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Lyn Gardner: UK talent isn’t less inventive than European – just worse off

Pina Bausch's Viktor at Sadler's Wells, London – the choreographer said “lovely mistakes” were an essential part of her creative process. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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When reviewing, there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting down to write about a show and discovering that I think entirely differently about it than I did when I saw it.

It is as if in the act of writing itself – the act of creation – I discover things that I didn’t realise I knew. I surprise myself. The review takes on a life of its own, going to unexpected places and down accidental highways.

Those moments are rare – like being struck by lightning – but when they hit, they feel like “lovely mistakes”, a phrase I recall the late Pina Bausch used when talking about her process. But what I also know is that those moments, those reviews, which are often more creative and genuinely responsive to the show I’ve seen, need time. They never happen as the curtain comes down at 10pm and there is just 40 minutes to file your thoughts.

To make lovely mistakes, to explore a work’s many avenues, you need time. And time is at a premium for British theatremakers, who are often so constrained that they become focused on simply getting the show on. You can’t schedule in lovely mistakes; they arise when the conditions are right. That means having the time and space, as well as the mindset and resources, for creation.

Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett in the Frantic Assembly Book of Devising Theatre say you have to be open to “allowing even the most random event to shape and alter”. But they also add that happy accidents can never be relied upon. “Nothing is more terrifying for us than the notion of turning up in a room and just ‘seeing what happens’, but we have also discovered that if the rehearsal process is structured and ordered to the point of being sanitised, then you don’t allow room for these happy accidents to happen.”

That chimes with Simon McBurney’s observation: “A moment of inspiration, while sounding haphazard, can only exist as the result of profound preparation.”

Bausch began her career with meticulous planning but later realised that often the things that most interested her in a rehearsal room had nothing to do with her original plan. Bausch’s influence on contemporary theatre is huge, and the process she developed did not offer answers but instead asked questions.

It might have appeared casual to an outsider, but it was no less meticulous than her previous process. It was one that was more open and drew on the wisdom of the crowd – or at least everyone in the room. As Bausch said: “It’s a very open way of working, but again a very precise one. It leads me to many things, that alone, I wouldn’t have thought about.”

‘In the UK, projects that really need £20,000 are made for half that, because that is all they can raise’

But the conditions in which Bausch made her work, even in the early days, were profoundly different from the circumstances many young British artists find themselves in. Short of money and time (often because they are working other jobs to pay the rent), they are so concerned with trying to get the show on that they seldom have rehearsal schedules that leave room for lovely mistakes. Projects that really need £20,000 are made for half that, because that is all they can raise, and shows that need eight weeks of research and development and rehearsal are being squeezed into three.

It shows, because what is being presented on stage is often the least risky version of the show. Pieces that have enormous potential but have been made in too much haste. You discover very little when you are in a rush. Even the sharing culture of funded R&D weeks can be problematic when you know that on Friday afternoon venue bookers, producers and artistic directors – the people who are crucial to the future life of your show – will be in the room and you need to tempt them to commit to co-producing or offering performance dates.

British theatre has become so much more interesting since mainstream rehearsal periods changed around the 1980s from the two or three weeks that was a legacy of the repertory model. But those who are just starting out – and essentially inventing the future of British theatre – remain the most squeezed, and it is hard to be inventive under so much pressure.

I often hear people suggesting that European companies are making more interesting and radical work than their UK counterparts. Are they more talented than those working here? No. The only difference is that often they are far better resourced and have more money. Our failure to support independent theatremakers is failing theatre’s future.

Choreographer Alan Lucien Oyen: ‘Pina Bausch’s legacy is what’s most important to the company’

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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