New Blood at the National: What the Appointment of Rufus Norris means to the Albany

It has been a big week in the theatre world. Last Tuesday, the new Artistic Director of the National Theatre was announced – the biggest job in our industry. It felt like a football transfer window, the new Doctor Who, and Christmas morning rolled into one, and it ended months of speculation about which of the top contenders – including the likes of Kenneth Brannagh, the Young Vic’s David Lan and Hampstead Theatre’s Edward Hall – would take the top spot. Finally it was announced that the job will go to Rufus Norris, a popular choice amongst the theatre industry, who generally hold the acclaimed director of Festen, Cabaret and London Road in high regard.

The new appointment provides a good opportunity to reflect on the role of the National Theatre in the UK’s theatre landscape. There will inevitably be a huge amount of focus on the shows Rufus Norris chooses to programme; the playwrights he commissions and the celebrities he’s spotted dining with. But for me there is a more important concern for Rufus Norris’s incumbency.

Ten years ago, I was brought to the Albany as part of a programme led by the NT that invested in the Albany and worked with young people in Deptford and Lewisham, aiming to reinvigorate the Albany’s role as a catalyst for the development of local communities and the area’s regeneration, and discovering what the role of a venue like the Albany could look like in the 21st century.

The enterprise was part of The Art of Regeneration, a three year project driven by the late Jennie Harris – NT Education Director and the Albany Director in the 80s.

The project wasn’t without controversy and its success compromised in some ways, but it would be fair to say that the Albany wouldn’t still be here if the project hadn’t existed. When it began, the fate of the Albany looked pretty grim: the building was falling apart at the seams with a skeleton staff of about five, a café open just a few hours a day, and a beautiful 300 seater theatre – that was permanently closed to the public.

The National Theatre was able to bring the infrastructure and expertise that reinforced the crucial role the Albany could, and has, played at the heart of the Deptford ecology. Although we’ve had our ups and downs in the intervening decade, the project truly set the course for the Albany to become what it is today: a thriving creative hub with over 300 arts events and over 130k visitors each year.

The Art of Regeneration ran from 2001–4, covering the last change over at the National; Sir Trevor Nunn, when he left in 2003, described the project as one of the things he was most proud of in his time at the helm. It was a fairly unusual project for the NT, but it needn’t be. It proved what a national organisation can achieve by working in partnership with specific communities.

The current economic and political climate is forcing arts venues across the country to radically reappraise the roles they play in their localities.

It strikes me that one of the challenges for Rufus Norris, as he seeks to define his own model for how the National Theatre must operate in today’s conditions, will be answering the question of the way in which the National Theatre can act as a leader, and supporter, of venues nationally. Ultimately the true test of his success will not only be the number of bums on seats on the Southbank, rather it will be the health of the performing arts landscape across the UK.

Gavin Barlow, CEO, The Albany

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