“The way that Lyn writes about theatre makes it feel accessible. If you’re not necessarily geographically or financially able to attend, it’s a way of keeping informed. I think it’s a terribly poor decision to cut it. And I think that sort of comment is vital. Absolutely vital.” It’s not just a question of publicity for theatres and companies, she argues, it’s also about avoiding going “back to a kind of temple of culture; ‘not for the likes of us’ attitude to theatre and theatre-making, and that’s clearly not appropriate.”
Rachel O’Riordan, artistic director at the Sherman Theatre, is one of 40 Artistic and Executive Directors who signed an open letter protesting The Guardian’s decision to stop Lyn Gardner’s blog. And breaking down theatre’s image as elitist and broadening audiences is something O’Riordan returns to frequently in our discussion. In the three years since she took over, audience numbers have risen 33.5%. In the February when she joined, the Christmas show just gone had closed a week early, whereas 2016’s family festive show, The Borrowers, had additional performances added due to demand.
She’s certainly doing something right, and it might be connected to her insistence on involving the local community. When still living in her native Northern Ireland, she spent three to four years running Writers on the Edge, a project she describes as “one of my proudest things!” Ostensibly aiming to get more women playwrights creating and visible, it in practice involved running workshops in all corners of the country. Nina Streiger, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Lucy Caldwell and others directed the workshops that ended up being both about female and specifically Northern Irish experiences. “We would just like pitch up for a weekend in Omagh and Omagh’s a city that was devastated by the bomb – the Omagh bomb – and the voices that were coming through in that workshop were absolutely rooted in that experience.”
At the Sherman, this approach has included both bilingual productions and ones quite literally responding to the local environment, like Love Cardiff, a production about Cardiff’s City Road. Iphigenia in Splott was equally close to home – Splott is about 20 minutes from the Sherman. Gary Owen’s play brought the story of a struggling, pregnant young woman in a tiny Welsh town to a huge audience – with compassion for its protagonist, and fury at the institutions which fail her. After premiering at the Sherman in 2015, this monologue, brilliantly performed by Sophie Melville, transferred to the National Theatre’s Temporary Theatre, won the UK Theatre Award for Best New Play and the James Tait Black Prize for Drama, and toured the UK. It is currently scheduled to play in Berlin and New York in 2017.
Now, Rachel O’Riordan is directing Gary Owen’s new play Killology, and she struggles to put its ideas into words. “It’s about a man who makes a game and about another man whose life is terribly badly affected by, he thinks, the man who made the game,”she begins. “But what it’s really about is people and society. And observational work around human beings; what hurts us and what makes us who we are.”
This is the first play they’ve worked on together since Iphigenia in Splott, and following a success like that is not without its pressures. “We’d be totally lying if we didn’t admit that,” confesses O’Riordan. Her way of dealing with this is to “take every play as it comes… I’ve certainly not tried to replicate what I did with Iphigenia, which was a very specific directorial style. I very deliberately went a certain way with that script, which was quite physical and drawing on a physical language that I sometimes use to work in. With Killology… I’m deliberately responding differently to the script as a director.”
This consciously different approach is made easier by fact the texts share few overt similarities. “It’s a very different composition, a much more elegiac play. And it’s obviously three men, and not one woman, so the whole thing is very different… thank god! I would hate to be directing another one woman show by Gary right now!”
She is, however, very happy to be directing a show by Owen on a wider level: “The connecting tissue [between the plays] is Gary himself and that’s just a pleasure.” The working relationship between the two of them is certainly strong. The playwright is currently working on a new version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard that O’Riordan will also direct at the Sherman Theatre. Adapting a classic text instead of staging a new one presents its own challenges. However O’Riordan repeatedly stresses the importance she places on offering audiences a combination of classic and new works in the Welsh capital. “If we programme a Shakespeare or a Chekhov alongside a new play by Alan Harris, then the audience is able to see that good writing is good writing whether it was written in 1600 or 2017.”
Killology is a co-production with London’s Royal Court, making it the London theatre’s first ever co-production with a Welsh producing house. Similarly, Iphigenia was the first Welsh production to transfer to the National Theatre. “That opens up doors to Wales. It puts focus on the country, it puts focus on the Sherman.” This recent increase in recognition for the area and its theatre scene has already meant, according to O’Riordan, that “people who are Welsh who don’t live here are coming back to work and help contribute back.”
One of these people is Brad Birch, a playwright previously part of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme. Birch is now running the New Welsh Playwrights Programme at the Sherman. I ask her what she would most like to see coming out of this. “A voice,” she replies. “An individual sparky voice that doesn’t feel like a pastiche of someone else’s. That’s the key. Just that individualism coming through.”
When O’Riordan was starting out it was not only female playwrights that were hard to come across, but also female directors. She perceives the industry has having “changed massively over the past – sort of – decade.” To begin with she kept an active interest in the other women working in theatre, simply because there were so few. However right now, “that seems quite mad because, brilliantly, there’s are lots and lots of female directors.” She mentions Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse and Sarah Frankcom at the Royal Exchange in particular, saying “I hope it will continue! But it feels like things have really changed within 10 years, which is round about how long I have been doing it. It feels like a big shift.”
O’Riordan is very on-message with the vision of the Sherman Theatre, but with so much of its recent upwards swing of fate attributable to her input, it seems fair to ask what her personal ambitions are. “It’s here for now. And then who knows. I like working in buildings. It’s not for everyone, but I really like being the Artistic Director of a building… It’s not just about directing, it’s about being a civic resource. And I like that.”
Killology is on at the Sherman Theatre from 24th March – 8th April 2017 and at the Royal Court from 25 May – 24 June 2017. Click here for more details.