When the Royal Shakespeare Company finally abandoned the Barbican Centre two years ago - after previously reducing their presence there from a year-round residency to a six-month one - they threw away not just a permanent home in the capital, but also their funding from the munificent Corporation of London. These facts have had wide repercussions for the company, who have still not managed to establish an alternative presence in the capital.

But the RSC's loss of its base, funding and focus has meant a gain elsewhere for London theatre and dance fans: the Barbican has resourcefully plugged the gap by offering a year-round, multi-discipline international festival in their place. In fact, it has galvanised the Barbican into forging its own holistic identity: "People have started treating the place as a whole rather than a series of individual, discreet boxes," says Graham Sheffield, who joined the centre as artistic director in 1995, and has been instrumental in changing the artistic perception of the place.

Tickled pink
It was his idea to launch BITE - the initials stand for Barbican International Theatre Event - a name that has stuck notwithstanding the fact, Graham tells me, "that it's rather rude in French! It means cock - and when the Comedie- Francaise came here, they were absolutely tickled pink, and they wall wanted t-shirts with the name on it!"

Whereas the Barbican was previously a collection of separately perceived identities - with the RSC the resident company in the two theatres, the London Symphony Orchestra in the concert hall, plus other activities in the cinemas and art gallery - the plan is now to "mix the venues up - so we have silent film in the concert hall, for instance, or a musical event in the theatre". More than that, though, many of the shows being presented defy single categorisations.

When Sheffield originally arrived at the Barbican, after a career that had begun as a classical musician, music producer at the BBC and then a stint in charge of music on the South Bank, the RSC's departure was already being rumoured, and he tells me: "The first thing that was said to me was that the RSC wanted to pull out of the centre for half the year, and before I accepted the job, they asked me if that would put me off. On the contrary, I replied that it was one of the best reasons to take on the job!"

Reinventing the place
It gave him an unparalleled opportunity to reinvent the place: "I literally started with a blank sheet of paper, working out what to do to replace the RSC. My pitch to the Corporation of London was: 'Don't panic!' What London didn't have then, apart from LIFT, was much exposure to international work." So he proposed an event that would encompass it, inviting companies and theatre-makers from around the world to showcase their work there. "On no account, I thought, ought we to try to be what the West End is."

Instead, it has come to provide a beacon for other types of work, and forged relationships with major international artists from Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the dance world to Robert Wilson and Richard Maxwell in the theatrical one. It hasn't been all plain sailing: last year, Sheffield was forced to cancel a Maxwell production of Shakespeare's Henry IV that had received poor reviews in New York. "That was probably the most difficult decision of the whole five years," he reflects now, "but all things considered I thought it was better not to bring it here." It would have been the first Shakespeare in the centre since the RSC left, and might have been exposed to ridicule. Not that Sheffield is shy of Shakespeare now: Bristol's Tobacco Factory is bringing one to the Barbican later this year, "and we'll be announcing a major international Shakespeare co-production for next year."

Producing house
Though the Centre has thus far acted as a presenting house - offering a home to productions from elsewhere that it takes the box office risk for - it is now moving up a step towards being a producing house in its own right, too. Currently in the Barbican Theatre is the first example of this: {The Black Rider::L423592101}, a collaboration between director Robert Wilson, composer Tom Waits and the late wordsmith William Burroughs, is being presented in its UK premiere, for a production that will go on to San Francisco and Sydney after London. The show, which stars Marianne Faithfull in a rare return to the stage, was rehearsed at the Barbican, too.

It's the kind of event that few other places in London would be equipped to pull off. "One of the ways I challenge the heads of the art forms here is to say, 'Don't be afraid to be different'. We may take risks, but it's much more fun." The imperative to programme year-round now instead of for half the year has, Graham admits, "meant that we can't be quite as edgy as we once were. But I don't mind budgeting for the odd show at 30% or 40% if I really believe in it, and it's from an artist we really want to develop."

Personal and artistic growth
The Barbican is a now a place for personal as well as artistic growth. "One of the great things about this job is that I've been able to go on learning and expanding my taste. So instead of my taste narrowing as I approach middle-age, it has grown," says Graham. The audiences, too, are learning new things: last year the Barbican was pleasantly taken by surprise when Complicite's production of The Elephant Vanishes, performed in Japanese, sold out - "we thought it would struggle through twelve performances, and now we're bringing it back for 25 performances in September."

Sheffield also presides over other areas of the centre, like the recently revamped art gallery, as well as the cinema, education and marketing departments. Some of its exhibitions have started to turn a nice profit for the Centre as they have been toured around the world: "Our computer games show, Game On, is the Barbican's version of Les Mis - it brings in fifty grand a shot selling it to different galleries. No-one else would have done that exhibition - the art world is too stuffy to consider it respectable, but I don't mind being not respectable."

He's also looking forward to the completion of the Barbican's huge refurbishment scheme next year. "There's finally light at the end of the tunnel. I don't suppose I know a single building that is totally easy to navigate, but this I'm confident will make the Barbican several times easier to navigate than it is now." Soon, you won't be able to get lost in the centre again - but hopefully you'll continue to lose yourself in the artistic riches it contains.

- by Mark Shenton