In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to six world experts on theatre and performance. Sir Howard Panter (Founder of the Ambassador Theatre Group Ltd, Chairman of Rambert Dance Company), Gilles Ste-Croix (co-founder of Cirque du Soleil), Joanna Read (Principal of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – LAMDA), James Houghton (Director of the Drama Division of The Juilliard School, and Director of New York’s Signature Theatre Company), Tamara Rojo (English National Ballet Artistic Director and Lead Principal Dancer) and Darcey Bussell (President of the Royal Academy of Dance). We discuss the role of theatre and performance in culture, look at the secrets of the performing arts and discuss the future of theatre in the modern world.
Performance is key to human experience. There is not one of us on this planet who hasn’t captivated an audience as a baby with our gurgles, squeaks and steps; nor is there one of us who will fail to move an audience when our shell plays the central role at the spectacle of our own funerals. The intervening period- regardless of its length- is a series of scenes where the protagonist (as self) plays the lead in a tale of joy, tragedy, comedy, farce and errors. The beautiful paradox however, is that in life we are simultaneously the central-actor of our own narrative alongside being the support for hundreds of other stories, and the spectator of millions- perhaps billions more.
This view of life in context of creative culture is shared across the arts. Speaking on literature, Maya Angelou said “We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans- because we can… We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings… That’s why we paint, that’s why we dare to love someone- because we have the impulse to explain who we are. Not just how tall we are, or thin… but who we are internally… perhaps even spiritually. There’s something, which impels us to show our inner-souls. The more courageous we are, the more we succeed in explaining what we know.” (Thought Economics, October 2012). Speaking on music, Hans Zimmer said, “…If you go to any rave, or any football event, you will find people chanting in a rhythm- human beings do that. We have this sense to participate and organise- Music lets you rediscover your humanity, and your connection to humanity. When you listen to Mozart with other people, you feel that somehow- we’re all in this together….” (Thought Economics, March 2013)
Theatre and performing arts are also hugely important to economies and communities. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis showed that 3.2 percent of US GDP (around US$ 504 billion) is attributable to arts and culture (compared with the entire US travel and tourism industry, which accounts for 2.8 percent of GDP). Alongside this,Americans for the Arts also showed that the arts and cultural industries support over 5.4 million jobs in the US alone. This picture of economic impact and significance is the same in country after country, around the world- and doesn’t even begin to include the intangible- the social capital brought to communities as a result of the existence of arts.
So what is the true relationship of theatre and performance to human society?
In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to six world experts on theatre and performance. Sir Howard Panter (Founder of the Ambassador Theatre Group Ltd, Chairman of Rambert Dance Company), Gilles Ste-Croix(co-founder of Cirque du Soleil), Joanna Read (Principal of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – LAMDA), James Houghton (Director of the Drama Division of The Juilliard School, and Director of New York’s Signature Theatre Company), Tamara Rojo (English National Ballet Artistic Director and Lead Principal Dancer) and Darcey Bussell (President of the Royal Academy of Dance). We discuss the role of theatre and performance in culture, look at the secrets of the performing arts and discuss the future of theatre in the modern world.
Sir Howard Panter is a founder, co-owner, joint chief executive and creative director of the Ambassador Theatre Group Ltd (ATG), and Chairman of Rambert Dance Company. In 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2013, together with his wife and business partner Lady Panter (Rosemary Squire), OBE), Panter was named Most Powerful Person in British Theatre by the The Stage in their annual ‘Stage 100 list‘.
Since 1992, the Ambassador Theatre Group Ltd (ATG) has grown to be the world’s number one live-theatre group with a total of 40 venues in Britain and on Broadway and an internationally recognised award-winning theatre producer with co-productions in New York, across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. It is also a leader in theatre ticketing services through ATG Tickets (the joint largest ticketing company in the UK) and the Ticket Machine Group (TMG). ATG’s impressive portfolio of West End theatres includes historic buildings such as the Apollo Victoria, Donmar Warehouse, Duke of York’s, Fortune, Harold Pinter, Lyceum, Phoenix, Piccadilly,Playhouse, Savoy, Trafalgar Studio 1 and Trafalgar Studio 2. In New York, ATG owns The Foxwoods Theatre, the largest theatre on Broadway.
Gilles Ste-Croix is the co-founder and artistic guide of Cirque du Soleil. From a group of 20 street performers at its beginnings in 1984, Cirque du Soleil is now a major Quebec-based organization providing high-quality artistic entertainment. The company has 5,000 employees, including 1,300 performing artists from close to 50 different countries. Cirque du Soleil has brought wonder and delight to more than 100 million spectators in more than 300 cities in over forty countries on six continents.
In the late 1970s Gilles Ste-Croix was living in a commune in Victoriaville, Quebec, picking apples to make money. One day he mused that the job would be a whole lot easier if he could attach the ladder to his legs—and devised his first set of stilts. A friend happened to mention the Bread and Puppet Theater in nearby Vermont, which used stilt-walking as the basis of many of its performances. Ste-Croix went to see the company and realized that his apple-picking skills might actually be in demand in the wider world of entertainment.
In 1980, Gilles Ste-Croix and a band of street artists founded the Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul and organized a street performance festival called the Fête foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul, which would eventually lead to the founding of Cirque du Soleil with Guy Laliberté in 1984.
In 1984 and 1985, Gilles Ste-Croix designed and performed many stilt acts for Cirque du Soleil. In 1988, he became Cirque’s Artistic Director, as well as coordinating a talent search that extended to the four corners of the globe. He was Director of Creation for all of Cirque du Soleil’s productions from 1990 to 2000: Nouvelle Expérience,Saltimbanco, Alegría, Mystère, Quidam, La Nouba, “O“, and Dralion. In 1992, he directed Fascination, the first Cirque du Soleil show presented in arenas in Japan. He also directed the groundbreaking 1997 dinner/cabaret show Pomp Duck and Circumstance in Germany. In 2000, while continuing to act as a consultant for Cirque du Soleil, Gilles Ste-Croix decided to realize one of his greatest dreams: Driven by his passionate interest in horses, he founded his own company to produce the 2003 show Cheval-Théâtre, which featured 30 horses and as many artist-acrobats under canvas and toured ten cities in North America. Since December 2002, Gilles St-Croix returned to Cirque du Soleil as Vice-President of Creation, New Project Development. In July 2006 he was nominated Senior Vice-President of Creative Content.
Joanna Read is a British theatre director and librettist. In 2010, she became the first ever female Principal of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). LAMDA is the oldest drama school in the UK. Founded in 1861 as the London Academy of Music. It is now regarded as one of the most respected theatre conservatoires in the world.
Read studied Drama at Bristol University from 1986 to 1989, directing her first few productions whilst doing her degree. Having worked on the fringe and at Sheffield in her early years (occasionally in stage management, although she also participated in the Channel 4 Regional Directors Programme), she soon joined the Education team at the Young Vic for a year, and following that became the Head of Education and Participation at theBirmingham Repertory Theatre from 1993 to 1997, where she created a successful and wide-ranging education and outreach strategy and commissioned and directed new writing.
She was then Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Salisbury Playhouse from 1999 to 2007. Under her leadership, the Playhouse became one of the leading regional producing theatres of the last decade. She steered the theatre to a position of financial stability, while also leading a successful major capital development programme. She was then an Associate Director of the Octagon Theatre Bolton from 1997. More recently, she has worked as a freelance director and writer for Edinburgh Festival Theatre, the Young Vic London, the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme, The Watermill West Berkshire Playhouse, The Mill at Sonning and the Watford Palace Theatre, amongst others. As a librettist, her works include a musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, for which Howard Goodall composed the music.
James Houghton is a noted administrator, and founding artistic director of New York’s Signature Theater Company (1991), he set the company’s agenda of single-playwright seasons, with playwrights such as Edward Albee, Horton Foote, John Guare, Bill Irwin, Romulus Linney, Arthur Miller, Lanford Wilson, and others, in residency during the seasons devoted to their works. In addition, Signature has produced 41 premiere works, including 17 premieres, some of them created during two “all premiere” seasons. Houghton is a guest lecturer at numerous colleges and theater programs, including Yale, N.Y.U., Columbia, and the Actors Studio. Has also been a judge and nominator for prestigious awards including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award, among others, as well as a presenter and speaker at many panels and symposiums.
James Houghton is the Richard Rogers Director of the Drama Division at Juilliard. A school who’s alumni have collectively won more than 105 Grammy Awards, 62 Tony Awards, 47 Emmy Awards, 26 Bessie Awards, 24Academy Awards, 16 Pulitzer Prizes, and 12 National Medals for the Arts.
Spanish dancer and director Tamara Rojo is Artistic Director of English National Ballet and a former Principal of The Royal Ballet. She joined the Company as a Principal in 2000 and in summer 2012 left to take up her position at ENB, where she also continues to dance as lead principal.
Rojo trained in Madrid at the Victor Ullate School and graduated into Ballet Victor Ullate. In 1996 she was invited to join Scottish Ballet and the next year moved to ENB, where within six months she was promoted to principal. She has performed all the classical roles, in works by Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton, in Mats Ek’s and Roland Petit’s Carmen and in ballets by George Balanchine, Kim Brandstrup, John Cranko, Nils Criste, Derek Deane, Mikhail Fokine, Jiří Kylián, Hans van Manen and Jerome Robbins. Her many awards include the Prince of Asturias Arts Award, the Spanish Royal Gold Medal of Fine Arts, Encomienda de Número of the Spanish Order of Isabel la Católica, the 2010 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production with Goldberg – The Brandstrup-Rojo Project, a Benois de la Danse Award, Gold Medal and Special Jury Award at the Paris International Dance Competition, a Critics’ Circle National Dance Award, a Barclays Award and an Italian Critics’ Award.
Rojo often participates on the juries of all the major international dance competitions, including Beijing, Lausanne and Benois. She is a Master of Theatrical Arts and a Bachelor of Dance and Choreography Honours Graduate from the University Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid. She was made a CBE in 2016.
Darcey Bussell was born in London and trained at The Royal Ballet School. It was here that the late Kenneth MacMillan noticed her exceptional technique and in 1988 gave her the leading role in his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, causing her to move to The Royal Ballet from Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet after only one year. In 1989, on the opening night of the show, she was promoted to Principal, at the time the youngest ballerina to be given this honour. Darcey remained a Principal dancer with The Royal Ballet until her retirement in 2007.
Darcey retired from ballet with a final performance of MacMillan’s Song of the Earth performed at the Royal Opera House and broadcast live on BBC Two. She has been featured in television documentaries including the BBC’s Britain’s Ballerina (2005) and appeared in numerous televised ballet galas and TV programmes. In 1995 Darcey was awarded an OBE and subsequently a CBE in 2006.
In 2007 Darcey teamed up with Katherine Jenkins to create and perform in the musical Viva La Diva. She created the Magic Ballerina books for young girls in 2008, of which over 1 million copies have been sold. In 2012 Darcey came out of retirement to lead a troupe of 300 ballerinas in the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games. Darcey is the Patron of the Sydney Dance Company and President of the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s fundraising appeal. In 2012 she was appointed President of the Royal Academy of Dance.
Q: What is theatre?
[Sir Howard Panter] Theatre is a place where one group of people- on stage- tell stories to another group of people who are sitting… usually in an auditorium… usually in the dark… listening to, and watching these stories.
[Gilles Ste-Croix] Since human beings started to gather in groups and communities, they sensed the necessity to transmit their experiences and knowledge- fundamentally- through storytelling. The transmission of these stories, through the ages moved from shamanism to modern forms of art on and off stage.
Theatre is a tool that has existed for thousands of years. I imagine that from the first moments people wanted to transmit their experiences of the hunt, or their father and grandfather. It is both the wish and necessity of human beings to tell stories.
[Joanna Read] Theatre is an art form that brings people together to celebrate, challenge and provoke through the telling of stories.
Theatre is unique, you see transformation right in front of you- created in the moment. In a book; you pick it up, put it down and it remains – similarly with film- but with theatre, what you witness in any given moment is unique and only you and the audience will ever experience that.
[James Houghton] Theatre is a moment of intersection between people where events collide or reveal conflict through storytelling. It is an art-form that always has, and always will be, important and relevant.
I think we have an insatiable appetite to understand our relevance; in context of our human relationships and our existence. Theatre is a moment where we stop our lives long enough to reflect off each other. Ultimately, that leads to context which- in turns- gives perspective on life and circumstances.
[Darcey Bussell] Theatre is a sense of escape, it transforms you into a new space. It can however, be many things. Theatre can be a source of intellectual learning, inspiration, and can even reflect your life.
Theatre is live, and that’s important. So much of our art is consumed through live-streams, through computers and so on – and this misses that extraordinary atmosphere, and sense of grounding and presence that theatre gives.
Q: What is performance?
[Gilles Ste-Croix] Going in front of an audience- be it small or large- is a performance… you have to captivate people with what you say, do or whatever! This is the basic of performance.
Not everyone can perform. The people who do it have a virtue that they can exploit to get that attention from people. Performance is about having the capability to captivate an audience with whatever means you can; with words, theatre, dance, music and so on.
Sometimes I go to lectures. Somebody can deliver a wonderful lecture with preparedness and experience, but he also captivates me with how it’s delivered.
Q: Why do we dance?
[Darcey Bussell] There’s a natural rhythm and language in our lives that we want to express through the movement of our bodies
Dance is something so basic, so human, that it can never disappear from our culture.
Dance isn’t just physical, it affects every emotion in the performer and the audience, and that’s something rare and precious which you don’t find in many other art-forms.
Q: What is the role of dance in theatre?
[Tamara Rojo] Dance, like music, is one of the most primitive of art-forms. From the very beginning, we have danced for rain, we have danced for our Gods and we have sacrificed things in dance form. It seems dance is the one universal language, the one art-form that can be understood completely emotionally. You can of course, intellectualise dance as much as you want- but its essence is that deep emotional connection between the audience and the artist.
Dance is the perfect form of escapism for the audience. If you don’t want to think, and just want to feel- that’s fine. Let me be clear, if you are a connoisseur and want to analyse the dance, the period, the narrative and the context – that’s fine, you can do that. Ballet can be as intellectual as any other art-form, but if you want to to go into a theatre and just be overwhelmed by feelings in a way that otherwise you would never be? then ballet is the art-form.
When the audience comes into the theatre, they disappear into the darkness with the common understanding that they are there to feel something.
[Darcey Bussell] Dance is an international language; you don’t have to translate it to enable people to understand it.
A lot of people tell me how they don’t understand dance because they don’t know what they’re looking at, they don’t see a narrative. This does sort-of miss the point of dance, which is that you need to enjoy the visual without trying to understand, and just embrace how it makes you feel at that moment, and allow it to bring thoughts and images to the forefront of your mind. Dance isn’t a story that has to have a conclusion, it’s more about how it makes you feel inside.
Q: Why has theatre become such an important art-form?
[Sir Howard Panter] In my imagination this goes back to the time when we lived in caves. I’m pretty convinced that two people, three people or one person sat on one side of a fire, providing the lighting- while a lot of other people sat on the other side of the cave or dwelling… and from time immemorial stories were told by one or several people, to a larger group of people. These stories may have been history, myths or legend…. they may even have been about religion or about grappling with the seasons.
Stories have always been told by live human beings to other live human beings, that’s what makes it such an important and enduring form of art in my view.
Q: What is the role of aesthetic and beauty in theatre?
[Sir Howard Panter] The unique selling proposition of theatre is the fact that there are live humans in a space, speaking to other live humans. It’s not online, not in a cinema, not on some tablet… it’s there. As a member of the audience, you are in the same space as the people who are- in the broadest sense of the word- telling stories.
The very fact that humanity is at the absolute centre of theatre in tangible flesh and blood terms means that there is intrinsic beauty in that art-form because the human form, human voice and human ability to imagine stories (and their repercussions) is the stuff of art!
[Gilles Ste-Croix] The aesthetic and beauty of theatre are very subjective. Performance and theatre can take many forms. It may be a play on the street or- as you saw during the early 19th century- a form of Opera where many forms of art were gathered into a single performance. The aesthetic of the elements of a performance when they are brought together depend on the culture of the people receiving it and where the piece itself is performed.
Aesthetic is subjective of the people who want to transmit and also those who receive.
When we play a Cirque du Soleil show I have people asking me, “…so you are French Canadian born, you are producing a show for the USA, you don’t use language, you use jibberish words and music, and people simultaneously get and don’t get it because it plays at many levels…. So how is it when you take the same show to Japan?” – I often relate this back to what the people are as a country. I have seen shows that make the people of Japan cry but the same show in USA or UK would not make people cry… it is a question of sensibility. Japanese people are very sensitive to symbolism… and many of our shows are built on the invocation of symbolism. These images are free to be interpreted by whoever watches them.
The aesthetic and beauty of a piece of theatre lies almost completely in the eyes of the person watching.
[Joanna Read] Theatre doesn’t have to be beautiful. Some of the most fantastic and thought-provoking pieces are ugly. There is an aesthetic in the staging and design- which should enhance the stories or design of the production- but it doesn’t have to be beautiful.
[James Houghton] The notion of beauty in the theatre is- as in life- defined by the perspective of the viewer. For me, beauty may be defined by other simplicities… stripping away all the white-noise of circumstances and just focussing on human action. That’s where I find moments of beauty in theatre, where those absolutely pristine quiet pin-drop moments occur… where the audience, story and artist collide in a moment of truth. These moments of beauty dig deep into an essence.
We each have our own personal aesthetic- but for me the simplicity of storytelling and the collision of human events is where beauty and aesthetic occur in theatre.
Theatre always has, and always will be, important and relevant.
Q: What is the aesthetic of ballet?
[Tamara Rojo] Ballet assimilates the proportions and the rules of classicism (such as those seen in Greek architecture), alongside our classic perceptions of beauty. Ballet takes these ‘rules,’ and creates its movements, poses and structures.
Humans like things that have proportion, equilibrium and a sense of balance. We like faces that are symmetrical, we like fruit that is perfectly round, this is intrinsic to our nature. Ballet has that in the essence of its structure.
Whether you intellectualise ballet or not, whether you like the emotion or not, whether you understand the story or not, ballet is aesthetically pleasing and that matters.
Ballet has managed to assimilate many other dance-forms, refining them, giving them structure and intrinsic beauty. It has taken the traditional and regional dances of eastern Europe, Asia, Spain and many other places- applied the rules of beauty and balance to them- and added to its vocabulary.
[Darcey Bussell] The people who are their, doing the ‘job’ carry an extraordinary amount of passion for what they give to the audience. Ballet is not a selfish-art, it comes from within.
It’s not as simple as making the moves, doing the steps and finishing the performance… it’s much, much more than that. Just think about what ballet puts your body through? Without that internal fire, and passion you simply couldn’t do it.
As people become more aware of ballet, and as television has showcased the skill of ballet, people are really respecting it as an art-form, and are getting an insight into the work that goes into it.
As a dancer, I can’t tell you why you become obsessed with ballet… but I can tell you that it’s magical- it takes people away from the every-day, into somewhere else.
Q: What is the role of spectacle in performing arts?
[Gilles Ste-Croix] Spectacle is largely a question of means, but it also brings an accent to a presentation or to the way of doing a show.
At the beginning of Cirque, we were just a group of street-performers- not great acrobats, so the spectacle was little! As we went along, we were able to add artificial spectacle which was connected to the performance and enhanced with better acrobats- improving the whole experience. Now it would be very hard to go back to 1984 where we were just street-acrobats, people expect and accept spectacle from our performances now.
Q: What is the role of the actor in theatre?
[Sir Howard Panter] The actor is the person who tells someone else’s story, he is the messenger of the story; regardless of whether that story was written by a composer, a lyricist or an author. He is the human-conduit to convey the story to the audience. His or her choices are therefore crucial in making that story as vivid as it can be.
[Gilles Ste-Croix] The performer and his performance are the skeleton of our production. We can put muscles over this in the form of costumes and lights… we will add music, light and invoke the emotion of this skeleton by bringing it to life… but the performance is at the centre of all of this.
[Joanna Read] Actors are communicators, storytellers, inventors and commentators. They have many roles in their art, depending on the story they are telling and the genre of the play.
Actors are there to entertain, but also to deliver the story as the writer (or they, themselves) would want.
As an actor, you are an artist. Greatness comes from the quality of the transformation, experience and how they can access and communicate emotion to effect a change in the audience.
[James Houghton] Theatre is an art-form that is meant to be heard. It is a collection of words and moments that are defined by the writer, but ultimately given voice by the actor. For me while it’s always story first; the actor is the instrument for those stories coming to life.
We each have our own notion of truth, but the great actors are the ones who make truth the through-line of their work. They are the ones who make the boundary between actor and character invisible- immersing themselves in the story. They are the ones who allow the audience to do the same. A great performance is not full of noise, but full of context and story. The actor must be generous, and give with abandon.
Without the actor, there is no theatre.
Q: What is the role of the dancer?
[Tamara Rojo] The dancer is simultaneously the art-piece and the artist. They are the interpreters of the piece, yet simultaneously the creators on the stage.
A dancer may be performing based on someone else’s choreography, but in that moment, they are the only one on the stage. It is their interpretation of the art that is communicated.
The role of the dancer to the audience is important too. There are some ballets where you need distance, some that are introverted- where you need to create a fourth world between you and the audience- and the audience become voyeurs to the art. Other ballets require a deep collaboration with the audience to be created- it may be comedy, or it may be a showpiece that requires you to read the audience to see how far you can go. It’s a measure of how good the artist is when you see how well they can measure and understand this dynamic.
Ballet is the creation of an art, by the artwork.
[Darcey Bussell] Dance is a collaboration, you can’t just have the dancer. A performance is only beautiful when all its components (lighting design, set design, choreography, musicians) come together, and that- as an artist- is incredibly exciting.
It’s very rare to be in a space where so many artists collaborate to produce a singular goal.
As a dancer, you want to be working with the best company, with the best repertoire. You want to be tested and challenged, and be working with people at the top of their art – so you can be at the top of yours.
You cannot make success happen on your own, you have to work with other people- and that’s one of the great lessons an art like ballet teaches.
As a dancer, you are a body- you are the tool. It’s very simple. Your only tool is your body, and that’s something primal and powerful about ballet.
Q: How does dance feel for the performer?
[Darcey Bussell] Dance exhilarates you, it gives you such a rush of endorphins.
I’m always trying to get people just to experience dance and try it out, but just from watching it you can get a taste of how it feels. Your brain is so stimulated watching this person or this group move, it’s a constant source of endless, ethereal inspiration.
Q: What makes a great dancer?
[Tamara Rojo] The great artists are physically gifted of course, they also have a musical sensibility, but- most importantly- they have a very-high degree of emotional intelligence.
The ability to read people’s emotions, and even manipulate them… so the audience feels exactly how you want them to feel. That’s important. The great artists have great empathy, and have a unique ability not just to feel emotions, but to impose them too.
Q: What is the role of the audience?
[Gilles Ste-Croix] People decide to buy a ticket, and come to be surprised, moved, entertained, inspired or informed. It is the decision of a consumer to make these steps- they could easily have stayed at home to watch TV.
Live performance with a live audience creates a bond which has existed for thousands of years where a human being meets another, and tells a story.
I once remember going to listen to Pavarotti. I have listened to his music many times at home on a beautiful sound system… but seeing and hearing him sing live moved me like it’s never moved me before. I received that performance like a gift.
Real theatre and real performance exists when you have a meeting of the performer and the audience as receiver.
[Joanna Read] The audience are an active participant, theatre is a relationship between the production and the audience- audiences are not just consuming…
A piece of theatre is not complete until the audience is in the room. The work is changed by the presence of an audience. When you are making work you see rehearsals and so forth, but what the piece becomes when an audience joins the process translates it to another stage.
Whether the audience know it or not, they are active in the process. They clarify things, deny things, join with ideas and more.
[James Houghton] The audience are not passive consumers of theatre, it is a circular relationship.
It is extremely important that an audience and a story become one. You often hear people describe the experience of ‘losing themselves‘ in the story; I- personally- would call it ‘finding yourself‘.
My guess would be that if you talk to the average audience member or artist, those unique moments that keep us coming back to theatre are relatively rare; yet we keep going. We want that moment where we get so immersed.. where all the people in the audience and the production come together… that is what resonates with us for years to come.
You see this same principle in the fine-arts. Even in the darkest of subjects, art can lift us somehow and reveal something deeply relevant about our human condition.
We are at a place where an entire generation has been introduced to the arts through digital context and theatre is becoming new again. The notion of going into a theatre… a quiet small space with a bunch of real human beings… sitting in a three dimensional experience requiring attention? it’s so old, it’s new again!
Q: What is the link between theatre and music?
[Sir Howard Panter] Music is generally acknowledged as one of the art-forms that most directly connects with, and stirs, the human emotion. When in theatre- whether it be musical theatre, opera or any form of performance- when emotions are heightened, music together with lyrics creates heightened emotions.
When you get goose-bumps up the back of your neck hearing a song from West Side Story (as it were) it’s because the combination of the words, character and music together create a heightened emotional experience.
Music heightens the emotional experience of an audience!
[Gilles Ste-Croix] The performance or performer is dressed up with costumes that create a period or style. The music comes as a layer of emotion to illustrate what the artist was evoking.
Whether we talk of the human voice alone, or musical instruments… the vibrations carry within us and create a layer of emotion – otherwise you are watching TV with the sound off, and what can be more boring than that?
When the music is really deeply connected with the image, it brings another level of engagement for the viewer.
Q: To what extent is ballet informed by other arts?
[Tamara Rojo] The greatest artists are intrinsically curious. They are never pleased with themselves or satisfied, they are constantly filled with doubt, curiosity and a hunger for learning. Those are the people who go and watch films, go to the theatre, listen to music, read books, and collaborate. Every painting they see, every actor they meet, every piece of inspiration they find becomes a file in their head and informs their work whether they are aware of this fact or not.
Q: Why has ballet stood the test of time?
[Darcey Bussell] The training and the syllabi that are involved in creating the technique and quality of ballet, the emotional aspect and all the various factors that go into it cannot be created quickly. Ballet skills are not something you’re born with… it’s 90% hard work, slog, tears and dedication. The lifetime commitment of the dancer to the craft, to the syllabus, is why those great performances are so satisfying.
Being a ballerina is like being an athlete, albeit you don’t get a gold medal for your best performance.
As an artist, and as a person, you realise that things will not always be perfect… so when you see perfection on stage? You are astounded.
Each generation puts a mark on art, it’s not about improving things… it’s about giving themselves and their personality to art.
Q: How is ballet translating for the modern age?
[Darcey Bussell] Ballet will naturally adapt; it wouldn’t have lasted this long if it didn’t!
The classics and traditional pieces will always remain, and there will always be certain scores that are listened to and adored for time to come. If you’re not doing new-work however… if you’re not testing the bounds of people’s perceptions of what should be performed on stage? Then you’re not making art. Audiences and artists are always excited by the new.
We’re so flooded with information and content, that our attention spans are becoming shorter. This doesn’t mean that dancers will move faster, but it means that the artistic content of productions will be more concentrated.
Q: Does theatre have a role ‘outside art’ in political, social and other struggles?
[Sir Howard Panter] Theatre goes in phases with regard it’s Political impact, and sometimes is more at the forefront of social-change than other times. What it should always do is enlighten the audience, and give them an experience which is different to their lives when they came into the performance. Whether it’s your perception of a human, social, environmental or any other issue… whether it’s the lightest, frothiest farce or the darkest piece of brutalist theatre… it should in some way change and involve the audience’s view of the world in which they live.
Q: How does theatre relate to other art-forms?
[Sir Howard Panter] The cross-over between theatre and other art-forms can be wonderful.
Outside my ‘day job‘ I’m the chair of a company called Rambert which is perhaps the leading contemporary dance company in the UK, which comes from a long tradition going back to Diaghilev and so on; and these are all examples of musical theatre with dance! There’s been a huge tradition of art-collaboration going back centuries at least. You had Picasso doing back-cloths and Matisse doing costumes in theatre.
Actors often say that their artistic and acting muscles are developed in theatre wherever they end up performing, whether that be in film, TV or elsewhere. Theatre is the place where you develop your real acting skills.
[Joanna Read] Theatre has always been a collaborative art form and has always borrowed and robbed from other arts in order to do its job effectively. Theatre captures and reflects the world and is always informed by the time and culture in which the work is created. The stage, language and many other areas will be informed by the culture of the time. The work of theatre can be a single-playwrights voice or even a wider version of that. Theatre captures and reflects our lives back to us. Every new play is telling the story of our lives and the next generation.
Q: What makes a theatre production great?
[Sir Howard Panter] There is no one single formula to theatre success, needless to say, otherwise we’d all be doing it!
Theatre is a collaborative art-form with writers, producers, directors, lighting designers, costume makers and so on. When all those pieces coincide, and when the performances are great, the lighting is great, the music is great, the design is great…. when all those different creative activities fuse into one emotional and intellectual delivery- that’s when great theatre occurs.
I use West Side Story as an example. Bernstein arguably never wrote any music as great as he did for West Side Story, and similarly Sondheim arguably never wrote any greater lyrics. Many say Jerome Robbins also never choreographed anything as great as he did for West Side Story either. At a fundamental level, one could also argueArthur Laurents never wrote another book as great as West Side Story, a book he based on the work of another genius; Shakespeare – and his play ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. In this case you have 5 geniuses at the top of their game, and when they came together, they created the masterpiece of West Side Story, which will endure for time immemorial.
Great theatre happens when original creative people come together at the height of their powers in a miraculous concoction.
[Gilles Ste-Croix] Even though we have been in the business for 30 years, the truth is that the concept of what makes a show great is still very fragile.
We must also remember that often we are dealing with theatre which is based on literature and can be the interpretation of a story. Very often I am deceived! If I have read a book, I will create a visual in my mind of that story and often the interpretation I am presented with does not match that.
We are going to launch a show in Montreal, called KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities in the Big Top. We have been working on the show for over 3 years but it all comes down to the moment we put the show in front of a live audience to see their reactions to we have perceived in our minds and as members of the production. We need to see how the audience bond with a production, how they breathe with it. That’s what creates the rhythm and determines whether something will become a timeless piece.
We have created some productions that have become timeless and some that have not made it that far…. But in my mind I can think of so many works that have existed for millennia. The works of Shakespeare, Molière, Wagner and so on… they touch and invoke things within us that are universal in their existence. They create images in me that I can recognise myself, something that makes me sit back and say, “ah!”
A baby in China, Europe or Canada recognises his mother and calls her “Mummy!” this is something that’s within us, it’s a collective memory. We have to see a show as evoking these basic facets of humanity- both good and bad.
[Joanna Read] A great piece of theatre has relevance.. whether that is to the now and the immediate concerns of an audience… or whether it’s a greater universal truth such as love or death or war.. This relevance is then brought alive by the quality of the art… how good the acting is… and more.
[James Houghton] Theatre which becomes timeless digs into the human condition in a way that goes beyond the given circumstances of that piece. Whether you see West Side Story or Shakespeare examining the story of star-crossed lovers; you will see an authentic and genuine human condition- the search for love.
When a story is told with authenticity and honestly; digging into the time and place and human nature, you will create a piece of theatre that becomes timeless. That’s true in work which is current, or in work that is set around a particular circumstance or period.
Q: What is the role of education in theatre?
[Joanna Read] At LAMDA, we’re training our students to be artists. Art is essential to how we live our lives, it can change-us, inform us and position our lives relative to others. We hold the business of theatre-making and the actors role in that very seriously. There is an obligation and social responsibility to be an actor.
We are training artists not entertainers.
[James Houghton] My greatest hope for the students graduating from the Juilliard graduate division is that we provide them the opportunity to be expressive and more of themselves, and that we give them the tools to express through their work in a manner that is generous, responsible and authentic. We want our graduates to enter the workplace not just prepared for the task at hand, but equipped to produce work that ultimately stems from their core selves… who they are, and their own voice.
Our students want to be great global citizens, they want to respect the form of theatre, they are inspired by the unending possibilities the medium allows. Every year we audition 1500 position for just 18 positions, and I see the heat and passion of theatre being as relevant today as it ever was; and I predict it will be for hundreds of years to come.
Q: What is theatre’s economic role?
[Sir Howard Panter] Every single independent tourist review that is written about reasons why people should come to the UK and London starts with heritage/royalty and then immediately moves on to theatre…. Specifically theatre…. not the arts, not entertainment, not shopping, not restaurants… the theatre.
Alongside the fact that theatre employs many people in many diverse and different jobs, it’s also a great regenerator of town-centres. If you speak to any government or local-government official that is trying to regenerate cities and towns further, theatres are at the centre. From time to time I get interviewed by an unnamed newspaper about the death of the West End. I always offer to take the journalist around London in a taxi where I can show them boarded up shops, boarded up offices, boarded up factories and boarded up pubs.
Funnily enough… I can’t find any boarded up theatres!
Theatre is growing globally, and people want it globally. How the work of theatre develop will be a fascinating blend of cultures, it’s an incredible opportunity. We currently have three proposals from Shanghai asking us to build, operate and convert theatres as a central core-magnet to retail, residential and other developments. This is alongside conversations we are having in Korea, Hong Kong and more. Around the world, more theatres are being built now than at any other time in history. Theatre will lose the London and New York concentration. Hamburg, Vienna, Melbourne and Sydney are already great theatre cities. Hong Kong is growing into a great theatre destination too. There is also a huge opportunity across Canada and other territories. I see theatre essentially following an upward trajectory in terms of number of cities and venues.
People worldwide now acknowledge theatre is good for society economically and socially.
Q: What does the next 25 years hold for theatre?
[Sir Howard Panter] I think the essential core of theatre…. the unique selling proposition of being there to see it, having to perform in a space… will remain the same…. However what that core is saying and doing will depend on the message and story of the artists of the future.
The activity of theatre has lasted for many thousands of years. As long as human beings have the need to hear stories, and to tell stories, it will remain.
[Joanna Read] We’re in very difficult times at the moment in terms of funding. This does however mean that we tend to get better at what we do. The work gets tougher, leaner and better.
I would hope however that regional-theatre funding improves in the future, and we’re left with a secure theatre network.
[James Houghton] Theatre is ultimately about conflict between people and circumstances… you can wrap it in a different package and bow, but these principles have remained the same for hundreds of years.
In the off-Broadway scene of the 1960s, you saw a trend of self-generating theatre in store-fronts and unusual venues. They were still going after the essence of theatre, but taking it everywhere. If you look today at the influence of technology in theatre, we are now able to do some of the things we used to do by hand- but more easily… for example, throwing a light cue by computer rather than moving dimmers by hand.
Technology gives us more tools to get to the core event, but ultimately the fierce passion the artist has to reveal the story is what powers the theatre.
Q: How do artists cope with the mental pressures of perfection?
[Tamara Rojo] I would contest that we all have one or two ‘issues’ with our mental health, perhaps that is just the normal being of being a human.
The discipline of ballet gives you the ability to manage your emotions, and an outlet for them. Ballet is a way to go through your emotions with the permission to exploit your frustrations, investigating them, using them and exposing them.
Society faces dangers when people have doubts and questions, and cannot investigate them. When people hold-on to their emotions, and don’t become malleable to them.. they become fragile, and can break, like glass.
Q: What is the role of ballet in the modern world?
[Tamara Rojo] Digital technology is making us insular. We think we have relationships through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but they are not real. There is no physical connection.
We are human, we need physical connection.
Participating in public performance, where you are a part of something with other people is more important than ever. It’s more important than ever that we encourage young people into the arts in a meaningful way where they feel they want to go, and can afford to go. Right now, we can’t even get young people through the door- and that’s hard.
The new policies on art in school are troubling, young people are being encouraged away from the arts, and many young people are going to grow up without knowing the wonderful possibilities art can offer.
All children should be allowed to experience art in their lives, in a normal every-week kind of way.
When I took my first ballet class, I had never seen ballet before. I didn’t know ballet was a performance, I didn’t have access to it. The music, and the ability to move to it was what captivated me.
Looking even further to the future, we are entering the world of artificial intelligence and robotics. There is a chance that machines will be performing many of our world’s most physical tasks. Wouldn’t it be better if we guarantee the future of our children with creativity? That’s the one thing machines can’t compete with us on.
Human beings will live maybe 100 years, and we leave school when we’re 16, 17, 18. We need to teach kids to enjoy learning, to be curious, and to always want to learn. Not one iota of what they will become can be taught by us. The most important thing is that children enjoy the process of discovery.
The more we encourage creativity, the more we encourage children to imagine alternate realities, the more our futures will all be brighter.
Q: How has art changed your world-view?
[Tamara Rojo] Art has changed my world-view completely.
I have travelled the world, not for tourism but to work. I have worked with so many different people, from so many different cultures and backgrounds and I have had my mind opened about humanity.
I don’t feel that I am a particular person from a particular part of the world. I was born somewhere, grew-up somewhere else, and lived in a few more places. I am a person of the world.
Art has allowed me to live with myself, and to make sense of the fragility of humanity’s desires and traits. I’m just a human being, and art has given me the space to be OK with that.
Q: What inspires you as an artist?
[Darcey Bussell] Working with choreographers and producing stuff that really makes people think, and changes their ideas, and takes them to another place… that’s powerful for me.
I always enjoyed working with people that tested me, and helped me achieve things I didn’t think I could….
Q: Is dance greatness intrinsic, or can it be taught?
[Darcey Bussell] Dance in itself is a social skill that everybody should appreciate and enjoy, our bodies are made to move.
If you choose to specialise in the field- you’re like an athlete. You have to be built for the technique.
The role of the body is important and for dancers, it’s about the joints, flexibility and muscular strength. The proportions of the body are also important; that’s part of the aesthetic, and you can’t help that- this is a visual art.
Q: What would be your message to the next generation?
[Sir Howard Panter] You really have to devote your life to theatre. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a family and so forth… but it isn’t like some activities in life where you can get a healthy work-life balance, as much as we would like to encourage it.
Theatre is your life as well as your work, and if that doesn’t fit with you, then theatre isn’t right for you.
[Gilles Ste-Croix] Whatever your talent… music, movement, whatever… if you have the drive to continue and develop and become a great performer then you should. It’s a lot of work- my father used to tell me that in life you need a little bit of talent, but lots of hard work.
If you have a little talent, prepare yourself for hard work to develop it, and you may attain greatness; but don’t forget that the road to greatness is long.
[Joanna Read] You should make the work that tells the stories you feel are important to you and your generation. The role of a theatre maker is to tell the stories of our lives.
You should try and grab the whole of the gamut of emotions, it’s not just to entertain. The mix and bravery by which you grab those emotions makes theatre exciting.
[James Houghton] You must be fearless and brave. You must be willing to express what you feel, and to do that with thought.
People have a fear of expression, and we must encourage them to do the hard, hard work it takes to overcome this and know they are empowered to make work. All great work comes from this principle, new forms are made, new theatre is created…. When someone stops to write… or stops to raise some money? those are the moments where greatness is created.
[Tamara Rojo] You have to be curious and learn as much as you can from as many people as you can. You can even learn from people who don’t know what they’re doing; at least you will then know how not to do something.
You have to be kind to yourself. You do not have to suffer or punish yourself to be a great artist. The sooner you can accept yourself, the sooner you can progress and discover what you’re capable of.
Life is so short, and goes so fast, you have to enjoy it. Life will throw you in so many directions, and goals are not the end; they are simply gateways to more questions, and this process of discovering answers and new questions is never complete, that’s life.
[Darcey Bussell] People have a lot of inhibitions, and are hugely preoccupied with what other people are thinking. Dance gives you a space to forget that, and enjoy being you.
I always think you should dance with others, but it’s amazing how happy you can be dancing on your own. For me however, the entertainment and enjoyment is dancing with friends or even strangers. Dancing breaks-down so many barriers, and makes you more comfortable with people around you. People let their guard-down when they dance, and it opens a lot of doors for communications.
I have a fitness and dance programme that we take into state-schools. We let kids try anything they want in dance and let their creativity flow. They can do any genre from around the world- the aim is to find something that they can connect with to give them a feel of what dance can do. When you see the reaction? My God, it’s the happiest they’ve ever been! They’re testing their bodies like they’ve never done before, and finding skills that they didn’t think they had. It gives them a space to enjoy being themselves, without peer-pressure, without the stresses that can impact their lives so negatively at this early stage.
Art is one of the most valuable assets of human society, yet the truth is that while we may attach art to a time and a place; it’s true provenance and relevance remain intangible. We can look at the raw materials (the paint, the instrument…), the composition (the brush strokes, the music) or even the act of consumption (viewing, listing…) – but the thing that we observe only becomes art within us. The phenomenon of art emerges within the intangible mix of experience and cultural inputs that create our mind. A fact not lost on the ancient Greeks who simultaneously originated the concepts of philosophy (the love of wisdom) and theatre (the place for viewing) c.6th century B.C.
In his seminal book ‘Theatre and Everyday Life’, Professor Alan Read notes that “…the theatre is composed of material elements – bodies in action and speech articulated in places, and a receptive audience for that action and speech. The images of other arts are constituted in quite different ways. This engagement has a metaphysical aspect in that the image between the performer and the audience adds up to more than the sum of its various parts. A materialist criticism that does not recognise these ‘metaphysical’ qualities of theatre is lacking critical force. For the ‘beyond physical’, the numinous, the spirit, the aura of art, however it is described is a material response to art not just ideological or ‘imagined’. This ‘something more’ than the thing itself is attested to by too many people without deference to gender, race or class. And to ignore it, as though it will go away, and leave us with the quantified, the material and the manipulable, in the name of dogmatic sectarian objectives, is to impoverish the terms on which theatre might be most valuably and pleasurably thought and practiced. This metaphysics of theatre is what is not seen, beyond the practiced, beyond the mind’s eye it remains unwritten. It is the domain which both makes theatre worthwhile and simultaneously jeopardises its effects. For it is in this hinterland of the undocumented and discreet that the fallacies of theatre are nourished. This ‘something more’ of the image does not disconnect the experience of theatre from its place of performance, nor from the everyday. Theatre remains bound by its context precisely through the unique relationship images create between audience, performer and everyday life.” He adds that, “To value theatre, is to value life, not to escape from it. The everyday is at once the most habitual and demanding dimension of life which theatre has most responsibility to. Theatre does not tease people out of their everyday lives like other expressions of wish fulfilment but reminds them who they are and what is worth living and changing in their lives every day.” (Theatre and Every Day Life, 1993)
The concept of everyday life here is critical. Human beings are cursed with the knowledge of agency. We know without a shadow of a doubt that our immediate experiences are limited simply to ourselves. In many philosophies this is even manifest as the discussion of how one is trapped in the body- able to only experience the substantive world which we have ingested through our limited senses.
With this in mind, we quickly see the real power of theatre. Prof. Erin Hurley describes how, “Theatre allows for and offers vicarious experience: the experience of someone else experiencing something… We know that witnessing another’s actions and emotional experiences can create the same neurological imprint as doing or feeling them oneself. Joseph Roach provocatively recasts the history of theatre in terms of the good of what he calls ‘synthetic experience’, a cognate to vicarious experience. The theatre is a port of entry into another’s life and another kind of living.” (Theatre and Feeling, 2010)
Art is the medium by which we- as human beings- are able to relate to each other. Art allows us to understand things that are more than ourselves, and imagine life through the agency of others. Theatre- as perhaps the most human of all the arts- has the profound ability to engage us immediately in the experience of someone else’s agency- at any point in time, at any place. It breaks down the loneliness of being a self, and allows one to realise that not only are there others- but that the self can be them too.
“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms…” wrote Oscar Wilde, “the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.“