In our latest interview, Halima A Hassan speaks to Theatre 503’s artistic director, Lisa Spirling, about supporting artists and the launch of the long-awaited 503 Studio.

I have never before experienced the kind of emotional distress I felt at the beginning of this lockdown. The initial change in routine was jarring to an extrovert like myself. The subsequent, paralysing fear when someone in my family became sick; the anger and anguish I felt during the height of the uprisings against police brutality. It all made me feel powerless and dispirited. Writing became a struggle which pained me; why couldn’t I seem to do the only thing that truly brings me joy?

Our new reality made it difficult for me to fulfil my responsibilities, one being script reading for Theatre503. Thankfully, I was met with nothing but understanding from the 503 literary team. I have come to hold 503 as an invaluable theatre venue; one that does the work, is self-aware and strives to be better in every regard. This summer, it arranged for multiple Zoom sessions that brought theatre creatives together, providing a platform for sharing and venting. Although I did not feel like joining, I remember feeling pleased to see this gesture.

Lisa Spirling is Theatre503’s Artistic Director and has been at the helm of the newly developed 503 Studio. I caught up with her over Zoom the first week of October. Part of me wants to evade any and all discussion of the pandemic. But how? The whole world has been altered by it, not a living thing left untouched by its effects. It is the first thing I talk to Spirling about, how it’s challenged her as a leader in this industry and if, despite the horror of it all, she’s found hope. “You’re just so much more aware of everyone’s individual, unique situation, and that everyone has a different set of needs and a different capacity,” Spirling tells me. “So I just felt much more tentative in terms of how I approach the world and the industry.”

Spirling continues: “[The lockdown has] enabled us to have lots of conversations, some might call it navel gazing, but a kind of real analysis of what has been in place for many, many years. And the things that we’ve always kind of had a problem with, [we have to ask] well, how can we change this?”

503 Studio has been in the works for many years. Theatre 503’s mission is to nurture emerging writers and to be as accessible as possible. Spirling and the rest of the 503 team recognise they have some way to go, but this new development is a step in the right direction. The first offering from 503 Studio is the Autumn Writers Programme launching 12 October. A virtual programme of masterclasses, long form courses and taster sessions, designed in direct response to 503’s creative community. The scheme was trialled last year as a literary takeover during the summer and earlier in lockdown, a survey was sent out to 3000 creatives whose replies informed the structure of the scheme.

It is important to Spirling and the 503 team that the programme is delivered in a way that allows for interactivity and that it is as accessible as possible. “We’re trying to attract, reach out to and support emerging writers from across the country and across the world. As soon as that becomes a digital conversation, which I know has its own limits on accessibility for some people, you widen the net, and that feels very exciting,” Spirling explains.

Theatre503 received the Arts Council’s first round of emergency grants, a large portion of which is being used to employ freelancers and provide free and subsidised places on the programme. The 503 Studio is at once a means for the institution to fulfil their aim of supporting all creatives regardless of their starting point, while ensuring its own survival through this stream of income. “503, as an entry-point to this industry, has a responsibility to nurture and support and launch as many creatives as possible,” Spirling shares.

“[And] what’s so brilliant about the 503 Studio is that it’s not selection based. Anyone can put their name down for it,” Spirling points out. “I want to remove any sort of intimidation, any sort of sensitivity – ‘I am not worthy’ and just go, you have a lived experience, you have a voice, you have something to say. And if you don’t yet know how to say it, there’s a set of courses that might help you do that.”

503 are also known for encouraging radical, rapid response creative pieces to current affairs or conversations. During the uprisings and the discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement, an artistic response in this vein felt undesirable to the 503 team, many of whom are women of colour. “[It’s] a real positive when your team is as diverse as ours is, then you were really able to listen to what people were saying going: ‘No, this isn’t healing for us right now. That is actually just trauma.’”

Spirling has grand hopes and goals for 503 Studio. Most of the offerings from the Autumn Writers Programme have sold out but the intention is to bring the programme back in the future. “I would love one day to have a physical space, which is not just about running courses, but is about giving writers the space to have a writers room, to have a rehearsal space. You’re every step of the way able to pay practitioners to develop their craft … [when] you can see in someone, in their first draft or in their idea for a play, something brilliant, and you can nurture and pay them right the way through to production,” Spirling reflects. “That for me is the gap, which doesn’t happen. And that’s where we lose people along the way.”

Spirling continues, “It is not until you have a production that does what it’s supposed to do, lands where it’s supposed to land, and speaks to people as it can hopefully speak to people that really transforms your career and your craft, because that’s what then propels you forward. And that’s the thing that I’m desperate to ring fence and protect.”

To learn more about 503 Studio and book for masterclasses, visit the Theatre 503 website for more details.