Having received rave reviews for The Secret Life of Humans as well as supporting dozens of other theatre companies at the Fringe and beyond, the New Diorama Theatre has made a name for itself as one of the new powerhouses of British theatre. Broadway Baby’s Theatre Editor, Liam Rees, caught up with artistic director David Byrne to discuss the challenges of devising and how theatres can support emerging and established companies.
It’s addictive supporting other people’s work
Hello David, it’s lovely to meet you. The New Diorama has exploded onto the scene recently having won a whole bunch of awards, would you like to talk about the work you’ve been doing?
So we opened in 2010 with the idea of being a companies’ theatre – in the same way the Royal Court looks after and supports writers, we wanted to be an organisation that supports ensembles and groups. And the big question is: how do you do that?
When you’re looking after an individual artist you can tell what they need, but groups have different needs. To sustain a group making work is much more expensive and you not only need artistic knowledge but also that entrepreneurial background of how to make that work.
How did The Secret Life of Humans come about?
I’d read Yuval Harari’s Sapiens [and] all the other books [I’d read] had a story or characters, a very easy way of getting in, but this book had nothing – no plot, no through-line, no anything. So this would be a very exciting thing to try, so we went away for a week and worked on it and we came back and didn’t really have anything. I remember spending most of my time actually thinking about how I could get out of doing this. Can we give the money back? Can we not do this? I don’t know how to do this!
And slowly in rehearsals we started to find a bit of a language that worked. It was almost a mirror language: something wouldn’t work so surely if we did the opposite it would work. So for example, the walking on walls came from wanting to stage the movement from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution and someone in the room said it’d be amazing if they could just walk up the wall because that’s how different it felt. And we tried to lift people but physical theatre didn’t work and slowly we found our way.
And how do you balance creating your own work with supporting so many other artists and companies?
Really poorly. It’s really hard. The work I make for the theatre tends to be devised work so there’s generally an 18-month gestation period from beginning to end – so I can spread it out, which is really useful.
It’s addictive supporting other people’s work, and up here at the festival I have got more excited about companies we’re supporting’s good reviews and more angry about their bad reviews than I have to our own. I think if I saw it as a distraction from my own work I don’t think it’d be a very fulfilling job but it’s absolutely the highlight, making sure they’re going from strength to strength.
Do you have provocations or ideas for other theatres?
[We provide] interest-free cash flow loans for theatre companies. We’ve got [close to] 15 grand on loan just for this Fringe to help that gap between people getting here and getting their box office back, for personal development when it’s unaffordable.
I think theatres can be more generous to their companies. I think there’s a lot of stigma around the term ‘emerging company’ because theatres use it it means they don’t need to pay them very much if at all. And when you’re starting out in your career trying to make you reputation, that’s when you need the most support. We try to cajole some of our partners and co-producers from around the UK to do that. And it isn’t difficult – it just takes a lot of listening, willpower and generosity of spirit, which is fun to embrace.
And you’ve recently announced the NDT First Devised Show Award. Could you tell us about about that?
We’re looking for theatre companies who have put on their first devised show, because making devised theatre is so hard. [In] the last few years, [the Fringe has become] a much more professional showcase, and people are a lot harder on these small groups who are making work. So we thought it’d be good to find work that is promising and has a glint of something special and give them some money to invest in themselves and say, We think what you’re doing is excellent. We want to see more of your work.
And what are some of qualities you’re looking for?
Essentially we’re looking for a group of people making work over an extended period of time that only they could create. So it’s the flavour of that group working together, and that varies radically from company to company. I could see each of our companies’ work and tell who it’s by. So we’re not looking for a company that’s ‘like’ one we’ve got we want them doing their own thing with their own distinct voice. We’re not prescriptive in terms of form or content, just good company work.
What’s amazing about Edinburgh is it’s kind of like tapas: you get to try so many different flavours in one day. It’s a challenge as a programmer because there are certain shows that work so well in Edinburgh but the question I’ve also got is, What is going to be able to come back to London and sustain a whole evening?
Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone starting out making devised work?
Ultimately it’s about doing everything you can to get whatever’s onstage in the best state it can be. A lot of companies get stuck on setting up as a business or designing a logo or having a company name but none of that really matters. All that’s important is presenting the best possible work, and then you shout about it and get people to come see it.
I always say you’re not doing it right unless there’s a range of opinions. You’re not here to make Pizza Express art to try and please everyone, you’re making really distinctive and exciting stuff that some people will love and others won’t. This festival embraces all of it.