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Q&A with Lyric Hammersmith new artistic director Rachel O’Riordan: ‘I want to mix things up a bit’

Rachel O'Riordan. Photo: David Tett
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As Rachel O’Riordan announces her first season as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, Matthew Hemley talks to her about her ambition for the theatre…

What did you want to achieve with your first season?
I wanted more long-term programming and more regularity in the programming, focusing very much on great writing and allowing the audience to have a sense of what is coming next – so they can look forward to and anticipate what we are doing. I wanted to indicate to our audiences the direction of travel by also announcing The Beauty Queen of Leenane in autumn 2020. I want to commit to my audience and demonstrate that I am here for them. The best way I can do that is laying out my stall and saying boldly: this is what I think is great theatre and this is what I think is going to work in a proscenium arch.

You moved from the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff to London. How did you go about thinking about your new audiences here?
Running the Sherman, I learned that theatre is at its best when it really matters to the local community. Hammersmith and Fulham is a big borough and it’s really diverse, in all senses of that word – in terms of wealth and cultural inheritance. But I kept coming back to this idea that the auditorium itself was built as a music hall – and music hall is about coming together, about mixed audiences. I wanted to programme work that is really accessible and punchy, and can speak to as broad an audience as possible – in this big borough and beyond. I have ambitions for it to be the heart of Hammersmith but to take our work elsewhere.

You’ve announced an exciting partnership to commission women playwrights, in partnership with Headlong. Tell us more about that…
It is driven by a desire to make work of scale by women. I think making new work for a big stage is exciting and not always an opportunity that comes to women. Headlong is a natural partner because it has a touring model – not that we can’t tour ourselves. I like partnerships and some of my best successes at the Sherman were routed in partnerships. This feels like a really useful sharing of resources. Why not give a woman playwright as broad a canvass as possible – to share it across the UK and to inspire other young women playwrights.

You’ve announced a new scheme to offer 30,000 tickets at £15 or less. How important is accessibility to you?
It’s crucial. We’re lucky, because we have a big theatre. When you have nearly 600 seats you can afford to be generous. I think that is something I felt strongly about when I came – when you have a lot of seats you can afford to do this, to make big bold choices, not just in the work we do but in how we share it.

Tell us about how you chose the directors for some of the plays in your new season…
Roy Alexander Weise is extraordinary – part of the excitement was the juxtaposition of Roy with Sophocles’ Antigone – The Burial at Thebes. It’s something about the cultural collision that will happen there, that I think is exciting. Meanwhile, Tinuke Craig has never done a pantomime. She would not naturally be asked to direct a panto and that appeals to me. I like clashing things. It’s interesting to partner material with directors who aren’t the obvious choice – that excites me.

Rachel O’Riordan unveils first season as artistic director of Lyric Hammersmith

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