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New artistic director for Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds sets out vision

PUBLISHED: 18:35 05 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:30 06 July 2020

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds is part of the social fabric of the town  Picture: THEATRE ROYAL

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds is part of the social fabric of the town Picture: THEATRE ROYAL

THEATRE ROYAL

Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds has a new artistic director. Owen Calvert-Lyons unveils his wide-ranging plans to take the Regency theatre out into the community.

Owen Calvert-Lyons who is the new artistic director and CEO of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and has plans to extend the theatre's reach into the community  Photo: Theatre RoyalOwen Calvert-Lyons who is the new artistic director and CEO of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and has plans to extend the theatre's reach into the community Photo: Theatre Royal

There can be few experiences more discombobulating than starting a new job, arriving on your first day, to find the organisation you are joining is being held in a bizarre form of stasis. A building which is normally bustling with life and energy is quiet and deserted.

This was the scene that confronted Owen Calvert-Lyons, the new artistic director of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, when he arrived in post on June 17.

The historic Georgian theatre had an ethereal sense of stillness about it. The offices are empty, staff are furloughed and if you let your imagination run away with you even the ghosts backstage may have been making whispered apologies about making too much noise.

Nevertheless, when you speak to Owen, he appears to be taking this current pause in proceedings in his stride. He regrets that he can’t dive straight in and start putting on a programme of work to entertain the good folk of Bury St Edmunds but he knows that his patience will be rewarded.

Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds auditorium during the 200 year celebrations. The theatre is a unique combination of contemporary arts centre and historic venue   
Picture: AARON WEIGHTTheatre Royal Bury St Edmunds auditorium during the 200 year celebrations. The theatre is a unique combination of contemporary arts centre and historic venue Picture: AARON WEIGHT

When you talk with him, his focus is fixed firmly on the future – getting people back through the doors. He is all about wanting to stage plays that have been made in Bury, for Bury audiences and wanting to reach out and make connections with the community.

He speaks about wanting to build on the work of his predecessors and really embed the theatre in the town – all sections of the town – and wants the theatre to be a creative haven for both young and old (and all ages in between).

While Owen is drawing up plans for the future, he’s also making sure that the theatre will be in good shape to welcome back audiences when lockdown measures have relaxed sufficiently to allow audiences back into a world fit for panto.

“This is a complex time to take over, with the theatre closed for some time to come, that’s why the team launched ‘The Show Must Go On!’ appeal to raise funds to support us to reopen the theatre. We’ve already almost half of our target, which is fantastic. It’s wonderful to be leading a theatre which is so loved by its community and I hope that I get the opportunity to welcome you through our doors soon.”

If they can get audiences back into the building for the magical pantomime season then Owen believes that the future for the theatre is bright.

He has plans to put contemporary classics on the Bury stage and to extend the theatre’s work with a wide range of community groups.

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“Planning is going ahead for next year. I won’t say that Covid has put a stop to it but it’s certainly put the breaks on and given us plenty to think about in our immediate future but it doesn’t change the big plans, even if it changes the timescale a little bit.

“There are things which I had planned for the spring 2021 will now be pushed back to later in the year but the main proposals, the things I am really committed to won’t change. From the word go I want to be looking at how we support people in our community, how we spread the message of the theatre beyond our walls, beyond Bury St Edmunds and out into the county more – that is central to what I want to do.”

He added that he is also committed to making plays in Bury St Edmunds and not just taking touring productions. “I don’t know yet where we will be standing in terms of budgets but I am determined that we will be making great theatre in Bury St Edmunds. It was very important to me when I applied for the job that Bury St Edmunds was a place that makes theatre and we have a commitment from the entire staff team and the board that we want to make theatre and for it to be homegrown.

“I don’t know if we will be able to tour to other venues, that will depend on the health of the wider theatre ecology, but we will certainly present new work here.

“I am looking to put on our stage great plays, performed by great artists. I am looking at reviving some of the great plays of the last ten years. Plays which are too recent to be considered classics but give them a couple more years and they will be – that’s the sort of repertoire I am looking at. Great plays that, perhaps, haven’t been presented in our region before and this will be a great opportunity to correct that. I am only interested in the very best work, the best plays of the last ten years, and we will be looking to make those productions in 2021.”

Owen joins Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds after four years as Head of Theatre and Artist Development at London’s Ovalhouse Theatre. Prior to that he was Artistic Director of The Point, Eastleigh. He has also worked for Arcola Theatre, York Theatre Royal and Theatre Royal Plymouth, where he headed up the education department.

Owen has already launched a new community project which will shine a light on the positive stories to emerge out of lockdown. “Walking Stories is a project which will enable the people of Bury St Edmunds and surrounding villages to create works of art in the streets where they live with the help of some theatre professionals.

“These audio-guided walks are created for the times in which we find ourselves. They are designed to be enjoyed individually and outdoors. It is important to me that we begin with something optimistic. Our lives have been transformed by the effects of Covid-19, but there have been silver-linings which gives us something positive to focus on.

“Communities have rallied round to support each other. People have volunteered to help those most in need. I really hope that we can hold on to some of those positive changes and that Walking Stories will encourage people to safely come back out into the streets to explore and celebrate the everyday wonders of where they live.”

Walking Stories (which are to be supported by Bury Town Council and West Suffolk Council Locality Budget Grants) embraces Owen’s collaborative approach to theatre-making. He has worked with communities to create productions inside a multi-story car park, a mogul palace and an urban wheat field. His Let’s Build project worked with 20 ten-year-olds to design and build a temporary theatre in Brixton. Owen has previously created audio-guided, citizen-led story walks through Cape Town, Karachi, London and Melbourne.

Roger Quince, chairman of Theatre Royal board of trustees, said: “We appointed Owen just a few weeks before this crisis took hold. I am confident that Owen’s background and experience will help Theatre Royal to emerge stronger and more resilient by having weathered this storm. He will lead the team in delivering a sustainable programme of high-quality presenting and producing work and we will once again enrich the lives of our audiences who have stood by us in this most challenging time.”

Owen said he feels honoured and very aware he is presenting contemporary theatre inside the UK’s last surviving, and the only working Regency playhouse.


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