The National Theatre is about to make its most conventional theatre space, the proscenium-arched Lyttelton, into its most experimental. Its part of a hugely ambitious scheme that, if successful, will not only alter the demographic of the institution's audiences but also open up the building both to new ways of working and to new people working within it.
For five months, from now until September, the existing Lyttelton is being transformed into a far more intimate auditorium, with seats rising steeply in new banks from the stage to meet the existing circle. In this way, it is hoped that the audience will become one community as opposed to the current configuration that separates it into two. At the same time, a wholly new 100-seat studio theatre, the Lyttelton Loft, is being created out of the Lyttelton's previous circle foyer space.
Transformation, however, is more than cosmetic or architectural. Rather than just a question of space, it's what the spaces will be used for - and the audiences they hope to attract in doing so - that matters here. In the words of director Mick Gordon and producer Joe Smith, who are jointly responsible for co-ordinating the season, the project is "much more than a design idea, it is a philosophy: transforming spaces to transform theatres."
Between the two Lytteltons, the new auditoria will house 13 world premieres, all of them designed to introduce new generations of both theatregoers and theatre makers to the building. Ticket prices are being kept far lower than usual - the top price in the 'new' Lyttelton is £18, and in the Loft £12, with seats for under 25s £10 and £8 respectively - and a new bar space is being created in the Terrace Café that promises "laid back sounds every night, chilled DJS and ambient live music on Fridays and Saturdays".
The initiative is intended to celebrate, challenge and re-define the identity of the flagship South Bank venue that the National has occupied for the last quarter of a century. As Joe Smith explains, "When the National was approaching its 25th anniversary on the South Bank, the senior members of the management got together to look at what the National was, what it had become, where it was now, and wanted to address some of the things it was felt needed to be looked at as the National moved into the next 25 years of its life. They produced 25 objectives, two of which were really the seed of this project.
"One was to do with audience development. There's a rather scary set of statistics that, in 1998, only 6% of the National's audience was under 25. Since then, that figure has risen substantially to about 13%, so even though the organisation has been doing well to change this, we still feel that there's a journey to go on to get that figure even higher. The other thing was to really make an investment in new work and bringing younger artists to the National and promote this as a core value of the artistic direction here."
In order to devise a scheme to attempt to meet these objectives, the National invited its younger members of staff to a forum in the summer of 2000. "We were set quite an open brief; at the time, money wasn't an object, nor were the practicalities," Smith goes on. "That was quite scary - often in those situations, you like to know what the parameters are, but they wanted us to run with our ideas, however crazy they may seem. So we were invited to challenge the notion of the building we have around us, and look at ways of using spaces in different ways, alongside ideas for developing new work and new writing."
Thus began a process that has led, less than two years later, to its realisation now as a season of eclectic premieres comprising both devised and written work. Explains Mick Gordon, "For 25 years, the National has done well-made plays very well. But there's a significant group of artists who enjoy working on material that isn't an existing playscript. When the National has previously engaged with these kind of artists who make theatre or build it, they're usually brought in - Complicite shows are made somewhere else, and it's the same for the work of Robert Lepage. The idea was that we could encourage this kind of artist to come and use the facility, with the building moving to their process, rather than making their process fit with the building's usual working process."
'Made' Theatre & New Writing
In the main Lyttelton space, the season duly comprises mostly 'made' theatre, as Gordon calls it - work that "is not based on an existing theatre score". The schedule here kicks off (from 9 May) with a new production by Deborah Warner of Jeanette Winterson's novel The PowerBook starring Fiona Shaw and Saffron Burrows, while subsequent collaborations include new work directed by Complicite actress Kathryn Hunter and choreographer Matthew Bourne launching his new company, New Adventures.
Meanwhile, the promotion of new writing is the aim of the 100-seat Loft, the kind of intimate studio space that has never previously existed at the National. "We wanted a space where younger writers and directors could be encouraged to work in an environment that wasn't as critically or financially exposing as the Cottesloe is, and also to be more nurturing so that it appeared within a season of work where a group of artists could take risks together and be supported to do so."
An Embarrassment of Riches
Partly by accident and partly thanks to relationships already established at the National's Studio, Gordon says "all these plays arrived" and the team were faced with such "an embarrassment of riches that we could programme this season over again." Having been whittled it down to the best of the best, the resulting season of eight new plays is launched this week with Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, a new play by Roy Williams who was named Most Promising Playwright in last year's Evening Standard Drama Awards. The Loft schedule then continues with offerings from Simon Bowen, Paul Jepson and Tony Parker, Gary Owen, Richard Bean, Tanika Gupta, Simon Bent and Owen McCafferty.
Speaking a few weeks before the beginning of the season, Gordon was already declaring the Transformation a success, "just because it's happening at all". But the true test will be both in the audiences that are drawn to it - Smith hopes that at least 25% of the audience will be under 25 - and of course the quality of the work itself. As for the future, the experiment could readily be repeated, because the 'kit' that has been built to physically change the spaces has been designed to be stored easily and conveniently.