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!
Call us cheesy, but here at YMT we believe that every artist and performer needs a little inspiration from time to time!
Here are some of our favourite quotes from actors, writers and famous figures from around the world. Feel inspired today!
“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
“I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day and I believe in miracles.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
“A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”
“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
“You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
“The thing about growing up with Fred and George," said Ginny thoughtfully, "is that you sort of start thinking anything's possible if you've got enough nerve.”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“What's the world's greatest lie?... It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.”
“Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”
“Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.”
Have you got an inspirational quote? We would love to hear it, please share with us in the comments box below..
**** (4 Stars)
Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York - 25 October, 2013
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical is based on the “coat of many colours” story of Joseph from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Since its release, in 1968, it has been nominated for many awards and toured all over the world.
Joseph, his father’s favourite son, is a boy blessed with prophetic dreams. When he is sold by his brothers into slavery and taken to Egypt, Joseph faces many challenges and adventures. He is bought by Potiphar and taken to his house where his flirtatious wife lands Joseph in jail. But when Pharaoh learns of Joseph’s ability to read dreams, Joseph’s luck turns and he becomes second-in-command only for his grovelling brothers to be found at the feet at their brother. After testing their honesty Joseph reveals himself leading to a reconciliation of the brothers.
Yorklight Youth definitely do a magnificent job in bringing this classic to life! The energy and spark of the cast project across the Rowntree Theatre and drive the production forward. There is never a single moment on stage where the action is still, adding huge dynamic to the musical. Even during costume or set changes there is something relevant happening on stage, stopping the piece from dragging.
A personal highlight for me was 'One More Angel/Hoedown' where the sheer energy radiating off the brothers on stage is absolutely incredible - I have never laughed so much! Throughout the entire performance the cast has incredible comic timing and really add humour to the production.
All in all, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a pleasure to go and see, with me and my friend leaving with a huge smile on our faces. The talent shines in this cast, alongside with fabulous choreography, amazing directions and fantastic live music!
These young actors are definitely going to go far!
**** (4 Stars)
Lyric, Hammersmith - October, 2013
Unlike many of the reviews relating to Secret Theatre, this review will not reveal the title of Show 2. It can be stated, however, that, even though it is an incredibly well-known piece, it has possibly never been performed like this.
Sean Holmes—artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith—has gained a reputation for producing controversial, hard-hitting plays that spark discussion. This can be seen in the Lyric’s recent productions of Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms, Edward Bond’s Saved and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, which won the 2011 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.
Secret Theatre certainly continues that trail of controversy. In June this year, Mr Holmes addressed his contemporaries and suggested that the structures of British theatre may be corrupting. Holmes’s answer to righting the wrongs of British theatre is Secret Theatre, an eight-month series of shows created by a company of 20 actors, writers, directors, and designers.
Labelled Show 1, Show 2 etc. audiences are unaware of what they are about to see or who is playing whom. By removing any preconceptions Secret Theatre hopes to open up the minds of the audience. Furthermore, this is all taking place whilst a massive renovation project is carried out at the theatre.
Before the play, the stalls were full of excited chatter and discussion and, after it became clear what we were watching (after only two or three lines), the excitement increased. It is perhaps safe to say that Show 2 is unlike any other adaptation of this classic text.
The first thing that comes to mind is the dramatic change in staging and setting. Designed by Hyemi Shin, the action is contained within three large white walls while the actors make full use of a large stepladder and a wooden box on wheels—here used mainly to represent a ‘bathroom’. The stark amendment to staging meant that there is more focus on the script and what is happening to the characters.
Nadia Albina confidently leads the ensemble of ten actors (in attempts to match the diversity of the Lyric’s audience, Holmes has chosen five women and five men of varying ethnicities). Albina is commanding as well as convincing and offers a sophisticated interpretation of this iconic role—even if at some moments she appears to channel Cruella de Vil.
The male lead is portrayed by Sergo Vares and is perhaps the highlight of Show 2. He is able to express his brutality and dominance not only with his physicality but also with a simple glance. His animalistic nature draws you to him whenever he is on stage; a class act. The ensemble is extremely competent with particularly impressive performances from Leo Bill, Adelle Leonce, Katherine Pearce and Steven Webb.
This is a thoughtful and clever interpretation, carefully constructed by Holmes and undoubtedly aided by a brilliant text. Perhaps this is the reason for its success. Holmes has taken a classic and has played with it to see how far he can stretch it.
Secret Theatre has done exactly what it has set out to do: generate discussion. What is admirable is the bravery of the company, for few theatres would take risks like this. It was a pleasure to be part of an attempt to change the way we think about theatre and I cannot wait to see what else the Lyric has in store.
** (2 Stars)
Lyric, Hammersmith - 21 October, 2013
David Harrower’s new production of Woyzeck playing at the Lyric, Hammersmith has you feeling delightfully uncomfortable from the off set. With a visceral opening representing the dog-eat-dog nature of Buchner’s social play, the company of nine quickly immerse you in the unrelenting nature of the play by viciously fighting over dog bowls! Crazy I know, however, this production certainly does not pull back its punches making a bold statement from the get go.
However, this “bold statement” seemed to be a hinderance rather than help as the production went on. Written in 1839, Woyzeck tells the tale of a soldier who works tirelessly to try and support his family whilst constantly being tormented by his superiors. Because of this, Woyzeck becomes more and more alienated as the play progresses, which leads him to destruction.
The empty nature of the minimalist set coupled with the auditorium being covered in clear plastic gives the feel of an abandoned theatre. Hyemi Shin’s stripped back set design, which uses a colour palate consisting of black and green, is cleverly juxtaposed against the grandeur of the Lyric. This reflects how Woyzeck, a lowly working class soldier, is surrounded by upper-class tormentors. This updated version of Buchner’s play used interesting sound effects throughout at main points, which were used to highlight Woyzeck's mental deterioration throughout the performance. For example, whenever Woyzeck seemed to be confused or he had reached a critical turning point in the story you would hear the faint sound of a helicopter. I felt that this became quite tedious at times as you were focussing on the mosquito like noise of the helicopter instead of the words Woyzeck was actually saying.
The play certainly pushes its actors to their limits, with stunts including aerial work and intensely physical movement scenes you can't help but appreciate the stamina of the cast as a whole. However I did find myself confused at points as I personally didn’t feel that the lead was or ever had been a soldier. Apart from the odd salute there was nothing else in his demeanor that indicated he served in the army. Furthermore, I feel as though the casting contradicted the context of the play. For example, the dynamic between the Drum Major and Woyzeck is that he makes him feel like less of a man. However, the Drum Major was played by a woman, and this was in fact highlighted as he groped her breasts which provoked laughter from the audience. As funny as this was this concept didn’t lend itself well to the clarity of the piece.
The play made some bold statements, especially from the beginning, but this didn’t seem to aid the actual storyline of the play. Woyzeck in itself is hard enough to understand without some sort of background knowledge, however at times it felt as though the production was being abstract and weird for the sake of it without aiding the development of the story - making it even harder for younger audiences to understand the characters journey.
Show 1 of Secret Theatre is showing at The Lyric, Hammersmith until 9 November 2013. Tickets available here: http://www.lyric.co.uk/whats-on/production/secret-theatre/