For last week’s edition of The Stage, I interviewed Frantic Assembly’s co-founder, and now sole artistic director, Scott Graham about the company’s 25th anniversary. He spoke eloquently about trying to take risks when making every show. But in one bit of the interview that didn’t make it into the final piece, he talked about trying to set up a different process of making work.
At a very early stage of thinking about an idea for a new show, Graham got together a group of creatives who were always talking about how they wanted to be there at the very beginning, rather than just turning up to do what they saw as dressing other people’s ideas.
“So, I assembled this group of people without a writer and with no script. It was very difficult. What was fascinating was the inability of designers and video artists to offer an idea when it wasn’t attached to the words of a writer. The role of the writer validated everybody else’s opinions. I thought not having a writer would give everyone freedom, but I just created this abyss. Everyone needed something to pin their ideas to. Without it there was a vacuum.”
It was a bold experiment, even though it didn’t pay off. It may reflect the fact that British theatre is often in thrall to a script – even if it consists of a great deal of silence – and begins with a script. But I suspect that it is also about a far wider issue of the demarcations and hierarchies in British theatre that result in people being conditioned to know their place and role in the process of making theatre.
We talk a great deal about theatre being a collaborative process, and in some cases, of course, it genuinely is collaborative. I have heard many directors, from John Tiffany to Kwame Kwei-Armah, say that the best idea in the room is the best idea, wherever it comes from. But that also depends on the room being set up in a way that anyone, whoever they are, whether it’s their first job or they are a veteran of the industry, feels empowered to speak. Things often look very different in terms of agency depending on where, or where you think, you sit in any hierarchy. Even apparently flat organisations often have working structures in which invisible power thrives.
But if we continue to make theatre in the way we have always made it then in most productions everyone settles into familiar structures and knows full well that they are not really ultimately responsible because the buck stops with the director – who is the most powerful person in the room.
‘Even apparently flat organisations have structures in which invisible power thrives’
The director often makes the show using the same processes they have used on previous shows, and the other creatives, who have probably worked on some of those previous shows, also work on this one in the same way as on the others. Everyone knows their place. Nothing changes. There is little room for genuine experiment, particularly when, as funding tightens, rehearsal weeks are shaved and the most secure thing is to play it safe. If an opening night looms in three weeks’ time, you just do what has brought success in the past.
Graham’s experiment wasn’t a success, but maybe he’s on to something. Maybe given time and space, something interesting would have emerged – something that could challenge not only who has which role in theatremaking, but also challenge forms of British theatre that are often locked in the past. Maybe the issue for the group that Graham brought together was that they were not used to flexing their creative muscles in a different way from usual. And we all know that muscles that are not used atrophy.
It is a brave artist who breaks away from old ways of making. Pina Bausch found international success as she developed her own way of working that revolved around asking questions in the rehearsal room rather than assuming a position as a director who supplied the answers.
As Bausch discovered, embracing a different way of working was initially scary but it paid creative dividends, even if this new way of working itself eventually becomes institutionalised.
But what if the very hierarchical structures of the rehearsal room and British arts institutions are holding British theatre back, handcuffing it to old ways of working? Ways that deny some people access to the room and value some voices in that room over others.
Changing who is in the room is one step, but reconsidering how the room is run, the processes used and where the power lies will also change the form theatre takes, what it looks like and how it sounds. Its artistic health depends on it.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner