New Diorama artistic director David Byrne: ‘If we don’t take risks, there’s no point in us existing’
Despite opening less than a decade ago and having a capacity of only 80 seats, the New Diorama Theatre in central London has had a transformative effect on fringe theatre in the capital and beyond. Its artistic director David Byrne tells Natasha Tripney how the venue is helping fledgling companies spread their wings
Sandwiched between office blocks on Regent’s Place, a faintly characterless corporate development near Euston Station in London, the glass-fronted New Diorama does not look like somewhere that is revolutionising the way theatre is produced in the UK. But appearances can be deceptive.
Since September, the 80-seat studio theatre has been trialling a radical new programming model supporting early to mid-career artists. This has involved reducing the number of companies in its main season to just seven. It allows the venue to give each of those companies a longer run than is usually the case at this level, to offer them practical and organisational support, and perhaps most significantly, to give them £10,000 cash up front.
The New Diorama’s artistic and executive director David Byrne is trying to mitigate the risk and instability that theatremakers tend to accept as the norm when producing on a small scale.
Byrne is one of life’s problem-solvers. He likes to fix things, or at least try to find ways of improving them.
The obstacles most companies face are pretty similar: a not unreasonable wish to be able make theatre and still pay the rent, to have a career that’s genuinely sustainable, to have access to affordable rehearsal facilities. As Byrne observes: “If your dad doesn’t run the Jerwood Space, you don’t have to rehearse in your living room.” For the companies taking part in the new season, the impact has been huge. For Ellie Claughton, producer of Breach Theatre, whose show It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, a verbatim piece about a 17th-century rape trial, is currently playing at the theatre, “the new model is pretty game changing.” It has allowed her company to make bolder artistic choices. “The New Diorama puts the artist first, and it has allowed us to step up to create our most exciting show to date.”
For Ryan Calais Cameron, artistic director of Nouveau Riché, the company behind Queens of Sheba, “the new model at New Diorama gives us a sense of security, worth and value”.
“It’s so refreshing, as a young company, having a venue willing to support your vision enough that they offer you a guarantee,” says Cameron. “No other venue is putting that kind of upfront investment in young companies.”
Lauren Mooney, writer-producer of Kandinsky, whose new show Dinomania opens at the New Diorama in February next year, expands on this: “In previous years, a big part of the struggle with fundraising has been starting from absolute zero.”
“Having so much in-kind support on this project lowers fundraising targets,” she says, “and having an actual, meaningful cash injection makes reaching those targets feel so much more do-able. As a small company with no core funding, that’s huge for us.”
Building a support network
As well as its new programming model, the New Diorama runs a raft of initiatives aimed at breaking down barriers to entry and supporting emerging companies. It pays the National Student Drama Festival entrance fees for student companies, for example, and both Breach and Nouveau Riché were able to take their work to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year as part of the Edinburgh Untapped award, presented in conjunction with Underbelly, designed to make the Edinburgh Fringe a viable option for those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.
In this vein, in 2016, the New Diorama launched its Cash Flow Fund, offering interest-free loans of up to £4,000. It was, in effect, a cooperative bank for theatre companies. Since the launch of the scheme, it has lent close to £500,0000. It was for this scheme, among others, that it was recognised as fringe theatre of the year at The Stage Awards 2017.
Because the New Diorama is not a national portfolio organisation (with regular funding from Arts Council England), it faces more uncertainty and increased risk, Byrne says, but “there is also a huge opportunity to tackle the problems that arts organisations face in new ways”.
He sees the New Diorama as a new kind of theatre, one that shares many of the aims of NPOs, but can approach them in different ways. “We’ve got to take bigger risks; we’ve got to try out bigger ideas.”
The Cash Flow Fund might have been thought too risky at a bigger venue. “If we don’t take those risks we are letting people down,” Byrne says. “There’s no point of us existing. We might as well shut up shop now.”
Talking theatre with Byrne is an interesting experience. He frequently speaks like someone who has stood in front of many a PowerPoint presentation and written many a funding application. But once you get past this, his passion is palpable; he’s also sweet, attentive, and always scrupulously careful to ask you how you are. He understands what young theatremakers are up against because he’s been there himself. He’s had to chip his way into the industry and faced financial barriers that felt overwhelming.
Byrne grew up in Stevenage in a family who weren’t particularly engaged with the arts, and came to theatre relatively late, only applying to study drama at university at the last minute.
He ended up at the University of Hull, on a course that offered “a really good mix of cultural theory and practical skills”. Among other things, he learned how to make costumes and “weld to a professional level”. While there, he also tried to see as much work as possible by “getting the Megabus to London for £1.50”.
After graduation, though, he found himself “chronically unemployable for a long time”. This was the peak of the financial crisis. He was fortunate to be able to stay with an aunt and uncle in London, but was “very poor for about eight or nine months”. He applied for job after job, but had yet to really learn how things worked. He was signing on and there was no real support at the job centre for a career in theatre or the arts. It wasn’t even an option on the computer system, so he had to pretend he was applying for jobs in operating theatres, as an anaesthesiologist.
Byrne applied for more than 100 jobs, but kept getting rejections. He didn’t really know how to apply for a job properly and didn’t really understand what theatres were looking for. He was, he says, writing applications that were akin to essays. When he finally got a call from a theatre in west London, money was so tight he ended up walking there all the way from Greenwich, which took four hours.
Though Byrne didn’t get the job, the theatre at least gave him some guidance on applying so he could see where he was going wrong. The day after this, he had an interview for a dramatist-in-residence role at a “very well known public school” during which one of his shoes fell apart. As a result of all the walking, it was already in a state of disrepair and, not being able afford a new pair he had attempted to patch it up himself with staples and tape. “Midway through the workshop, the bottom of my shoe completely fell off. I didn’t know what to do. They clearly all saw.”
It was, he says with a laugh, a bleak time. “I started getting job interviews, but not getting any jobs. Loads of people said they’d like to offer me an unpaid internship but there was just no way I could afford to do that.”
Learning to go the distance
Byrne changed tack. He combed through The Stage’s A-Z directory of theatres and arts centres in the UK, asking each venue in turn if they had a paid position available. During this time he got an interview with one of the big regional houses. It was only when he got there that he was told that the advertised salary was a mistake and it was a part-time position that only paid £9,000 a year. When he inquired if it was actually possible to live in the area on that kind of money, he was advised to get his parents to support him. When he said that wasn’t an option, they responded by saying this probably wasn’t the job for him. He ended up crying on the Megabus home. You can hear the frustration in his voice when he tells this story.
Eventually, he received a call from the Rosehill Theatre in Whitehaven – quite a long way through the directory – and was offered a job there, only to find himself working for an “organisation in a bit of a crisis”.
Thrown into the deep end, with very little experience, he was basically left in charge of the venue. Byrne decided to spend a year working out how to “steady the ship, solve the internal issues, and then hand over to someone who could deliver the programme that the community really needed”.
Unafraid of a challenge, he threw himself into it. The practical training from his degree proved useful. “I did need to go up ladders, handle payroll, deal with Arts Council funding applications. It was an amazing role and I was lucky to have it. I had to swim and kick or drown,” he says.
After the year was up, Byrne returned to London with the intention of focusing on his own work. He’d always wanted to write and had a formed a company while at university, taking a show – Ofsted the Musical! – to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2004.
Q&A: David Byrne
What was your first non-theatre job?
A shelver in Stevenage Library.
What was your first professional theatre job?
As a writer and director for my first theatre company.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Everybody is just as scared as you are.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Anthony Alderson. He has supported me throughout my career – he and the Pleasance are under-sung heroes. I’ve never sat down with him and come away with fewer than five new ideas.
What is your next job?
I’m still very much enjoying my current role. I’m not sure I’ll ever run another building – this one has been so much fun that it would be hard to top. That said, there is one other UK theatre I think I could make a huge difference with, but it isn’t currently on offer. So I probably shouldn’t name it.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I try to empty my email inbox every day.
From the beginning he enjoyed working in quite a collaborative way, though this was in partly out of necessity. “Not knowing how to direct, I was willing to open the room up.” His work as a writer – including 2017’s Secret Life of Humans – is intricate and multilayered, often drawing from real life stories.
His next show with his company PIT, A Stroke of Genius, for example, was inspired by the story of the eccentric American millionaire Robert Klark Graham who established a sperm bank of Nobel Prize winners. He quickly realised that to take the show to Edinburgh he had an “almost insurmountable amount of money to raise”.
The company eventually found support through the Escalator scheme for artists from the east of England, though this meant “we had to pretend to be from the east of England”. Byrne and his company ended up performing a version for the show purely for Christopher Richardson and his dog at the Pleasance, something he equates to that scene in Moulin Rouge “where they’re all dancing around the investor”.
When Byrne was working on A Stroke of Genius, he got a job with long-established children’s touring company Quicksilver. It was 2010 and it had just found a new home in a purpose-built theatre in Regent’s Place – the New Diorama. Its name is a reference to the original Diorama theatre in Regent’s Park, and its successor, the Diorama Arts Centre. When this was knocked down in the 1990s, the landlords British Land promised to create a new performance space as part of its plans.
For a while, the New Diorama company and Quicksilver co-existed in the same space: two companies with different aims, sharing a home. But when Quicksilver lost its RFO funding in the 2011 round of cuts, the company decided it was time to move on and the board decided it was best to separate the two companies.
This left Byrne in an interesting position. If the theatre was going to continue, he only had a couple of months to start fundraising before it was “game over”. Keeping it going would be challenging, but it was also exciting, a necessary rebirth.
Byrne sat down with executive producer Sophie Wallis to discuss exactly what they really wanted to do with the theatre. They wanted to find an alternative way of supporting companies that wanted to break away from the scratch model. “I thought that would be the perfect mission for a building to have.” He wanted to create a ‘companies theatre’ as opposed to a new-writing theatre. Now, he says, venues such as the Yard and Hackney Showroom are doing similar things, but at the time the New Diorama was on its own. “It felt like a grand experiment.”
How does the model of support offered differ from that offered to individual artists? It requires more of everything, says Byrne – more resources, more expertise, more support.
Byrne and Wallis had a good idea of the companies they wanted to work with – predominantly makers of collaborative, devised work – and they went up to Edinburgh with the intention of bringing them on board.
Because the team at the New Diorama is relatively small – Byrne, Wallis and producer Helen Matravers – it is able to have an
Many of the New Diorama’s initiatives are a result of artists simply coming out and asking for something they need, be it help meeting upfront costs or marketing support.
One of the biggest of these projects was ND2. On the lookout for a venue to create site-specific work, the New Diorama approached landlords British Land and were offered space in a vacant neighbouring office building that was due to be demolished – it has since been knocked down and is now a building site.
It used this to create a vast rehearsal and performance complex that was, for a time, the largest rehearsal space in London. “The atrium was so large you could fit Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in it,” says Byrne.
The availability of this space allowed the New Diorama to remove the cost of renting rehearsal rooms from the budgets of a number of companies. It also teamed up with the charity Diorama Arts Studios to offer up to 30 weeks of free rehearsal space a year to BAME companies, though he says, unfortunately this didn’t actually lead to “a huge increase in diversity of applications to other schemes we were running”. He feels that people may have seen the offer as the end of a conversation, rather than, as he’d hoped, the beginning.
Is there a danger that in narrowing the number of companies the theatre works with through the new programming model, the New Diorama might start to feel a bit like a club? A space that’s not accessible unless you already have connections with those on the inside and make work that fits a relatively narrow devised model? This is a risk, he admits. “We’ve got some ways to mitigate it by keeping a lot of our feeder opportunities completely open access.”
David Byrne on the importance of access
• “We were one of the first theatres to do regular access performances that were advertised when the season was launched. But I don’t know why all theatres aren’t doing them.”
• “I love theatre. So if I developed a disability I would be so angry that people weren’t making the effort to make it possible for me to go.”
• “There’s no longer any excuse. All it takes is for artistic directors to pick their feet up and make it happen.”
There is also the question of local audiences. How well does the New Diorama cater to them? Here Byrne becomes animated.
The New Diorama, he explains, is based in an area with huge levels of social inequality. It’s right next to West Euston, one of the biggest council estates in the country.
There’s a road you can cross in Euston where life expectancy will go up by 10 years. It’s our job to overcome division
“There is a road you can cross,” Byrne explains, “between West Euston and Regent’s Park, where life expectancy will go up by 10 years. “It’s our job to overcome division,” he says resolutely. “Fifty years ago there would still have been people who were wealthier than one another living in this area, but they would at least have met each other in church and the chances are their children would have gone to the same schools.
“Neither thing happens now. There are very few places where a community can come together.”
It’s theatre’s responsibility to provide that space, he says. “We’re a community theatre through and through.” Every year, the New Diorama engages with 9,000 people from the West Euston estate, from local primary schools, and there are performances specifically for isolated older people. “There’s not a group of 90-year-olds around who have seen as much modern devised theatre.”
He adds: “Arts institutions are the social glue that holds things together.” But the next few years are going to be difficult, “as local authority funding starts to ebb away and because we don’t know what’s going to happen with Brexit”.
But he believes: “Theatre has come back into its own. There is something powerful about going to see something together.
“You go in as an individual and once you’re there you’re part of an audience. It’s the only place where people sit and have time to focus on one idea with no distraction from the outside world, where they sit together and learn and discuss. It fights isolation. It gets us off Twitter. It gets us out of the house. That’s something we need now.”
CV: David Byrne
Born: 1983, Stevenage
Training: University of Hull
Landmark productions as a writer:
• Kubrick3, New Diorama Theatre, London (2013)
• Down and Out in Paris and London, NDT (2015)
• Secret Life of Humans, NDT (2017)
• Artistic director of the year, Off West End Awards (2014)
• Fringe theatre of the year, The Stage Awards (2017)
Agent: Julia Tyrrell