New Faces in Small PlacesDate: 12 August 2001
The National is creating a studio for new work. Are studios a necessary stepping stone to something bigger? Or do they limit new plays forever to the small scale? Mark Shenton investigates.
Transformation on the South Bank
The National Theatre's announcement last week that it is reconfiguring the Lyttelton to create a 100-seat studio for new plays and in the process also create a more intimate main auditorium (with 650 seats) is partly an attempt to finally create more space for the new plays it nurtures to be seen publicly, as well as to offer the chance to a new generation of artists to reinvigorate what, until now, has been its most conventional space.
The National has a long and honourable tradition - through its invaluable Studio Annexe (next door to the Old Vic in The Cut) - for developing new works and the practitioners who write, direct and act in them. However, not enough has hitherto been making its way out of that closed, protected environment and onto the public stages. While this "Transformation" scheme hopes to go some way towards solving that mismatch, it's also, inadvertently, a recognition of a larger failure. And, indeed, it symbolises the institutionalisation of the fact that most new plays, by and large (or to be more accurate, by and small), are nowadays designed for the close-up scrutiny of a studio space rather than for larger, public arenas.
Up Close & Personal
It's undeniable that both actors and audiences like it that way, too. The cozily intense dynamic that can be created in a studio space on both sides of the footlights increases the sense of involvement and personal investment for all concerned. For a generation reared on their in-your-face relationship with a television screen, this is the theatrical equivalent. Such exclusivity heightens the atmosphere - and the sense of privilege for those who are part of it. And, good news for the money men, it greatly diminishes the risk. You need just a cursory glance at the maths to appreciate that: a sold-out, three-week studio run of a play only needs to find the equivalent of one night's audience at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Which is all fair enough. But the flip side of these myriad advantages is that the plays are also necessarily and inevitably addressing a smaller and smaller audience, too, limited by the numbers who can actually get in.
How Small Is Too Small?
The theatre of new writing has moved 360 degrees from the massive, embracing amphitheatres of the Greeks or even the layered tiers of the Victorian and Edwardian proscenium arch theatres (with the different classes kept in separate circles, sometimes even with distinct entrances for each, such as at the Haymarket, to ensure that they don't mix), to tiny but democratic one-room, one-level environments, such as Hampstead, the Bush, the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs or Soho Theatre.
It's no coincidence that those last named are among the most important London venues nowadays for new plays. Now the National, seeing that it can't beat them, is seeking to join them, in creating a comparable kind of intimate space.
But if even the 350-seat Cottesloe - which has hosted more world premieres than any other National Theatre auditorium - is considered too large, are new plays merely now to be the indulgence of the few, or the hope for the future?
The Chicken & its Egg
In a former life, the West End itself was a seedbed for new writing. But as the subsidised houses grew in influence, and the likes of Ayckbourn, Frayn, Stoppard and even Alan Bennett make the National their first port of call, it's no wonder that commercial managers have been reduced to suitors, waiting on the sidelines for the most attractive brides to make their proposals to.
Now the same is happening with the studios: as their popularity has grown, it's there, too, that the commercial hits of tomorrow are being born. Conor McPherson's The Weir began its life in a tiny space, actually created upon the stage itself of the Ambassadors when the Royal Court was in temporary residence there, before outgrowing it and moving to the Duke of York's and thence on to Broadway. Mark Ravenhill's pace-setting Shopping and Fucking began in exactly the same space, and later found its way to West End seasons at the Queen's and Gielgud.
It's arguable that these plays were at their best in the unique intimacy of their original stage; but equally, it's inarguable that they reached a much wider audience on much bigger stages. So it's possible that it's not the plays that got smaller, but simply the theatres where they are first put on.
Hits, Misses & Minorities
There are countless other examples of this over-protectiveness towards new writing. David Hare's Racing Demon premiered at the Cottesloe, moved to the Olivier, and returned to the Lyttelton, proving itself as resonant in each. Ditto Patrick Marber's Closer, which moved from the Cottesloe to the Lyttelton and then the West End and Broadway. Of course, as the plays' reputations grew, so the audiences for them grew, too; which might not have been sustainable if they'd begun on a larger scale.
But ultimately, these were plays that were capable of reaching larger audiences. Others have not been so fortunate. Many fringe hits have floundered in the choppier commercial waters of the West End, where it's sometimes necessary to be an Event as much as a Play. The failure of Kevin Elyot's Mouth to Mouth on its transfer from the Royal Court to the Albery is just the most recent example of this phenomenon. As for the rare occasion of the West End itself originating new work, the economics of it nowadays dictate that a vehicle must be star-driven to succeed, so that the audiences turn out to see the star as much as - or more so than - they do the piece.
The problem, however, is that theatre is a fluid, ever-changing art, and there's no automatic prescription for what works and what doesn't. A laboratory staging in a smaller space may help, but a piece will fail in the end if it can't provide a similar experience for audiences in larger ones later. While theatre may, after all, still be a minority interest, meeting that with small-scale approaches isn't the only way to do it.