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Lyn Gardner: Well done, David Lan – knowing when to step aside is the sign of a great leader

David Lan at The Stage New Year Party in 2014. Photo: Stephanie Methven
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“There is never an easy time to slip away, but I wanted to leave at a time of our greatest strength and success,” declared David Lan, with the announcement that he will depart the Young Vic after 17 years at the helm. Wise man.

Picking the right time to leave a theatre or company that you have loved and nurtured, maybe even founded, is never easy, and knowing when to go requires wisdom and generosity. As Christopher Haydon said last year on announcing his departure from the Gate: “After five years at the helm, I believe it’s now time to pass the baton to someone new — to take this tiny yet epic room, and make it their own.”

But Lan and Haydon are the exceptions rather than the rule. In The Stage last week Mark Ball, the departing artistic director of the London International Festival of Theatre, wrote of how surprised he had been during his eight years in London “by how little the artistic leadership of the capital’s performing arts organisations has changed.”

It’s not just in London. Outside the capital there are plenty of artistic leaders whose tenures go on and on.

There is of course a world of difference between a long artistic leadership that settles into a state of cosy moribund stasis after an initial burst of innovation, and one, like Lan’s, which was constantly responding and shape-shifting to a changing social, political and artistic climate. As the many tributes to Lan’s ground-breaking regime demonstrate, a long period in post can be an excellent thing. Many writing admiringly about Lan’s time at the Young Vic have praised his internationalism, the way he made British theatre less inward-looking and parochial, and was responsible for making sure we saw the work of innovative directors such Benedict Andrews, Ivo van Hove and Simon Stone.

Lan has been a significant spreader of the so-called “infection” of British theatre by European theatre practice that a crusty David Hare lamented earlier this year.  A good thing, too.

But Lan’s other great achievement at the Young Vic has been as an enabler of other people’s talent, particularly a rising generation, and also in recognising that the value of a 21st-century theatre resides not just in the work seen and acclaimed by critics on its stages, but also in the less visible work it does on its doorstep.

Under Lan, the Young Vic has been that all too rare beacon: an internationally respected theatre which is also deeply embedded in its local community. The work done through the Taking Part strand of practice is as remarkable and worth celebrating as Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge. Lan may not be the greatest director himself, but he has proved himself a genuinely great cultural leader. We have plenty of the former but far too few of the latter, so we should cherish them.

Lan’s other great achievement has been as an enabler of other people’s talent

Part of being a great cultural leader is knowing when to step aside and let others in. It can feel like handing over a loved child. But being a good parent is about understanding when it’s in the interests of the child to let go. Stable leadership appeals to theatre boards – many of which are far too risk adverse. Boards love a safe pair of hands even if they are very dull hands, but while new artistic leadership brings risks, it can also bring innovation, energy and a different way of driving an organisation forward. Over 36 years the Gate has had 11 artistic directors and the regular injection of new talent hasn’t harmed it.

What shorter AD tenures also do is to open up opportunities for others. If we are really serious about creating a more diverse theatre culture, that change can’t just be about casting but must also be visible in the upper echelons of leadership, too. People only get to develop those leadership skills if pathways are readily available. Changes at the top open up those routes. Otherwise the artistic directors of the future will continue to be the artistic directors of the future in waiting.

This is why I reckon that fixed-term contracts for those leading our publicly funded cultural organisations should be the norm. There would need to be mechanisms for renewal so that when necessary the kind of sustained leadership that Lan has brought to the Young Vic, or the vision that Simon McBurney brings to Complicite, can be supported.

But there would be much more movement across many top jobs, it would widen access to leadership roles as the baton is passed on, and allow more people to develop skills and apply their energies. Institutions would be less institutionalised.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, I reckon it would be an excellent way to employ theatre critics as well.