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Guest Blog: David Lan On A Theatrical Life Richly Lived

The Producer-Director-Writer Raises the Curtain on his Memoir, 'As if by Chance'

Guest Blog: David Lan On A Theatrical Life Richly Lived

During the time I was running a theatre my boyfriend used to say that the difference between Monday to Saturday and then Sunday was that all the days of the week were the same, except that on Sunday there was somebody on the sofa fast asleep.

And so it was that after eighteen years and something like 200 shows I decided enough was enough, it was time to go. I made a slow exit. After I handed over my keys I still had one show, Fun Home, to produce at the Young Vic and others that had started there whose future life I needed to look after - the move of Matthew Lopez's The Inheritance and of Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson's The Jungle to London's West End and of Simon Stone's version of Yerma with Billie Piper to the Park Avenue Armoury in Manhattan. Later The Jungle went to St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn and The Inheritance found its way to the Ethel Barrymore on Broadway.

Guest Blog: David Lan On A Theatrical Life Richly Lived Eventually that line of work came to an end (though not quite - we plan to bring The Jungle back to NYC and for it to tour the US just as soon as the world allows a show involving such a high degree of intimacy between actors and audience to be staged again).

So what is one left with out of all that long time making shows? While you're doing it, nothing matters but the artistic - and physical and mental - well-being of the people making the show and, of course, its quality. Our mantra was that each show should be "a leap in the dark" but, at the same time, our goal was that everyone working on a show in whatever capacity should come out of the experience stronger than when they went into it.

But then all at once you get your Sundays back. And what else do you have? Memory, of course. Even when you're deeply engaged in remounting a show, there seems to be space left in the brain for the unexpected, for untried combos of disparate elements. I found that I had the idea for a book and I sat down to write it.

I was pretty sure it wouldn't be a whistle-stop tour of this show and then that show and then the one after that. The idea I had was to write in some detail about the mysterious process of putting shows together - a tincture of this play goes well with a few drops of that director, this designer, those actors. Stir gently and leave for as many weeks as possible in a warm room with good light and lots of air.

But as soon as I began, a chorus of unexpected characters walked into the room - great aunts and uncles, my grandparents, my parents too, all mostly seen from the perspective of a child. And then other memories seemed to be part of the alchemical recipe - a brief hectic period in the South African army, having a play on at the Royal Court aged 22, making a TV documentary in war-torn Angola. All this seemed connected to producing A View from the Bridge or A Doll's House or The Brothers Size in ways that hadn't occurred to me at the time.

I knew I couldn't write a "how to" book. Being confident you've worked out how to produce a particular show has long seemed to me the surest way to underestimate the complexity of the journey you need to go on and, consequently, to make a hash of it. Even so, if As if by Chance has a coherent message in suggesting that perhaps the answer to the question "What do you need to produce theatre?" lies in the one word: "Everything" - that's to say, everything you've ever felt or thought or read, every crazy thing you've ever done, every person you've known or, more accurately, your memories of them.

Creating memory is not a by-product of theatre, it is its essence. If you're lucky, theatre is an intense two, three or even four hour experience but it's also the residue of that intensity which lasts days, weeks or even years. We make memories - or at least aspire to.

The other element of my time running a theatre that persists is the relationships, the theatre people with whom I worked as friends, and also the many other theatres where I worked.

As a producer, one of the deepest experiences was co-producing with companies in other countries as full partners in the creation of work we couldn't have made or even imagined on our own: Romeo and Juliet on trapeze with Vesturport of Iceland, I am the Wind by Jan Fosse directed by Patrice Chereau co-produced with the Theatre de la Ville in Paris and the Vienna Festival, A Man of Good Hope with the Isango Ensemble of South Africa and BAM.

There were many of these but just as memorable were our co-productions with companies in London - a dance theatre piece alongside Sadler's Wells, a production of As You Like It straight into the West End with Sonia Friedman, seven chamber operas over six years with the English National Opera, another with the Royal Opera House, a new play with the Royal Court, a series of seven shows each engaging with a major cultural community of London, each co-created with a different London producing house.

Come the pandemic, this set of theatre-generated friendships was of transcendent value. We all needed each other like never before - to help understand what on earth is actually going on, to gather and share life-saving information, to find the way forward and to argue for it, to hold each other's hands through the long dark night that the last eighteen months has been.

If we know what's good for us, we'll be sure to stay best friends into the future for as long as we can.

As if by Chance: Journeys, Theatres, Lives (Faber) is published on 3 June

Photo c. Leon Puplett


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