10 April 2020

Does British theatre need a European model to save it? Anne Mulleners shares her experiences

European theatre is ‘in’. Ever since David Hare claimed that “radical European staging” was “infecting classic British Drama”, and probably already before then, there has been a furious debate over the pros and cons of this European influence, often aligning itself rather nicely along the divides within the Brexit debate. In these times of uncertainty and crisis, the debate has re-emerged, as we wonder whether a more European approach could help rebuild a more sustainable British theatre industry. 

As a previous Dutch immigrant to Britain, I have had the opportunity to follow and share this debate with slight amusement bordering on frustration. The binary approach at the heart of this debate has felt at times downright offensive, especially since (as we are well aware) Europe consists of 27 separate countries, and so to keep compiling all these different theatre traditions together in the word ‘European’ does not do justice to the complexities of each of them.

The British understanding of ‘European theatre’ is, in my opinion, based on it being grounded in a ‘director’s theatre’. Whereas in Britain the text or author receives the most focus, in ‘Europe’ it is instead the director, with the text placed distinctly second to their vision. For me, I find it therefore more useful to think of this oft used term of ‘European theatre’ as simply ‘director’s theatre’. The theatre of Europe should deserve more nuance when discussed, owing to the many other elements – think actor training, staging, use of live cameras – which houses on the continent do not agree on.

Having left the British Isles a year ago, partly due to my exasperations concerning its theatre practices, I went on to live and work in Graz, a small but cosy town in the south-eastern corner of Austria. Still an immigrant, but once again surrounded by some familiar European comforts (bread!), I started employment as a full-time assistant director at the local repertory theatre: Schauspielhaus Graz. The questions I had gone over many a time – what is European theatre, can it even be defined – suddenly gained more clarity, and after 8 months of being submerged in German-speaking theatre, I have distilled some core principle differences in how British and German ‘director’s theatre’ differ.

Storytelling vs Art

Having just outlined current notions of ‘European theatre’ to mean a ‘director’s theatre’, I now have to again alter (or let’s say add) to this understanding, at least when it comes to its German-speaking version. Yes, the director is the deciding factor (as opposed to the author), but this is grounded in a more fundamental difference in understanding theatre. The theatre is first and foremost art. In Britain, I always felt theatre had to narrate a story, one that often conveyed current socio-political concerns. Not to say that at Schauspielhaus Graz I did not encounter any storytelling, it was just not its primary concern. The text was not the only concern. Costume, set, lighting, sound, video – all in this context had just as much right and weight to artistic expression by themselves, rather than just being there to facilitate the text.

I liked the way Finn den Hertog put it in Natasha Tripney’s moderated A European Theatre Dialogue: Repertory Theatre and the Power of the Ensemble: “It’s always seemed to me that the dominant UK tradition […] is one of literal representation and the idea that nothing but the text can make meaning”. This idea that meaning can be found beyond text, that bodies and objects can be just as potent, is what German-speaking theatre, as I encountered it, embodies. 

Funding vs the Repertory Model

Next up: the Repertory model as a way of producing theatre; I was already acquainted with it in the Netherlands, but had never experienced it firsthand. The first few differences are well-known, but nevertheless important to highlight here: less risk for the artist, as all risk is taken by the producing theatre; longer rehearsal periods (however, this can be deceiving as most actors are unavailable for evening rehearsals due to performing in rep) and more variation for actors, since up to 10 different productions can play at the same time.

Another difference lies in productivity: Schauspielhaus Graz for example premieres 25 productions per season (!). This spans three stages of varying sizes, but still amounts to 2.5 premieres per month (the season is 10 months long with a summer recess). This productivity is only possible due to the flexibility and efficiency provided by a permanent ensemble, and permanent staff backstage.  

It is this stability which proves to be so essential, arguably even necessary, in times like these for the continued existence of the creative industries as a whole. First of all, myself and most of my colleagues are still paid for at the moment; less of course, but provided for until we can start again. Second: when we start again, we can start performing shows kept in repertory. The period with no rehearsals can therefore be bridged, as we are immediately able to perform without rehearsing a single word.

In times where in Britain, and indeed across many other European theatres, audience numbers are increasingly important in gaining funding, it is important to stress the significance of a city with its own ensemble. There are of course the benefits for the actors themselves: honing their craft without the added stresses of freelance life, the opportunity to learn from one another, or developing friendships and work relationships that help shorten the ‘get-to-know’ phase that often burdens rehearsal processes in the UK. The system also connects the city intimately with its actors – it sees them grow and thrive, as they find their place among their peers. It’s ‘their’ Lars Eidinger or ‘their’ Eva-Maria Salcher that they see onstage; the same people that live amongst them, and perhaps stand next to them in the cue at the supermarket. The strength and potency of such a relationship cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to incentivising people the (re)turn to the theatre. 

Representation vs Universalism

Lastly, I would like divulge a bit the different ways in which British and German-speaking theatres engage with questions around representation. In Britain, we have seen the emergence of the representation debate over the last decade, both in how questions around topics such as gender, race and disability are dealt with both on and off-stage. In Graz, I did see these debates and questions being asked when it came to gender, however such debate fell short when it came to other facets of representation.

The explanation of this has two key sides. The theoretical side lies in the answer I received when posing this question in the face of a lack of onstage diversity: “stories are human, and therefore all stories should be accessible to all, and be performable by all, as we are all human”. From a second practical standpoint this is understandable when considering a full-time ensemble, as there is only so much choice a director has when it comes to casting. A much-wanted skill from actors is therefore versatility, so that they can be cast in a variety of roles. The diversity onstage is therefore inevitably limited to the diversity and versatility of the ensemble, rather than the stories at hand.

If we lived in a utopian universe, I have nothing to add to the theoretical answer I received above. However, in our contemporary world I find it too easy an answer, especially when expressed by individuals who themselves do not belong to an oppressed or under-represented group. Of course in theory everyone can ‘play’ everyone, but only when all individuals have the same opportunities to enter the professions that enact and facilitate such ‘play’. 

We don’t inhabit a utopia, we live in a world where issues such as sexism, racism, transphobia and ableism (to name a few) are engrained problems that even our leftish, liberalist institutes are no exception to. The meta-theatrical, self-critical gaze (think every Brechtian play ever) that German-speaking theatre is so good at utilising needs also to be pointed at its own structures. A critical gaze that, in my opinion, the UK currently does a better job of utilising. Perhaps exactly because it lacks these repertory systems that sometimes prove to be rigid and conservative. Our own institutions are no exception to criticism. Let’s keep all of them, both in the UK and in Austria, accountable; they represent us, whether in reflection or through opening up a window.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photograph: Beatrice Debney