Guest Blog: Les Enfants Terribles Artistic Director Oliver Lansley On Supporting New Artists
This year marked our sixth annual Les Enfants Terribles Award, and once again it was an inspiring evening full of ambition and talent. Every year we shortlist 10 companies who each perform 10 minutes of the production they want to take to the Edinburgh Fringe. We then provide them with a slot at the Pleasance, £1,000 and mentoring throughout the process.
Every year the task of choosing a winner gets harder; the quality is always high and the mix of work refreshingly eclectic. So how do you choose? Do you pick the most polished? Look for the most potential? Support the most avant-garde artist you know will not receive help elsewhere?
It always reminds me of the early days of the Les Enfants Terribles, why I set it up in the first place at 19 years old and the struggles I faced, accompanied by the blind devotion to creating theatre anywhere and any way I could.
The scale of Les Enfants Terribles shows have really grown: we've toured a giant airship to outdoor festivals with Fantastical Flying Exploratory Laboratory, performed musicals in Spiegeltents (The Vaudevillains) and created the Olivier Award-nominated Alice's Adventures Underground, which returns to the Vaults this April with a cast of 37 and a set the size of three football pitches. But we started from the same place as all of our award winners.
We were built upon the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is why we are so keen to continue to support it and promote it as a real breeding ground for new companies, and why we have returned to Edinburgh every year for 15 years consecutively. Where else can a school drama group be reviewed alongside the National Theatre of Scotland?
This was the thinking behind setting up the award in the first place. To provide people who had an idea and a passion for making theatre with the three things I needed when I started: a place to perform, a bit of cash and a bit of advice - simple.
However, even in the time since we started, the landscape continues to change. We used to work a lot on the London fringe scene, taking risks and putting on shows, discovering what and who we were as artists.
In fact one of the first pieces of my own writing that was ever put on stage was at London Fringe Theatre, which still exists today. We were supposed to be performing Berkoff's Metamorphosis, but couldn't afford the rights. So, with the slot booked and barely a couple of weeks before we opened, I decided I'd write us a play instead.
I can't say it was great - we played around, rewrote it every day, changing characters, swapping parts. The play itself was never going to set the world alight, but the experience itself was essential in my growth as an artist. It was a huge risk - but that risk was shared with the theatre, and though it wasn't a roaring success, no one walked away bankrupt, and the seeds of Les Enfants Terribles were planted.
That sort of thing is much harder to do these days, with even the cost of renting fringe venues being expensive and one wrong move resulting in losing more money than most people can afford (this is why environments such as The Vaults Festival are so important to the London theatre scene).
This change in climate and opportunity is one of the reasons behind the launch of our brand new Stepladder Award, which we announced this year alongside our LET Award winners.
If the LET Award was created to help a company start and establish, then the Stepladder Award was created to help them move to that next stage in their careers. Its aim is to make the company more permanent: to tour, to be mentored and to have a very valuable London showcase.
There are many excellent schemes out there for new writers and new directors, for plays and individuals, but there are surprisingly few opportunities for young companies. I think it's essential for us to support young people, who are coming together and using their initiative to get their work off the ground. Not waiting for permission, R&D bids or outside help, but just doing whatever they could to get onto stages. This is what we did, and somehow, 15 years later, we're still here!
That's the beauty of theatre: anyone can make it, and now more than ever we need to be encouraging young artists to find their voices. There's often a rather strange relationship in this country between commercial and subsidised theatre - never the twain shall meet!
However, with arts cuts and funding restrictions, and the London 'fringe' scene becoming increasingly expensive, artists are having to find new ways to make their work. (It is no coincidence there has been such a rise in immersive and site-specific work in recent years.) But we also need to explore new financial models and encourage entrepreneurship amongst theatre companies.
In the early days, Les Enfants Terribles existed on the money made from one production funding the next production. No money, no show. It's tough, but it teaches the value of sensible budgeting, of being inventive in your solutions and creative in your work, and it makes you work ten times as hard to sell that show as you have so much riding on it.
Limitation is good - it feeds your creativity - but limitation is not something we're short on: support is. And we need to continue to support new artists creating original work, and bringing that work to audiences, if we are to hope our audiences will continue to take a risk and spend their hard-earned cash on something new. Audiences won't take risks unless artists are prepared to take them too.
Photo credit: Anthony Hollis, Jane Hobson