New Diorama Theatre, David Byrne interview: “Everything we’re offering is directly set up to meet a need that our artists have.”
The New Diorama Theatre is an 80 seat theatre just off Regent’s Park in London. NDT is champion for the development and support of emerging and established theatre companies. The Artistic & Executive Director at New Diorama Theatre is a man named David Byrne.
He has just launched an pioneering Artist Development Programme which includes a cash-fund that is funded by booking fees (currently 40p a ticket). The fund is aimed at companies that the theatre has previously worked with, and aims to help them take their work to festivals such as Edinburgh or larger venues around the UK. New Diorama Theatre is one of London’s best Theatres, we’re talking Grade A excellence; so well done NDT.
I had a chat with him about this exciting scheme…
What three things should every amazing artist development scheme have?
If a theatre or organisation is truly serious about artist development their programme should be:
a) Take the lion’s share of the risk away from the artists they are supporting. Too many organisations are risk averse while saying they are supporting theatre-makers who are, often literally, risking everything to make their art. Venues need to ask themselves – is this providing enough money and resource for these artists to make this work viable and can the artists pay themselves?
b) There are NPO theatres out there offering 50/50 box office splits with early-career groups – which they’re marketing as equal risk with their artists. It isn’t. These venues have funding and support that artists at the start of their career can only dream of. For an artist development programme to be really brilliant venues have got to stick their necks out.
Devising new ideas that really tackle problems – rather than just ‘artist development by numbers’. When we at New Diorama are looking at new ways we can support theatre companies, we start with the problems that we want to help overcome: identifying the hurdles our groups are facing time and time again. And then we find creative, new ways to help our theatre companies overcome these obstacles. Over the last year, I’ve read pretty much every Artist Development Programme in the whole country. And, on the whole, it was a pretty drab read. Most of packages boil down to a bit of free rehearsal space and a small opportunity to “scratch” work. Of course, theatre companies do need rehearsal space – but as an industry we need to be providing so much more.
While researching, I came across schemes aimed at start-ups in other industries and, wow, a lot of them offer whole comprehensive toolkits of support for entrepreneurial people starting up new ventures. Yet here in the creative industries, ironically, we seem to be low on new ideas. So to be really exceptional at artist development I think you’ve got to be listening to your theatre-makers and finding new ways to make their visions and ambitions a reality.
c) Really clear what they’re actually developing artists for. When I’ve been touring the country and on my travels in London talking to other Artistic Directors and Artist Development Producers I always ask one question about their programmes: “what are you developing artists for?”
Once we knew our goal, everything else was clear. But it’s essential that these conversations be had. How else can you focus your attentions and resources? How else can you be sure what you want as an organisation for your artists actually matches the ambitions artists your working with? Surprisingly, there are many that seem to have no clear goal. To run a really effective programme you need to know what you’re endgame is. For example, at New Diorama, it’s about making each group sustainable and securing a long-term future for their work. So we work on their organisational skills which, when taught, will stay with them for a lifetime. We’re investing in leadership skills alongside helping with the artistic. We’re building audiences for each group – whose tickets sales will be the basis of their income for years to come.
Wow. Tell me more about the ND Artist Development programme. Where did it come from?
Our Artist Development programme has come from years of listening to the groups we support. All theatre companies are different – they make art in unique ways and they often have a intricate relationship with each other – so they all do things in their own ways. However, many of them find themselves facing the same problems. When you read through the offer we’re making to early-career theatre companies you’ll notice we always start by talking about the problem we’re overcoming. Everything we’re offering is directly set up to meet a need that our artists have.
There are a few strands of work that aren’t just targeting at fixing things for our supported artists but are there to solve problems we have as an industry as a whole. For example our new Female leadership Fund and our 30 weeks of free BAMER rehearsal space is our contribution towards two of the big issues the arts is currently facing. But most of all, it came from the love of the work our supported companies produce. I feel like I’m both the Artistic Director of a venue championing these groups while also being their biggest fan. Everything we do to help them is selfish on my part – as I get to see more and more of their inspiring theatre.
Some people take issue with the fact that female artists speak words written by men. How do you feel about that?
Some of the best performances I’ve seen from female artists have been in production of Shakespeare and some of the best performances by men in plays by Caryl Churchill or Timberlake Wertenbaker or Lucy Prebble. I don’t think the argument holds water. It’s not who has written a play that matters – it’s what the characters are saying.
Do you think good theatre people should be following trends or trying to establish them?
Depends on the trend! There are movements in theatre, and it’s great when we, as an industry, come together to push in a certain direction to improve things and get things done. I wish it happened more. It’s also fun to create new ideas and be at the top of the agenda. The best people do both.
The commitment to emerging talent via Incoming Festival is extraordinary. It must have been planned months in advance.
Yes, it is. Working with Eleanor and Jake is one of the highlights of my year.
I love what INCOMING does for artists – paying them for their performances with a proper fee AND giving them half of their box office.
I love what the festival offers for audiences – with all tickets just £5 it means they can take a risk and they do: in previous years over 70% have never seen work by the company they booked for.
And for the for the sector as a whole – the free workshops are great, it has a truly nationwide programme – with many groups performing in London for the very first time – and a huge number of regional programmers and artistic directors come and see the work. It’s a chaotic, creative and wonderful ten days.
What’s the best emoji?
Is there a wizard one? That. Or the cheese one.
What do you see at the moment, theatre wise, that excites you?
Right now I’m looking at the programme for 2016’s National Student Drama Festival. The last few years they’ve been really punching above their weight. I can’t wait to see what this years group do.
I’ve been standing back with pride at Rhum and Clay’s latest show, HARDBOILED, directed by Beth Flintoff that’s been performing at NDT to such enthusiastic audiences (and a great five star review in Time Out).
And I’m excited at not just delivering the Artist Development Programme we’ve just launched but growing it – we’ve already got ideas of how to make it even better and more exciting.