“The stage is a public space,” Milo Rau tells me. “Everybody and everything onstage can exist.” Rau, controversial new artistic director of NT Gent in Belgium, believes theatre can change the world. To this end, he’s written a ten rule manifesto. Number four reads “The literal adaptation of classics on stage is forbidden. If a source text-whether book, or play-is used at the outset of the project, it may only represent up to 20 percent of the performance time.” Number seven: “At least two of the actors onstage must not be professional actors.” I meet Rau the day after the premiere of Lam Gods, the NT’s inaugural production of their new season. It is a contemporary re-imagining of the 1432 Ghent altarpiece by the van Eyck brothers, starring the Ghentians themselves. It also adheres to Rau’s manifesto. The rules are radical and rub the 21st century up against the architecture of the NT’s building, which is only just escaping the suffocating embrace of the 19th.
Rau could not have chosen a better place to challenge notions of what theatre is and put his own into practice. He’s about to launch a whole new program of work at the NT and he’s mindful of less happy collaborations, and recent departures such as Matthias Lillenthal’s at the Munich Kammerspiele. “Urban, national and international modes of producing, a continuously cooperating ensemble with openness for guests, have failed because of the implicit limits of the city theatre,” Rau writes in an essay. Hence at the NT, Rau is making what is implicit – the hidden rules the public can’t see and so understand – explicit. He’s opening things up in radical ways and it’s not about ticking boxes. For example, rehearsals are open to the public – even to the camera crews drawn by the recent scandal over a simulated sex scene played out in front of children in Lam Gods. Everyone involved in a show can have their say about what the production will be about, as laid out in rule three of the manifesto: “The authorship is entirely up to those involved in the rehearsals and the performance, whatever their function may be – and to no one else.”
Lam Gods is a production made up of mostly non-actors, a dog and five sheep. It would most likely be labelled as a ‘community’ or a ‘taking part’ show in the UK. But this show has not come through an outreach department and this isn’t how Rau sees this particular way of working. And there’s no sense that anyone thinks Lam Gods is any less professional or less skilled than a show working with professionally trained actors. Of the non-actors, he says, “They become actors. I work with them as citizens, friends but also as a trainer. They are empowered.”
While such a production on the UK’s equivalent main stages might run for a few days tops, this production will also tour. And while in the UK, such productions would be evaluated differently because they sit outside the usual theatrical spectrum, Rau has produced a book about Lam Gods and the Ghent altarpiece and a second, Global Realisms, on world theatre – he has a clear and deep intellectual engagement with his work. So why don’t we do away with such labels and pretensions in the UK? Why can’t our shows using non-actors i.e their local audience – in decision-making roles be incorporated far more into our “mainstream” theatres? “Theatre is community theatre, no other theatre is existing,” says Rau a bit bemusedly when I say that the UK tends to differentiate between community and professional actor productions.
UK theatre maker, director and writer Javaad Alipoor is in agreement that labels and distinctions aren’t helpful. “Some of the most amazing contemporary theatre is work that blurs this boundary,” he writes. But sometimes theatres in the UK are dependent on these qualifications. “In my role as a producer I can find that we need shorthands to communicate with the huge spectrum of people in our communities in order to increase the sense that everyone is part of the story” says Mair George, producer at Torbay’s Doorstep Arts, an organisation which believes that participation in the arts is a key part of working for social justice. A theatre’s reach and status defines its ability to reconsider what community theatre actually means. So maybe the bigger theatres in the UK with bigger subsidies should, like NT Gent, be re-imagining how we see and talk about and make work with communities, in a way that goes beyond non-decision-making interventions like community choruses.
“Why isn’t this type of work occupying our main stages all the time?” says Matt Woodhead, co-director of Lung, a political theatre company founded in Barnsley, which made its show E15 in collaboration with social housing activists in Newnham. But change can’t come if the public believes that they are nothing more than audience members, are not aware of how theatres operate, if they are closed off from artistic directors who might never meet their audiences, even in their theatre bars. Here in our theatres, we are more likely to see security milling around than artistic directors (interestingly I did not see one security guard at NT Gent, but Rau was very present with the audience after Lam Gods).
“More and more audience data shows that the majority of theatre audiences watch one or two shows a year, and we don’t really think how to deepen that experience at the venue or link up our main house audiences with community participants and the people who use our buildings every day,” says Alipoor. Have theatres lost touch with the people they serve, I ask? “Theatres,” says Woodhead, “particularly some in London, serve an elite rather than the people who live around the corner. Theatres shouldn’t (and never have been) places where we put on plays. Theatres should be places that engage, empower and enrich their local communities.” But sometimes interaction stops after the more formalised route of going through ‘taking part’ departments. Sometimes audiences can only identify with a theatre through something seemingly insignificant– the recent protest against the Tricycle’s name change to Kiln might be one such example. It feels like people identify more with a brand or a name and not the work that an organisation actually does (although the protests here also raise questions about identity and ownership). “I’m a Marxist,” says Rau when I tell him about the public protests outside Kiln Theatre. “You can only pragmatically relate to something. You can’t have an idea. You can only construct society in bringing people together and then they work on a project. You should identify with the work you do.” Alipoor too goes for a deeper relationship between the public and theatres. “I want to see more theatres with demonstrations outside over their artistic direction, like at the Volksbuhne recently” he writes in an email, whilst commenting that, “What Indhu (at the Kiln) has achieved has been amazing, and it would be brilliant if women of colour didn’t have to fight so hard to have their vision and experience recognised.”
Back in Belgium as I chat with Rau he sees a screensaver pop up on my laptop with a quote by Gorky: “Everybody, my friend, everybody lives for something better to come. That’s why we want to be considerate of every man, who knows what’s in him, why he was born and what he can do.” Rau laughs in agreement but then says seriously “We shouldn’t take a play from Maxim Gorky. I mean he’s been dead since a hundred years. Now we bring our own stories, write our own classics.” But if only theatres in the UK might take Gorky’s quote as their mantra a bit more. Who knows how and in what ways society could change? The West End is already starting to offer a different menu. In five years the billboards down Salisbury Avenue might read very differently. But only those who can pay high ticket prices might benefit from this, and then only once or twice a year. How much chance is there of these theatres forging new sustainable relationships or making new work with their audiences?
It’s down to the subsidised institutions to ask what theatre actually is, and what it can look like,particularly as a positive response to the forthcoming Brexit. And we need a greater cross-pollination of ideas with our partners in Europe. But how many people have heard of Milo Rau and his working methods? Rau himself has not heard of some of the UK’s more famous theatrical institutions. And whilst it felt refreshing to be around people whose gaze is Eurocentric, there is a sense that the UK is being left out of conversations theatres are having with each other across borders and this is worrying. We have What Next? in the UK. Maybe we now need a What Next? in Europe. Otherwise, the UK runs the risk of being left behind-of making dinosaur theatre stuck in a dinosaur age. Where audiences remain just and only that, drawn only to protest over a name change. The future could be glorious, to ironically quote from an old classic. If only.
As I am taking my leave of Rau I half-jokingly ask if I can come with NT Gent to Mosul in November when they work on Oresteia. Rau seems a bit taken aback. But he says smiling, he can’t turn me away; rule number two of the manifesto: “Theatre is not a product, it is a production process. Research, castings, rehearsals and related debates, must be publicly accessible”. Whilst it is highly likely I won’t be going to Mosul I have the feeling that if I turn up at a rehearsal unannounced in Ghent tomorrow, no one would bat an eyelid. And where in the UK can I do that?