Alan Lane: ‘Things need to change. If that means blowing stuff up, fine’
The last time I stood in the square outside Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, Alan Lane had just set the place on fire. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But only a small one.
His 2015 production, Camelot: The Shining City, was a reworking of the Arthurian legend made with Sheffield People’s Theatre that spilled into the streets. It had sheets of flame and gun fights. It had a cast of 180. It had a choir. Things exploded. “We were rioters, because the alternative is to be coffee consumers. For Camelot, we were something else – we were thinking about nation and leadership and extremism, and we were doing that right in the city centre.”
Lane is the artistic director of Slung Low, a company of Sheffield University graduates that specialises in making work outside traditional theatre spaces. It has made theatre in basements and warehouses, it has made shows for rugby grounds, it has retold the story of Moby Dick in Leeds Docks, and it has led an audience of 300 through the streets of York. “We left university with the idea that we’d like to set up a theatre company, but that meant nothing. We had no idea. We may as well have wanted to be astronauts.”
The company’s history can be divided into three five-year “chunks”, he tells me over coffee in the cafe opposite the Crucible. For the first five years of its existence, Slung Low “did what all young companies do. We made work wherever we could. We took work to the fringe. We lost a load of money. We were terrible. We weren’t funded. We tried our hardest.”
Then in 2006, the company made 1139 Miles, a collaborative installation staged in a warehouse in Bradford and made with a number of emerging artists from the National Student Drama Festival. “Every three months we’d gather and devise – which usually meant argue and get drunk.”
This show opened Lane’s eyes to the way a non-traditional theatre space could attract a different kind of audience and also be freeing artistically. “In that warehouse we discovered that if an audience is asked to behave like more than a customer something happens. People don’t think of it as contemporary performance, with all its associated hang-ups. If you call it something else, if you call it an adventure, that gees people up – but you have to deliver on that, you have to make it exciting.”
Over the next five years, Slung Low made increasingly inventive use of headphones in its work, while also making sure that everything it did addressed the question: “What’s the most useful thing we can do?” This applies to its home, the Holbeck Underground Ballroom – known as the Hub – based in five railway arches in Holbeck, south Leeds. “It’s really changed our work,” says Lane. “Even something like Camelot, which was extravagant and where the aim was to entertain and to wow, to take risks, we were asking that: how can we be useful?”
He adds: “We have a company wage – everyone at Slung Low gets paid exactly the same amount – and that’s hard when you’re 37 and have kids. But there’s no point having principles if you’re not going to stick to them.”
The Hub, he says, “is a really rough space, it’s got no heating. But if we were anywhere that was any warmer, we’d need income generation”. Instead, the venue programmes work by invited companies, “contemporary international work that wouldn’t otherwise be seen in the city”.
“But mostly what it does,” he explains, gaining in intensity as he speaks – Lane is quite the orator, even in a one-on-one context – “and this is really important, is that if you’re an artist in West Yorkshire, then it’s yours. You might risk hypothermia in December, but it’s yours. There’s a stage and each of the seats has a blanket and a hot water bottle. And its roughness is part of its joy. In the theatre industry, so often when places are made nicer they lose the whole point of them. If you’re selling food at £7.50, you’re only welcoming people who have that money to spend. The Hub’s roughness allows it to continue to be useful – and usefulness can be radical. The people we serve, the artists who use us, have no money. So we’ll often ask them to give us something: to bake a cake for the audience, or work in the allotment, or be useful in some way.”
All of the work at the Hub is pay-what-you-decide. Holbeck is one of the poorest communities in Leeds but the venue’s ticketing policy means it’s always busy. “We programme genuinely risky, radical work and we’re always full. Other venues in Yorkshire are now doing pay-what-you-decide; considering Slung Low is a theatre company who are accidentally running a venue, that’s a lot of impact.”
Much of Slung Low’s own work is large in scale and ambition: work designed to wow. Blood and Chocolate, produced in 2013, told the tale of York’s chocolate factory workers during the First World War and featured a cast of 180. The White Whale, in 2014, was a grand reworking of Moby Dick performed on a floating stage, with all 4,000 tickets distributed for free. Camelot, meanwhile, was a “relatively traditional audience-as-customer experience”, Lane explains, “right up until the point we decided it wasn’t going to be”.
“We’re always asking the question: what is the point of theatre?” Wonder is a big part of the answer to that question, he says. “The minute you go outdoors, it changes the scale of things. You start realising: we’re going to need an actual Land Rover and not a model of a Land Rover. I want to make audiences lean forwards. Those moments of spectacle, they reel the audience in. You can’t do that indoors. Okay, some people can, but I can’t. I’m stupidly literal: if the script calls for a helicopter, I want a helicopter.”
Lane warms to his theme. “As an industry, we’ve been cleansed, we’ve been tidied up. There’s so much more we could be doing. With Camelot, people thought it was a community play so it’ll be safe, it’ll be nice. Whereas I thought: ‘Great, I’ve got an army of 180 people.’ Theatre is meant to be dangerous.”
He speaks with admiration of Daniel Evans, who’s been artistic director of the Crucible since 2010. “He’s a leader of theatre in this city. That idea of artist as civic leader is really important.” Evans is now making the move to Chichester, leaving a vacancy in the building behind us. Might Lane be tempted to apply?
“I’ve always been interested in finding ways of making theatre vital. To do that, we need to change systems.” He smiles. “The deadline’s not for a while yet. We’ll see.”
Q&A: Alan Lane
What was your first job? Night shift in a pork-pie factory.
What was your first professional theatre job? I worked in pupil referral units and with generally badly behaved children.
What is your next job? I’m directing live radio shows in the country’s oldest working men’s club in Holbeck. After that, I’m opening The Fairy Portal for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I wanted to open it with dynamite, but [RSC artistic director] Gregory Doran would prefer poetry.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That the idea of a career path is mostly a myth and the bits that aren’t a myth are the dullest way you can spend your time.
Who or what was your biggest influence? The regular collaborating creative team at Slung Low are a mighty bunch. Every day I learn something new from them. And Michael Ball. He’s the best.
If you hadn’t been a theatremaker, what would you have been? In the army.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I call all my own shows. The cast can hear me through an earpiece throughout the show. I’m very superstitious about that. It’s vital.
When we speak, Lane has just published a polemical response in The Stage to the government’s theatre tax credit scheme. It’s something he’s still clearly excited about.
“It’s public money for the arts that requires a buy-in to the capitalist system. I’m not an out-and-out Marxist; I’m happy to buy into that system but I don’t think it should be a prerequisite for arts funding. Selling tickets has nothing to do with the quality of the art or the reach. As an accountant friend explained, there is no cultural measure for this. It’s like the chancellor has come along and said, ‘I’ll tell you what theatre’s for.’ It’s like he’s won and he didn’t even throw a punch; and when he did it, we cheered him.
“I used to feel I had value in the world because I was wrestling with a number of major things – politics, diversity, the environment, culture and class. And now it’s because I make £4.50 for every £1. But Slung Low doesn’t. I doubt anyone does, but we really don’t.
“A company who makes work for people who don’t have the money, or who would find our playhouses intimidating, wouldn’t qualify [for tax relief]. It’s shifted what art subsidy is for – and no one said anything. Our sector leaders are having to work so hard at keeping their organisations alive that they haven’t the time to be heroes. They haven’t time to lead a revolt. Everyone said, ‘Well, it’s better than nothing.’ But actually, is it?”
Lane adds: “The dominant narrative theatre in this country is this old-fashioned idea of actors fucking about on stage and Simon Callow, and that can’t be enough. Things need to change, and if that means blowing stuff up, that’s fine. I’m sure there are other ways of doing it, but that’s my way.”
CV Alan Lane
Born: 1978, West Berlin
Training: English literature at the University of Sheffield, assistant directorship at West Yorkshire Playhouse
Landmark productions: 1139 Miles, Bradford, 2006, Helium, Barbican, London, 2008, They Only Come Out at Night, Barbican, London, 2009, Blood and Chocolate, York, 2013, The White Whale, Leeds, 2014, Camelot: The Shining City, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2015, Rugby Songs, Leeds, 2015
For information on Slung Low productions, see slunglow.org