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Southampton’s NST City and the impact it is having on the city

PUBLISHED: 16:33 21 February 2019

The new auditorium at NST City can seat 450 people (Photo by Stefan Venter)

The new auditorium at NST City can seat 450 people (Photo by Stefan Venter)

Archant

One year after the curtain went up on NST City, Southampton’s newest theatre is at the beating heart of its dynamic cultural quarter. We discover the impact it is having

“Creativity is contagious, pass it on,” Albert Einstein famously said. So, when Nuffield Theatre Southampton’s second venue NST City opened at the long-awaited Studio 144 arts complex on Guildhall Square in February 2018, the spotlight switched on.

The £30million Studio 144, named in homage to the former Tyrrell and Green department store that once traded here, now also houses the John Hansard Gallery and filmmakers, City Eye, providing all three organisations with new-found visibility. In the case of NST City its roots go back to 1964 when, backed by the Nuffield Foundation, a producing theatre was established on the University of Southampton’s Highfield campus. Funded today by Arts Council England, Southampton City Council and the University, one of the UK’s most renowned professional companies is led by Sam Hodges who, having arrived fresh from London’s Criterion Theatre in 2013, has seen the accolades (including Regional Theatre of the Year) roll-in.

The launch of NST City offers an additional 450-seater main house, studio theatre, screening facilities, rehearsal, and workshop spaces, plus a café bar. Importantly though, not only is this the latest act in NST’s repertoire, it also marks Southampton’s ambition to raise the public’s cultural consciousness.

“Before, we had a theatre which had been here (in Southampton) for over 40 years which some people didn’t know existed,” says Sam Hodges, “So that’s changing now that we’re also right on Guildhall Square among everything.” Adding, “It’s never a question of just open a new venue and audiences will come; it takes work and face-to-face conversations. But through some careful programming (including the story of SS Mendi Dancing the Death Drill, which this year transfers to the Royal Opera House) and some tireless work by the likes of Tracey Cruickshank, our community engagement producer, our public spaces are beginning to fill-up with people who understand that NST City can be theirs.”

It’s an idea about which Sam is passionate, and one which was whole-heartedly embraced in NST City’s launch production of The Shadow Factory in February 2018.

“The show sold-out, which was brilliant, and involved a big community chorus. It really showed why producing theatres are important.”

“One of the most fulfilling parts of the year has been the relationships that we’ve begun to cultivate and deepen with a genuinely broad spectrum of people from across Southampton’s communities; from older residents who can remember the shadow factories, to a spoken word and rap collective made up of young people who represent the diverse and vibrant cultures of Southampton’s Newtown area.”

Whilst the Nuffield’s youth theatre remains a hotbed for burgeoning creative talent, the so-called Nuffield Laboratory also has its sights set firmly on the future.

“Our artists’ develop programme works across both our two spaces and across the city. We recently launched the self-starters initiative, as it should also be somewhere that artists themselves are making things happen.”

James Gough, director of Southampton Cultural Development Trust, which brought together the various partners behind the ten-year plan to build Studio 144 – the Department of Media, Sport and Culture, the Arts Council and, not least, Southampton City Council, agrees on the difference the arts can make to city life.

“It’s long been an ambition to have a cultural focal point that the city can be proud of. And to have organisations within such a space that can be both a platform and catalyst for change.”

The opportunity to collaborate in building new audiences and at the same time being able to broaden their appeal by working with arts partners from across the globe is, he believes, “what a world class venue allows you to do”. Whilst acknowledging, “Studio 144 is not just a home for those organisations within it; their knowledge and skills allows them to go out into communities, which is so critical for the city’s cultural growth.”

And, the public’s response so far has given those involved with the project reason for optimism.

Councillor Satvir Kaur, cabinet member for homes and culture, observes, “Southampton is fast becoming the cultural destination within the region, with Studio 144 being an important landmark. It is creating the invaluable infrastructure needed to ensure the arts can continue to have a positive impact on the people and place of Southampton.

“Not only has Studio 144 helped grow the local economy by creating hundreds of new jobs, attracting tens of thousands of visitors and generating millions of pounds; but it has put Southampton on the map and created city pride, offering something for everyone. Nuffield Southampton Theatres, City Eye and John Hansard Gallery, have also been great examples of how the arts can help address social and community needs in the city.

“Southampton is prime for becoming a City of Culture so that we can continue to use the arts to grow our thriving city.”

Meanwhile, as NST City heads into its second year there’s a self belief in the ability to make a difference.

“This is a year that puts Southampton’s heritage as a city right at the heart of the programme,” says Sam Hodges.

“There are many highlights already on the horizon. We’re producing the regional premiere of Peter Morgan’s brilliant play The Audience, that we hope will be a real ode to contemporary theatre and the worlds it can create.

“We’re also producing the European premiere of an adaptation of Khalid Hosseini’s bestseller, A Thousand Splendid Suns. And I’m really excited about a brand new radio play, a curation of existing verbatim accounts from former Ford employees after the Southampton plant closed, which we’re going to be presenting in a Ford Transit van and touring!”

Sam is, however, not one to get swept away by NST City’s success so far.

“It feels like year zero in many ways,” he reflects, “We’ve got a long way to go, but the conversations and interactions have been rich and full of promise.”


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