Features Published 8 April 2020

A European Theatre Dialogue: Repertory Theatre and the Power of the Ensemble

Directors, dramaturgs and critics discuss how the European repertory model empowers actors and influences the work that gets made.

Natasha Tripney

Schaubühne Berlin’s Richard III, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Photo: Richard Termine

Natasha Tripney: European theatres have been some of the first to adapt to our new quarantined existence, making recordings available to watch online for audiences to watch at home. Suddenly, there’s the opportunity to see work by playwrights and directors lauded abroad but rarely if ever performed or programmed in the UK – Dorota Masłowska, Biljana Srbljanovic, Jeton Neziraj, Yury Butosov, Jan Klata. If you’re missing the communality of theatre, here’s an opportunity to embark on a self-curated international festival, to travel without leaving the sofa, to expand cultural horizons.

It’s also a chance to reflect on different models of making work and supporting artists, at a time when thousands of freelance and self-employed actors, artists, creatives and technicians have seen their work dry up overnight. With Theatre Twitter frothing over Ostermeier’s Hamlet, it feels like the right time to discuss what we mean when we talk about European theatre, its funding models, aesthetic values and underlying philosophy – to think radically about what theatre is for and what it can do.

To start with, can we clarify what we mean by ‘European’ theatre. While acknowledging that there are obviously many national variations and alternatives, can we discuss what sets Europe apart from the UK, in terms of how theatre is funded, developed, programmed and performed?

Finn den Hertog: The clearest expression of the European model as opposed to the UK model is the ensemble and repertory system. Large permanent ensembles of actors remain employed at the same theatre for a number of years (sometimes decades). The repertory model means that companies have a number of shows that they keep in rotation for many years, alongside touring and developing new work. Almost everything I admire about the European model links in to this. Companies get to know the bones of the work by collaborating on multiple projects for significant periods of time. The work feeds itself.

Alice Kornitzer: All national theatres in Germany are state-funded. There’s a philosophy that the arts sector is as much part of the social fabric as education, finance and the health systems are. The programming is less varied, and productions run for longer.

The burden of financing does not lie with the artist or company, it lies with the producing theatre. The average contract length for an artist is two years, with the option of extending. This is why artists, particularly at a time like this with a global crisis, will be financially better protected. However, although in the UK we often look over to state-funded theatres in Europe with envy, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it is its own locked system that, by comparison, is a lot harder to break into. Of course, once you’re in, one can actually make a living out of it.

Tommo Fowler: From where I am, one of the big things that comes across with European work is a greater level of visual expressiveness – not just in the staging, although of course that’s what I guess a lot of us gravitate towards, but in the physical expressiveness of the performers. There’s a greater sense of freedom and play – a real willingness to allow human bodies to be sites of grotesque curiosity. Actors seem to allow their bodies to inhabit metaphor and symbol as a visual text, not just as vessels for the written word. (And I don’t think that’s at the expense of psychological ‘truth’, necessarily, either.)

Finn den Hertog: This seems to me to be connected to a culture in which the text – and by extension the playwright – is perhaps not so revered as in our own? Or at least not quite at the top of the hierarchy in the same way. It’s always seemed to me that the dominant UK tradition (in “plays” at least) is one of literal representation and the idea that nothing but the text can make meaning.

I also instinctively feel that this has to do with how closely the theatre and dance worlds sit alongside one another in European work. I recently watched a piece of work from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker from I think around 1990 and was struck by how much of the aesthetics I had seen repeated and repurposed in the last 30 years, both in Europe and the UK: microphones, stripped back space, a mix of contemporary and classical costuming, performers throwing buckets at one another! As you say, physical expressiveness is such a key factor in our appreciation of European work – that daring liveness, the athleticism of the performers – for me it feels very similar to the vocabulary of dance. Staged poetry rather than prose.

Tommo Fowler: I’d love to know if anyone has any thoughts about how keeping productions in rep changes things? And especially in the way that these works continue to exist in conversation with one another through changing times and new juxtapositions of programming?

Mark Leipacher: This. 100% this. The visual expressiveness, the instinct beyond ‘literalism,’ springs from the inhabited quality of a permanent ensemble creating in repertoire. That methodology is entirely distinct from the self-contained, instantaneous assembly, short-term processes of the UK system.

Finn den Hertog: Right. And an actor in a UK company is worried about their next job! Also there isn’t the time or the space to experiment, to dig deep and find those other layers. A standard UK rehearsal process is what 3-4 weeks? That’s barely any time at all. If a standard rehearsal process in most European theatre is 6-8 weeks (maybe more!?) and at the same time the company are playing in nightly rep then of course that makes them more responsive, more alive to the moment, more expressive and able to experiment.

And it’s entirely possible with actors here in the UK given the right circumstances. It was so clear when watching the Secret Theatre company after they had been working and making together for two years just how that length of time as an ensemble had influenced and elevated their work. I grew up watching the ensemble at Dundee Rep do the same. So it is possible within our theatre culture.

Mark Leipacher: Precisely. I think that the Dundee Rep is the rare exception though. Secret Theatre was a short-lived enterprise, and even the original RSC ensemble model had to drift away over time. The UK attempts at this have, broadly speaking, either failed outright or were not sustainable. Is this purely an economic consideration or is there something cultural that we can’t get on board with?

Starting a European-style ensemble in the UK I have found to be beyond challenging. It’s been the whole vision for The Faction since we first started working together. I think it would take an Artistic Director or Executive Producer or team to try this in an existing theatre building with their existing resources to really make this fly.

Alexandru Istudor: What myself and Nastazja Somers are thinking about is what it would take for very established venues to try a different way of producing, I don’t wanna drop names, but venues of the magnitude of the Young Vic, or Lyric Hammersmith, the NT, RSC, etc.

Mark Leipacher: It would be wonderful if there was some sort of study, looking at the financial and structural implications of the way the theatres you suggest currently run and how they might run in a new model. It would take some sort of evidence to get a theatre Board to take the leap I think.

Alexandru Istudor: Yes, I agree. A sort of a simulation of what adopting that model could mean. I think Gorki could be used as a good potential model; among the Berlin theatres they receive a lot less in state subsidy than the others, mainly because, as said above, they are a small theatre in terms of seats capacity. However, they remain incredibly ambitious and relevant in terms of artistic program.

Nastazja Somers: Is there any reasons why small venues like the Almeida could not follow their example? I’m genuinely curious!

Mark Leipacher: The economic concerns are significant but not the only reasons: there are structural considerations. The lure of TV and film (not so significant in terms of the domestic markets of many mainland European systems), the geographic focus on London in comparison to city theatres in Europe, the social necessity for the arts and the preconditions attached to federal institutions, the audience appetite for artistic endeavour etc etc…

Teunkie van der Sluijs: Still, I think there is a bit of a myth in the UK about ensemble culture in Europe. I certainly cannot speak for all European countries, but in Western Europe that model has consistently been scaled back since the start of this century. The rep structure is still continuing, though. But actors are increasingly freelancers like their UK counterparts.

Also, having worked both in the UK’s 4-week rehearsal model and for European theatres where I had sometimes as many as 10 weeks, it’s important to remember that the latter exists exactly because of that rep model. It’s not uncommon for actors to be rehearsing during the day and performing at night, sometimes far from home – so your effective number of rehearsal hours is massively reduced. I’ve had processes where we could rehearse only from 11-3:30. No wonder you get 10 weeks then.

There’s a big difference with tech though. In Britain, that is seen as literally that: a technical rehearsal. In Europe, it’s called montage, because it is an intrinsic creative part of the process, where you compile the show out of all its elements. It’s where a director really proves themselves. I’ve felt very blessed with being able to do one- to two-week techs in Europe. It allowed me to still make big creative interventions, rather than worry about getting the show match-fit.

Alice Kornitzer: It’s also worth noting here that many German artists love UK work, and actors in particular envy the process. Why? German actors are seen more often than not (and obviously depending on director and dramaturge – two very separate entities) as vehicles for the work, whereas in the UK, actors are viewed as the backbone to character development and therefore interpretation of text. How many directors here have been asked in interview or pitch situations who they would like to cast? It’s because that question stems from the idea of interpretation. Not usually so in Germany. There, it’s the dramaturge’s and/or director’s interpretation after which the actor ought to mould themselves. And I mention the dramaturge here first with good reason – if we look at most of the recent AD changes in Germany, theatres are now being predominantly run by dramaturges and no longer by directors.

Rafaella Marcus: I hugely agree that we don’t think enough about differences between the UK and Europe in not only acting style, but acting psychology – what the goal of acting is, if you like. The aim of a lot of actor training in the UK, especially from the schools who still mostly operate like they’re training actors to take on leading roles at the RSC, is to a) disappear inside a role, and b) speak beautifully. The idea that the character is a construct, a fiction, is antithetical to British naturalistic theatre practice and to what is commonly thought of as ‘good’ a lot of the time. And I think that’s really difficult when it comes to making more European style work, because if you’re not careful, your actors can look back at you completely nonplussed when you ask them to do something metatheatrical. British actors ask why they’re doing something (in a character-driven logical/psychological sense) more than any other actors in the world except maybe American ones.

Teunkie van der Sluijs: I completely agree with Rafaella, and I think that is one of the clearest ways of talking about different approaches to acting. In British theatre, the actor’s body is seen as a vessel for the word and for the expression of emotion through the word. As opposed to a changeable, inconstant creator of meaning who wears their character like a costume, but always remains visible underneath it.

Alexandru Istudor: I think there’s a bit of misunderstanding here in regards to acting in ‘European shows’. I don’t want to generalise, a multitude of acting styles exists in European theatres, so I am gonna refer to Ostermeier’s Hamlet where actors still inhabit the character but the main difference is that they do not play the text as most British actors do, they play the dramatic situation (Ostermeier talks in his book about this distinction). Ostermeier doesn’t ask his actors to be meta-theatrical, he asks them to inhabit and act in a very determined dramatic situation he comes up with.

Rafaella Marcus: I’m not specifically referencing Ostermeier though – by ‘metatheatrical’ I mean a sense that the play is indeed a play, that we are all in a room pretending together, rather than the performance being a little slice of reality stitched onto the stage. This is the logical end point of the idea that the text is the play, and the job of actor, director and designer is merely to excavate what the writer has come up with.

Nastazja Somers: Raf is so on point here. Also brings us back to the ownership of the work. I will never forget speaking to a VERY ESTABLISHED British director and I was saying something about actors and said ‘creatives’ and he was like ‘wait, what? Actors are not creatives’. And this works both ways, I spend as much time as I can on allowing actors to feel that the work is theirs rather than just them expecting me to tell them where to stand. But it’s not part of tradition here, right?

Mark Leipacher: Absolutely. It’s still a surprise to me when empowering actors in this way that it seems to be such a new experience for many of them. I think that this is connected to the drama school structures here too.

Tommo Fowler: The liveness is really key too, I think – that’s something I meant to say earlier. I’ve never ever seen a play by a European company where I haven’t felt totally included and present in the theatre – and that’s because of the actors’ acknowledgement. Whether that’s sharing a joke or a look, waving when someone arrives or leaves the auditorium, etc… It makes such a massive difference. (And I do think Lars Eidinger is brilliant at this.)

Alexandru Istudor: Yes, definitely, they do not pretend or try to hide that the show happens in a theatre and that that’s a live event. You feel much more included as an audience member when they acknowledge your presence in different forms.

To return to something we touched on earlier – why don’t venues try and explore other producing and financial models of making theatre in this country? What’s stopping them from going against the current? Why don’t some of them try to adopt a repertoire model? Or hire an ensemble of actors for a period of time? It seems to me now that even subsidized theatres are trying to attract ‘star’ actors. I find it incredibly disappointing when a theatre like the NT which receives such a generous subsidy is trying to attract audiences by casting actors who acted in famous TV series. Shouldn’t the quality and complexity of work be the main draw for audiences?

Finn den Hertog: I really believe that a repertoire ensemble is as likely to attract return audiences as having a “star”. An audience feels ownership over the company, in a sense. I really enjoyed seeing a young Lars Eidinger appear in the stream of the Schaubuhne production of Woyzeck earlier this week (Was it this week? What day is it now?). Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able watch in real time the growth of an actor from supporting player to Hamlet/Richard III within the context of one company?

Alexandru Istudor: Yes, the familiarity of actors, being part of their journey, seeing them how they play more roles, how they evolve over the year. I assume it could also work on that level, of a community becoming much more familiar with the actors employed in their local theatre.

Nastazja Somers: Oh God, I miss this.

Finn den Hertog: It’s so clear even in the fact that ITA are using their ensemble to read segments of Decamerone during this period of lockdown. That feels like such an act of community.

This article is the first in a three-part series on European theatre. The second instalment will discuss text, and the role of dramaturgy.

For more discussion, join European Theatre Club, which begins tonight with Maja Kleczewska’s Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe – join in on Twitter using #PolishMakbet 

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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