Features Published 22 February 2016

David Byrne: “We’re going to put the money where our mouth is.”

Kate Wyver talks to New Diorama’s David Byrne about the new artist development scheme – a ‘co-operative bank for theatre companies’.

Kate Wyver
artist development scheme

David Byrne, artistic director of New Diorama Theatre

‘You’re not for profit so what are you for?’

‘We are for art.’

To celebrate its 5th birthday, New Diorama Theatre has launched possibly the most exciting artist development scheme Britain has ever seen, providing companies with upfront cash and practical skills as well as support for equality, diversity and accessibility. David Byrne, artistic director of the theatre, insists ‘supporting brand new talent should be sexy and fun, but at the moment it’s a little bit stagnant.’

New Diorama aims to support companies in the way the Royal Court supports writers and the Young Vic supports directors. In the long preparation for this project, Byrne read everything available on artist development programmes and early career work, struck by how similar they all seemed to be. They lacked the imagination and flair you’d expect from a creative industry. ‘So we started looking elsewhere.’

One of the new schemes in the programme is the Cash Flow Fund, an interest free loan of up to £4,000 to support companies, raised from part of the box office fee. The Cash Flow Fund is for the young companies just finding their feet, for the final year University students and for the almost established groups who want to take a risk with their work. It’s not just a cooperative bank, it’s a cheerleading campaign. The Cash Flow loan can be as much as £4000 or as little as the initial van hire for a company wanting to tour. ‘We plan as much in advance as possible so we can know when we’re getting money returned and can keep offering that out. In theory there’s no limit of companies that it could support.’ Byrne notes that what they’re doing isn’t revolutionary. ‘These are small ideas really, they’re just ideas no one else has formalised.’

Through exploring start-ups and toolkits for entrepreneurs, Byrne and his team came up with this new programme. Working with up to fifty companies a year through the whole Artist Development Scheme, New Diorama’s intent is entirely generous. ‘We want to help companies make more work and we want to see them grow. We want them to be able to afford to take risks.’

Consultants on the project such as Eleanor Turney, Co-Director of Incoming Festival, will also provide feedback and advice along the way. Turney says, ‘When people talk about risk they usually mean risk for artists. I think New Diorama take a lot of that risk onto themselves in order to remove risk for artists.’ This means the companies are much freer to make the work they want to make.

One example of a company having benefitted from the scheme already is Kill The Beast, who wanted to go to the Edinburgh Festival with their show He Had Hairy Hands. Having developed it at New Diorama, Byrne knew it would do well at the Festival. ‘It was perfect for touring.’ Sure enough they embarked on a huge tour off the back of their success in Edinburgh and won the Peter Brook Festival Award.

Another part of the development programme is the NSDF Pickles fund, named after an elderly lady from Bradford who supported Byrne’s work early on in his career. ‘She passed away last year and naming the fund after her felt like a thank you for all that support’. This fund supports a young company aiming to get to the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough. The £98 registration fee deters a lot of companies from entering the Festival, so this provides a helping hand. Last year the fund helped Pub Corner Poets with their controversial show Angry, the cast of which will leave university with an incredible CV and a huge list of contacts, having won The Sunday Times Playwriting Award. It is, David says, ‘the best £98 pound cheque we ever could have written.’ This year the Fund is helping Breach Theatre take the already highly acclaimed The Beanfield to NSDF.

Alongside the Cash Flow Fund and NSDF Pickles Fund there are several other strands to the artist development scheme: the Emerging Companies Programme gives companies workshops and networking sessions; Gifted Week provides a week-long performance and 100% of the box office to a company which, along with the Two Night Stands strand for regional companies, is one of the UK’s only 100/0 box office splits in favour of companies and could be a lifeline in this political climate of negativity towards the arts; there’s a Female Leadership Fund, the BAMER Companies Fund, and Incoming Festival which sees 20 companies perform at New Diorama. All of these schemes are designed to help young companies grow.

Byrne’s dedication to the programme is admirable. ‘I would rather close and have the most brilliant work and have artists know someone is believing in them, rather than have an organisation go on forever that isn’t really supporting anyone, that backs off when the going gets tough.’ He ignores the raised eyebrows to their unconventional techniques but, he insists, it is what they believe in. ‘We’re going to put the money where our mouth is.’

The development programme will never be finished, but Byrne’s main aim for the scheme is that it helps individuals with their own confidence. ‘I hope it helps the artists get to where they want to go, whichever stage they’re at or whatever they want to do. I hope the things we’re teaching will stay with them. Even if they leave theatre forever, the investment in those people is still absolutely worth it and will remain with them for the rest of their professional careers.’

Byrne wants New Diorama Theatre to be the thought leader in artist development. ‘I’m hoping that a lot of the partners we have around the country will start taking the ideas we’re coming up with and adopt them for themselves.’ He makes it clear that they’re not extremely expensive to set up, nor difficult to administer, but the effect they have is huge. ‘Industry wise I hope this is the beginning of a more exciting conversation around artist development. For an industry dealing with the most creative ideas in the country, we aren’t being very creative. I want to see a real boom and new enthusiasm around supporting artists.’

So listen up British theatre, supportive is the new sexy.

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