Q and A with The Artistic Director of Iris Theatre Dr. Daniel Winder
How did Iris Theatre come about?
Iris Theatre was created initially just as a vehicle to do one play, T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Having just graduated from the Acting course of Drama Centre London in 2006 I was looking for a project to keep me going creatively beyond the standard search for jobs. My strange personal fixation on Eliot’s 20thcentury verse masterpiece seemed a good place to start.
As someone who has a passion for site specific theatre I spent 6 months in 2006-2007 looking for a church space in London to perform Eliot’s play; which is centered around a cathedral. Finally I arrived at St Paul’s in Covent Garden (affectionately known as the ‘Actors Church’) and in March 2007 produced a production which ran for just 2 weeks and luckily made some good money.
Having had a success with my first play at St Paul’s I returned 6 months later with Tony Harrison’s Mysteries cycle.
Since those first two productions in 2007 the company has grown organically. We set up an official board and gained charity status in 2009 and over the following two years have continued growing, adding in our large outdoor summer show, and becoming the healthy permanent organization we are today.
Who are your collaborators?
The main organization we collaborate with are:
· St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden – the venue for all but one of our productions so far and also where Iris Theatre has its offices.
· The Orchestra of St Paul’s – the resident orchestra at St Paul’s with whom we have collaborated on 3 operas.
· Antique Dances – a dance company which uses St Paul’s regularly and with whom we have collaborated with to a greater or lesser extent on three shows.
Other organisations that support our work in some way are:
· The Thanet Youth Club – a rehearsal space in North London.
· The Royal National Theatre – they lend us lights and set.
· The Royal Opera House – they also lend us lights.
· Thelma Holt Ltd – who provides mentoring & fundraising support.
The main individuals who are contributors to Iris’ work are known as our Artistic Associates. These include:
· Ben Polya – a freelance lighting designer who has designed all 10 of Iris large scale shows.
· Laura Wickham – an actress in 5 Iris shows and also one of the co-producers of Working Process, our new writing strand.
· Elissavet Aravidou – a movement director and performer on several Iris Theatre shows.
· Matthew Mellalieu – our longest standing actor having been in shows with us since 2007.
· Candida Calidcot – a composer and musical director who has arranged and composed music for several of Iris Theatre shows.
How important is St. Paul Church in Convent Garden to you?
From an organizational point of view St Paul’s is essential to our existence as a theatre company. They provide office space and logistical support throughout the year and also subsidized performance space for many of our productions.
Moving into 2012/13 we hope to take our work beyond St Paul’s but it will remain at the heart of our organization.
How important is sense of Community in your work?
Community is central to our ethos as a company. Iris exists to serve several overlapping and complimentary communities.
Firstly we provide the local residential community of Westminster and Camden with affordable theatre and performance in an otherwise wildly expensive West End theatre environment.
Secondly we act as a meeting point for London’s wider theatrical and performance community, offering performance opportunities, networking and mentoring to young actors, dancers, singers, writers, composers, directors and producers who otherwise would not have a platform for their work.
Thirdly we are a highly visible part of London’s tourist trail in summer and therefore also serve the international community, many of whom make up the 21 million annual visitors who cross Covent Garden piazza, past our front door, every year. Every time we are casting a play we try to create a sense of community and camaraderie between the people who are coming together to create theatre. This sense of community will then hopefully be translated to the audience and the wider London performance network that is connected to our work.
How important is text in your work?
Text has been central to a lot of our work so far as a company. We have produced several great classical verse plays. From Romeo & Juliet to Dido & Aeneas, to Alcestis or A Midsummer Night’s Dream we have already been lucky enough to tackle some great ‘text’ pieces. We try not to impose too much high concept on these text-centered works but instead take our starting point from the plays themselves, line by line and word by word, and let any concepts emerge organically out of the words of the writer.
However, text is not the sole heart of our work here at Iris. Our stated artistic mission is to ‘create site specific work which uses epic spaces to house total theatre; encompassing music, movement and text.’ All of our work uses strong elements of music and movement. With projects likeCircuit we are moving away for text centered work entirely and working more with soundscapes and movement.
In the future we will continue to balance our more text-centered classical plays with more abstract movement-centered work. This duel track approach means that the two perspectives will continue to inform each other, making sure our text plays are full of music and movement, and that our movement pieces have a strong textual and mythological underpinning.
Why have you decided to work with young professionals?
The honest answer is that, as with the shape of the company in general, our focus on young professionals and emerging artists arose organically out of the work we were doing. Our initial repertoire, the pieces I was interested in as a director, the performers we were working with, they all tended to be centered on young performers emerging into the business.
When we were formalizing the company structures in 2009 we had to choose where to place ourselves in terms of our charitable objectives and it seemed a natural continuation of our work to date to become an organization formally tasked with supporting emerging artists.
Personally I also enjoy the challenge of working with actors and performers just emerging into the industry and value the chance to support young artists as they begin to find their feet and their own voices within this crowded industry.
What do you feel is missing in the theatre community in the UK?
Generally the theatre in the UK is in a reasonable financial and artistic state. However, I am concerned about the increasing barriers to entry into the business placed in the way of the less privileged. Our industry is becoming more monochrome in terms of the financial backgrounds of participants.
With acting tuition fees about to triple the acting profession is about to become a middle/upper-class only zone. This is going to lead to casting problems further down the line with fewer and fewer actors having an organic understanding of the way the vast majority of people in this country live their lives. In the area of directing and producing the industry in London seems to becoming increasingly dominated by Oxford/Cambridge graduates, not less so. People cannot really afford to do the years of unpaid grafting on the fringe circuit (off-Broadway) without an independent income of their own; and so the ‘old-boys’ network, which for years seemed in retreat, is once again in the ascendency in UK theatre.
What is your approach when dealing with actors?
As a trained actor myself (of low to medium talent) I start from the basic position that I admire and love actors. I understand and appreciate their craft and I know what it takes to do what they do. This is a seemingly simple statement but one I sense a lot of directors don’t really agree with. If you start from a position of mutual respect then hopefully you avoid falling into many of the ‘man traps’. I try to avoid line readings, avoid giving explicit instructions. I try to use guidance and metaphor rather than being too explicit, and to use more questions than statements.
Above all else the director has to inspire his actors with his vision of the piece and that vision has to arise from an organic understanding of what the writer’s vision is. If you can inspire the actors, if you give of your passion and of your heart, if you are precise without being prescriptive, then generally a cast will follow your lead anywhere.
Do you feel classical plays are important in today’s society?
Classical plays are just plays, like any other. However, they tend to be plays that have lasted the test of time and hence of a particularly exceptional standard. Plays which last have a universal application; they express something fundamental and unchangeable about the nature of the human soul. This universality means, if you can bring yourself as a performer to the play, and then bring that play into the space between you and an audience, then they will always feel startlingly modern, no matter how old.
The great poets and playwrights all use language as transformative magic. A great performance of a classical text is a collective community experience for cast and audience alike and leaves everyone who participates subtly affected. If only for a moment, people see with fresh eyes the world in which we all have to live. Our actions are not necessarily changed by this collective experience but the truth of what humanity is capable of, both glorious and profane, is illuminated for everyone to see.
How is your theatre company different from others in the UK?
Iris is not unique in what it does but a few things we do helps us to stand out from the crowd.
· Ours shows tend to be immersive. This goes beyond audience participation and moves the audience physically into the world of the play.
· Our shows are community events. Due the unique mix of our performance style and our venue our productions are particularly focused on creating a collective experience; audience and performers coming together as one.
· Ours shows blend high levels of physical, musical and textual storytelling; with each technique informing and supporting the other.