As rehearsals get under way for Romeo and Juliet, the first production of Rachel O’Riordan’s tenure as Artistic Director of Sherman Cymru in Cardiff, Wales Arts Review grabbed a few minutes for a quick interview.
Wales Arts Review: You come to Sherman Cymru at a time when regional theatres are having a tough time, and in Wales perhaps more tough than anywhere else, but Welsh theatre is also currently experiencing an excitingly fresh creative period. What is it that attracted you to a job in Welsh theatre?
Rachel O’Riordan: I was really excited to be approached to apply for the job here, especially as the role of Artistic Director was one which was reinstated recently at Sherman. I think that decision shows a commitment to putting the work first, which as a theatre director makes sense to me. I think too that Wales is a vibrant, open environment for making work; companies such as Dirty Protest, Waking Exploits and ventures such as The Other Room all demonstrate a willingness in artists to make things happen. It’s exciting to be part of that.
I would hesitate to describe us a regional theatre, though. We are in the capital of Wales.
What are the main and most urgent challenges that you face as Artistic Director?
Simply, reconnecting with our Cardiff audience. We need to make the citizens of the city and its surrounds feel that the Sherman is their place, and that we are here for them. Audiences are the only thing that matter, really, when it comes to running a theatre. So my job, with my team, is putting Sherman back on the map and at the heart of the arts scene in Cardiff; Wales and beyond.
What’s the thinking behind Romeo and Juliet as the choice for your opener?
In our Main House I will be programming plays that are known and loved. We will present work that people feel something for; plays about universal themes; big stories. We will focus on classic, world-class writing and present these plays in vibrant and exciting productions. Romeo and Juliet absolutely fits this idea, and it’s a play I’ve always wanted to direct. I want audiences to feel like they have been given something special.
We have a series of exciting events designed to increase access around Romeo and Juliet; a community art project with our designer, for example. I also have a community chorus taking part in the production itself.
The Sherman Theatre Cymru has traditionally been a home for new playwrights in Wales. Will you be carrying that tradition on, and if so, what schemes are you currently planning for the development of new and young Welsh playwrights?
I have no ‘schemes’, other than commissioning, developing and producing new work.
We have several Welsh playwrights on commission. I have been in development with two writers since I started in February, and look forward to working with more. We have a new playwright-in–residence, Katherine Chandler, who also mentors our new in-house script reading panel. Kath will also support me in observing the work of emerging new writers, and helping develop commissions, as well as developing her own work.
I also want to make opportunities available for Welsh writers to have their work seen more widely and will be co-producing with partners to that end.
The Sherman’s location is right on the doorstep of the Cardiff University community, what will you be programming to attract students to the venue?
We will have a varied and high quality programme of both produced and curated work which will attract audiences from all areas of Cardiff. We do have the under 25’s scheme at Sherman, too, which is an excellent way for younger audiences to engage with the theatre at a more affordable rate.
How will the Sherman reach and develop more ethnically diverse audiences in future?
We are delighted to be in receipt of a major award from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, specifically for this purpose. Our project is called Sherman 5 and Guy O’Donnell runs this for us. We are engaging with communities from all areas of Cardiff and from varied ethnicities. We host events in the theatre, provide access to the work, travel, etc. The idea is that these communities start to feel more ownership over the theatre, that they are welcome, and that we are listening to them. It’s all about removing barriers. One of our previews of Romeo and Juliet will be attended entirely by a Sherman 5 audience. It’s really exciting.
Raising money in the arts is, of course, famously difficult – but in itself can become a creative endeavour. Similarly the Welsh media are almost exclusively only interested in arts stories if its connect to financial issue. Can we expect Sherman Cymru to be pushing boundaries and making headlines for the right reasons in the near future?
Yes. We will be focusing on making excellent work on our main and studio stages, increasing opportunities for writers to make work, developing a national profile, co-producing both out of Wales and here at home. That’s the way to maximise resources and grow audiences, and make sure Welsh and Wales-based artists have a viable theatre which supports and nurtures their abilities. I would hope any headlines we generate reflect this ambition.
The Sherman has always made very creative use of its foyer space, from poetry slams to live music etc. Do you plan on continuing this tradition, and if so would you like to take us through some of the ideas planned?
Well, I’m delighted to say that we now have Foxy’s Deli in operation at the Theatre. It’s wonderful, healthy and delicious food cooked on site. So we hope people will come and hang out. We also have the Sherman ‘Open Office’- free Wifi, staff price tea and coffee and a great big table to work/chat at, open to all.
We host Fresh Ink, our new writing events for young people, with activities taking place in the Foyer, and we have ‘Foyer Sessions’ which are free live music events. Sherman 5 have events in the Foyer, too, and we are now using it as an exhibition space for artists to hang work. You may also notice some new and more comfortable furniture!
What are the positive roles that critics might play in helping the Sherman Theatre Cymru to grow in future?
Critics are vital for a healthy theatre environment. It’s absolutely the case that considered critical response can help form the identity of a theatre, not just the work but the role of the building in the wider ecology. I am really looking forward to hearing what critics have to say about our new season; it’s a really important relationship to maintain.