As our huddled group of partygoers shudder upwards in an industrial lift, headed towards the Lyric Hammersmith’s secrecy-veiled launch, a woman behind me compares the experience to seeing a show by Shunt or Punchdrunk. There’s that same sense of an event, of the unexpected. Walking across Lyric Square, we’ve been directed around the side of the building, to its concealed, warehouse-like innards. While waiting in this space, we have an opportunity to see the building – and our relationship with it – from a different angle. The very walls seem to shift.
Artistic director Sean Holmes’ plans for the Lyric over the next few months, announced on Monday night, are about transforming the theatre from within as much as from without. At the same time as the building itself is completely renovated in a huge capital project, a group of theatremakers are occupying its heart. The auditorium, which will remain untouched for the duration of the building work, is to become the flexible home of Secret Theatre, which is exactly what its name suggests. In a bold and teasing move, the Lyric is not releasing any details of the plays it will be producing over the next year; instead, audiences will come to be surprised.
But this is not simply about returning a sense of the unexpected to the theatrical event in a society saturated with information. Mirroring the work that is taking place around them, the Secret Theatre company are engaged in challenging and changing structures. Resisting the rapid turnaround of an industry used to dishing up end products and swiftly moving on, the company of ten actors and ten creatives will be working together in the space throughout the year, collaboratively making and performing and sharing. As Holmes put it in his speech, “the company we have assembled is an attempt to create a new structure that might lead to a new type of work”.
There are a number of ways in which Secret Theatre is shifting the structures of how the Lyric – and many other institutions like it – make theatre. The ensemble of actors is evenly split between men and women and includes black and disabled performers. This immediately erodes the structure of literalism, which has become something of a straitjacket for much British theatre. The set-up is also designed to create a different conversation in the rehearsal room, allowing those involved more time to create work in true collaboration and for a specific space. One niggle is that everyone involved is still assigned a rigidly defined title – writer, director, actor – but one suspects that in rehearsal these roles will be much more fluid.
Surrounded by the vivid red of the Secret Theatre launch party, I’m reminded of the similar injection of colour that has just been administered to the Royal Court by new artistic director Vicky Featherstone. Even the bar is bursting with yellows, reds, blues and greens. The Court is another established building whose existing structures are being challenged, in this case thanks to a sharp burst of fresh air that Featherstone is blasting through the theatre over the summer. Open Court, while guided by different principles and very much organised around playwrights, cultivates a similar atmosphere of experimentation and surprise. The sense is that anything could happen.
As Andrew Haydon notes, it’s clear that, even without the kind of construction work taking place at the Lyric, Featherstone has given careful thought to the building she’s inherited. As well as the changes to the bar, which now feels like a place you might actually want to hang out in without worrying you aren’t wearing the right shoes, the season itself kicked off with a telling reflection on the theatre building. In the first “Surprise Theatre” offering, Cakes and Finance, Mark Ravenhill read from the transcripts of a series of playwrights talking about their ideal theatre, musing on everything from the idea of 24-hour theatre to the suggestion that cats should be incorporated into more performances (surely one of Chris Goode’s contributions).
Alongside the obvious similarities between Open Court’s surprise shows and the secrecy around the Lyric’s new season, there are other shared experiments. Like Secret Theatre, the main house plays during Open Court are operating using a rep system (which is as much a return to the past as a new innovation), with an ensemble of actors rehearsing next week’s show by day while performing this week’s show at night. In some ways this offers the complete opposite of the Lyric’s project, driving at energy and a quick turnover of plays rather than extended rehearsal periods, but it equally fosters that sense of the collective at the same time as bringing a vital roughness back to the stage. Also, while the gesture of Open Court honours the mythology of the Royal Court’s status as “the writers’ theatre” – a mythology that Featherstone’s launch announcement was drenched in – this has been done in such a way that it explodes in the same movement in which it preserves. Clever.
And it’s not just these two venues. While exciting developments have been pushing at the outside for years, it feels increasingly as though some change is beginning to seed itself on the inside. I think of the scarlet structure of the National Theatre Shed, shouting its presence on the South Bank – again, a dash of colour – and of the ongoing developments at Battersea Arts Centre, as it too undergoes building work that will open it and its brilliant work out even further to the surrounding community. It’s not everything, and there’s a definite danger of getting carried away and falling back into complacency, but it is a start. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a rare and much-needed whiff of optimism in the air.
To encapsulate some of that optimism, it feels right to conclude with Holmes’ galvanising words from Monday night. Speaking about the vision for Secret Theatre, he expressed his hope “that even if you hate it, you can’t ignore it. That even if you love it, it scares you. That you will believe it’s an honest attempt to change. To delight. To question.”