World Stages London is the first time a group of London theatres have worked together.
It may be surprising but it's true. For decades, the taken-for-granted assumption has been that the only way in which the London public theatres can relate to each other is in terms of competition – competition for plays, for actors, for directors – above all for audiences. In fact, with regard to audiences at least, the opposite is true.
If people have a good time at the Old Vic, across the road from me, they're likely to wonder what's playing at my theatre, the Young Vic – and maybe even buy a ticket. Apart from which, research suggests that audience crossover between London public theatres (the National excepted) is very low – around 10 per cent. So,what exactly have we been competing for?
We decided to explore whether some form of collaboration might bring greater rewards. By luck, we chose our moment well. When we began four years ago, we sensed within the small world of London theatre a spirit of collegiality in the air. We talked to almost every theatre in town. It felt as though they'd been waiting for someone to suggest something like this. "Collaborate? Why not? But in what way?". "We've no idea," we said because we hadn't. Or perhaps we had just the glimmerings of one.
What were we looking for? Generosity, ambition, friendship. A willingness to explore the possibility that together we could achieve things impossible on our own. Each of us in different ways had experienced a longing to produce a particular show – or to work in a particular way – and found that, for one reason or another, we couldn't achieve it. So a group of us decided, just for once, to see what was possible if we got together.
Over months of conversation, ideas and themes emerged. Should we do one huge show together? What would give coherence to the work we made? Was coherence even necessary? As things have turned out, we are a core group of eight: Battersea Arts Centre, the Bush Theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith, the Royal Court, Sadler's Wells, Somerset House, Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Young Vic. And we've been joined by the Actors Touring Company, Kneehigh, the Opera Group, WildWorks and King's College, London.
The theme that binds us is "London in the world, the world in London". Together, we have created a season of shows each of which draws on one of the great cultural traditions that together make up the most cosmopolitan city in the world. And each show is a further collaboration with a company or an artist of the country from which the story – in each case what we're calling a "deep" story – originally came. So we're working with theatres in Paris, Munich, Tallinn, Brussels, Boston and Haifa as well as artists from the USA, India, China and South Africa. Wild Swans has already played at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston and then sold out at the Young Vic. Three Kingdoms has been a huge hit in Germany and opened at the Lyric Hammersmith. BABEL, a massive, site-specific show led by WildWorks and BAC, draws participants from across London began last week. Soon, The Suit, already a success in Paris, comes to the Young Vic, The Beloved travels from Palestine to the Bush Theatre and a new British Bollywood musical, Wah! Wah! Girls, opens at the Peacock – then plays Theatre Royal Stratford East later in the year.
And next year there'll be more: Nigeria, South Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil, Cuba... And of course London. It's a new way of living in the real world and of making theatre for it and of it. Are the any limits? We haven't found them yet.
David Lan is artistic director of the Young Vic, and co-director of World Stages London (worldstageslondon.org.uk)