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Lyric Artistic Director Sean Holmes - photo by Joe Dilworth

Can open, worms everywhere: Sean Holmes on Secret Theatre

30 January 2014 Charlie Kenber

“We still have a real belief in what we’re doing and are constantly learning and constantly adapting”

When Secret Theatre appeared at the Lyric Hammersmith in September last year, the reception was somewhat mixed. Although adored by some, it left others disappointed at what may have seemed like a gimmick – giving the audience no information about the show they were booking.

Whether you loved or loathed it however, you can’t dispute its impact. The season of work and the form in which it has been presented has opened up new debates about how we approach theatre, and what preconceptions we arrive in the building with.

Catching up with Sean Holmes – the theatre’s Artistic Director and the main force behind Secret Theatre – in a building very much in the midst of major refurbishment work, it is possible to see the role such a strong challenge to form has had in a building in a state of flux. Whilst most theatres decide to close during such periods, the Lyric team admirably decided instead that it was the perfect opportunity to try something new.

Speaking in the brief lull following the first three shows, it’s the perfect time for Sean to catch his breath and reflect on the season’s reception. “What’s been interesting about it is we’ve had a mixture of responses,” Sean says. “We’ve had people who are very entrenched in their resistance to it, people who are very positive, and also interestingly people sort of in the middle.” He agrees that creating division can be a sign of success in itself however: “part of you wants to do your first show and then everyone loves it and wants to come, but then actually that would probably mean we weren’t doing it right.”

The season’s trademark is of course the lack of published information about the shows – we aren’t even given the title. But do the small hints released about Show 4 indicate a slight change of heart? “I’m ambivalent about it at times,” Sean admits. “Critics have beaten us with it, that somehow it’s elitist, which I find a bit strange really. Especially when you see the make-up of our audience compared to a lot of theatres I could mention. But there’s no question that it’s been interesting and problematic and questionable…what’s definitely true was with the third show – the new play – that idea of secrecy and coming into something unmediated by any information really seemed to support peoples’ experience.”

Rather than ‘theatre talking to itself’, Secret Theatre has attracted quite a mixed audience. “You see audiences come who don’t go to the theatre a lot that actually really respond to it” Sean tells me. “Also it’s people who are interested in theatre who want new experiences, who are maybe a bit tired of seeing work that fits the same pattern. Secret Theatre was partly a response to lots of conversations I’ve had with young artists…it seems there is a generational dissatisfaction from those people. Now there always is because they think ‘you lot have got the jobs why don’t you die and let us move in,’ but more than that I think it’s a sort of artistic and aesthetic dissatisfaction. Secret Theatre is partly a response to that hunger to experience theatre in new ways.”

“At the Lyric we’ve done an eclectic mix, we love a full theatre. But this might be a way to achieve a full theatre with a different type of audience doing a different kind of work. Part of the point as well is to provoke and give fertiliser to those other people who are interested in making work in that way. And to genuinely see if it’s possible to get a synthesis between those European ways of working and the good things about our culture.”

Although there is no concerted attempt to link the plays, connections clearly will emerge as a result of a personal touch, and the company’s process as a whole. Sean tells me, “even with those first three shows there’s a kind of flavour that’s the same. But one of them is a new play with a clear narrative and relatively naturalistic acting, one is Streetcar, an established classic deconstructed but narratively still very clear and psychologically real, and one is Woyzeck, which is a deliberate dream or response to that text, not interested in linear narrative but a more dreamlike fractured experience. So formally those three are quite different.”

One of the themes that Sean does intentionally explore is an attempt to engage the audience as individuals rather than a collective. Often “you’re trying to get the whole audience to feel or experience or discover something at the same moment. With Secret Theatre productions I’m more interested in your individual response, so you have a group of people in a theatre who are all experiencing something different at a certain moment.”

As the company begins the second batch of work it will be interesting to see how it allows them to develop as a group. “A lot of your energy normally in the rehearsal room is about convincing each other you like each other or believe in each other,” Sean explains. “In our rehearsal room that’s already there, so there’s more room for discord and disagreement. Often when we’re having arguments and big debates and rehearsal’s ground to a halt I have this very schizophrenic feeling, because on the one hand you’re feeling a bit depressed, but the other half of me goes ‘oh, I know now that this is the bit where the good stuff happens.’”

One of the key decisions made for Secret Theatre was to incorporate colour-blind casting and work with disabled actors. Interestingly, this has received little attention, “every show – not just in terms of actors but also artistic team – is equally divided between gender…every show is 50%, and in every show there’s a disabled actor and black actors. It’s great that nobody’s noticed, but it’s a really important part of what we’re doing.”

So what’s next? “The next show – without giving anything away – will be in a space we haven’t used yet, and maybe involve a different journey into that space.” Sean also hints that we can expect lots of new writing to come: “the first two shows – Woyzeck and Streetcar – we chose before the actors arrived…[but] the company isn’t just actors it’s writers and those writers are writing and responding to the company.”

Regardless of the material or its reception, clearly Secret Theatre will continue to develop and to question. “I think the whole reason behind it was to challenge ourselves and the way that we made theatre, and therefore to make work that was provoking,” Sean concludes. “We’re not trying to please. We’re trying to go: this is what we think, what do you think?”

What do you think of Secret Theatre? Why not leave some thoughts in the comments below!

Secret Theatre: Show 4 runs from 7th February until 8th March at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Tickets cost £15, available here.

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