Based in Waterloo, a short walk from the Houses of Parliament, the National Theatre is a multi-building complex comprising three auditoriums, a learning department, a development studio and more. Its turnover is £100m, of which approximately £17m is received from Arts Council England. Of other earnings, approximately 45% comes from box office, including West End and international transfers of work, 5% is generated by NT Live, and 13% comes from fundraising. It employs approximately 1500 people, although the figure would increase significantly if freelance staff were included. Lisa Burger has been the National’s executive director since 2015.
Mission: to make entertaining, challenging and inspiring theatre for everyone
In the three decades she has been working in the theatre industry, Lisa Burger has traced a shift in cultural discussion from “talking about the intrinsic worth of art, through to a strong sense of its economic benefit, and now looking at the social benefit”. For her, the “power of theatre as an art form” is that it can enable people “to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see their stories. Being able to entertain people, challenge them – not necessarily to change their minds, but to think differently about things – is an incredibly important role to have, particularly in times of social disharmony. Theatre is a place of national debate. Debate is stimulated directly through the work we have on our stages, on the South Bank, on tour, and NT Live broadcasts. And because of our position, so close to the seat of government, we will get politicians in, columnists, and opinion formers, and that will stimulate debate in the media. There’s a wider halo effect than just speaking to the theatre-goer.”
Unlike Britain’s other two National Theatres (of Scotland and Wales), the Waterloo-based NT has a vast building complex where most of its activities originate. For Burger, this amplifies the sense of responsibility for making sure the work reaches as broad an audience as possible, “gathering voices and stories from across the UK”, and being “mindful about what’s happening in theatres around the UK”. There are myriad activity strands through which the NT seeks to fulfil this responsibility; two in particular are worth looking at individually:
1: NT Live
Since 2009, NT Live has broadcast live streams of the National’s stage performances to cinemas across the UK – 70 initially, but now 700 cinemas and counting. The NT does this in addition to touring, as “not only is it costly to tour, the audiences aren’t as strong as they used to be”. A criticism frequently raised against NT Live is that the audience base for live performance is being further damaged by cinema screenings, but Burger refutes this. “We got an audience of about 1.5m last year, and the Arts Council’s research confirmed our research, which says: these are different audiences. To me, that’s great – because it means people are still interested in theatre, so let’s get them back into their local theatre. This is about stimulating theatre-going.”
Apart from looking at how it can “use what we know about our NT Live booking database to move people to have a stronger allegiance with their local theatre”, the NT is expanding the programme to support screenings to happen in remote communities and places other than cinemas, including village halls, hospitals and prisons.
2: Programmes for young people
Founded in 1995, the NT’s Connections programme commissions plays from established playwrights which are then performed by youth groups across the country. These are performed in their local area and a selection of productions are invited to appear on the NT’s stage. That scheme is now being expanded to include a national playwriting competition, as well as primary schools: “Because it’s becoming so difficult for many schools to be able to come here, we’re trying to finance going back out to schools, because otherwise we think they miss out. With all the changes to the education system, we’ve got to do everything that we can to stimulate opportunities for creativity. That’s about supporting the teachers, advocating for the role of the arts in the curriculum, and giving opportunities for teachers and for young people to engage with the work, as audiences but also as potential artists.”
The NT is also developing a free version of the NT Live programme specifically for schools: “About 40% of schools are signed up for that, and it means that school children who can’t get to the theatre at least have the opportunity to see the work within the classroom. The joy of NT on Demand in schools is that they can look at what they want, when they want, and there are learning resources which go with it as well.”
Even as it looks outwards, the NT is mindful of its relationship to its local community – itself a disparate site, with a high volume of tourism activity, but also some 12,000 inhabitants, 45% of whom live in social housing. The building redevelopment programme NT Future was designed to ensure “that we were much more open as a building and porous”; one way in which this is happening is that people can now see the activities that take place inside the NT’s design building from a high-level walkway; another is that there is now a director of external relationships who works “almost exclusively with local groups and London-based groups. That director is fully engaged, he chairs the neighbourhood forum, and is a member of the We are Waterloo board and the Jubilee Gardens Trust. We’ve got to play our part where we can.”
The National Theatre’s Studio speaks of another responsibility: to diversity in artist development. As Burger says, “to make world-class theatre, we need to make it with as wide a range of artists as possible, within the UK and internationally, and to be engaging with a breadth of voices. We need to think about identifying the exciting new practitioners, what the talent development is for them, and how we can support people at different parts of their career.”
That doesn’t just mean supporting people, but also developments in form. In particular, Burger mentions the new “immersive storytelling studio where we’ve been doing some work in the world of 360-degree virtual-reality films. None of us quite knows where this is going, but we are interested in it as a means of developing a new way of telling stories and reaching more audiences” – particularly younger audiences whose tastes are formed by digital interaction.
Central to the NT’s plans for the future is “community-based work, engaging people not just as members of audiences but also in creating work. So it’s not just about us going out there and giving people things, we also get something back, through meeting new people and exchanging ideas.” The 2015 production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire featured a community company of 40 alongside the professional cast of 18, and the expectation is that this activity will extend across London over the next few years.
Burger also hopes that the NT might become “more strategic in terms of getting out work out there. Our learning department has always been busy, there’s NT Live, there’s our commercial activity – but I don’t think we’ve had quite the joined-up impact, and therefore the recognition, that maybe we should have.”
The key challenge she sees is financial: “In terms of our Arts Council funding, we’re receiving less now in cash terms than we were ten years ago. Given the growth in our mission and our remit, that’s a barrier.” In this respect, programmes such as NT Live are useful, in that “you’re reaching more people with the work but you’re also generating profit to invest back in the work” – fulfilling mission and financial imperatives at once.