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The Perpetual Crises Engulfing British Theatre

An Interview with Migrant Theatre Director Alex Istudor

There are few better-placed theatre directors in the UK who can talk about the first-generation migrant experience in British theatre than Romanian-born Alex Istudor. After studying in Romania he completed a master’s degree in theatre directing at London’s Royal Holloway University and returned to his home country to direct Panopticon (based on the the U.S. Senate Report on a CIA Detention Interrogation Program that details the use of torture during CIA detention and interrogation) for the sociopolitical company Reactor of Creation and Experiment. In 2016, he won the National Contest for Young Theatre Directors (the most important directing award for emerging artists in Romania) and directed The Other Country based on the writings of Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller at Craiova National Theatre.

Responding to issues around representation for migrant theatremakers in the UK, Alex helped found Migrants in Theatre (MIT) in 2020, a movement that advocates for better migrant representation and structural and cultural change. Alex runs an online European theatre club with fellow UK migrant theatremakers Nastazja Domaradzka and Lara Parmiani (also involved in setting up MIT). For this interview I met Alex for a series of Zoom chats to discuss crises enveloping in UK theatre.

two actors onstage

A photograph from a performance of The Other Country. For full production team, see below*

verity healey: You’ve mentioned before that you experience difficulties as an immigrant living in the UK. Do you and other immigrant theatremakers experience similar challenges in the country’s theatre sector?

Alex Istudor: This is a super interesting question. I don’t want to suggest that all professional challenges are due to being a migrant or a foreigner—this is a very competitive industry and rejection is part of the journey. The real challenge is believing you have the same opportunities as some other people, which includes being able to present an idea and be seen as an artist by industry leaders.

But I think what a lot of migrants and international artists experience, on top of all the anti-migration narratives present in the UK media and society, is a form of artistic xenophobia. This is experienced as a constant fear and distrust towards different ways of making theatre, especially when these differences are perceived as coming from abroad. Political insularity has been translated into a theatrical insularity in the UK.

In a 2017 article published in the Guardian, playwright David Hare referred to continental directors (directors in Europe not from the UK) using the same language that is common in the anti-immigration narrative: that theatremakers from Europe are “coming over and beginning to infect our theatre.” There’s a clear split in the industry—some people welcome a more outward-looking approach while others tend to think like Hare and are simply not interested in what else exists out there. The latter group is more numerous and it isn’t particular to certain generations—there are a lot of young artists whose only artistic references are rooted in the UK theatrical tradition. Based on what other artists have said to me, it has not always been like this, it was more natural to look outwards.

verity: How different is the UK’s attitude towards theatrical storytelling from, say, continental Europe?

Alex: The UK’s theatrical culture is obsessed with the idea of theatre as storytelling, both as a discourse and as a conditioning of what the work is and should be like. This is extremely rigid: theatre is not storytelling but an experience. In London almost every season announcement sounds the same, everyone seems to be saying, “We are telling new and important stories.” I don’t know what that means as a discourse or as an artistic program. If no one goes further or deeper than that, these words are empty of any meaning.

And defining theatre almost exclusively as telling stories puts clear expectations and pressures on what the work itself should be and look like. The focus becomes on content rather than form and not how those stories are being told. Stories can have a transformative effect, but unless you invest in form that effect is not guaranteed. And what’s the point of telling stories if you use the same traditional aesthetics, theatrical languages, and forms?

What’s the point of telling stories if you use the same traditional aesthetics, theatrical languages, and forms?

verity: I was recently watching a UK theatre show online and at first I was excited as its beginning was interesting. But as soon as the monologue started, the writing took over and I was bored…

Alex: Exactly. The great majority of theatre produced in the UK ends up telling us something rather than showing or suggesting something so that the audience can find their own truth. This is another major consequence of defining theatre almost exclusively as telling stories—the relationship that emerges between the work and the audience suffers. Very little is asked of audiences: passive attendance is encouraged rather than involving audiences as co-creators in decoding meaning.

My provocation to the theatre world in the UK would be: “How about we don’t start from the premise that theatre is storytelling and instead try to explore with each show what it can be?’’

verity: How do you begin a conversation about a show without talking about the story?

Alex: British theatremaker Chris Goode once said “The politics of a play are in the form and not in the content.” In practical terms, one way of challenging this fixation with storytelling is by refocusing the artistic discourse on theatrical form, meaning all the aspects that facilitate the encounter between the audience and the work itself: acting styles, aesthetics, theatrical languages, visual dramaturgy, ideas, and the whole intellectual dimension of a show.

How the story is being told would be the main focus of the theatrical exploration. For example, everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, so the focus should be on the relevance of its bigger themes, on the intellectual framework beyond it, on interrogating those aspects and their relevance to our contemporary society and finding different theatrical forms to tell that story without relying almost exclusively on the text.

verity: How does this attitude to theatre as a mainly storytelling vehicle affect you as a director when you want to pitch?

Alex: There are UK artistic directors who are aware of other theatrical traditions and who are very open to different ways of talking about theatre, but they are the exception, not the rule. And as an industry, we have got to a point where there is an implied expectation that the artist will shape the work around their personal identity, almost as if that validates them being given the opportunity to speak. I once submitted to one of the UK awards for directors, and the feedback I got was, “We couldn’t connect your ideas and motivation of proposing this text with who you are as a person or your identity.” Do we need to justify every choice with who we are?

The industry has become too self-centric, encouraging us to talk too much about who we are rather than talking about the work we want to create. Obviously it helps to have a personal connection to the material you are proposing, but sometimes the connection is not clear or visible, sometimes it is purely intellectual or emotional or political. But there is an expectation to legitimize it through the box you are put in.

verity: Which is prejudice?

Alex: It is a prejudice, especially as sometimes you are boxed into a single identity and human beings are defined through a crucible of identities. I am more troubled by this expectation and self-centrism rather than the propensity to define theatre exclusively as a storytelling medium. The latter can be challenged with work that undermines that conditioning, while the boxing up affects who’s given the opportunity to create the work and under what conditions and expectations. You become artistically imprisoned.

The industry has become too self-centric, encouraging us to talk too much about who we are rather than talking about the work we want to create.

verity: Have you found it easy to approach artistic directors?

Alex: In my close circle of artist friends we often say that some UK artistic directors are harder to reach than the Pope himself. There are some who are open and willing to engage, but there is a huge issue around access, clarity, and transparency. My question for artistic directors would be: “What makes you decide to give a job to a certain person, what are the aspects you consider in your decision-making process?”

At the moment it seems like the whole industry is functioning primarily based on personal relationships and recommendations. I hear people say, “I recommended that person or I was recommended by that person,” but what about artists who are complete strangers? Shouldn’t they have the same chance to access and approach artistic directors to present an idea?

verity: You mentioned before that you think UK theatre has a different approach to storytelling than continental Europe. How have you found working with actors?

Alex: It’s weird because students in the UK are exposed to a lot of different acting styles in drama schools, yet all these styles rarely end up being incorporated in the mainstream. In this country no one has challenged or is interested in challenging the dominant acting style, which is a rather simplified and artificial form of naturalism, apart from a few companies like Forced Entertainment or Complicité.

But this so-called naturalistic acting is getting more mimetic and simplified as a means of corporal expression, and it’s very untruthful and declamatory. It’s gotten to a point where it’s like the acting in radio plays, as so much is fixated on releasing the truth through the spoken text. Most shows I see at the National Theatre have this kind of acting. We need to (re)focus on communicating more with our bodies and movement and physical expressiveness. I am talking about a realistic genre of acting that takes the pressure off the spoken word and invests it in non-verbal communication, in playing the dramatic situation as opposed to playing the text.

If shows employing a rather artificial and simplified naturalistic acting style are happening on the leading stages of the nation, then what expectations can we have from the fringe, especially the non-producing houses—which, let’s be honest, due to the fringe’s precarity and focus on quantity, doesn’t really allow artists to explore their craft properly. It’s a contradiction in the way the fringe functions.

verity: Because the fringe doesn’t allow directors to explore?

Alex: If you work with a non-producing house on the fringe, most of your energy goes into the non-artistic side of the work. You rarely get the chance to explore and develop the tools of your trade, so I understand why the fringe has become so word driven. However, places like the National Theatre can afford to rehearse for weeks in proper working conditions! Why are we seeing these simplified and uninteresting acting performances in the very places that can afford to explore that dimension of the theatre craft?

Maybe the issue is that the UK theatrical landscape is a bit stuck. Perhaps because, due to the historical political stability in the UK, theatre hasn’t experienced any crises to get to a point where everything is questioned and interrogated, hence a certain status quo has always been preserved and not much has changed in the last fifty to sixty years? Especially in relation to the over-reliance of the spoken word as a way of communicating meaning.

I hear people say, “I recommended that person or I was recommended by that person,” but what about artists who are complete strangers? Shouldn’t they have the same chance to access and approach artistic directors to present an idea?

verity: You helped set up Migrants in Theatre with your colleagues out of frustration at the lack of representation for migrants, and you are advocating for structural and cultural change. Do you feel positive that action will be taken?

Alex: Whilst the feedback from the industry representatives has been overwhelmingly positive, we have to be realistic. What we are asking for is not just the first basic steps of inclusion and representation, but also a cultural shift, which takes time. And obviously we are part of a bigger conversation around improving the representation of marginalized groups and diversifying the UK theatrical landscape.

Marginalization is so ingrained in the structures and traditions of the UK theatrical culture that sometimes it feels like the system will never be shaken up radically. We needed a global pandemic to be able to start talking about some of these structural issues because it brought everything to a standstill and created more space to finally talk. This crisis has exposed a lot of the way the industry functions and who’s benefiting from the current model. To me, that says a lot about the nature of the UK theatre industry and its resistance to change. Now it’s time for real action, not just discussions around various issues.

verity: Why should UK theatre embrace migrants?

Alex: There is a moral, ethical, and democratic argument to represent the makeup of the UK society, and 14 percent of people in the UK are first-generation migrants. In London, it is 37 percent. And it is important to represent migrants as it is a simple way of enriching a theatrical culture, of making the industry look outwards and expose it to different ways of making theatre. This international dimension has been embraced by other artistic mediums, but not by UK theatre.

As migrants we will probably also place interrogation, which UK theatre really needs, at the center of what we do because we have always been interrogating our lived experiences: where we come from, our cultural baggage, our origins, our identity. It will also ensure that different theatrical practices and aesthetics can be assimilated into the UK’s theatrical culture, which is not possible if we only have a culture where visiting artists from abroad are platformed for a short while at the Barbican or international festivals.

verity: How does the theatre industry need to look to the future?

two actors onstage

A photograph from a performance of The Other Country. For full production team, see below*

Alex: There are loads of great organizations and people advocating for more community engagement, redistribution of power, and democratization. What’s missing from the conversation though is an artistic reshaping and rethinking, and I want to address that. I have ten different points, which I want to end on.

One: Ditch the culture of literalism as the dominant theatrical aesthetic. There’s a fear audiences “won’t get the play,” but literalism kills the audience’s imaginative powers. Instead, encourage artists to remain uncompromising and provide the right working conditions for them to make the art they want.

Two: Place interrogation at the center of the creative practice and move away from the idea of serving the text. Creative teams should not be bureaucrats of texts but rather artists who are instigated and inspired by a text.

Three: Renegotiate theatre’s relationship with its audiences guided by the principle of radical art for the people, and trust audiences as co-creators and decoders of meaning rather than trying to control it.

Four: Try the continental model of employing ensembles and working in a rep system, which would add artistic richness to the theatrical ecology and create new possibilities of making work.

Five: Reward the artists who make challenging work and integrate them into the mainstream ecology, otherwise we risk artists losing faith in the power of their work to be relevant. The most interesting work in the UK is done by independent theatre companies and smaller venues such as Forced Entertainment, Gob Squad, and the New Diorama Theatre, but when it comes to provocative and challenging work done by directors, we don’t have the equivalent of Milo Rau or Oliver Frljic here.

Six: Question the relationship between the independent and commercial sectors and the role of theatre in society because the influence of the West End is too crushing for the non-commercial sector, which has a responsibility to offer an alternative to the West End.

Seven: Tackle the misconceptions around “European/continental theatre,” such as the assumptions that directors are destroyers of texts, the notion that shows from the continent are inaccessible and alienate audiences, and that directors don’t collaborate and are power-hungry dictators.

Eight: Invest in the political relevance of theatre as a true force for change that can lead by example when it comes to representation, anti-racism, equality, and cultural decolonization.

Nine: Less is more. The UK produces too much theatre in improper working and producing circumstances. We need to focus on quality, relevance, and proper support for artists as opposed to quantity.

Ten: Question the existence of the dominant narratives that UK theatre is the best or world-leading because it legitimizes an industry to look inward and preserves the status quo. If you are a young creator or an audience member and want to break into the industry, and you keep hearing the UK has the best theatre in the world, what is the incentive to look outwards and expose yourself to different theatrical cultures? What is the point of you embracing something from abroad and being influenced by that?

*The Other Country. Adapted and directed by Alexandru Istudor. Translation by Corina Bernic and Nora Iuga. Set and Costume Design by Francesca Cioancă. Lighting Design by Dodu Ispas. Cast: Romaniţa Ionescu, Adrian Adone, Marian Politic, Gabriela Baciu, Ştefan Cepoi, Vlad Udrescu, Corina Druc, and Raluca Păun.

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