There’s been a lot of attention recently on Broadway and London’s West End, as both theatre spheres focus on reopening. I’ve been speaking with newer and smaller companies this year to learn about their unique hurdles. Today I’m taking a closer look at Iris Theatre, based in Convent Garden, London, steps away from the West End.
The theatre attained full charity status 12 years ago, making it a relatively new company. Since 2009, Iris has dedicated its energies to helping early-career artists and companies of all backgrounds in the U.K. Iris’ work is critical, as the chances theatre professionals will leave their careers too early continues to increase, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic.
Artistic Director Paul-Ryan Carberry spoke with me from London to help me understand how Iris takes on these challenges, aiming to keep early-career artists and companies on course. He took over as Artistic Director in November 2019, only weeks before the pandemic shut down theatres in the U.K. “The pandemic has forced a lot of the industry to evaluate and relook at its models, [at] the way we do things,” Carberry commented during our Zoom call.
A number of theatres that relied primarily on indoor performances shifted to more outdoor presentations in their summer schedules, even to the point of constructing new outdoor spaces to accommodate audiences safely. Iris Theatre has staged summer performances around and within the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden for over 10 years. I asked Carberry to highlight what is essential for excellent outdoor performances.
He emphasized the importance of heightened language and storytelling in outdoor spaces:
If you’re in an outdoor space with the elements across a large space, it’s really important to keep your audience engaged. It can lend itself to more bombastic storytelling and texts. It’s one of the reasons that Shakespeare was written to be performed outside… You need to make sure creatively that you’re being bold and brave to keep people engaged.
Being situated in the heart of Central London has been exciting for the Iris team. Carberry noted the “interesting ecology” of the London theatre scene, which I have found palpable on my trips to London over the years. He told me:
It’s really vital that there is a dedicated space and theatre championing artists just starting out within that ecology, as they are surrounded by some of the biggest behemoths of the theatre world. They are at a point in their careers where they need opportunities to get work in front of an audience: to try, to fail, to fail better, [and] to make brilliant work.
While the last 18 months have been challenging, Iris is unveiling a new outdoor thrust theatre this fall called the POD, which will hold 70 seats. The expansion has been a “pipe dream,” according to Carberry, the final result of a long period of fundraising and hard work by his team while they expanded work opportunities for artists. The POD is supported by CAPCO, the Leche Trust, and St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden.
With the new space, they are able to expand their outdoor schedule past the summer, adding more weeks of opportunities for the artists and companies they partner with. This fall alone will feature four weeklong shows and several pop-up events. “For the majority of shows running for a week, it’s the first time they’ve ever been seen or had a run of that length outside of a one-nighter somewhere else,” Carberry said.
This content planning is part of Iris’ focus on new material and new artists, which add diversity and new perspectives. The November to December line-up includes Shuga Fixx Vs The Illuminati, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and The Last Nativity, and ends with A Song for Christmas. There will also be an open mic musical theatre night. Get your favorite song ready to share with your fellow audience members, if you enjoy singing. “We’re really excited to champion this brilliant work and get audiences in as we celebrate the artists and the work,” Carberry said. “Hopefully, we bring a brilliant end to the year that has been tricky due to the pandemic, but it’s a year that creatively we’re very proud of.”
Running a theatre company with a mission dedicated to early-career artists and organizations takes a certain approach, which I asked Carberry about. How does an artistic director offer support to potential and current collaborators?
“For too long, we’ve had an obsession in this country with theatre and the commercialization of theatre. What is the product at the end? That can put undue pressure on the artists and teams making the work,” he stated.
When the emphasis is directed away from the end product, he pointed out, the creative process itself can be fully developed with the attention it needs. He added, “There’s huge artistic merit in process and making something regardless of how it’s received or reviewed in reality. By taking that pressure off, artists are freed and emboldened. They feel more courageous, which results in better and more valuable work.”
From a practical standpoint, Carberry and his team make themselves accessible and welcoming to their collaborators, ready to answer questions on calls and emails with an attitude of kindness and respect. They make contact with any early-career artists and businesses interested in starting conversations and seeking advice.
He also frames his approach with what he calls “the power of yes” when it comes to queries about research and development, performance ideas, and other issues. He explained, “Things are a ‘yes’ until there’s a really good reason that it’s a ‘no,’ rather than it’s a ‘no’ until there’s a really good reason to be a yes. That approach is more conducive to get work on for people and support them.”
With a busy schedule ahead at Iris Theatre this November and December, Carberry, his team, and collaborators have much to celebrate. Their new POD is a space flexible enough to be transported to other locations, should opportunities arise to perform outside their usual stomping grounds of Covent Garden. He approaches the end of the year with gratitude and measured optimism for the future. “There’s still a lot of work to do to make sure audiences are coming back in the way that they were before. That might take time, in Central London especially. We’ve been so grateful to our audience for sticking by us.”