Barn Theatre artistic director Iwan Lewis: ‘In the age of Netflix, theatre has to change its game’

Iwan Lewis Iwan Lewis

Former actor Iwan Lewis enjoyed a string of leading roles before he moved to rural Cirencester to build a new venue. As the Barn Theatre prepares for its first performance, he tells Simon Fearn about his plans to find a new model for regional theatre…

What made you want to be an artistic director?

I took time out after the national tour of Legally Blonde to reassess what I wanted to achieve. I realised my passion wasn’t really being on stage and performing – and I think I can do more for this industry by doing something different. I was inspired by Jez Bond at the Park Theatre in London. I went looking for something similar and found this opportunity to build a new theatre in Cirencester.

How does your experience as an actor influence your ideas for the theatre?

We focused on the artists’ experience. One of my greatest experiences in theatre was at the Donmar Warehouse [in London], but 10 of us were crammed into a tiny dressing room. There are copious amounts of backstage space and dressing room facilities at the Barn Theatre. Even though we’re a small, 200-seat theatre, we haven’t skimped on the resources backstage.

Former actor launches 200-seat Barn Theatre in Cirencester

At 29, would you say that your youth is an asset for the role?

In the regions, there are lots of young artistic directors. In a rural community like Cirencester, the ignorance of the way things are ‘meant to be done’ in the regions is a good thing. Tried and tested methods don’t work anymore, you’ve got to be bold and put innovation at the heart of everything you do.

How will you get new audiences into the theatre?

When it’s so incredibly simple and cheap to go on to your computer and watch some of the highest-quality acting on Netflix and Amazon Prime, I believe the theatre has to change its game. We’ve got to give audiences a reason to buy a ticket, drive down the road and go to local theatres. With the promotion for our first show The Secret Garden, audiences will get to know the cast and team intimately so they feel invested in these people getting up there and telling this wonderful story.

How important was it for the theatre not to receive public funds?

My big mission is to find a non-Arts Council model for theatre so that little Barn Theatres can pop up throughout the country. We want a theatrical devolution from London so audiences will be able to support their own theatres, in their own towns, creating their own work. Wouldn’t it be amazing if local corporates, small businesses, high-net-worth individuals and ordinary people supported and had pride in their theatre?

Why did you choose The Secret Garden as your first show?

When I was a young actor I did some training in Cirencester and The Secret Garden was one of the shows we did, so it felt right to bring it back. I think it’s one of the most underrated musicals, with an incredible book and score. It’s a very easy show for all ages to grasp, but it’s also a bit of a blank canvas. We wanted to challenge ourselves to see if we could take what on the surface might not seem to be the most exciting title in the world and radically take it to a new level.

The Secret Garden runs from March 16 to April 15 at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester