The transformation refers to the Lyttleton theatre, as one of the artistic directors in charge of the project, Joe Smith, discussed with Theatrenow.
As the NT's Education Department's Project Manager, he has produced large-scale, site-specific performances, devised and programmed theatre-based development courses, produced international storytelling projects, co-produced national middle-scale tours and produced six UK and international Shakespeare tours.
His brief remarks regarding the Lyttleton were clear: "Trevor approached the younger members of the company and asked for ideas about transforming the Lyttleton, which is the least imaginative and most rigid of the spaces in the National." The remit was to make the space more interesting "and we jointly decided, as a company, that we should split the Lyttleton into two separate spaces, creating, in the process, the sort of 100-seat studio that the National has always lacked."
What about the Cottesloe? "It's a really good space, and it's popular with visiting directors, but it's attached to the side of the National, with a separate entrance, and in a way it feels cut off from a sense of being in the National. Changing the Lyttleton offered the chance to create a studio space comfortably within the main building."
The changes have created two new spaces. What are their main characteristics? "The Lyttleton itself has had the stage raised a meter and thrust out through the proscenium arch and into the auditorium, the stalls of which have also been raised up into a tier that connects with the dress circle. This means that, for the first time, the whole audience feels part of the same theatre space and experience — until now they have been in effect cut into two quite distinct sections. And, as an actor its noticeable how you'll get a laugh in the dress circle half a second or so after one from the stalls. Now, hopefully, people will feel part of one auditorium instead of two."
What about the plans for the studio? "The Lyttleton studio will meet the demand for an intimate, flexible space, where we can try out young directors and young writers. The Lyttleton itself will be much better suited to a variety of performance styles — like Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words — while the studio will be a realistic and appropriate setting for new plays and for directors who are too young or in too early a stage of their career to be given a main stage but who certainly deserve to work at the National."
Are you expecting a new audience, too? "Yes! As well as the type of plays and performance space we are having late night openings of the bar, often with live music, and we want to create a sense of this being a relaxed and informal, audience-friendly space that will bring in younger audiences who might otherwise be slightly wary of the idea of a night at the National."
The new-look, two-space Lyttleton is being launched in May and will continue through September, after which the "old" theatre will be restored to its current shape, as Joe Smith explains: " Transformation is meant to be an experiment. We hope it will be a success, but Trevor is leaving in March 2003 and didn't want to bind his successor, Nick Hytner, to a radical new change. Besides which, it's a listed building! That's why everything is designed around the building structure and is reversible. What we hope, however, is that if it goes well, the new team at the top will want to think about doing it again in the future."
Whether that is the case or not, the National is certainly going to be extremely lively this summer, with a huge variety of plays and performance art under the same roof. A wonderful way for Trevor Nunn to celebrate his last summer on the South Bank, and a good idea for Nicholas Hytner to pick up and run with when he takes over in April 2003.