Notes from a Theatre Shaman

Notes from a Theatre Shaman
Published: Feb 25, 2024
A JOURNAL OF WILD CULTURE CLOSE-UP. Before he became one of Britain’s most respected theatre practitioners (writer, director, producer), David Lan earned a PhD in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and published a book, ‘Guns and Rain: Guerrillas & Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe’ (1985). So we might wonder, how does this perspective show up when he makes collaborative art? And what — for this anthropologically curious artist — does 'cooperation' between theatre-makers really consist of?

David spoke with Whitney Smith at Luminato in Toronto last year when David was on tour as the producer of 'Little Amal,' a 12-foot puppet of a Syrian refugee girl walking from one country to another in search of her parents.


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Little Amal arrives at St. Paul's Cathedral in London in October of 2021. The puppet representing a migrant girl had nearly completed its 65-town, 5,000-mile journey across Europe, starting in Turkey in July and finishing up in Manchester in November. Produced by David Lan (hair and glasses, left front), and Tracy Seaward (left of Amal, blond hair). Photo by Holliie Adams. [o]


WHITNEY SMITH   As someone working closely with actors, writers, directors, designers and all sorts of other creative professionals, how do you help people find the unique aspects in themselves and in the work they’re doing?
DAVID LAN   It’s the most important thing. When we started doing Amal, which is a few years ago now, it took our team a long time to get the whole thing to work. During that extended period, I invited a couple of other people from different perspectives to come and help us think about this: “What are we doing with Amal . . . What does it mean when she makes this gesture? . . . How do we respond when she lifts her hand and looks this way or that way?” To answer these questions, we had to work very hard to get it really simple, which we eventually achieved. I’m mentioning this because it’s about potential. We were looking to find the potential of this 10 year-old girl, find out what she brings with her, what is in her mind, in her body, in her experience. What is the potential in her to become what she can become, unlike anybody else.


But more than that, I’m saying, if we're going to go there, we're really going to go there.


The director of the Amal project, Nizar [Amir Nizar Zuabi] — with his background of growing up in East Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine — was well-placed to realize the potential of what we are trying to achieve with Amal. Nizar is the one who says most convincingly, “This is not about misery — even though we know about the distress caused to people by the need to leave where they live and go on these appallingly dangerous journeys. What it's about,” he says, “is pride and dignity and joy and potential.”

In the autobiography of the American choreographer, Agnes de Mille, [Dance to the Piper (1951)], on the last page she talks about a conversation she had with the great Martha Graham, on a sidewalk in New York. De Mille was upset about her work. She didn't think it was good enough and she was unhappy about the reviews. I’m not this and I’m not that. Martha Graham is patient, bowing her head, listening. Then she looks at Agnes with burning eyes and says: “You have one responsibility and that is to create the work, which only you can create, and if you don't do it, if you block it, it will be lost and the world will not have it.” And de Mille says, “I only see ineptitude. I’m not pleased or satisfied . . .” to which Graham says, “No artist is pleased. And there is no satisfaction whatever at any time. Only divine dissatisfaction and a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us alive.” And with that de Mille was pulled out of her funk and went away dancing on a cloud, or something better than that.


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David Lan at the Young Vic, 2015. Photo by Simon Annand. [o]



I used to say to people, here is a strategy. I’m running a theatre, but a hell of a lot of people want to meet me. Write to me, email me. Can I have meeting? Can you meet me? And I want to meet people, but I can't meet everybody. I just can’t. I’d wouldn't do anything else. It’s too much.

Listen, I just can't meet you. I’m really sorry, I'm just too busy. They’d write back, a month, a week, or whatever. They’d write back. My response is, “Look, this was an irritation before, right? I told you, I couldn't meet you. Didn't I tell you?”

And they'd write back a third time, and when they do that, I get interested. All right, you're serious. We can meet.


~ | ~



SMITH   Can you tell a story about when you learned an important lesson about working with others to make theatre — when the penny dropped for you about a particular thing that has guided you ever since?
LAN   When I was running a theatre geared to young people, I had to deal with being much older than them. Also, having power over people, I could decide if I was going to employ someone or not employ them. I’ll hire you, you, you and not you, you, you. Consequently, people respond to me in a particular way which I found, uh, a little bit embarrassing.

When we were rebuilding the theatre, I was on the team that led the design, with an architect and a theatre designer. Because of the structure of the building, there was the opportunity to have a room that could become a big open plan office. One day my closest colleagues went down there and said, but we thought we’d all be in a separate room. I asked them, “So does that mean it’s going to be me over here, and the executive director over there, and so-and-so over there?” I thought, no, I can’t do this. It’s completely wrong. I have to be in there with everybody else.

So what happened was, there was the big room and I had my desk and my assistant worked at my desk, too. Over there was the hot desk, so the kids could come and sit at that desk and see me talking to people and doing what I do and hearing my phone calls. There were no secrets. If there was a secret, if I needed privacy, I’d go somewhere else. Most of the time, I’m saying, “Look, guys, my shirt is missing some buttons. I wear trainers. It's just me.”


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Young Vic theatre, empty. [o]


When I was running a theatre, I spent a lot of time making speeches and addressing groups of people. And for a long period I used to prepare what I was going to say, think about it carefully, write notes, be very prepared. And the theatre would be full, 450 people or so, or a smaller group, it didn’t matter, I’d get very anxious about it. Even though I trained as an actor but never worked as one, you might think it would not be such a big deal. So there was this contradiction. People thought, “Oh, look at him, he's absolutely confident. He doesn't get nervous at all.”

I had Peter Brook in my theatre . . . it must have been a show of his. We had an event and I was to go out front and introduce him and he would come on and speak. I prepared what I was going to say, and I was standing in the backstage, just about to go on, with a little piece of paper in my hand. And Peter came up behind me, close to my ear and said, “No more bits of paper.”
It’s semi-Zen. It’s about who you are, what you've got to say. And the question is, can you engage with your resource, your experience? Can you do that thing, and then you're free.


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When I was running a theatre, hiring for good or ill, my primary associations (apart from my own team) were with directors. To a large extent, writers as well. The city of London is full of old theatres that say, “We’re a writer’s theatre. The writers are the most important.” I spent a lot of my earlier life as a playwright, and I’m back at writing plays now — and of course, the play is the play and the writing. But what I was interested in was directors. As a producer, the question I ask is: “Is this piece of work, this thing which exists in some form or in some idea, what will some director bring to it? What energy will come from that person?

For instance, I’m becoming more and more interested in King Lear. But what I am really interested is this person, who I haven’t identified yet, and what will happen when I put those two things together — that play by William Shakespeare and a director.


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When I was in my thirties, in the 80s, the very distinguished Romanian-American director, Andrei Serban, introduced me to Peter Brook, who was very well-known then and had directed many, many plays. Peter was looking for somebody to write a screenplay of a movie he wanted to make. I failed to do that, and I spent a lot of time failing with him in various places. Eventually, it didn't matter anymore. And it moved on to something else.

Peter was an important person in my life. But I could not, I was not . . . I was never a friend. We were quite close. But also, he was a shyster. He was a bullshitter, he was a shyster, he was a showman.

One of the last conversations I had with Peter was in Edinburgh during the first big Amal trip that we did, in late ‘21. He died six months later. I’m standing in the square. It’s nighttime. It’s really cold. We’re about to start Amal’s walk, and my phone rings. I look at it, it says ‘Peter Brook,’ and I go, “Oh, no, I can't do this now. No, no, no.” But I cannot not take a call. I say, “Hello,” and it's Peter. He was very ill at this time — I mean, he was 96 — and he had a show. Now, his work at the end was not good. It was really not good, it fell apart. But he’d done a version of The Tempest, which I hadn't seen but he had told me about it. So we’re on the phone and he says he wants to bring the show to London, and can I help him? But it wasn’t just bringing it to London. He thought it would be a good thing if this production went to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now, in the early part of his directing career the Royal Shakespeare Company had done famous productions of his, from the forties to the seventies, many of them. I’m standing there and I think, oh, God, I know those people. I am going to call them up and say . . . ? But it is him, for God's sake. All right, that’s one thing. But what he said to me on the phone was this: “You are my oldest colleague.” No, no. This is total bullshit. No, I am not. But that is what he needed to say, and also probably what he’d always said his whole life.


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Young Vic theatre, full. Photo by the architects. [o]



LAN   After a while I discovered I could only work closely with people who could become my friends. The work had to be built on the basis of friendship. If I didn't think they could be my friend, or if I thought, or if I discovered in time they didn't want to be my friend, then I couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it. Whether that's something that comes with age, I don’t know.

SMITH   Is it that our passions take us over and captivate us when we're younger, and when we're older we apply a rational perspective to things — because we seem to know where we might end up a bit more?
LAN   Perhaps. You have a powerful experience and you don’t forget it.
SMITH   Is that a reliable test for you, friendability?
LAN   Yes. I want to play, will you play with me? Sometimes I got it wrong. It didn't happen too often, but when it did happen, one of the reasons was fear. Going back to what you said before, they weren't yet in a position to be free.

SMITH   So it’s coming from them, not from you?
LAN   Coming from them. They're afraid to let me in.


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My job as an impresario is to feel my way through it. The other version of that is to say: "If something works, it’s their success. If it fails, it’s my failure." Because I was the person who said, “We're going to do this. We're going to go there. Will you come along?” But more than that, I’m saying, if we're going to go there, we're really going to go there. If I’m wrong, if it doesn't work, I’m the one who got it wrong. It’s my job.

I’ll put it another way. One day in the theatre a director was there, someone I had worked with before who was not a genius but who was good, he came and said, “I want to do play X with actor Y.” And I said, “Great, let’s do it. We’ll start tomorrow.” That happened a few times. Or, I used to say, “If you and I are going to do something together, do the thing you've never done, do the thing you always wanted to do but never had the chance. My job was to help them do the thing they wanted to do. Responding to that, the artists achieved what the artists had in them to achieve, even if they didn't know it was there. ≈ç




DAVID LAN was born in Cape Town, South Africa where he trained as an actor. After studying anthropology in London he was Writer-in-Residence at the Royal Court Theatre from 1995 to 1997 and Artistic Director of the Young Vic from 2000 to 2018. He has written, directed and produced numerous theatrical productions. His publications include Selected Plays (1999) and a memoir, As if by Chance: Journeys, Theatres, Lives. (2022). In 2014 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He lives in London.

WHITNEY SMITH is the Publisher/Editor of The Journal of Wild Culture.




Submitted by Heidi (not verified) on Sun, 02/25/2024 - 09:41


BRAVO to Smith for this spectacular interview. It is obvious he asked wonderful questions to elicit this, but got out of his amazing subject's way as much as he could: quite a feat. Lan seems like such a fine man and above all a catalyzer. There are so many life lessons here; I took extensive notes and will post them where things inspire me: on the inside of my medicine cabinet door. I am donating right now to make sure this fine publication stays with us. Again, thank you, Whitney Smith and David Lan.

Sun, 02/25/2024 - 09:41

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