Heaven and Hell: Owen Calvert-Lyons

Owen Calvert-Lyons, artistic director of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Owen Calvert-Lyons, artistic director of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Ludovic Des Cognets

Owen Calvert-Lyons, is artistic director and CEO of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.

Owen is excited by work that takes place outside of traditional theatre spaces.

He has created radical site-specific productions in spaces including a ruined abbey, an urban wheatfield and a multi-story car park.

Owen’s international work has been presented at festivals in Pakistan, Australia and South Africa. Around The World in Eighty Days opens on May 21. 

Here he talks to Gina Long.

What’s been the impact of Covid-19 and how have you adapted?
I took over as artistic director in June 2020, so right in the middle of the pandemic. Theatre Royal has been closed since March 2020 with most of our staff furloughed, so it’s been a pretty extraordinary start to my time here.

It’s forced me to take an innovative approach to everything we do.

My first production transformed a car park in Bury St Edmunds into a performance space for an outdoor, in-the-round production of A Christmas Carol, with audiences experiencing an immersive, Dickensian soundtrack through headphones.

What is your connection to East Anglia?
My wife performed in Southwold and Aldeburgh for years as part of the Jill Freud Repertory Company, so I have spent many a happy summer on the Suffolk coast.

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The rest of the region is entirely new to me, so I am enjoying discovering it.

What is your East Anglian Heaven?
Fish and Chips by the sea. Whether it’s sitting on Southwold Pier, the harbour wall of Wells-Next-The-Sea or Aldeburgh’s stony beach, you can’t beat fish and chips outdoors.

What is your East Anglian Hell?
Maybe I’m still in the ‘honeymoon period’ but I haven’t found a downside yet.

What’s your favourite East Anglian restaurant?
My opportunities to explore culinary delights have been somewhat limited by Covid-19, but my favourite so far has been Pea Porridge.

I’m extraordinarily lucky to have this Michelin-starred restaurant just around the corner from my house.

What’s your favourite way to spend an East Anglian evening?
Most evenings my wife and I go for a sunset walk through Bury St Edmunds.

It’s like walking through a film set.

What’s your favourite East Anglian landmark?
There is a strange pool in the woods near Thetford Forest called The Devil’s Punchbowl.

It’s perfectly circular and the water can appear and disappear as the water-table shifts – you can see how it got its supernatural associations.

Owen Calvert-Lyons directing A Christmas Carol

Owen Calvert-Lyons of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds directing A Christmas Carol - Credit: Aaron Weight

What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?
East Anglia has some great festivals; Latitude and the Out There Festival (Great Yarmouth) are my favourites.

What’s your specialist Mastermind subject?
Early 2000s UK hip-hop.

What is always in your fridge?

What’s your simple philosophy of life?
Be kind.

What’s your favourite film?
Carlito’s Way. The final scene is heart-breaking, even when you know it’s coming.

What was your first job?
I had a paper round when I was 13.  

I got chased by a three-legged Doberman every morning.

What is your most treasured possession?
My wedding ring.

It has the Taurean constellation on it. I love it.

Who do you admire most?
Greta Thunberg.

For a child to be able to stand up and tell the world we need to change, with such clarity and determination, is extraordinary.

That we haven’t listened is unforgivable.

What is your biggest indulgence?
Dark chocolate and red wine.

What do you like about yourself most?
I’m an eternal optimist.

What’s your worst character trait?

Where is your favourite holiday destination? 
Costa Rica is the most amazing place I have ever visited. I would love to go back there.

Best day of your life?
My wedding day.

What’s your favourite breakfast?
English muffins.

What’s your favourite tipple?
An Old Fashioned.

What’s your hidden talent?
I love to cook. I

find it a great way to relax and I love seeing people take pleasure in eating something I’ve cooked.

I often draw parallels between cooking a meal and directing a play, at their heart, they are both about bringing people joy.

When were you most embarrassed?
I have a very low threshold for embarrassment, so most days.

What’s your earliest memory?
Naptime at nursery school.

The walls were painted with the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are – which was not conducive to sleep!

What song would you like played at your funeral?
Les Fleurs by Minnie Riperton.

Tell us something people don’t know about you?
I wish I was that mysterious.

What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?
When Rishi Sunak told me (and the rest of the cultural sector that generates £10.8bn per year) that arts jobs are ‘not viable’.

Tell us why you live here and nowhere else.
Right now my focus is getting Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, the last working Regency theatre in the country, back open to the public.  

There is nowhere in the world I would rather be.

What do you want to tell our readers about most?
As with so many industries, we have been hard hit by the pandemic.

I would like to encourage your readers to please consider supporting us and all other theatres that need as much support as possible.

We cannot wait to reopen Theatre Royal on May 21, where I will be directing an adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty 

It’s a sparkling new version of one of the world’s great adventure stories.

We have a cast of three actors playing a vast array of characters, so fans of The 39 Steps or other fast-paced comedies will love it.

For more information please visit www.theatreroyal.org

If you have a story, email gina@hallfarmfornham.com or follow Twitter: @geewizzgee1 Instagram: @ginalong_geewizz