early stage idea or concept, you can have a very short 10-minute slot; eg for Go/No Go decision-making! Kingston also has a guide to presenting and a survey template that enables you to take away the room’s written ideas and gauge the level of potential market interest.

One member, Dean, who helps run the club is a designer/ problem solver who along with an in-house engineer in the group ‘could see the potential and helped to improve the product’ of the participant (above) from the British library Inventors Club; and now helped him to prepare a 10 point progress plan all the way to market, along which he had got half way, he said. During that time, he had reduced his design from seven models to a single model, had contact with a patent attorney and taken out a patent (pending); and approached several possible manufacturers seeking to reduce tooling costs.  He is now considering crowd funding to finance some or all of the costs of making an initial run – enough to sell to the four categories of ‘fanatics’ of this type of product.

‘You might walk away with different points of view, ideas for improvements, industry contacts, a potential partner or maybe even an investor’ says Kingston’s website.

John Whatmore, December 2019








The UK’s only hardware focused Accelerator (and Incubator) is growing


The Central Research Laboratory (CRL), the first and leading hardware product focused accelerator in the UK, revealed plans at its Demo Day on 26 November to create five Innovation Hubs over the next five years, under a new brand ‘Plus X’ and with an enhanced offer, with the first opening in Brighton in January. 

Claiming to be ‘an amazing group of entrepreneurs, makers, inventors and technologists who love to share what they know and with the best open-access prototyping workshops in London’, CRL’s Accelerator programme works with early stage startups (50 to date) to take them from early prototype towards manufacture and commercial success, and has had some notable successes (AceleronMimica Lab and Cosi Care.)

CRL’s goal is to ensure that high-productivity and high-growth-potential businesses are attracted to locations where such things are too rare, increasing economic activity and productivity – often as a result of reducing the brain drain of graduates that move to a location to study and then leave (eg for London).

Research has estimated that such a hub – with the intensive support that it provides, gives a return on investment of over 5 to 1; will generate ten times more value than a standard co-working space, and many times more social value than a conventional office block.

The CRL Accelerator is a fully funded programme, part funded by European Regional Development Fund, with support from HEFCE, Brunel University and property developer U+I, offering support in manufacturing, marketing and investment for companies that are taking hardware products to market and looking to scale.

At its well-equipped labs at Hayes, its programme includes group workshops and one-to-one mentoring sessions. Among its facilitators are entrepreneurs and founders of hardware companies that have traded on a global scale and secured significant investment, consultants experienced in navigating manufacturing eco-systems in Asia and beyond, as well as investors and investment experts.

The programme offers customer discovery, product development, engineering support, investment readiness, a £5,000 grant (and looks to take 3% in equity), mentorship, 24/7 prototyping facilities, and a trip to China. (CRL is now accepting applications for its six month, hands-on, hardware accelerator programme starting in January 2020.)

Over the 4 years that the CRL Accelerator has been active it has expanded to offer follow-on incubator space and this has allowed a specialist community of product-based businesses to become established. It now aims to exploit this success, by working with U+I to build and operate innovation hubs in regional cities across the UK – under the name of Plus X ( Each hub will support startups, scale-ups and corporate innovation teams and will make the most of local strengths in software, hardware and other technologies.

Plus X Brighton, a 40,000 sq ft purpose-designed building, will open in January 2020 and be home to more than 500 entrepreneurs and innovators, with close links to both University of Brighton and University of Sussex. The Central Research Laboratory itself will move in late 2020 into a newly refurbished Victorian powerhouse, tripling capacity in Hayes. Future locations may include Greenwich, Manchester, Birmingham and Oxfordshire.

John Whatmore, 2019




KCL’s Accelerator breaks new ground


Kings’s College London’s (KCL) late start with Startups has enabled it to define its role and shape its offering, yet also to experiment with initiatives, and look into the future.

Its 12-month annual Accelerator is unusual in several respects: firstly in its duration (3 -6 months is normal); and in the fact that it draws its members equally from students, staff and alumni. In relation to the number of potential candidates, it is of course a small initiative. But it is significant in that running an accelerator at all alongside university courses is difficult and uncommon.

To enhance the uncertain impact of mentors, Julie Devonshire, the Director of King’s Entrepreneurship Institute, who brings experience from working with ‘impact’ and social startups, has put together a group of mentors – outsiders who commit to so many hours a week, some paid and some pro bono – as Experts-in-residence. Each is expert in a particular topic that dominates discussions, and relates to barriers to scaling eg technology, creativity, investment, leadership etc.

The Head of Ventures is the guiding hand – in assisting startups to identify the issues for which they want help; and members of the startups have to book time with the appropriate mentor. The focus is on the subject of the moment, not on the outcomes of a relationship.

She has also taken an innovative approach to the relationship with potential investors. You cannot keep a large number continuously interested, she opines, so she has built a network of investors who are into Seed and Seed Plus companies, and who are active in the startup community.

A series of investor breakfasts has been established, to each of which a small number of potential investors are invited – to hear each time from about five ventures to which there is a common theme eg AI.

Demo Days (abandoned by some Accelerators as contributing little to investment decisions, and often, it must be admitted, a bit of a charade) are still part of this programme because they remain an efficient way for investors to view a number of ventures at once and a valuable way for ventures to get themselves onto the radar of investors. Last September saw another initiative: the first collaborative Demo Day – with UCL and Imperial – to which over a hundred investors had been attracted, of whom 51 had never before engaged with startups from any of the three universities involved. Ten were from the US, Korea and Hong Kong.

It is too early to talk about metrics, she says (as everyone says – despite this being a desperately recognised need) but declared that the 70 ventures supported to date had collectively raised more than £14mn and employed 288 people.  Yet she is obsessed with output and is aiming to work on this issue with UCL, Imperial and others.

The overall aim of the Institute is wide: it is to support the growth of the Entrepreneurial mindset. A programme of sessions about ‘the seven skills of an entrepreneurial mindset’ (eg innovation, agile methodology, working in diverse teams et al) are offered in a variety of formats on an annual cycle to everyone at Kings, on the basis that in these days every career would benefit from an injection of entrepreneurship.

The department has also initiated a research project, a 5-year study with Kings expert Department of Neuroscience, whose aim is to understand ‘What is entrepreneurial thinking in a neurological context and what makes it happen’.

Along with Santander, she has been asking questions about why there is not gender equality in this field; and exploring ways in which gender participation might be rebalanced.

What does Julie expect of the future in this field? She expects consolidation among accelerators; she expects accelerators to continue to become increasingly specialised, and that support will become optimised around specialised fields. And Accelerators will draw participants internationally; and UK talent will be attracted to expert accelerators in other countries.

John Whatmore, November 2019







It’s Horses for Courses for success with Incubators and Accelerators


Its horses for courses is the message in Nesta’s recent report about Incubators and Accelerators and their success.

Nesta’s just published report on Incubators and Accelerators was primarily about their economic value and therefore the merits of government support. The answer is very positive as regards the startups themselves, but also in their effects on the local eco-systems of which they are part.

They have various objectives, says the report, including the strategic support of their parent, in helping local authorities in their developments, in supporting innovation within industries, and in generating initial returns to owners and investors.

The research reports that they perceive that their impact was vital or significant in over 60% of cases to the enterprise’s chances of success. Accelerator participation was strongly associated with startup survival, with employee growth and with funds raised.

A striking finding was that the launch of an Accelerator increases the amount of investment going to that region (especially with hi-tech ventures), though Local Authority Partnerships are more interested in [incubators] of public bodies (such as universities) and feel without influence on private incubators and accelerators.

After all the sophisticated analysis in the report, the ultimate conclusion is about adaptation to different situations: if your Accelerator provides support appropriate to the evolving needs of individual startups (and there are lots of different support regimes), you have the greatest chance of having a positive impact on their outcomes.

To take the findings in order of ‘perceived usefulness to startups’:

‘Direct funding’

Many if not most Accelerators provide joiners with some funding [from £5k to $50k]. Where the members of a startup dedicate themselves full time for their throw of the dice, clearly financial support is vital. As is funding where the concept requires R&D for the further development of a marketable product.

‘Office or Lab space’ and ‘Access or connections to peers’

Almost all Accelerators and all Incubators offer space – Accelerators to around a dozen teams (Incubators for more); but the importance of access to peers is often undervalued. Fellow startups are an important source of support, enabled best by hugga mugga spaces, café and recreational spaces, eating/drinking together, discussion meetings – places where new encounters provide opportunities for conversations. Access to peers outside the Incubator or Accelerator is as important but is of course mediated by the mentors.

‘Coaching and personal development’ and ‘Testing and refining the business model’

Mentoring is one of the most distinctive elements of Accelerator regimes, but also one of the least specific, and perhaps one with the least predictable outcomes.

The report identifies the testing and refining of the business model as one of the more influential factors in terms of successful outcomes.

Two notable attempts to make mentoring more rigorous are those of Steve Blank of I-Corps, who identifies five different aspects of development where mentors with specific backgrounds and experience are needed, often in succession to one another, namely: conceptualisation, strategy, product development, marketing and funding.

Imperial’s new initiative is based on MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service. It has entailed a wide-ranging knowledge of experienced business people from whom to attract good candidates. It is based on pairs of mentors attached to each startup (making for more balanced and more moderated contributions) and regular reporting to a Head of Mentoring (enabling regular reviews of the contribution to the startup). ‘Entrepreneurs need training in mentoring’ added Tim Barnes in the discussion at the Report’s presentation.

‘Business skills development’

Some startups will come with no previous experience of business, and those more mature team members (who are often regarded as making more valuable contributions to innovation) may already have well honed business skills.

‘Access and connections to potential partners and customers’

Given that a high proportion of startup failures are due to there being ‘no real need for the product’ (CBInsights), this might be seen as one of the most essential of contributions to the outcome of the startup (and one of the most valuable contributions of mentors), though there are of course innovations that are so novel that customers/markets for them do not yet exist.

‘Access and connections to potential investors/ funders’

This is of course the very essence of the Accelerator; and funding the future of their startups the test of their success.

‘Team formation’ though more significant in Incubators than Accelerators (where teams often arrive ready-made) may be a field that deserves more attention in Accelerators (EntrepreneurFirst’s successes are significant).

The biggest barrier to running Accelerators in particular is the cost of financing them. Shortage of quality ventures and of suitable premises are also mentioned.

John Whatmore, October 2019




Making Innovation flourish


3. 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 was 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)

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 were smaller, shorter runs, and less dependent on scenery and technology, and hence simpler and more experimental, and it was hoped that this 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, but none so comprehensively or so egregiously.

John Whatmore, October 2019