I went to the last day of Secret Theatre at the Lyric Hammersmith on Sunday. I liked the fact that I was going to be seeing Show 1 for the first time at the very end of the 18 months of the project. But prior to that here was a Q and A with the company – all the actors plus writer/dramaturgs Simon Stephens and Joel Horwood, and academic Tom Cornford in the chair. Sean Holmes was sitting quietly in the back, deservedly taking – what will probably be a temporary – break from months of campaigning and explaining the virtues of the project to the public.
I sympathised with that particular struggle. In the early 2000s I had the privilege of working as the Dramaturg at Northern Stage in Newcastle while it was still an ensemble theatre run by Alan Lyddiard. Watching Holmes’s actors glow with a sense of accomplishment, enthusiasm and creeping nostalgia was so reminiscent of what I had seen before. The actors loved working together long term, knowing each other well enough to take risks, feeling safe about the artistic choice not to be literal in staging a play, working with the same creative team of designers for a long time – they loved the ‘deep voodoo’ of it all as one of the Secret Theatre actors put it.
As audience members we might easily underestimate the importance of this way of working, but we certainly see a different quality of acting on stage when presented with an ensemble (as noted for example by Honour Bayes in her column in The Stage ). Lyddiard’s ensemble project – initially set up as an experiment for just two years – managed seven years before it lost the support of the powers that be and came to an abrupt end, ten years ago now, almost to the day.
Some years later, I made an investigation into the circumstances around Lyddiard’s sudden resignation and found that several important factors were at play. For one, there were issues at the senior management level and Lyddiard was not appropriately supported by all of his board members. But more importantly there were stark cultural differences at the core of this.
Like Holmes, Lyddiard modelled his project on the continental ensemble, more specifically in fact on Dodin’s Maly Theatre. He was sober enough to know that in Newcastle he was never going to have the type of actor trained according to the Russian tradition and for the Russian institutional system, so quite wisely rather than pursuing the Maly’s aesthetic, he was simply aiming for the notion of longevity coupled with a completely authentic (British/Geordie/transnational) artistic sensibility. Former chair of the board at Northern Stage, retired probation officer Mike Worthington, told me in 2010 that the fact that the company’s income to subsidy ratio was 25:75 was a problem in his view, and that when the theatre went for a two year refurbishment it seemed like there was an inevitable end to the ensemble. Similarly, former Chief Executive of Northern Arts, Andrew Dixon, confessed that Lyddiard’s project presented a dilemma for funders as they wanted the public to see ‘a whole range of work’ rather than just one company of actors, but on the other hand could also see the benefits of longevity and the success that it could yield. While he did not consider the ensemble to be ‘the most efficient use of the salary bill’ he did believe that Lyddiard took individual actors and turned them into ‘theatre professionals’ some of whom are still producing, directing and project managing very successful projects in the region. Dixon claims that Lyddiard gave people confidence and key experiences they would not have had otherwise – by performing both in village halls and internationally.
I think it is great that Secret Theatre has generated a cloud of support around it with the most zeal coming from young people with a strong voice – StewartPringle , Catherine Love and Megan Vaughan have all written beautiful tributes to the project. (Lyddiard’s Northern Stage had the most notable supporter in Lyn Gardner, so there might be an interesting pattern emerging there.) But I am slightly worried about the defence of tribalism that has emerged in among these efforts. Tribalism is good for those who are inside the tribe, it is empowering and cosy, but it also makes it difficult for the outsiders to become members of the tribe, and, in its worse manifestation, can lead to wars. (I speak as a person who saw that happen in real life). Some might argue that radical measures might be needed in British theatre. But what I think ensemble model in the UK needs is a wiser approach to change. Simon Stephens in the Q and A mentioned an analogy to British cricket whereby the changes to the internal structures of the British team eventually led to its transformation into a world champion. This is what he had hoped for the Secret Theatre project. But what is the structure that needs changing? And how do we ensure that this is not about just winning one championship but staying on top of the game for a while.
Listening to the Secret Theatre actors enthuse about the ensemble way of working in the same way as some other generations of British actors before them had done made me wonder how do we move beyond this and build on it in a way that has a more lasting significance? How do we re-invent the British ensemble model for the 21st century?
During his leadership of the RSC, Michael Boyd often noted the need to contend against hostility about the ‘ensemble’ as something ‘foreign’ and even ‘Communist”. When asked where these criticisms came from, in an interview he gave me for The Contemporary Ensemble, Boyd said:
‘They come from a theatre culture that is heavily influenced by the free market economy of the entertainment industry, where actors are encouraged to move like a commodity on the stock market, where any restriction of that degree of nimble flexibility is seen as leaden, and stifling. The English have a special fondness for the eccentric individual. ‘Every man’s home is his castle’, while a collective is a foreign concept, and long-term commitment risks disappointment. […] There’s a very healthy fear in English culture of conformity, in political terms of Fascism, Communism, Nazism, the French Revolution. The English are proud to consider themselves an exception to such attempts to homogenize society, and an ensemble can be seen by some as an attempt to homogenize under the control of an autocratic European-style director. […] Some of the resistance to the idea of a learning community is simply a lack of humility on the part of some practitioners. A hunger to learn can be misread as a lack of confidence in your expertise.’
The way I understand this: there are potentially three elements of the inner structure that need addressing in British theatre in order for the idea of ‘ensemble’ to take root: the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s government on the country’s economy, elements of the national bias (if there is such a thing) towards individualism rather than collectivism, and too much artistic ego.
It is interesting that in 1984, theatre historians George Rowell and Anthony Jackson concluded in their book ‘The Repertory Movement: A History of Regional Theatre in Britain’ that the idea of the ensemble way of working – which had ignited the British imagination ever since Granville-Barker and Shaw at the beginning of the 20th century– had ultimately run its course:
Does Continental theatre practice in this respect offer a goal to be aimed at? It would seem not. While the actor on the European stage may enjoy the security and other benefits of a long term contract with his company, the British actor, by and large, especially in repertory, prefers to be mobile.
By the early 1980s, they claimed, it became evident that dependence on a single funding body made ‘theatre’s future vulnerable to changes in political control’, large subsidy could ‘buy its way out of trouble rather than [solve problems] by critical ingenuity’, and the model ultimately led to increased levels of bureaucracy and administration. In addition, as an interesting historical footonote, it is worth highlighting that the authors noted the influence of television-style naturalism on directors of the period who therefore aimed ‘for the most suitable casting character by character rather than at the development of ensemble playing’.
It is great to see that some of those trends – and specifically the latter – have been challenged and to some extent reverted by projects such as the Secret Theatre, Boyd’s RSC and Lyddiard’s Northern Stage. But the difficulties faced by all of these ideas previously just go to show that Holmes’s task has by no means been an easy one.
There are rumours that the ensemble idea might continue at the Lyric Hammersmith in one form or another. It is not enough for us to just wish them luck or crowd around them in a spirit of tribalism – those structural changes will demand a lot more than that.