Hammersmith hosts one of the most significant cultural developments in West London with this month’s re-opening of the Lyric. Artistic Director, Sean Holmes, discusses his love of surprising audiences and his first production to launch the re-opening
Q. What’s your attraction to theatre?
I was drawn to directing and theatre because of the writers. When you spend weeks in the imaginations of Shakespeare, Sarah Kane, Arthur Miller, or Edward Bond, you know they are really extraordinary people. They have written the blueprint and your job as the director, if you like, is to build the building.
Q. Why did you choose to become an artistic director?
Because the process is so creative and collaborative. It’s an art form that relies on lots of different people working brilliantly together. You need actors. You definitely need an audience (laughs) or it doesn’t exist. You’ve also got the design team, and everyone backstage. So it’s a big team. And I suppose there’s a part of me that likes leading and telling everyone what to do.
Q. What particular works are you drawn to?
My tastes are quite catholic and I think the programme at the Lyric reflects that. We can do a really difficult and provocative play like Blasted by Sarah Kane, and follow it up with Dick Whittington and his Cat, and both choices feel really right, and very Lyric.
Q. What impact do you want to have on audiences?
I want the audience to be genuinely surprised. My favourite thing on stage is when something happens and the audience absolutely believes it but doesn’t know how it happened, and they think why did they do that? What does it mean? Theatre is a dialogue between what is happening on stage and the audience. It’s interactive in real time.
Q. What makes the Lyric Hammersmith different from other theatres?
It’s one of the biggest subsidised theatres in London. It has 550 seats, that’s 300 more than the Donmar Warehouse, and nearly 100 more than the Royal Court. It’s a really big theatre so you’ve got to sell a lot of tickets. Historically the Lyric has always produced work which is considered unexpected, a bit left-field, but still, on a good day, the Lyric draws in a large audience. The capacity, combined with the work, is a really exciting thing about running this theatre and drew me to it. Because we’re also in receipt of subsidy, we’re not a commercial theatre; we also have to justify that subsidy by making work that’s surprising and risky. I think by and large we manage to do that.
Q. What was the reason for the multi-million pound redevelopment of the Lyric and the new Reuben Foundation Wing?
The main focus at the Lyric is space for working with young people. We wanted to massively expand our ability to deliver work in different art-forms for young people in West London. What we have now is new rehearsal space, a dance studio, a film studio, a small cinema, music practise rooms, a recording suite, a digital play-space, and a sensory room for young people with disabilities. It’s an amazing resource for this part of London.
’Theatre is a dialogue between what is happening on stage and the audience. It’s interactive in real time’
Q. What inspires people to work at the Lyric?
People want to work and train here because there is a real sense of shared purpose. Theatre is not the most high paying industry in the world but that sense of achievement when you’ve done something well is more important than the money. There are also lots of interesting people working here. The Lyric is lucky to have such a really committed group of people.
Q. Why are you re-opening with Bugsy Malone?
Bugsy Malone is the right choice because we’re re-opening the new, improved Lyric with a play that puts young people at its heart. The crucial thing about the Lyric is the tremendous amount of work we do with young people in West London of all different backgrounds. We work with young people who just want to make theatre and do classes, which is brilliant, to those who want to sing, or who have dropped out of education. We also work directly with the Youth Offending Team for the local authority. This range of people means that what is ingrained in this building is that collective knowledge of young people, and of their interests and wants. This influences the work on stage, because often, if shows work here, they are shows that connect with a younger audience. When you look at our theatre on a good day, what’s really clear is it’s a really youthful energy in that audience. And I feel very proud of that. We all do.
Q.Tell us about the cast…
Famously, there are children playing the leads, but we’ve also got young adults that are playing in the ensemble. So we’ve got 21 people on stage every night, aged from nine to nineteen. What I hope is, if we get Bugsy right, it will be everything people love about it: guns; 1929 New York; and Prohibition. But it will also feel very contemporary and real to young people today.
Q. What advice would you give young people interested in performance?
If you want to earn loads of money – don’t do it. If you want to have job security – don’t do it. There are loads of reasons not to do it! But if you want to do something that is truly collaborative and which allows you to express yourself – then try it. There are also loads of different areas in theatre in which to work as well as performing. If you realise performance isn’t for you, you can discover many other aspects of work within the profession – marketing, writing, directing, designing, backstage, and lighting. On a good day, the theatre is one of the best places to be. Go to our website and get in touch. Keep an open mind. Persevere.
Q. Any final words…?
There is excitement and tremendous opportunity with the new Lyric building, and we want everybody to be a part of that. Bugsy Malone is the right show to experience the new space. It’s a really important and interesting time. It’s huge. There isn’t another building like this in the country really. The Lyric is a one-off.
Thank you, Sean.