Unexpected Performances

The Lyric Hammersmith’s new season of Secret Theatre challenges preconceived notions of production and attempts to offer up a bold new alternative.

Everybody loves a secret. Hidden bars, guerrilla supper clubs and underground cinema experiences are just a few of the ventures that provide mysterious events for an audience growing in its desire for the unexpected. The “secret” revolution is more than just a quirky gimmick – it makes the familiar unknown and encourages audiences to approach the event without preconceptions and consider it in a new light. The popular and hugely successful Secret Cinema, for instance, works on the premise that its audience already has an interest in cinema: they come because they are curious and want to engage with film in a surprising and different way.

The Lyric Hammersmith is the latest to join the trend with its Secret Theatre, an ambitious season of work produced by 20 hand-picked artists. They’re not alone: the Royal Court ran its Surprise Theatre in June and July of this year, but the Lyric expands the concept with an entire year of secret performances put together by a thrilling new company led by Artistic Director Sean Holmes. Initially created as a response to the Lyric’s extensive construction work, Secret Theatre is an innovative way for the theatre to continue producing work as the building has a major face lift. It’s the first time in 30 years that any major changes have happened to the structure, and one of the biggest results will be the addition of the Reuben Foundation Wing, a two-storey extension.

Secret Theatre mirrors the structural changes happening to the building: at its heart it’s an attempt to re-evaluate some of the current structures in place for making theatre in Britain. Holmes points to the need to promote diversity on stage in an active way: “In relation to representations of gender and ethnicity on stage, the fact that our culture is dominantly literal means that you are making choices which maybe exclude certain actors from certain parts.” Secret Theatre challenges this with a repertory company of artists from across a spectrum of disciplines and experience. As long as the company is a good representation of diversity, then it’s not possible within this format to exclude people, because they are the only people you have available: “So a disabled actor or a black actor will end up playing iconic roles both because they’re good, of course, and because they’re in the company.”

The collective that Holmes has assembled is a brilliant illustration of his ambitions. The team includes an equal number of men and women, and gathers a range of diverse talents from Charlotte Josephine – who won Soho Theatre Young Writer of the Year 2012 for her one woman show Bitch Boxer – to Hammed Animashaun, an actor with no formal training. Many of the 20 consider themselves to be writers and performers, and there are a number of poets amongst the collective, including punk poet Katherine Pearce.

The people Holmes has selected have all been involved in very different aspects of the industry, and to bring them together in collaboration, in a venue where they can work without prescription, is a bold and progressive move on the part of the Lyric. Holmes states: “I was looking for people who were open; who didn’t have preconceived ideas. There’s a mixture; there are people who are very new and inexperienced but whose energy and openness is fantastic. And there are people who – like Sergo Vares, who was part of the No99 theatre company in Tallinn – have basically been part of a permanent ensemble for about seven or eight years. That’s something which is very useful, having somebody who’s from a different tradition and who is used to being in a company and has been through that process.“

It’s an exciting experiment and a new way of working for the Lyric. What it will mean for the theatre in the long term remains to be seen, but Holmes is optimistic about the project: “I think it will influence us as artists in a big way. I hope that it will encourage audiences to enjoy being provoked and challenged in different ways. This might be a foolish mistake. But the great thing about Secret Theatre is that it’s an opportunity to challenge all of the structures and assumptions by which we make work. It’s very rare now to go and see something you don’t know quite a lot about beforehand. Obviously in a very saturated market you’re often looking for things to sell by – like the title of the play, lead actor or the company. I’d really like to go and see something I knew nothing about until it started, and that’s our intention. So it’s an opportunity, we’re hoping the play will hit you in a different way from a normal theatre-going experience.” Audiences have always been the focus of the Lyric’s work, and they invest a lot in their community. The first night of any show comprises locals who attend for free, and historically they have responded well to work that the Lyric produces.

Holmes considers it a responsibility of theatre to provoke, if not to alter: “I’m not sure theatre can change, but it can shift and challenge and undermine.” He talks about how he has “become increasingly convinced that theatre is important because it makes us genuinely ask questions, and makes us uncomfortable.” His belief in the value of theatre to unsettle the status quo is apparent from previous programming at the Lyric: past productions have included Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms and Edward Bond’s Saved. It seems that Secret Theatre is the culmination of years of interest in society and the restrictions of certain structures: “It’s something that has been building in us – artistically and aesthetically – over the past four or five years with the work we’ve been doing and the people we’ve been collaborating with; it feels the right time for those ideas to come to fruition.”

Practically speaking, the new building development provides the perfect conditions for the Lyric to experiment with a different way of working. The work will be ongoing until summer 2014 and will see massive extensions to the current theatre. There are no intentions of expanding the number of performance spaces, but rather “the type of work we can do with young people, which is central to the Lyric.” The Lyric’s interest in the young community is also something highlighted by their programming, with previous productions from schools including Fulham Cross Girls’ School and Sacred Heart High School. This then feeds back into the theatre, as the Lyric audience is often younger than the typical theatre audience.

In terms of Secret Theatre, this is reflected by the fact that, apart from Holmes, the oldest people in the company are in their early 30s. This is a generation that some might argue is intimately familiar with failure: the economic breakdown, the declining belief in government, the fracturing of current education systems. It’s no wonder, then, that they are unafraid to allow failure into the room: there is no longer anything to be gained from playing things safe or comfortable. It’s a notion that Holmes is passionate about, and part of Secret Theatre’s manifesto is to “trust failure is as instructive as success.”

He talks about the “terrible pressure to succeed” in British society, and how it can prevent people from taking fruitful risks: “Being willing to fail means you’re really going somewhere you haven’t before. It liberates people’s creativity.” It’s an important message in a culture that has been obsessed with measuring success, from our education system through to our sport. Holmes offers a new definition of success as a spectrum, not an absolute, and remarks that “if it fails, it should fail because of its ambition not because of its caution.” If this statement is indicative of the boldness we can expect from Secret Theatre, then whether it is good theatre or bad theatre it will at least be courageous theatre.

The Secret Theatre season is running now at The Lyric Hammersmith until summer 2014. To book tickets visit www.lyric.co.uk.

Bryony Byrne