Dr David Lan
Honorary Doctorate of Literature
Dr David Lan is an actor, playwright, film-maker, doctor of social anthropology, director, and now leader of one of the country's most dynamic theatres, the Young Vic. He combines intellect and creativity with a passionate commitment to supporting and nurturing new talent and, in doing so, is playing a key role in the revitalization of the London stage.
Born in Cape Town, David was fascinated by magic as a child. Fitting, then, that his first foray on to the stage, aged 14, was as Abanazer's assistant in a production of Aladdin. "He had really stubby fingers," David recalls, "so he couldn't manage the tricks. My job was to do them for him." The teenage David also spent time travelling with a marionette company, before deciding to become a theatre director. However, he got sidetracked, training as an actor and working at Cape Town's Space theatre, a beacon of racial tolerance in apartheid-era South Africa.
In 1972, David left South Africa for London. "It was the obvious place to be", he says. His early plays – including works such as Painting a Wall, Bird Child, The Winter Dancers, Red Earth and Sergeant Ola, started getting picked up, initially on the fringe and then by the influential Royal Court Theatre. At this point, with theatrical success beckoning, David took a leap in the dark, applying to study social anthropology at the London School of Economics.
"It came out of the curious sort of life one leads if one was brought up in South Africa in the 1960s, an awareness of a certain complexity," David explains. "I was very interested in the people I was living among but couldn't get to know except in very particular ways." For his PhD, David travelled to Zimbabwe to explore the role played by the spirit mediums of the Shona tribe in their country's struggle for independence. His thesis, Guns and Rain - Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe, remains a key text for anthropologists studying the area.
The next phase of David's career drew extensively on his experiences of travelling and studying in Africa. He wrote a number of films and drama documentaries for the BBC including The Sunday Judge, set in Mozambique, Dark City, set in South Africa, and Welcome Home Comrades, set in Namibia 1990. At the same time, he maintained his strong links with the Royal Court Theatre, producing and directing a film, Royal Court Diaries, for the BBC's Omnibus series. Between 1995 and 1997, he was the Royal Court's writer in residence.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, David maintained his prolific work rate. Plays include Flight, written in 1986 for the RSC, Desire for the Almeida in 1990 and The Ends of the Earth for the National Theatre in 1996. He has also written two opera libretti, Tobias and the Angel and Ion, both for the Almeida, and English versions of plays by Euripides, Verga, Sobol and Chekhov.
By the late 1990s, though, David was ready for a new challenge, and turned his attention back to his original childhood dream of becoming a theatre director. "TV is basically journalism," he says. "What attracted me to theatre is that it's so helplessly extreme. If it's not the most important thing in your life, don't do it." In 1998, he made his debut with a production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie in Watford. Next came an acclaimed production of Tis Pity She's a Whore, starring Jude Law, at the Young Vic. Then, in 2000, he applied for and got the job of artistic director at the Young Vic. "It's the best thing I've ever done, but also one of the hardest," he says. "You do 17 different things in a day, meet 50 people, you need every skill you've ever acquired, every ounce of energy you can find."
David is quick to admit that the appointment came as a surprise – both to himself and to others in the theatre world. But over the last nine years, he has won over the doubters and raised the profile of the Young Vic with a bold programme including hit productions of D H Lawrence's The Daughter-in-Law with Ann-Marie Duff and the iconoclastic A Raisin in the Sun, described by one critic as "a perfect production".
At the same time, he has overseen a £14 million programme to rebuild the theatre. Opened in 1970 and originally intended to last just five years, by 2004 the Young Vic was falling apart. David set about raising the money needed to rebuild it and, at the closing night party, invited a crowd of actors and supporters to graffiti the walls and even brandish sledgehammers. For the next two years, he led the theatre's 'Walkabout' season, which took in 31 cities and included his high profile production of As You Like It featuring Sienna Miller.
In 2006, the Young Vic staged a triumphant reopening. The new building has transformed its south London street, winning a RIBA award and being shortlisted for the Stirling Prize. More importantly to David, it is enabling him to build on his commitment to reaching out to new audiences and nurturing new artists, in particular through the theatre's Young Directors' programme. "I want to create an environment where people can discover themselves as artists and where established artists can do things they can't do anywhere else," he says.
For his role in transforming the Young Vic into one of the country's most dynamic and exciting theatres, for his desire to make theatre accessible to wider audiences, and for his commitment to supporting and encouraging new talent, David Lan has been awarded the degree of Honorary Doctor of Literature for Services to Education and Theatre.