We spoke to Sean Holmes, Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith, about his role as well as the Lyric’s adventurous new season, Secret Theatre.
After taking over the position from David Farr in 2009, Sean has produced some of the most exciting and thought-provoking shows in recent history – winning the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre in 2011 for his production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. After studying English at the University of York, he did a MA in Text and Performance at King’s College London and RADA. Before working at the Lyric, Sean worked at the Oxford Stage Company (now Headlong), the Donmar Warehouse and the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, to name but a few.
Whilst the Lyric undergoes a major £16.5 million project that will redevelop the organisation, the company has embarked on its new season with hopes of shaking-up the way that theatre is produced and consumed. Entitled Secret Theatre, a company of 20 actors, writers, directors, and designers has created a series of shows. The audience is not told what the shows are, who has written them, or who is playing whom – it will be a genuine surprise!
How did you get into theatre?
Like most people, I got into theatre at school. We weren’t a very impressive year, but we had a brilliant drama teacher at O-Level and we were lucky enough to do theatre studies at A-Level. My school didn’t actually do theatre studies, so we had to ask our head teacher for permission; it was really exciting. We also had a very enlightened English teacher who took us to various theatres, particularly to the Bush Theatre where we saw five or six plays. Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly made a big impression and I can absolutely still see it on my memory. It really opened my eyes; I didn’t realise you could have a theatre above a pub or that you could see people naked on stage, it was really exciting. He also took us to the National Student Drama Festival, when I was 17 or 18, which was great.
What did you do after University?
After I finished at RADA I applied to be a Trainee Director for the Orange Theatre, Richmond. I was there for a year as the Trainee Director and then another year doing various different things, like education. Then I did a lot of assistant directing, including working with Max Stafford Clark and Out Of Joint on The Libertine. I learnt a lot, it was a very different process and way of working. Then I was an assistant at the Royal Shakespeare Company for two years, which again was a great learning experience. I was, weirdly, quite a successful assistant director, and it has taught me a lot. I then did painting and decorating for a few years. Looking back I wouldn’t want to go through that again, it really tested whether I wanted to be in theatre.
I had a few years of struggling, it’s really hard. Then in 1999/2000 a few things coalesced. I did a Shakespeare tour for the National and then became Associate Director at Oxford Stage Company (now Headlong) under Dominic Dromgoole and started directing mid-scale twentieth century classics. Suddenly, from being a bit aloof, I had a couple of homes. I was really lucky to do big plays with big casts about big things. There wasn’t the ‘hot-house’ environment that you find in London. It’s about giving yourself space to make mistakes and develop your work, working with good people on good plays in a less-pressurised environment.
I’ve worked as Artistic Director at the Lyric for nearly five years and to a degree you inherit your predecessor’s work. We wanted to continue the Lyric tradition of work that was more unexpected and left-field. Under David Farr it was more about the devising, whereas we’ve tried to marry the best traditions of new writing with a broader way of working; it was more evolution than revolution.
How would you describe Secret Theatre and what are you trying to achieve?
It’s very difficult to explain, because normally I’d do the work and let the work do the talking. The structures of British theatre work in a specific kind of way – you have a text, you get a cast together and then after a two-or-three week rehearsal period you put on the show. We did a production last year called Three Kingdoms with German theatre company Munich Kammerspiele and Estonian theatre company Teater NO99. It was a mind-blowing experience and it really split people; mainstream critics hated it, whilst a younger generation thought it was great. What I realised was that you can’t just copy, you need to create the right conditions. The central plank of that is to make a permanent company. The idea being that you can have longer rehearsals, people who are in the same frame of mind. Secret Theatre is about what you can do with a play as opposed to just doing a play. It’s about being loyal to the spirit of the play, rather than the letter of the play. It’s more about there are other ways of working that we don’t look at because the structures are very confining. It makes us question whether it’s possible to change the structures and if you change those structures does it lead to a different kind of work? We’ve had a really interesting response to the first two shows. Show 2 in particular. It’s a very well-known show that comes with lots of expectations. Every time it’s been done, the frame has been very much the same. If you remove that it becomes those people experiencing those things, and I would argue it’s more powerful. It’s an experiment to see if you can treat these well-known works in a different way. Can you provoke it?
How many shows are you doing and how do you decide which shows to put on?
We’re doing between 5 and 6, until April. We have decided the shows to a degree but the bulk of our next plays will be new. It’s going to be interesting. They might be adaptations, they might be completely new. Part of thing with Secret Theatre is that you’re learning as you go.
Do you think it’s important for young people to get involved in the theatre?
Well, if they want to. A really important strand of the Lyric is about having more spaces to do work with young people. Young People are at the heart of this building; it’s part of the identity of the Lyric, which manifested itself in our audience. What I’ve realised over the last 4 or 5 years is that successful shows usually resonate with a younger audience. Like Saved, Blasted and Mogadishu. Younger actors at the centre of the work we do. It wasn’t deliberate. It felt right that the Secret Theatre should have a youthful energy. That spirit feels right for the Lyric.
One of the things with Secret Theatre that I think is brilliant is that there will always be five men, five women, disabled actors, and black actors. It’s a diverse cast that reflects our diverse audience.
What advice would you give to our young people interested in working in theatre?
It’s about perseverance and working hard. Contacts are only so good. You may get a job if you’re somebody’s child, but it can also hold you back. It’s about being ready to fail, and not being afraid. It’s the ability to separate success, celebrity and fame from what you want to do. Success has to be that you are fulfilled by the work and you believe in it. We really believe in our show and it is what it is. If people don’t like it, that’s fine, but it’s what we’re trying to do. If you’re interested in what theatre can do and achieve, it’s about that.
To find out performance dates and times go to http://bit.ly/16llWvX or call the Ticket Office on 020 8741 6850. All tickets are £15 and seating is unreserved so book early to make sure you’re a part of the secret!