Mark Ball: We snub international theatre. Will Brexit make it worse?

The cast of Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker at The Barbican. Photo: @Cyclone_A
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I’ve been thinking a lot about change recently. As my time as the London International Festival of Theatre’s artistic director draws to a close and new adventures lie ahead for me in Manchester, I’ve been reflecting on changing jobs and changing cities, but also the tumultuous changes we’re seeing all around us that are creating an increasingly confusing world.

For an organisation that has championed international working and the free movement of artists, and that has decades-long European partnerships, Brexit has the potential to change everything. It looms large over LIFT’s future and for a while it felt like a grievous wound, a challenge to the very values of openness, cultural exchange and tolerance that we cherish. We quickly realised that a retreat into pessimism would be a betrayal of our responsibility to artists and audiences. When nationalism and protectionism are on the rise across the world, the capacity of international art to straddle division, celebrate difference and draw attention to commonality feels more crucial and more urgent than ever.

Post-Brexit, we must also make strenuous efforts to maintain existing European relationships and forge new ones, encouraging a spirit of mutuality and participation through theatre, the most inherently collaborative of all artistic disciplines.

One of the many joys of running LIFT during the past eight years has been meeting dozens of artists who have told me how influential the event has been to their artistic practice, providing a much-needed blast of oxygen into an often airless theatrical landscape.

I’ve lost count of the times an artist has told me: “It was seeing Robert Lepage, Rimini Protokoll, Dmitry Krymov, The Wooster Group, Lola Arias or De La Guarda that transformed my understanding of how to make theatre.” And of course, the influence of European practice courses through the veins of our great theatremakers such as Simon McBurney and Tim Etchells.

Our patron Mark Rylance very generously describes LIFT as “the most influential organisation in English theatre” precisely because it opens artists and audiences up to new ways of seeing and doing and because internationalism is a trigger for a deeper sense of engagement with our place in the world. We know that our communities and audiences enjoy the richness of a programme that more accurately reflects their life experiences. So, more than ever, we need organisations like LIFT to act as a bulwark against a creeping insularity that all too easily infects the British theatre sector, exemplified by David Hare’s recent outburst about the influence of European theatre practice on ‘classic British drama’.

Yet, despite the necessity and the urgency of international theatre, our stages, with a few notable exceptions such as the Barbican, Young Vic and Sadler’s Wells, remain woefully underpopulated with international work.

London is the most global city on the planet. Almost every language and community is represented here, but, even in London, the opportunities to engage with international theatre are scarce, whether as an audience member or theatre practitioner. And outside London and the South East, where cities are also bursting with diversity and global cultural influences, international theatre is seen as either too difficult to sell or simply as a rare treat.

Travel to any major city in France, Germany, Belgium or Portugal and you will see a commitment to international theatre that puts the British theatre landscape to shame. That’s one of the reasons that Brighton Festival and LIFT have initiated a new international producing network of festivals and regional producing theatres – including Birmingham Rep, Northern Stages in Newcastle, Home in Manchester, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Hall for Cornwall – committed to presenting and commissioning international artists, and, crucially, to inviting international theatremakers into their buildings to produce new work. Our own experience of developing this network has also demonstrated the value of collaboration, of connecting organisations in London and the South East with their peers nationally and of leaving institutional egos at the door for the greater good. That doesn’t happen often enough, but for the health of the sector in these uncertain times, it must.

My proudest moment at LIFT was bringing Gatz, New York’s Elevator Repair Services’ eight-hour, word-for-word staging of The Great Gatsby into the West End. Not only was it a remarkable work, but I think it’s changed the landscape a little, demonstrating that there are audiences and commercial viability for more radical, experimental work in the heart of London’s Theatreland.

If we resign ourselves to closing our borders, we close down our imaginations and our creativity

International theatre isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. And across the country our theatre organisations must use Brexit as the catalyst to renew or double down on their commitment to international work. We must make the case to our politicians, to the Arts Council, to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and to the British Council about the huge benefits that come from the free movement of artists across borders. And during the upcoming Brexit negotiations, we must fight for a commitment to ensure that funding initiatives like Creative Europe, which has facilitated so much exchange between British and European artists and delivers more than 1 billion into the cultural sector, are maintained. Because if we don’t, if we resign ourselves to closing our borders, we close down our imaginations and our creativity, and the health and relevance of British theatre will wither.

On June 8, I leave LIFT after eight years. It’s been an extra-ordinary adventure, producing four festivals bringing more than 160 shows to London, including 60 new commissions. I joined LIFT from the Royal Shakespeare Company and had previously founded and run Birmingham’s Fierce Festival for a decade.  In all those organisations I knew when it was time to move on: when either I believed I’d achieved my own ambitions or where my curiosity about the job was waning.

A decade has always been long enough for me, and there’s clearly a huge value in organisations revitalising themselves with refreshed leadership. A change of leadership can seem scary and destabilising, but it’s a vital source of innovation within arts organisations. Yet during my eight years in London I’ve been struck by how little the artistic leadership of the capital’s performing arts organisations has changed. When I was temporarily at Arts Council England last year, job-sharing the role of executive director, arts and culture, refreshing our cultural leadership was a prominent issue. Ideas of fixed-term contracts for the executive teams of national portfolio organisations received some airtime, though were never fully developed. It’s a controversial idea, not least because many of the people who have been running our theatres and arts venues are continually brilliant, but the instinct is a good one.

Every day I work with a younger generation of exceptionally gifted artists and producers hungry for the responsibility of leadership and with the capacity to transform our institutions and the wider cultural landscape, but with few progression routes open to them. Funders and boards should be braver about change, and good leaders should know that giving up their own power is the most empowering act of all.

It’s been an incredible privilege leading this wonderful organisation, but it’s time to hand the baton on. And heading to Manchester – a city where culture is already healing the intense trauma of the recent terrorist attack – to lead the artistic programme for Factory, Manchester International Festival’s incredible new large-scale venue, will provide plenty of new adventures.