David Lan speaks at NESTA

NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an organization that strives to make the UK more innovative. Our Artistic Director David Lan presented a talk a few weeks ago and we thought we’d share his words with you here…


Some months ago, when the Arts Council was making representations to government in an attempt to minimise the size of the cut they would receive, some of us did some research into the number of directors, writers and designers responsible for shows then playing in the west end, in the commercial theatre, who had started their careers in the publicly funded theatre. The percentages in all three categories were high – between 70 and 80%.

This has long been so. For example, every director of an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, with one exception, had been hired to direct ‘Cats’ or whatever it was after years, often many years, directing at the National Theatre, at the RSC and so on.

I guess the point we were trying to make is that the theatres that get public investment are, substantively, the R and D department of the whole theatre industry – public and private – in the UK. The commercial success of the National Theatre’s War Horse in the west-end and now on Broadway enables Nick Hytner, and various commentators following him, to make a similar argument forcefully.

To look at it from the artists’ point of view: if you’ve worked hard and used all your skill and experience to create a good show for small financial return, of course you want, through commercialisation, to maximize every benefit from it – from the size of the audience it plays to and the pleasure so derived, to the amount of money you end up with. It’s a good argument. But it’s obvious, I think, that this can’t be the only justification for public investment in theatre.

At the same time as the Arts Council was making its representations, a group of us arranged a meeting in London of many arts organizations from across the country. The constituency was wide, from the ROH to fledgling touring dance and theatre companies, to regional arts centres and so on. The aim was to devise together a new generation of arguments for public funding.

In terms of an approach to government, the most practical understanding that came out of this discussion was that we need to speak collectively not just to DCMS but also – and at the same time – to the Dept of Local Government, to Education, to the department of Business. It goes to the heart of the question of how do all the different aspects of creativity fit together: vocational training with adequate bank credit facilities, with a sophisticated grasp of techniques for handing risk, with support for local libraries, and so on.

To cheer everyone up, we asked a number of those who use art in subtly instrumental ways to describe what they do. Without exception their theme was: the experience of art – as maker or as audience, audience being a special category of maker –the experience of art changes lives.

We heard of the failing school turned around triumphantly when the focus of the curriculum shifted to the arts – music, theatre, dance; of the ex-offender rescued from a life of crime by an invitation to write a play for the theatre company Clean Break; we were enchanted by a couple in their 70s who described and demonstrated their participation in the ‘elders group’ at Sadler’s Wells, working with distinguished choreographer Hofesh Schechter as he created a new dance ‘on their bodies’, as dancers like to say, their exhilarating vivacity testimony to their project’s success. ‘We thought our lives were over but then we learned to dance and discovered we were still young.’

One can, I’m sure, do a cost/benefit analysis of the advantages of spending public money in this way rather than on the NHS or the Home Office or wherever. Prevention is better and usually cheaper than cure.

At the same meeting, a contrasting view was offered by Richard Eyre. Richard conceded whole-heartedly the value of all the above, but also – and crucially – suggested that an argument for the value of the experience of art must be made on more general grounds than as a palliative for ageing bones or criminal proclivities. Art is good because it feels good. Almost enough said. Its value is that it enhances every aspect of human life; individual and collective, social and psychological. Many agreed with him. It’s hard not to.

But, if your concern is with public investment, this has you quickly immersed in questions about the state’s responsibilities for the moral and spiritual wellbeing of its citizens. Where do these begin and where end? An evening at a Richard Eyre production of Traviata at Covent Garden. Two aged amateurs twirling away under Hofesh Shechter’s gaze. Instrumental value, inherent value. The distinction seems futile. Everyone’s feeling seriously good. Where are the dipsticks to measure joy? All hearts are, no doubt, equally full.

I run a theatre. There are a thousands ways to do that. I’m going to describe what we do.

What I’ll describe is a version of what almost everyone – or almost everyone – who runs a publicly funded theatre does, each in their own fashion.

Some basics: I have 3 theatres of various sizes, two of which are usually active at any one time, giving me a capacity of some 600 seats. I have a full time staff of 42. We have a turn over of around 4 million. About 1.7 of that is public investment, 1.2 comes in, with luck, through the box office, the rest being raised from other sources – philanthropy, corporate or institutional. We sell about 125,000 seats a year.

Our core activity is the producing of shows. We do between 12 and 15 a year. Our repertoire is wide: new plays, classic revivals, musicals, opera. We have an exceptionally convivial building. This is important and I’ll return to it. We pay great attention, of course, to the quality of our work but also to the quality of the total experience – from the moment a member of our audience crosses our threshold – even earlier, from the moment they hit our street. Our prices are low – top price around 25 quid with very many discounts, especially, but not only, for the young who can buy a seat for £10.

For the majority of our audience this is as much as they know. I hope, naturally, that each one of the 125,000 visits each year is an overwhelming emotional and intellectual experience. In exchange for this we accept a small quantity of money. They experience our foyers with its bar and restaurant, our auditorium and the other members of their audience, the show. They may hang out for a while afterwards, then they leave us and go home.

How do you put a cash value on this experience? For some shows – not all – the market value of the tickets is a good deal higher than the price we ask – but if we charged that price we couldn’t attract the audience we want, the people we want to speak to, the people we’ve made our work for. And if we fail to attract them, the experience the total audience has of itself – which, from a social perspective, is a good part of the point – that total audience experience will be different, less congenial, less conducive to happy memories, less likely to persist over time.

And, as we know, the whole purpose of art is the conquest of time.

Likewise the experience of the actors playing to that audience. Our relationship with our audience needs to be personal, intimate – we’re inviting them into our home, after all – all 125,00 a year. Making, creating our audience is almost as demanding as making our shows.

In everything we do, we try to create this same level of intimacy. It’s hard to achieve because, to give one reason, underlying all our relationships are legally binding contracts and its, perhaps, one definition of friendship that it’s a relationship of consequence underlying which there is no such formal deal. But in a company set up to produce art, all key relationships must approximate to friendship – with just the amount of specificity and care that that word implies.

Our job is to respond to very specific desires and needs. For us, each new show must be a new challenge. The invitation to the directors we work with is to do with us the thing they’ve never done before. And this holds whether it’s the new kid on the block doing her or his first properly resourced show in our smallest studio or, for example, world-renowned Patrice Chereau doing for us his first ever English language show. The design of our auditorium allows us each time to use it in a new way; the invitation to director and designer is to imagine that no one has ever done a show in that room before: we start off with: where would you – you rather than anyone else – care to put the stage?

It’s a form of informal training. Young directors who came to us early are now working all over the UK – including in the commercial theatre – see above. One of my young associates has just been appointed deputy head of opera at Covent Garden. And so on.

We also run a more formal training program for directors. We need to raise the money for it – but to them everything is free, including, for example, trips to broaden their knowledge of their art in Warsaw, St Petersburg, Berlin. It’s a gift we offer them.

Like everyone, we work closely with many sorts of groups in our closest boroughs, bringing into our theatres groups of, for example, ex-addicts, ex-sex workers, ex-convicts, people with psychiatric difficulties, special needs schools, young refugees – all of whom work with my team through theatre, through performance. Many of these augment the audience for our shows. And all these people come free. We give away 10% of our seats to people who otherwise wouldn’t think of coming – or wouldn’t be able to afford to, and this offer stands irrespective of demand at our box office. Once again this freely given gift enhances the quality and nature of our audience and therefore the quality of the total experience shared by everyone.

The whole operation, as it were, shadows the market. In our case, this is the commercial theatre. We have to know what the commercial market for our merchandise might be – in order to undercut it, in order to create a special and parallel economy, that of the gift. We don’t want clients, we don’t want customers, we want friends.

Having set a budget, we have, of course, like everyone else, to balance our books. In my 11 years I have only come unstuck once, to be bailed out, I’m glad to say, by an adroitly timed gift. And I see the public investment we receive also as a gift – which we in turn hand on to artists and audiences.

Every penny we receive must be effectively spent. But having said this – the 10% free tickets; the exceptional quality of our architecture – it’s almost gratuitously good – with the consequent enhancement of the audience’s sense of well being; the general, I hope, quality of conviviality, of ease is – in part at least – what the whole operation is designed to achieve. The other part is, of course, the shows. The shows, the shows are everything – and ultimately that is where meaning lies. But I see it like this.

If you go to, let’s say, Portobello Market and ask, for example, for a pound of cherries, even to this day, once the pound has been weighed, the stall holder, will, two times out of three, throw in another half a handful on top. Why? Because she wants you to come back? Yes. Because she wants you to visit her stall and no other? Of course. But, take it all together, what she wants is a relationship.

The value of a theatre can be measured in the quality and quantity of the relationship it creates. And those, if we’re skillful can be like that with the cherry selling stall holder, rather than like that one is likely to achieve at the Tesco that stands, its windows gleaming, on the other side of the road.

One thought on “David Lan speaks at NESTA

  1. Pingback: Artists: what are we worth? « Nicola Anthony

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