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Jo Caird: Who's the Boss in British Theatre?

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It is generally acknowledged that one of the major distinguishing features between British and continental European theatre is that while our theatre is 'writer-led', theatre in Europe is 'director-led'. This wasn't something I had ever really considered until the last couple of weeks, which saw me watch my first ever piece of German theatre, attend a strange piece of Greek theatre art in a crypt (see my last two posts) and interview several very knowledgeable theatre types about the mysterious art of dramaturgy.

To put it very simply, where in this country productions are directed in a such a way that the needs of the text are taken into account, with the writer's vision for the piece exerting a strong influence on the finished product, in mainland Europe the director's concept is all important and the text is treated as a means to an end.

These systems each have their pros and cons, but leaving aside the question of which makes for better theatre, it's worth noting that the business of bringing a piece of work to the stage is not just a matter of a balancing out the creative impulses and artistic interests of a director and writer. In British theatre (I'll leave further discussion of the European scene to those better informed about it than I), the producer also plays a hugely important role.

Last week, just as I was starting to mull over this issue, I came across an interview with the Russian film-maker, Alexander Sokurov, who has just released a new film version of Goethe's Faust. The interviewer, Geoffrey Macnab, concludes the article with an analysis of the British film industry that I think is useful here:

“The UK industry is producer-led, not director-led. Its idea of a perfect film-maker is of a solid craftsman who can tell a story: a Tom Hooper (director of The King's Speech), not a Sokurov... When artists themselves have moved into the film arena, as Steve McQueen has done so memorably with Hunger and Shame and Sam Taylor-Wood with Nowhere Boy, they have made narrative films. Meanwhile, experimental work is kept out of the mainstream.”

Theatre and film are very different beasts, in terms of scale of budgets, how funding is sourced, and distribution and legacy of the end product, but I'd argue that when it comes to the way power is balanced between director and producer, at least in the West End and as far as number one touring shows are concerned, the industries are comparable.

It is the likes of Cameron Mackintosh, Sonia Friedman, Nica Burns and Bill Kenwright who call the shots because they are the ones with the cash. It is then up to trusted directors to try to make an artistic success of the show, using all the different elements they have been supplied with by the producer. Sometimes this system works brilliantly, and sometimes it works less well (I'm sure you can all think of plenty of examples of each), but it's certainly the case that without a handful of major player producers, the West End would be a very different place.

One of the most interesting indicators of the strength of the producer's position in the West End is when the producer's name eclipses that of the director altogether in the collective consciousness, as with long-running shows such as Phantom of the Opera and Blood Brothers. Your average punter would probably be able to identify these shows as produced by Mackintosh and Kenwright respectively, but I doubt the name of their original directors (Hal Prince and Bob Tomson) would be on the tip of most people's tongues.

The situation is by no means as dire as that in the film industry (returning to the conclusion Macnab reaches in his Sokurov piece); it would be disingenuous to say that in British theatre “experimental work is kept out of the mainstream”. As I've noted in previous posts, the theatre diet of mainstream audiences has been spiced up by elements of interactive practice, puppetry, devised work, etc, but it strikes me as a shame that the producer-led system that reigns supreme in the West End and large-scale touring has created a climate in which risk-taking is virtually impossible and therefore rarely seen.

We may call our theatre 'writer-led', but when it really comes down to it, the producer is boss.


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