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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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Welcome to our Blog

The Albany is a different kind of arts organisation. Like many arts venues, we have a cracking programme of live events to sink your teeth into: from the best spoken word artists appearing at regular nights, a diverse theatre programme of work from some of Britain’s best theatre companies, regular events for families and kids, music, comedy and club nights – the building is never quiet for very long!

But that’s only a small part of what we do. We are truly, and quite radically, driven by the idea of being a community arts centre, and that means so many of the activities that go on within the walls of the Albany, at our sister venues Canada Water Culture Space and Deptford Lounge, and indeed out and about in Deptford and further afield, are rather more ‘below the radar’. But we think they are an extremely important part of who we are and what we do, and we think it’s vital that they make up a part of the picture of what the Albany is all about.

Many won’t know, for example, about the rich array of resident companies that we have within the Albany building- like performance poetry maestros Apples and Snakes, Heart ‘n’ Soul, an arts organisation with learning disability culture at its heart, and the Independent Theatre Council. Or that we have a (semi) regular market stall in Deptford Market, the incredibly bustling, diverse market that pops up on our doorstep every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (where shoes are ‘three pound each; two for a fiver’). Or that we have chickens in residence in our beautiful garden (OK, we’re pretty obsessive about telling people about those already…).

The blog will play a part in building this richer picture of what we do. We’ll peek behind the scenes, and chat to actors, artists and other company members about what they’re working on. We’ll share videos and photographs of what we’re getting up to. Most importantly we’ll give a voice to the people that engage with our work – like the participant in Meet me at the Albanyour day club for over 60s, who wrote a wonderful poem about her experiences here, or our Uncover Youth Theatre’s hilarious video spoofs of cookery shows.

We also plan to use the blog to share some of the expertise and experiences of those working in the Albany building, and to comment on wider issues relevant to the arts and to the local community.

Most importantly, though, we want our blog to be a forum for discussion, to help us learn more about our audiences and communities. Please do leave your comments and questions, and let us know what the Albany means to you.

And remember you can tweet us or connect with us on Facebook.

Gavin Barlow, CEO, The Albany

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