Catherine Love: Limited Editions, limitless possibilities
Showcases like Limited Editions at the National Theatre provide a unique platform for theatre-makers, but could they also offer an exciting opportunity for audiences?
Last week, the bright red space of The Shed played host to some of the youngest theatre-makers to grace a National Theatre stage. On Thursday night, I watched The Wardrobe Ensemble – a graduate company not yet two years old – sing and fling themselves around the space, offering a lively musical take on the riot that ensued on the opening night of the Edmonton Ikea store in 2005. It was rough, raw and occasionally naive. It was also one of the most unapologetically energetic pieces I've seen at the South Bank venue.
The Wardrobe Ensemble's show was just one of five offerings in The Shed's Limited Editions season, which came to an end on Saturday. Other work in this strand included Squally Showers, the latest show by acclaimed young company Little Bulb, and Dan Canham's innovative blend of dance-theatre and verbatim in Ours Was the Fen Country. The short runs, each no more than three nights, were intended as a platform for future programming – a springboard rather than the finished product.
In the middle of a programme of classic reworkings, big names and established artists, the showcase being offered to early and mid-career theatre-makers in The Shed marks something of a startling departure. It also suggests a promising route for embryonic and innovative work to be tried out on a larger stage.
There are a number of initiatives that offer a platform for emerging theatre-makers, from the year-round ‘Scratch' programme at Battersea Arts Centre to regional festivals like PULSE, Sampled and Furnace, but rarely on such a large and visible scale. To programme this work – much of it still in the early stages of its life – in a 225-seat space at a major institution is a bold statement. But judging by the full, buzzing auditorium on Thursday evening, it's one that is paying off.
One comparison might be the Almeida's annual summer festival, which offers a limited season of experimental shows and works in progress, with a distinctly different flavour to its usual programme. This short, vital burst of activity can feel like a ghetto, however, making concessions to this work while keeping it away from the main programme.
Limited Editions might fall foul of similar accusations, but Ben Power, who is responsible for programming The Shed, repels any such suspicions. He's made it clear that these showcases are about working in partnership with the companies and other venues to offer an impact that reaches beyond a three night run. Perhaps one day, after this work has been picked up by other programmers and developed elsewhere, it might even be back on a National Theatre stage for a full run.
And as much as this kind of initiative provides a unique opportunity for theatre-makers, allowing them to stand the work up in front of larger audiences and see what works, it offers an equally exciting prospect for theatregoers. While I might have found flaws with The Wardrobe Ensemble's emerging aesthetic, I was also exhilarated by the chance to see such invention and potential let loose in this space. Seasons like Limited Editions are a brilliant chance to get a sneak peak at companies and shows just at the start of their journey and – judging by the average age in the bar afterwards – to attract a younger audience.
Let's just hope that when the refurbished Dorfman (previously the Cottesloe) opens and the striking red venue on the side of the river is pulled down, its imaginative programming is not dismantled with it.