Theatre: For sale: one prime location with dramatic prospects

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The Independent Online
The future of the Old Vic site hangs in the balance. Sealed bids are on the table, but hidden beneath the headlines is an untold story. Whoever buys it will also decide the fate of the National Theatre's jewel in the crown: its Studio. David Benedict investigates.

Bloody but unbowed, Sir Peter Hall is scouring London for a new home for his repertory company. His much-vaunted scheme to rejuvenate Lilian Baylis's beloved Old Vic by presenting a healthy mix of classics and new plays foundered within a year. According to the story that was bruited abroad when he began his adventure, Ed and David Mirvish, the theatre's Canadian owners, told him that he didn't need to make money. They were not, however, in the business of losing it hand over fist. Less than a year in, they pulled the plug and put the theatre up for sale.

Before anyone leaps to the conclusion that these guys must be a pair of money-grabbing philistines, it should be pointed out that, since they bought the theatre in 1982, the Vic has enjoyed its successes, but it has also been dark for long periods. Significantly for Hall's brave reign, Jonathan Miller's now famous Classics season (which launched the careers of Richard Jones, Alex Jennings and countless others) resulted in critical triumphs but financial disaster. As Lady Bracknell (almost) said, "To lose one investment could be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness." Careless the Mirvishes were not. The word "philanthropic" is nearer the mark, when you consider what they did with the less famous part of the property, ie the vast annexe that crouches over the Old Vic box-office across the road from the theatre itself.

Since 1984, this slab of Fifties functionalism has housed the National Theatre Studio, the shy, unheralded heart of the National's present and future. It's the nerve-centre where writers, directors and actors dream, plan and develop new ideas, hone their craft and learn new skills and is, quite simply, invaluable. Everyone you can think of, from Peter Brook to Patrick Marber (and plenty you have yet to hear about), has led or taken part in workshops or been a writer-in-residence there. Astonishingly, the Studio has occupied this enormous three-storey site (plus basement) completely rent-free. But the gravy train is about to hit the buffers: together with the Old Vic, the annexe too is up for sale.

There has been a striking lack of industry gossip about possible purchasers. In a breathless News of the World-style exclusive, the trade paper The Stage announced that the club-owner Alan Whitehead planned to turn the 1,000-seat theatre into London's first lap-dancing venue. Then, 12 days ago, the Studio's director Sue Higginson was surprised to see Lord Lloyd- Webber peering through the door to her office, asking if he could look round the building. His visit was swiftly followed by one from his second-in-command; but, for reasons unknown, Lloyd-Webber is now believed to have formally withdrawn his bid. At the end of last week, a Newcastle industrialist allegedly came into the frame with plans to create a London home for both the D'Oyly Carte and the English Shakespeare Company but, with sealed bids submitted weeks ago, such press reports are mere speculation. What remains a matter of worrying fact is that none of the interested parties has yet announced what they will do with the Studio.

Desperate to secure its future, the National Theatre board has submitted a bid for the annexe alone, but the site may well not be sold separately. Moreover, the RNT's bid is based on a "current usage" valuation rather than on the site's worth in development terms. The property, complete with a highly useful car-park, is unlisted. Worse still, as anyone will tell you, the three things to consider when buying property are: location, location and location - and the Old Vic site is hot.

Waterloo has been reborn in the past few years: restaurants have sprung up, made a killing and have already been sold on. As Higginson sagely observes: "I'm sure there are men with bulldozers who are very interested in a prime site." A commercial buyer could quite sensibly fund plans for the theatre by demolishing the annexe for development, leaving the Studio out on the street. The only guarantee the National has is a four-month notice period.

In terms of mounting a survival campaign, the Studio is a victim of its low profile. The work that goes on there is about process, not product. It is privately funded and thus free of the pressure of having to achieve "results". Developmental and experimental in the widest sense, its work isn't obviously newsworthy and, outside the confines of the profession, remains an untold story.

Higginson sees the Studio as an oxygen-supplier to the NT's lifeblood, not a luxury, some haphazard organisation in which artists fool around with the right to fail. She and two deputies oversee 22 projects a year, with a total budget of pounds 400,000. Teams of actors, directors and teachers have done residencies in Lithuania, South Africa and Edinburgh, and last week saw Barrie Rutter working on an unperformed Dryden drama with a company of Asian actors. But the thrust of the Studio's work is new writing. The extraordinary 1994-95 Royal Court Upstairs season, which pole-vaulted the likes of Sarah Kane, Joe Penhall, Judy Upton, Nick Grosso and Judith Johnson into the theatrical stratosphere and made Stephen Daldry's name as a playwriting entrepreneur, was in fact co-produced with the National Theatre Studio, which runs relays of writers on eight-week residencies.

The best illustration of the seed-bed approach is the case of Patrick Marber, alternative comedian turned prize-winning playwright. His agent persuaded Higginson to see him doing stand-up. Fascinated, she invited him in for a cup of tea and a chat. "I thought, we have to work with him, so I asked how and he said he'd like to run a poker school. I said, 'What, Monopoly money?' and he replied, 'No, real poker players, real money.' I said, 'Not in my studio you're not.' What became apparent was that he had a play lurking around in him but didn't know quite how to get it out. So at the end of a two-week improvisation workshop, he asked if I wanted to see what they'd been doing. About five of us went in and saw what was really the first act of Dealer's Choice. Patrick kept clicking his fingers between scenes and we thought, God, this is so annoying. Doesn't he realise that of course we can see that this is a kitchen and then this is a restaurant? We were so sucked into it we'd completely forgotten it was all improvised and he was just bringing the scene to a close. That was how it started."

Of course, this is not the only place where writers develop ideas, but it's rare to find an organisation that can then place scripts in production not just at the National but at theatres across the country. The Studio is unique in its breadth and scope: Theatre de Complicite's early shows, and its internationally successful Street of Crocodiles, all began life there; singers from ENO's Contemporary Opera Studio regularly go there to learn acting techniques; a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is currently under development there.

"Frankly, it's driving me nuts," sighs Higginson of the Studio's uncertain future. Forced to play the waiting game, she has frozen all future work beyond February. She is facing the hard fact that the National Theatre Studio is a complete anomaly. "We're privately funded, yet we're part of a big national company. We have our own building but, hey, we don't have to earn any money from box-office or produce any work for people to assess in order to justify our existence. We train but we're not a training school, we're here for the profession. All those elements make us very, very unusual."

She smiles and shrugs. "It's horribly boring. Trevor Nunn loves us. The National's board loves us. The Mirvishes have been fantastically good... It would just be a pity if we had to go." That remark clinches it: the 1997 Understatement of the Year Award goes to the National Theatre Studio's Sue Higginson.