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Theatre: How innovation and transformation attract a whole new theatre audience

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Billie Piper and Ben Power. Collins Photo: Michael Donnelly.

Billie Piper and Ben Power. Collins Photo: Michael Donnelly.

Billie Piper and Ben Power. Collins Photo: Michael Donnelly.

Our national theatre, the Abbey, gets a public subsidy of roughly €7m a year to run two venues (or, at the moment, one-and-a-half). The Royal National Theatre in London gets a public subsidy of almost £20m to run three venues.

That's not a lot more: per audience member, it's a similar amount; per head of population, it's actually less. But the public funding of the National is dwarfed by box-office revenue of £50m, whereas the Abbey's box office is just one-third of its subsidy.

Last year, the National achieved an average attendance at its South Bank base of a phenomenal 90pc. Almost one-third of these were "first-time bookers".

We don't have a crisis of theatre funding in Ireland. If there is a crisis, it's a crisis of theatre-going. So I was intrigued to meet one of the powerhouses (sorry) of the National, Ben Power, who was in Dublin recently for the Irish premiere of his recut of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, A Tender Thing (it runs till next Saturday at the Project in Dublin, projectartscentre.ie, in a production by Selina Cartmell).

Power is an associate director at the National and responsible for programming its trendy temporary venue, the Shed. (Olwen Fouere, who stars in A Tender Thing alongside Owen Roe, brings her acclaimed one-woman Joycean show, Riverrun, to the Shed in March.)

Still in his early 30s, he has a long list of Shakespearian adaptations for stage and screen to his name and has acted as script doctor ("dramaturg", in the industry term) on some of the seminal British plays of recent years.

Power's remit at the Shed is to find "new artists, new voices and particularly new audiences"; the question is "how we reach people who feel they have no connection to the theatre".

"We are in a cultural moment where the boundaries between drama, visual art, music, gigs, are blurring," he believes. Exploiting that has brought those audiences in: at the Shed, "well over 60pc are first-time attendees at the National".

The trick then is to cross-pollinate: to lure those audiences to a production of Othello on the main stage; and to "take the core Othello audience and give them something really progressive" at the Shed.

"It is in feeding these two things all the time that the National Theatre really comes alive."

That he can take risks is in large part thanks to the theatre's commercial success.

War Horse is the current flagship (it comes to Dublin's Bord Gáis Theatre in March): developed from a series of workshops in the National's studio, its global success has since earned the theatre a surplus of £11m. (These figures are all from the National's website.)

Elsewhere, the National seeks new audiences through "more and more co-producing", including with venues outside of London; through its NT Live programme of screening stage productions in cinemas; and through "creating new generations of theatregoers" through work in schools.

Last year, Power adapted Romeo and Juliet again, this time for 10-year-olds, with the aim of delivering "something authentically Shakespeare but relevant and accessible". The end result was a 45-minute production, all in Shakespeare's words and performed by leading actors, which toured to schools. It played to "an incredibly visceral atmosphere," he says. "It was one of best professional experiences I've had."

Power finds himself in tune with his times. Theatre sometimes goes through "an age of miniaturism, of plays with two people in tiny rooms"; at the moment, he believes, "we're living through an age of large stages and big gestures – and that's what I find exciting."

The National is going through something of a golden age, where risk-taking and success seem to exist in a virtuous circle.

The Abbey doesn't have that potential, because Irish plays will never have that commercial reach. That may make direct comparison with the National unfair – but there's no reason it can't be an inspiration.

COLINMURPHY@INDEPENDENT.IE

Irish Independent