THE GIFT OF RENEWAL
by Nicholas Wright
The National Theatre Studio has its home in a concrete block in the Cut, awesome in its severity, dating from the 1950s and still somehow redolent of high hopes and ration cards. It was in fact built as a workshop-space by its next-door neighbour, the Old Vic: in the largest space, scars on the wall are what remain of the scaffolding-pipes that once supported scenery-timber. The long room above it used to purr with the buzz of sewing-machines: I can never go into it, even for the most austere play-readings, without remembering the enormous green silk cloak that the designer Loudon Sainthill draped around me in the course of my first-ever fitting there as a young actor.
In 1984, the Canadian tycoon Ed Mirvish bought the Old Vic and generously lent its annexe to the National on a peppercorn rent. Peter Hall, then Director of the National, seized this opportunity to found a Studio. He wanted, he said, “A place where things could be tried out without the pressure of a scheduled opening night. And a place for the whole profession, not just for people working at the National.”
No other place like this existed, so there was no template to follow. The first Director of the Studio, Peter Gill, invented many new kinds of exploration, and gave a new twist to many old ones. Sue Higginson, who was next to run the Studio, did the same, as has the present Director, Lucy Davies. But the spirit that Gill created is as strong as ever.
New writing is still the heartbeat. Plays are commissioned, rehearsed and shown in-house, for the benefit of the writer. Playwrights are given space to write, research or just think, and a wage to live on while they do so. “It's how I first got an understanding of actors,” says the playwright David Eldridge: “Who they are, how they work ... just from being around.” “I loved the community of it,” adds playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. “I had a room to chill out,” says playwright Juliet Gilkes, “and there was a heatwave, so I was typing in my bra. But it was inspirational.” Many others describe the confidence it gave them to be believed in at the start of their writing lives.
Young directors are supported, nurtured and offered residencies, bursaries and masterclasses. “We did a two-week workshop with Katie Mitchell,” says the young director Natalie Abrahami, “She described it as giving us a new toolbox, with the freedom to use the tools however we wanted. It was like learning a new language. When it was all over, I didn't want to leave.”
The embargo on “pressure” is as strong as ever. Pressure belongs to rehearsal: that time-stressed, practical process so exhilarating in its urgency and so frustrating in its pragmatism. In rehearsals, doors open that can't be entered: there isn't the time to absorb what you might find on the other side. Remove the pressure of time, and you're free to go through.
“I came to the Studio with two actors and a script,” says the playwright Enda Walsh, “and after five days I had to face the realisation that it needed a big rewrite. But that was fine.” Alecky Blythe, who makes documentary plays, says: “Lucy encouraged me not to worry about the end-product ... and it gave me the confidence to go off in a new direction.” Abrahami finds a parallel from the world of painting. “I sit for a portraitist,” she says, “and I often come back after a week or so to find that the painting he did of me last time has completely vanished. He's painted it over. It was just an experiment – but its value is huge, because what he learned from it will find its way into his future work.”
In the last couple of years, the Studio has taken up a more central role in the National's programming. More and more, the National is creating shows that wouldn't otherwise have existed: shows that have as their starting-point not a script, or a lucky find on a bookshelf, but an idea, a theme, that then embarks on a journey of exploration in the Studio.
His Dark Materials was created like this, with text, mise en scène, design, music, movement and special effects coming together in a kind of creative fission over the best part of a year. It was like making a film, or so it seemed to me, the writer, as I realised with a hollow thump that to have brought a show of that complexity to the Olivier stage in the normal page-to-stage way would have been insane. Coram Boy is another Studio-generated show: it's there that Helen Edmundson and Melly Still, the playwright and director, found their style, their way of telling the story and their solution to the problem of representing a choir of small boys.
Why go to all this bother, when there are so many plays already? The list of standards is a well-ploughed furrow, and there's a special pleasure to be got out turning up new earth. Besides, we live in a very unusual time, when the politics of contemporary life are so intensely fascinating to the public that their claim to be put on stage is inexorable. If no play exists to satisfy that claim, one can be “willed into existence”, in the words of this David Hare, the author of The Permanent Way and Stuff Happens. He says:
“Stuff Happens was scary. Nick Hytner had decided that there had to be a play about Iraq in that calendar year. We spent ten days in the Studio, listening to people who'd been involved in the invasion, or had strong views about it. I'd brought in about 15 pages, and I continued writing scraps, which the actors tried out. We did George Bush in different voices, asking 'Who, behind that superbly diversionary manner, is the real person?' I didn't know where to go from there. I kept driving Nick mad by saying, 'If I write this play…' And he'd announced it! Then, very late on, I abutted a Bush scene with a sceptical voice, the voice of someone who expressed the dissent that the audience would have brought with them to the theatre… and it was suddenly, incredibly theatrical. That's when I knew I could write the play. I could never, ever have got there without that process of development, or without the involvement of actors who weren't just performing parts, but were deeply versed in the material.”
The National, which now owns the Studio building, is planning a long-overdue programme of refurbishment: there will be more working space, soundproofing – so that two spaces can be used simultaneously – and facilities for developing music and dance theatre, as well as a new studio for the National's award-winning Education department and space for the National's archive.
Nothing is planned that won't be useful; and, just as now, the place will buzz with the energy of young theatre artists. The benefit works both ways: they get the support they need to make their visions a reality. And, through this living bond with a new generation, the National gets the priceless gift of renewal.
© Nicholas Wright, September 2005