Theatre Critic and Journalist

Looking to the Future: Toni Racklin

Looking to the Future: Toni Racklin

Published in The Stage, 25.10.2012

Think of the Barbican and you think of the world’s leading theatre makers. Since March, it’s hosted Cate Blanchett and Juliette Binoche, Robert Wilson, Yukio Ninagawa and Complicite. Nor is that line-up in any way atypical for Europe’s largest performing arts centre.

However, in recent years, the Barbican has shown another, more nurturing, side, with more and more emerging artists on the bill. Next month, it welcomes two such companies. In the Pit, the Anglo-English Sleepwalk Collective, formed in 2006, will present As the Flames Rose We Danced to the Sirens, the Sirens, while elsewhere in the building, non zero one – still only three years out of university – will show The Time Out. Before then, 13 others will showcase the fruits of recent research and development periods as part of the annual Oxford Samuel Beckett Trust Award.

Head of Theatre Toni Racklin says the shift comes in the wake of BITE’s demise, the Barbican’s distinct international theatre programme, following a brand overhaul in 2011. “What we’ve got is a huge theatre and a tiny studio space [The Pit]. There’s nothing really in between. So, with BITE, we had a programme in the main house and a programme in The Pit. There were two theatre spaces and we programmed accordingly.”

Today, however, the Barbican’s organisational structure allows for greater flexibility and more integration between art forms; a move that has created space for events of different shapes and sizes. Where Non Zero One’s piece, almost an installation, would have struggled to find an appropriate home, it will now take place in one of the complex’s rehearsal rooms, temporarily renamed as The Changing Room, in keeping with the sporting theme. The Barbican’s Weekenders – two-day micro-festivals across the site – have created further opportunities for young companies.

Another significant shift, says Racklin, is the new Creative Learning department in place of “an education department that added events onto the programme. The way it’s structured now, it’s totally integrated, so from the moment we start thinking about our programme, Creative Learning is part of that process.”

The Pit is now shared jointly between Creative Learning and Theatre departments, used as both a studio theatre and “an arts and learning space, an experimental safe space,” with some similarities to the National Theatre Studio. During Sleepwalk Collective’s run, the company will be in residence with the Creative Learning department, Racklin explains, “looking at processes and workshopping with some of those emerging artists who use the Pit as a lab.”

“We’re growing the work now, and we’re looking at new models for that,” Racklin continues, “We might not do it in the same way that the National or Battersea Arts Centre do it, but the Barbican – like every organisation – has an obligation to support the next generation of artists. You can keep on putting on the big names, but we’ve got to think about what comes next. Things start small, but you never know what will grow up to that main stage.”

Given its particular demands, not least its size, the main auditorium remains the primary focus, but Racklin’s team have widened their scouting. “We look everywhere,” she says, “We go to all sorts of festivals, looking at the big work for the main stage, but while we’re there, we’ve always got an eye out for what else is happening.” Sleepwalk Collective, for example, came out of the BE Festival in Birmingham.

At the same time, though, they needn’t always look so far. The presence of the London Mime Festival and SPILL at the Barbican have provided “other avenues of bringing emerging artists” into the building, as does its long-standing association with the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust.

Each year, the Trust awards an emerging company or artist a production grant of £32,000 (site-specific work gets £37,000) and slot in the Barbican’s programme. However, since it went unawarded last year, this year’s prize is a “rollover,” allowing the Barbican to give £2,500 R&D grants to 13 companies culminating in a public showcase, for which Racklin says sales have been strong.

“It’s an experiment for us, so we’ll see how it goes and hopefully take this format forwards. Audiences are really interested. There’s a real appetite for stretching yourself as an audience member and it shows we’ve got a very buoyant and curious audience.”

The Barbican is still working with previous winners, having just produced a second incarnation of You Me Bum Bum Train. Slung Low, who made Helium as winners in 2007, will present a new piece for children at Christmas.

“The relationships we have with our companies is at the heart of what we do. If there’s a synergy, whereby we’re tapping into the same things, we need to look at how we can take that further. It can’t just be the end of the story.”

Of course, the economic climate has played it’s part in the shift, but Racklin is adamant that takes nothing away. “With the cuts, you have to revisit how you spend your subsidy across the programme, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing it on the cheap. It’s just about rebalancing and reorganising, trying to be as efficient as possible with different financial models to keep the programme alive, keep doing what we’re passionate about and keep giving our audiences something exciting.”

“Young companies are exploring things we’ve not thought of yet and, even if the work is raw or rough round the edges, they’re discovering things that, for an audience member, are very exciting.”

Photograph: Tom Flynn

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