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’It has been traumatic’: Iris Theatre’s Paul-Ryan Carberry on life for the company pre & post lockdown

Welcome back to Fringe Focus, putting a spotlight on smaller theatres. Following my attendance at Dear Peter last month, the series reopens with the artistic director of Iris Theatre, Paul-Ryan Carberry.

How has lockdown been for you and the Iris Theatre?
I would say up and down. Personally, family and friends have been healthy and safe, which is the main thing. For the company it has been traumatic. I took over as artistic director at the very end of last year. So, it is safe to say it is not how I imagined my first year as an artistic director to go.

When we took over the company we were really ambitious in terms of the potential of this organisation and the ethos of the company. We are here to passionately carve out opportunities for early career artists or those looking to make the next steps. Look at where we are, we are in the shadow of some of the biggest NPOs in the country. It is vital that the artists that we look after have a space in this postcode to make their work, be bold, be safe, to try to do all those things.

When I took over Iris, we had our summer season in place (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Robin Hood), and then COVID hit and we had to cancel. The summer season is 80% of our annual income. To lose that overnight we were about three weeks away from going under, we had like 300 quid in the account. It looked really bleak, and frustrating. Where we are, the space, everything we wanted to build here could have gone very quickly. However, very soon after we announced the summer season cancellation, we were completely overwhelmed with support from the public.

We were amazed by how many people donated tickets, or became regular monthly supporters. It is enough hopefully to see us through. We still need to raise a bit more, but it looks like we can get through to next summer. To get small donations from a large pool of people was frankly completely overwhelming and a complete reaffirm in terms of what we’re about. And it is important that there a company like this in the heart of central London.  We did not get our Arts Council emergency funding, which was so frustrating, frankly, considering the work that we do, particularly for early career artists.

We are a team of three. Nobody is getting rich working at Iris theatre and nor should we. I have to work other jobs as well. We do it because we believe in it and to be turned down by the body that is out to represent everyone within this industry, felt like a real kick in the teeth. But we stay positive and we’ve continued to raise money. That culminated in our summer festival of work that we did at the end of August. We handed our outdoor space over to those artists that we support. Early career artists, new pieces of work, low-key pop ups. We could have just hidden ourselves away, but I thought no, we can’t. We must plant our flag in the ground. This is a time to stand firm and stand by what we believe in.

I hope the summer festival proves that after this pandemic you don’t have to revert to star casting, tried and tested work. If you invest in potential and believe in people and talent, audiences will come to support it. We are living proof of that now. Our brand-new musical was effectively sold out at its weekend run.

Is the St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden an interesting place to work?

It is called the Actor’s Church, because it served as the church for the West end venues and still does. St Paul’s have been incredible for Iris. Their mission is to support the arts as well. Effectively the original artistic director turned up here, asked to do a play and just never left. We have an office here and they have been incredibly supportive in terms of our work. So we have a working relationship with them. This is a working church.

In terms of Iris’s work, we work together to find slots and opportunities to share pieces, not only in the grounds of the church, but inside as well. The church has been incredible throughout the company’s life. And we’re lucky to be based here and call this our home. But the church and our work are not connected in a religious sense. They are a home for the shows we put on.

The space comes with logistics that you wouldn’t get in a bespoke theatre. I think that is one of the things that excites me and hopefully other artists that work here. I am a big advocate for theatre happening in spaces you would not expect it. Over the last 10 years, we have seen that, in pop-ups or theatres taking over disused buildings or archways. It forces you to be creative, not only in terms of the work that you’re making.

Creatively, it is an interesting space and unique. If you are outside, there is no other space like this in the middle of central London when it is raining. But I think it is also part of that British spirit of theatre. Do you know what I mean? In the summer outdoors if there’s a bit of rain we’ll plough on, you know. Thank you for braving the rain at Dear Peter. It was torrential! If I remember, I just felt Evie loved it. She came off and she was like, I never felt that invigorated. After being in lockdown, I found it like genuinely moving to watch, like “God, she’s battling, look at that”. And the audience with her so well, under the gazebos. The piece really fits with that, almost as if we planned it.

Iris Theatre, St Anne Comes Home

How special was it to bring a show back and be one of the first to return?

We were in a fortunate position that we have an outdoor space and we can bring work back. And I cannot tell you how delighted I was to have those gates open and see people coming back. Not only for us as a company, but for the artists that created those pieces of work having an opportunity to share them. It’s what we are about. You know what I mean. Without an audience, it’s not the same. But even with that delight of opening, there was still frustration for our colleagues indoors who haven’t got clarity yet. They’re still unable to open. I’m delighted that we can do that, but I’m also frustrated.

I am determined to try and put pressure on the government and make sure that our colleagues with spaces indoors can get back to sharing their work as well. One of the things that has come out of this is that there has been so many occasions of theatre coming together in support.

I hope that after this, we can keep that sentiment that we’re not in battle with each other. Actually for theatre, every aspect of it needs to be working from the big commercial shows to the fringe venues, to the community classes. I think in the postcode it is only Iris and the Donmar open. That is wrong and it feels strange. We want to see people going back to everything as soon as possible.

Would insurance be a factor if you brought shows back indoors?

In terms of the main body of Iris’s work now it is our summer season, which is outdoors. We were trying to move towards a more year-round body of work inside the church as well. And that’s something that we’re moving ahead with. I think the insurance is around the cancellation of the show. What I would say for us, in terms of the productions, although they are ambitious and bold, we are a small charity. We are not on the same level of a two-thousand-seater venue. It is all very tentative now.

The main thing is that we are making brilliant work that is safe for our audiences to come back to. The company must be viable. We are not going to get into a situation where a show is going to be cancelled and we are going to lose all our income for the year. I feel like a lot of the issues that we’re coming up against in theatre, in terms of the insurance, are due with how the country is run. This violently capitalist approach to every aspect of every industry. Of course, insurance companies are not going to give you a cause for COVID cancellation if they know it is likely to happen.

I think government must work with the industry to make sure that productions can get back as soon as possible. We are losing people by the day. My biggest fear is, especially with the artists we work with, who are just starting out, that it is extremely hard even at the best of times. This might push a wave of brilliant artists over that cliff edge and into another area of work. Those are the first people that are going to have to walk away.

Iris Theatre at St Paul’s Church. Image credit Nick Rutter

What about Iris’s schemes to support early career artists?

I am violently passionate about forcing opportunities for those at the very start of their career. I think about myself and my own roots here. If it were not for a couple of key people along the way, I genuinely don’t know what I would be doing now. When we took over, it was important to me that we made sure that there were accessible opportunities for people. The first thing that we enacted was the Start Scheme, which is targeted at very early career artists, most of which are looking to get into theatre for the very first time.

The first one is Start Directing, which is open to anybody above the age of 18. The only stipulation is that they have had no formal education theatre directing. We have taken five early career directors to do an eight-month training scheme delivered by myself, completely free for them. They were going to be placed as the assistants on our summer season show, to get a practical vision in the room. Now we have had to cancel that season, we will find them placements at the end of the year on other productions outside of Iris. The Start Directing scheme is very much about those early skills that you might need for directing.

We had to move it online with COVID, but it has been brilliant. It means that wherever they are or have gone to in the world, we have been able to do the scheme. One of our participants went back home to Indonesia. She has been able to join in via Zoom, which is great. Start Directing will be an annual thing. We reopen applications in January or February. Age is not a barrier: when we say early career, we mean early career, not young.

The other strand is Start Designing, which again is targeted at four early career designers. A bespoke training scheme under the guidance of our senior designer for the summer. That will be taken through again a similar course, but with practical experience on the job.  We have had to postpone that scheme because it is more practical.

Age is not a barrier. We mean early career, not young.

Paul-Ryan Carberry, Iris Theatre, about the company’s Start schemes

Those participants will come back next year to do our summer season. It is something that we want to expand, to have a start scheme attached to every element of production – producing, lighting, designing, sound. It is the first year of it and we hope for it to grow. This is something that needs to be funded because also for the participants, they get their expenses paid.

Schemes are free and will always stay free to all the participants. We also a scheme called Platform, targeted at breakout talent, those artists who have been doing brilliant work and looking to take the next steps on their own. We essentially we hand over the church to an artist on an evening for free. It is an opportunity for them to share a wide body of their work rather than just one piece and it is open to all disciplines.

What we wanted to do was celebrate the artists and different elements that they are working on. They can share songs or speeches from lots of different things. That was due to start in March inside the church, but now it will happen, hopefully, in the New Year. It is open for applications so if artists are interested, send us an email and a pitch so we can reach out and try and make it work.

What about the digital theatre space?

What inspired me in terms of the digital space was that artists, no longer waiting to be told or waiting for permission to make work, just went ahead and did it. I would love to see that continue. Artists are no longer confined by the artistic policy of a building or the yes/no of an artistic director to feel a validation to make work. A lot of that work, rightly so, should challenge artistic directors to go “Oh, they’re great, let’s work with them”.

What I would say, which might be controversial, is that making material online for free during the pandemic made it difficult for independent artists to make money from their work. The ideal of free universal theatre is absolutely an ambition I believe in, but what was originally a good and positive thing gave the impression that public theatre should be consumed for free, with no intrinsic value.

I was involved in the All the Web’s a Stage fundraiser, the 12-hour marathon, which was initiated by us at Iris. It raised £10,000 in funding for charities. I also directed one of the episodes for Bard at the Barn, which was great. And I think what they have been doing over at the Barn has been exciting and it was amazing to be part of that.

I think if we are going to move into that medium, in terms of the artists that have been working in theatre, let’s not see it as online theatre, let’s see it as a new medium that we can work in and, and get the best out of it. Don’t say it is live theatre online. Let’s occupy that space and work within that remit rather than trying to recreate what we would normally do in a live space. When those two mediums can start to collide, it is exciting. I have been chatting with other artists about what happens when those two worlds meet with Zoom, when the online and the live come together.

If we ignore the space we are in the work is less for it. If you work within the space that you are in and you understand it, it is nuance and its idiosyncrasies, then, then there’s synergy. And I think we must make sure we do that when we are making work online.

Has lockdown changed the future plans of Iris?

I would not say it is changed in terms of our ethos and missions. Hopefully, it is important that now more than ever there needs to be a space in this postcode for early career artists and those chipping away at the coal face looking to make those next steps. We are not going anywhere, thanks to hundreds of people who donated. We have a real responsibility to make sure that we stand by what we believe in. If anything, it has increased the importance of the company’s mission on what we are about. And I feel a real sense of responsibility to make sure we achieve that work in terms of Iris going forward.

We have our summer season of work: a Shakespeare and a new adaptation of a family show. What I would like to see us do is include some of the key elements we have discovered with this festival of work within the summer as well. So that summer feels like a festival. Not only populated with Iris’s work, but also finding slots for the popup companies and artists to have a safe and supportive environment to share their work to an audience. We have tried to throw the gates of the place open to those artists. I would love it if the industry knows that this is where you come to see those artists at the very start of their career, and to come and see Iris’s hopefully bold and brilliant work.

When we look at summer 2021 it is Iris’s work that our audience loves and comes back to see. We are finding opportunities within that schedule for artists at the start of the career. I also want Iris to accelerate some of these development schemes that we are talking about, and that is the number one priority for us. This is very tentative, but I would like the company to be facilitating more opportunities year-round to make, produce and support work.

The goal for us at this organization is to become an NPO. It is a long way away and we have got lots to achieve, but with the history of this company, what we are about, there is absolutely no reason why we should not be supported by the Arts Council. If they can come on board and see what we are trying to do here, I think the benefit is huge not only for Iris, but for those artists that we can support. We could expand so much. I would love us to tour work. I would love us to build relationships with some venues outside London, to football pitches in Salford and grand coliseums in the South of England.

My dream is that we really reach people who don’t live in London and who don’t go to the theatre. I want it to reach like kids like me when I was young.

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