IT takes centre stage at the National Theatre

By Peter Gothard
14 May 2014 View Comments

The £83m capital programme to revamp the National Theatre is good news for the NT's IT director Joe McFadden, as it's allowing him to start manoeuvring into the forefront of management thinking at the venue.

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Even at the first phase of the project, known as NT Future, McFadden says that IT infrastructure has become a focus, which is a marked contrast to previous IT facilitation.

"We had, understandably, a period where investment for IT infrastructure needed to make its case against other infrastructure, such as, for example, the mechanical engineering plant for running a public building this size, so there have been areas where we struggled to keep up the pace for investment," admits McFadden.

"NT Future has given us the opportunity to do so, and make some significant investment, first of all in the core local area network. So we've just completed a major upgrade using HP Comware, and that has given us much greater resilience, but also capacity as more and more parts of the theatre rely on IT to do their jobs."

As well as budgetary investment - only 20 per cent of which is now supplied by Arts Council England, when in years previously the figure stood at 40 per cent - McFadden is capitalising on the potential for new IT projects to involve the organisation beyond just the IT department.

"It's particularly interesting that there is the greater involvement of theatre creatives in using IT networks and relying on IT networks," he explains.

Expanding his team from 15 to 20 in recent months to help power through the renovations, McFadden describes how he has constructed a project management office based within the IT department.

"It's to manage the technical change as well as be ambassadors for how IT can support different parts of the theatre," he explains.

"They're aligned with different parts of the theatre, so one will more involved with commercial operations on the marketing side, and one with the production and technical side, and so on. And that's been really successful in terms of changing perceptions [about IT]."

McFadden's policy to keep IT invested in all levels of theatre life has also resulted in the smooth running of some of the NT's more celebrated areas of expertise, such as the digital drawing department which has helped to construct props, costumes and effects for popular shows such as Warhorse and Frankenstein.

"It's still a relatively recent innovation in terms of theatre, and this is the whole process of drafting set designs and set productions, which has very rapidly gone from a traditional craft of a draftsperson working at a drafts bench, to everything being done in CAD, and increasingly in 3D, and that obviously puts pressure on networks, storage and compute power," he says.

The NT also pioneered the practice of broadcasting live feeds of its shows to theatres around the UK with its NT Live programme, which had an audience of nearly a million viewers by the end of its second year in 2012.

To create increasingly technical effects for shows in the theatre, and to stream them across the country, requires ready access to a robust network for the staff who need it, and storage capacity for the recorded streams which are now becoming part of an ambitious archiving project.

"At the moment, our staff access is separate SSIDs with additional security measures," explains McFadden, who admits that the NT's public-facing website experiences "a fair amount of malicious attacks", but while "not wanting to be complacent", is currently spared the level of physical infrastructure assaults of a major retailer or bank, and uses standard SSL VPN across the Wi-Fi network for access to systems.

"We are starting to look at device authentication - BYOX - as well," he explains, "particularly in the auditoria, because what we're finding is that for very intense periods in the production process, the demands for network connectivity just spike if it's a particularly technologically complex show, like the recent Tori Amos musical The Light Princess [which featured high-quality back-projected video and audio effects].

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