So how do we produce?

The British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase is a biennial platform of contemporary UK performance featuring some of the most outstanding small and middle-scale touring productions made in the UK. Two days ago, our Artistic Director David Lan travelled up to Edinburgh to take part in the ‘New Producing Models’ forum. We thought we’d share his words with you here…


Producing is largely practical.  It’s organising.  It’s getting things to happen.

It’s bringing together an, often, remarkably large number of people and objects and patterning them, in such a way that they will, as if out of their own desire and need, create, at some previously agreed time and place – which time and place have also been previously agreed with some hundreds or maybe thousands of other largely unknown people – a meaningful event.

And, with any luck, the meaning will be deep and the experience of everyone will be great – and no-one will go bankrupt.  That’s producing.

From this perspective, producing probably hasn’t changed that much since the first performance of the Oresteia 3000 years ago.  ‘Do you really HAVE to have 30 people in the chorus?  Well, maybe we can do it with half professionals, half amateurs.’

So:  ‘New producing models’.   What’s new?

I run the Young Vic – which is a curious name for an exquisite building just south of the river in London, in Waterloo, which houses three theatres – two studios seating 140 and 65 and our main house which seats 420.

All three theatres are wonderfully distinctive and characterful and yet capable of yielding in extreme ways to the dreams and compulsions of the writers, actors, directors, designers who work with us.  We play in the round, in traverse, with a thrust, even in what Europeans call Italian style, behind a proscenium arch – whatever the particular show calls for.

Afore Night Come

We do new plays, old plays, forgotten plays, classics, musicals, shows for very young people, opera…   Whatever takes our fancy and, we hope, that of our audiences who are as complex and contradictory as our location in terms of age, wealth, ethnic background, class.  We charge low prices and, irrespective of box-office pressure, we give 10% of our seats away to schools and neighbours who might not otherwise consider a visit to a theatre a good way to spend their precious free time.

Pete Postlethwaite in King Lear

So how do we produce?   Here are some key ideas.

We operate on the assumption that making theatre is as natural to people as going ‘tweet tweet’ is to birds.  Around a third of our funding is from the state through our Arts Council, so our theatre is a public theatre.  It’s not ours, it’s certainly not mine, it belongs to whoever wants a part of it – artists or audience.  The only thing that matters to us is the moment when our artists and our audience meet.  That’s the climax, that’s what it’s all for – and the more complex our work and the more complex our audience – poor, rich, young, old, black, white, long-time playgoers, first-timers – the richer the whole experience is for everyone.

Ok, second idea: we only produce shows we don’t know how to do. Every new show has to be a new adventure.  If you’ve done one like that before, why would you do that again?  Life’s too short.  Especially with regard to our directors and writers, we like each show to be a challenge – and it doesn’t matter if this is some brilliant 25 year old doing the first show she didn’t have to raise the money and tear the tickets for herself – or Luc Bondy doing his first ever production in the English language.  The invitation we offer is: do the crazy thing, come take a leap into the dark.

Three.  We like to work with theatre makers who challenge the way we work.  We do this in many ways, co-producing with opera companies, companies who make work for very young people and so on.  And frequently we do this by co-producing and collaborating with companies in other countries, who work in different traditions, with other taken for granted assumptions.  Over recent years we’ve worked with companies based in Iceland, South Africa, Brazil, Palestine, France, Austria…

The aim artistically speaking is to achieve these intense relationships without compromise; indeed, we’re always looking for what I guess you could call a ‘double integrity’.  From a producing point of view, we’re always in search of mutual benefit.  Every aspect of this work is hard and it’s not always successful – but much of the work we’ve co-produced in this way has toured widely, has played to packed houses, has won major awards…  I don’t know which criterion of success is the most convincing. We’ve just completed a tour of European festivals with a piece we co-created with the Theatre de la Ville of Paris.  And so on …

So that’s more or less us.  But having said all that, it’s another idea that I want to focus on. Here we go.

If you look at these pictures, all taken in the 1930s and 1940s, you’ll notice that every single man is wearing a hat.  Almost every single one!

Look around you.  Not one man is wearing a hat.  First question:  What happened?  Why was every man in the 1930s convinced that you had to sport some gear or other on your head when in fact you didn’t?   And – second question – what are we doing now, all of us, that when we’re looked back on in 80 years time they’ll say: why?  What on earth were they thinking of?

If you look at theatres built in the century before last, it’s clear how they reflect in their architecture the taken-for-granted assumptions of class of the time.  Posh rich people go through big doors at the front, tread on plush red carpets and sit close to the stage.  Poor people climb high uncarpeted staircases and watch the show from high up, way back. Rich and poor never enter each other’s social space.

By making theatre in this way they were recreating – they were dramatising – worse, you might even say they were strengthening the assumptions of inequality that we find repellent today.

So when I give you a summary of my oh-so-egalitarian little outfit down in Waterloo, we surely have to ask ourselves: what aren’t WE seeing?  What are the relationships and attitudes WE are recreating and, by our modes of production, dramatising and strengthening which will seem repellent – and as crazy as a universal 1930s obsession with head gear – to the theatre makers of 2090?

So let’s take a leap into the dark.  I’ll keep this simple.  I think you’ll see in a moment where I’m going with this.

At a time of intense financial pressures like the present, we who rely on public investment are required, with ever greater urgency, to explain what benefit that brings.  And we’re generally asked to do this in terms of socially valued outcomes.  This is no bad thing.   But what society are we talking about?   What are its values?

By and large, two kinds of arguments are made – arguments of the so-called instrumental value of art and arguments of art’s so-called inherent value.  The instrumental value argument goes something like this: art justifies public investment because it makes those who participate in it into more socially productive people.  Young people will do better at school, or they won’t take drugs, or they won’t riot in the streets.  And so on.  Theatre makes society better in a way that is, above all measurable – preferably by treasury accountants and statisticians.

Then there’s inherent value.  Theatre justifies public investment because it’s good in itself.  If you take part in it, you KNOW it’s good, and you KNOW that because it adds to your profound experience of life, it gives you emotional depth.  The pleasure theatre can bring is good in itself because it is – what?  Pleasurable.  That’s enough, trust your body, trust your mind.

But that argument, is, sadly, not really an argument; it’s a description of an experience.  If you call it an argument, it’s at once clear that it’s circular.

And, even worse and even sadder, it’s also obvious that the inherent argument is ALSO instrumental. So the benefits attributed to the one argument can’t be measured and the benefits of the other can’t be proved.

Where there is abundant evidence of the instrumental value of art is in the special fields of education – the tremendous effect the experience of art has on the development of creativity in children – and in medicine, in healing.  There are hundreds, maybe thousands of relevant studies.  Someone has to work them up into the case for art as inherent to our capacity to be human, and they need to do it soon.

But they haven’t done it yet, at least to my knowledge.  So we have to dump all the current – and futile – explanations of why making theatre is worth doing and think about it in other ways.

So where does this get us?

Well, the thing about producing, as I said at the start, is that it’s an entirely practical activity.  It’s a way of creating relationships in order to make things happen.

So my first question is: are we content with the nature of these relationships?  Or – and here we go back to the hats – if we could look back on them, would we criticise ourselves and say: those relationships seemed just fine – even necessary – but now we see that they did not express our true values?   And – here’s my second question – is it by creating relationships that DO express what we truly value, that recreate, that dramatise  the world as we long for it to be, that our true value as producers truly lies?

So what do we value?   I would guess that the majority of us in this room value the following:

Generosity.  Friendship.  Collaboration. Sharing knowledge: teaching/learning.  Skill.   Ambition.  Imagination or fantasy – call it what you will.  Respecting borders and breaching borders.   Internationalism.  Competition – yes, certainly: finding out who you are by comparing your success to others.  Are there more magical words in any language than ‘medicine sans frontiers’?  Well, what about ‘theatre sans frontiers’?  I’d say that these are all uncontroversially good things.

So, a group of us decided, just for once, to try to make theatre in a way that would express, would dramatise, would give life to these precious qualities.

There are seven of us and together we are producing a season of shows called World Stages London.  London theatres have never worked together in this way before.  We are the Lyric Hammersmith, the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Sadler’s Wells, the Royal Court, Battersea Arts Centre, Somerset House and the Young Vic.  Together we are creating seven shows each of which draws on the great cultural traditions of one of the many populations which together make up London, the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

Each show is one that the UK producer has wanted to create but could not without working in partnership with the others.  And each is a further co-production or collaboration with a company or a group of artists in whichever country the story, in each case what we a calling a ‘deep story’, originally came from.

Collaboration.  Mutual benefit. The sharing of skills – and of dreams. ‘Theatre sans frontier.’  A new production model.

Talk is cheap.   But so, I hope, will be our ticket prices.  World Stages London takes place – with much support from ACE and the British Council – well before and separate from the Olympics, in March/April/May of next year.  I hope to see you there.

One thought on “So how do we produce?

  1. Pingback: A good read | witnesstoexperience

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