Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The National Theatre: A Place for Plays

Last week the National Theatre building celebrated its 40th birthday,  The Queen opened the NT on the 25th October 1976 and attended a performance of Goldoni's Il Campiello in the Olivier while Stoppard's Jumpers performed in the Lyttelton Theatre.

On Sunday the Association of British Theatre Technicians held a symposium in the Olivier to celebrate the NT as being a Place for Plays.  The focus of the day was looking at the theatre technology and design in the 1970s, appreciating how innovative it was then and looking ahead to what innovations in theatre design and technology we might see in the next 40 years.

The Archive was present with a handling session for delegates to get close up to archive content from the 1970s and also to help us to identify some items in the Archive which are a mystery to us!  Never have I experienced such a gathering of expertise on the history, structure, building and design of the NT and this was a great opportunity to harness their knowledge.

I managed to attend most of the sessions throughout the day (as well as see a demo of our famous drum revolve!).  There was a lot discussed and lots of people on each panel but a few highlights for me were:

  • the integral relationship between those versed in technical theatre and the creatives who will use the space.  Sometimes this relationship either doesn't exist or is troublesome but I learned that a good working relationship, mutual respect and willingness to collaborate are key to creating new, innovative, functioning theatres 
  • many of the processes in backstage operations have become automated over the past 40 years, which struck me as progressive, but it was interesting to hear the downsides of this and how it has removed flexibility from the workflows.  Many people expressed a desire to go back a few steps so that the operator still had control of the system and could adapt and flex with the performance on stage
  • virtual reality is edging into the theatre space and I have always been confused about what its place will be.  Rufus Norris, Artistic Director of the NT, has been quoted as saying that the NT doesn't know where VR is going but we are experimenting with it to see what it can offer our audiences.  Importantly, VR is another form of story telling and story telling is what theatre is all about so it will be interesting to see what comes out of our Immersive Story Telling Studio
  • many of the conversations touched on the important relationship between the actor and the audience - this relationship is the most important one in a finished theatre design and the perfect balance is what theatre designers and consultants are constantly striving for
  • Director Lyndsey Turner brought our attention to the physical space, reminding us that theatre doesn't have to have a building.  She focussed a lot on the foyer spaces, which are almost entirely closed off to the ticket-buying few in the West End, but are a large part of the work of subsidised theatre sector. She asked if there has ever been an exhibition in a foyer that was worth coming to see for its own sake.  I wish that our Archive exhibitions fell into this category but will they ever when they are based round the repertory?

There was much food for thought and also many tidbits of information about the NT design process and maintenance of the drum, which filled in lots of gaps in my knowledge of the NT and are probably not for repeating!  I have come away with a much better understanding of the collaboration required in theatre design and the incredible, innovative work that was done at the NT in the 1970s and continues to be done to this day.


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