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David Byrne: "It feels like an exciting time for independent theatre because there are more options. The sky is the limit.”

David Byrne: "It feels like an exciting time for independent theatre because there are more options. The sky is the limit.”

David Byrne: "It feels like an exciting time for independent theatre because there are more options. The sky is the limit.” cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner chats with the artistic director about New Diorama Theatre's new season after a season of no performances.

One of the images for New Diorama Theatre’s (NDT) Spring Season is a startling one. The Globe, the National Theatre and the Haymarket are surrounded by flames. A machine gun rises from the terrace of the National Theatre. An ammunition belt is draped over the thatch of the Globe. We view this scene of revolution as a member of the audience sitting in the plush pink seats of a theatre.

As a statement of intent from a venue, it is a strong one, and NDT’s artistic director David Byrne thinks it is time for theatre to get political and nail its colours to the mast, and it is time to talk from our stages about the here and now.

But then Byrne has always done things courageously and with a certain swagger, creating an unfunded theatre through which generosity runs like a river and one which has its fingerprints all over the independent sector in particular, and theatre in general.

In the Autumn of 2022, when British theatre was busy returning to what it perceived as normality for the first time since the pandemic, NDT took the audacious decision that the show should not go on as usual and maybe just trying to flog as many tickets as possible was not the most fruitful way forward. Instead, it devoted the Autumn to a season of no performances called Intervention, putting all its time, energy and other resources into talking and consulting with artists and developing work for the future. As Byrne said at the time, after the enforced stoppages of the lockdowns, it was “stopping as a radical act.”

From NDT's Spring Season launch. Photo by Rebecca Need-Menea.

Out of Intervention has come a season that encourages artists to speak their minds. The revolution Byrne is calling for does not involve blood and bullets but does involve theatre being bolder and addressing the huge changes we are living through.

“We have all come through a really awful time,” says Byrne. “Covid was terrible. Like so many theatres, the New Diorama came close to the brink of collapse. But we did survive, and when you survive something like that you see things afresh. We saw that arts organisations were not talking about how things have changed in this country over the last ten years. How difficult things have become for many people and what a hostile environment it is for so many, particularly migrant workers. I look at the cost of living crisis and how much that is impacting us all, I look at Brexit and its impact on those working internationally and travel, and I look at the 2022 Police Act and I think why do we keep quite about these things. After everything we have come through, it’s a case of, if not now, when. Let’s stop biting our lips and speak out.”

The juicy Spring Season is certainly daring. As an opener, it features a new show from Breach—the company who gave us It’s True, It’s True, It’s True—whose After the Act is a musical about Section 28, the 1988 part of the local government act that banned local authorities and schools “from promoting homosexuality” and was not repealed until 2003.

Everyone in the show grew up under Section 28, which allowed homophobia to thrive on our streets and in our playgrounds, and Byrne says the show explores how that impacted their “identities and sexuality.” As Byrne says, this is a company with a proven ability “to use historical events to directly hardwire into the conversations of today.” He adds that this show, “has real insight of the outcomes and impacts that legislation can have on generations of young people.”

From Breach's After the Act.

In a season which includes a reimagined version of Katie Mitchell’s Little Scratch (seen far too briefly in a sell-out run downstairs at Hampstead in 2021) and Lakeisha Lynch-Stevens directing local teenagers in And the Stars Were Burning Brightly, based on Danielle Jawando’s novel, perhaps the most intriguing show is War & Culture. It’s a comedy that considers cultural organisations, government, funding and the arm’s length approach, and it was created through interviews and freedom of information requests. If that sounds dry and quite possibly navel gazing, Byrne is confident that its creators—playwright Nina Segal and director Jess Edwards (she did Hotter and Fitter)—will ensure that it’s, “very, very funny, and it feels as if it’s a bit illicit.”

“It’s about culture and institutions and about accountability when things go wrong. When I first read it, as the artistic director of an institution, I was dying inside. We see huge amounts of ourselves in it, and it came out of conversations during Intervention about social media activism, institutional accountability and censorship, and we thought this was a conversation that the arts needed to have in public and on a stage.”

So, is it just for those involved in theatre? “Not at all. I think anyone who has ever watched an institution dig themselves into a hole and then not able to dig themselves out again will be incredibly entertained.”

NDT has dug into its own reserves to fund the show so they didn’t have to seek funding from the Arts Council or indeed anyone else.

“If you are going to talk freely about these things, you have to have free rein and not feel silenced. We realised it always had to be done without external funding so it doesn’t have to please anyone and can just be itself.”

From SpitLip's Operation Mincemeat.

Being itself typifies the engaging, often quirky, frequently formally interesting work that NDT has supported over the years. It can be a long game, with artists frequently taking years to produce their best work. But if NDT has always been seen as a champion (and there aren’t enough of them) of the independent sector, it is currently proving that the investment can pay off in commercial terms. This Spring, NDT has not just one but two shows going into the West End for limited runs: SpitLip's glorious Operation Mincemeat, first seen at NDT in 2019, heads into the Fortune Theatre from March 29, and the week before Nouveau Riche’s For Black Boys who have Considered Suicide when the Hue gets too Heavy opens at the Apollo for a six week run.

“I think it’s a reminder that so much of the independent work we have supported and commissioned over the years has a broad appeal, but sadly that appeal hasn’t always been recognised,” says Byrne. “I think what’s changed is that the pandemic fractured the ecology and the way commercial theatre programmes, so what once felt impossible now feels more within reach because producers are looking in places they hadn’t previously looked for talent and ideas. So, I hope that in the future there will be a bigger pipeline from small-scale spaces to larger scale theatres and these shows getting the bigger audiences they deserve. It takes lots of time and investment, but there is a real pleasure for us as an organisation to have a front row to watch these companies we’ve supported over a long time to reach the sort of platform and profile they deserve. It feels like an exciting time for independent theatre because there are more options. The sky is the limit.”

Cover image from War & Culture.

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Lyn Gardner

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