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Sean Holmes: 'Maybe the existing structures of theatre in this country, whilst not corrupt, are corrupting'

Last night (17 June) Lyric Hammersmith artistic director Sean Holmes launched 'Secret Theatre', an eight-month season that will be performed by a rep company while restoration work is carried out on the theatre. Here, reprinted with kind permission, is his speech in full

Sean Holmes at the launch of Secret Theatre
© David Tett

"This was a hard speech to write. Hard, because it has to contain arrogance and humility. Arrogance because there is definitely something provocative and cocky in the gesture we are making, and humility because we are aware of that arrogance and hope that it reflects a desire in our audience and in some of you.

The starting point for this endeavour was the building of the new extension to the existing Lyric and its effect on our ability to operate normally. We explored various options – alternative spaces, going walkabout – but soon realised that the auditorium would remain untouched throughout the project. We decided to make this auditorium a flexible space hosting whatever audience we could get in through back doors and goods lifts. A Secret Theatre at the heart of a building site.

So in part it is a practical solution to a practical problem. But our plans were further influenced by artistic considerations – considerations, feelings, passions, that have been growing over the last few years.

We have been fortunate over those last few years to have had work and artists who have challenged us in profound ways. Edward Bond was with us for six months. His reputation is that of a didactic monster - intolerant and impossible to work with. The reality was very different. We were exposed to a mind that thought more deeply, more fundamentally and more inspiringly about theatre than any we had encountered. It made us - forced us - to raise our game. And to question. Always to question.

At the same time Three Kingdoms arrived. Our co-production of Simon Stephens' play – directed by Sebastian Nübling and made with No99 from Tallinn and Munich Kammerspiele as part of World Stages London. This blew our minds in a different way, and showed to us an audience hungry – perhaps starved of – work this exciting and provocative and important. And if the audience were starving , surely it was our job to feed them?

The particularly exciting element of Three Kingdoms was that it was as British as it was German as it was Estonian. And this synthesis of different traditions pointed to a new type of theatre. Because it was written by Simon, had Nick Tennant and Ferdy Roberts at its centre, and had a design that looked affordable, it made me – and I suspect many other artists think 'I could make work like that if only I could think like that'. The differences were not only to do with economics - as is so often the case with work from overseas – but also to do with intent.

The reality of course is much more complex, and there are myriad reasons that you rarely see texts attacked with such vision here; but the main reason is structural. What working with these companies taught us was that things we thought of as rules were merely assumptions, and assumptions that had become so ingrained we didn't even notice them anymore. You can only work within the structures that exist. So we decided to challenge these existing structures by going back to first principles. What did we believe theatre was for? What wasn't it doing enough? How could we address that?

I'm going to make a massive generalisation – and of course there will be notable exceptions, some of them in this room – but I think my generalisation contains a general truth. The standard structure in this country by which you make work is this: a group of actors who haven't worked together – collectively - before are assembled by a director to realise a play. You have four weeks' rehearsal, five if you're lucky. You do a straight run. Then go your separate ways. This directly influences aesthetics. All you can do in that time is stage the play literally. You don't have the time to imagine anything other than what the playwright has written down. So we have a theatre culture that, when it approaches text, especially new writing, is rooted in literalism.

The company we have assembled is an attempt to create new structure that might lead to a new type of work.

The company comprises of ten actors: Nadia Albina, Hammed Animashaun, Leo Bill, Cara Horgan, Charlotte Josephine, Adelle Leonce, Katherine Pearce, Billy Seymour, Sergo Vares, Steven Webb

Four writers: Arinze Kene, Hayley Squires, Caroline Bird, Joel Horwood

Two directors: Sean Holmes and Ellen McDougall

A designer: Hyemi Shin

A lighting designer: Lizzie Powell

A sound designer: Nick Manning

And a dramaturg: Simon Stephens

We began work in May. Over the next three months we will rehearse two existing texts which we'll open in September. Following these, more plays will open through the year. Written by the writers for the company and our space. How will this differ from the norm? How are we changing structurally?

Obviously, longer rehearsals allowing you to explore the why as well as the what. Playing in repertory allows us to respond to audiences, and to rehearse in the day and perform at night. There's a dedicated design team able to rehearse technically in the theatre over weeks, rather than attacking everything in a three day tech. The writers are able to write for specific actors in conditions that challenge the assumption of what a new play might be.

Now none of these, individually, are necessarily new. Again there is a need for humility. We are influenced by the successful devising companies, many of which have performed at the Lyric; the spirit of Joan Littlewood hovers somewhere above us. And of course there's the example of the European ensemble. But I think this concentration on releasing the spirit of the text whilst gleefully disregarding the letter of the text makes this endeavour unique.

The company is young, very young in some cases, and split equally between women and men. This also attacks existing structures: the structure of literalism which puts more men then women on stage. As notable and important as the recent all-woman Julius Caesar was, it highlighted the constraints of existing structures rather than attempting to change them. With a company split equally, there will always be five women and five men on stage. There will always be black actors on stage. There will always be a disabled actor on stage.

This is just one way you can fundamentally change the conversation in the rehearsal room; you simply can't do literalism. And this allows the questions you rightly can't ask in a four week rehearsal for fear of derailing the whole process. You also allow the possibility - perhaps the certainty - of failure into the room. And this is important too, in a culture - not just a theatre culture - obsessed with success. Again we learnt from Three Kingdoms. A failure by many of the normal criteria - yet I've never been around something which felt so genuinely successful.

In a further act of terrifying hubris six months ago we decided not to publicise the titles of the plays we stage - choosing rather to name them Show 1, Show 2 etc. Why? To counter a prevailing culture saturated with information, always keen to assure you of what you will see before you see it. Instead this is an invitation to come in unsullied by any expectations, and hopefully excited at the prospect of what this group of artists might present.

The novelist Alan Warner, whilst discussing the influence of pop music on his writing said something which has stuck with me. Speaking about post-punk bands such as The Fall and Public Image Ltd he celebrates their 'mocking arrogance' and describes the way they 'attacked the form and the world'.

And I think this is vital for us too. There's no point attacking the form without attacking the world. Like many of you, I imagine, I'm often sheepish admitting I work in theatre when I speak to people outside it. It feels like a luxury sometimes. I'm acutely aware that public money supports us, and that I do a job that I love.

But lately this apologetic feeling had begun to dissipate. Over the last few years many of the institutions of our society – its structures if you like – have been exposed as corrupt – or at least as corrupting.

From the McPherson report, to the cover up of Hillsborough, the scandal of MPs' expenses, the shameful collusion of police, press and power that Leveson exposed, not to mention the naked greed of the banks and bankers that led to the crash: institutions we told ourselves were the best in the world exposed as anything but – one after the other.

This has made me shed my embarrassment, my awkwardness. Here at the Lyric, an amazingly devoted team work long hours on low wages because they believe they are contributing to a better society. Because they are contributing to a better society; through their work with young people; through the work we put on stage.

And at the heart of this has to be the pursuit of Art. If Secret Theatre is nothing else it is an attempt to truly treat theatre as Art. To provoke, horrify, charm, astound. And above all to question. To question and provoke questions. As Edward Bond reminds us: you can't have democracy without drama.

Because – and here is the bit I'm really nervous of saying – because maybe the existing structures of theatre in this country, whilst not corrupt, are corrupting. And I speak as someone who is absolutely part of - ingrained into - those structures. Structures forced by economic realities of course, but also by an unconscious acceptance of those structures.

Personally, I've realised how much this has been true of me. I've hidden behind the literal demands of the text and avoided the really difficult questions about representations of gender and race and disability.

I've pursued star casting at the expense of the right casting.

And given exaggerated respect to the five star review.

And I wonder if many of us feel the claustrophobia of that potential corruption more than we like to admit?

And sometimes feel awkward in being part of yet another British institution constantly trumpeted as the best in the world.

Here's a question. Is it really?
Here's another. How could it be?

There is a quote I like, of great simplicity and truth, from Elizabeth Price, last year's Turner Prize winner, about how she became disillusioned with the tradition she was working within.

'The work felt too polite, too nervous. It's not like I am. It's not pissed off about things. It's too self conscious and not direct enough and not candid enough.'

Does this sound familiar?

So, if that was the final blast of arrogance, I'd like to follow it with the final tremor of humility. That we hope, believe, and dream that we are doing it for you, for our audience. That even if you hate it, you can't ignore it. That even if you love it, it scars you. That you will believe it's an honest attempt to change. To delight. To question."

For more information on Secret Theatre, visit www.lyric.co.uk

See also: Michael Coveney's blog on Secret Theatre