When I interview members of Iris Theatre at its base at St Paul’s Church (affectionately nicknamed the Actors’ Church), I admittedly have difficulty finding my way in. There are several entrances to the gardens of St Paul’s, where Iris stages its summer shows, and I find myself walking the circumference of the vast Covent Garden church to find the correct entrance. Once safely inside the beautiful gardens, I meet Iris’s Producer, Tara Finney, and two of the actors, Laura Wickham and David Hywel Baynes, appearing in this season’s summer productions, which are performed in and around the church and its gardens. Audiences having difficulty finding the correct entrance is, they assure me, only one of the aspects of performing plays here that makes the experience unique, challenging, and exciting.

“We always say that the church is just as much a character in the play as any of us,” says Wickham, who is playing the titular role in Iris’s production of Alice through the Looking Glass. Baynes, playing the lead in Richard III, notes how the surroundings inform the production, and how, for instance, “You don’t have to imagine that you’re in a field – because, really, you are kind of in a field. I think the audience really pick up on that as well. They don’t need to imagine the set, because they’re there – they’re in it as well.” Finney adds that the audience is immersed in the worlds Iris has created in the gardens from the moment they arrive. “We always dress the front of house area,” she says. “Quite often the front of house will be wearing something that is kind of akin to the world we’re in.”

Iris’s position as resident company at St Paul’s, where it puts on a season of promenade shows in the gardens every summer, began when founder and Artistic Director Dan Winder came to the church in 2007, pitching to stage Murder in the Cathedral there. From a week-long run to seasons of two plays over two months, Iris has, as Finney puts it, “got bigger and bigger, and the seasons have got longer and longer”. When I talk to the members of Iris, the production of Richard III is in its final days of flat-out rehearsals, and while Richard runs from June to July, Alice will be rehearsing during the day.

Wickham – who played Juliet in Iris’s Romeo and Juliet, its first outdoor promenade summer show – is also playing Queen Elizabeth in Richard alongside taking on the iconic role of Alice. How are Wickham and Baynes approaching taking on such iconic characters? Wickham jokingly notes that “the strongest memory about Alice from my childhood is that I had a tape of Alan Bennett reading it as a kid – so to me, Alice’s voice is Alan Bennett’s voice, which is quite weird! I haven’t tried to put that into my performance I don’t think. If you think too much about all that it can make it really daunting. I think you just have to think about what you can bring to it and go with that, really.”

“Each character sits in each actor differently,” Baynes notes. “Instead of thinking of it as an iconic character, you’ve got to think about how that really plays in with the story, and not that you are now doing a speech that people like Laurence Olivier have done in the past. Because then it doesn’t become about you doing a speech, it becomes about the truth and honesty of the speech itself. So it’s hard to avoid people that have done it before, but I personally feel like you have to, to make it honest for yourself, otherwise you’re just going to be doing someone else’s performance – and that’s like banging your head against a brick wall.”

Finney notes how both Iris’s shows attract “a real variety” of audience members. “I think you notice a bit of a difference between the Shakespeare and the family show. Although, actually, we’ve got the big schools groups as well. And they really love it, and a couple of them are groups that have been coming back every year.” Another aspect of Iris is the masterclasses it has started to run this year. Winder has run actor workshops in conjunction with particular texts, and recently did a one-off special workshop with Baynes on the themes of Richard III. “It’s been a nice way of sort of meeting actors,” Finney says, “but also it’s been really interesting to see that quite a few academics or teachers have come along as well, so it’s nice to see that we’re reaching a broader base of people.”

What strikes me about Wickham, Baynes and Finney is a sense of real enjoyment and shared experience, perhaps coming from the challenges Iris faces in staging its work at St Paul’s. Full of anecdotes, Baynes and Wickham relate a story of a carnival that passed all four sides of the church during a performance of Alice in Wonderland – which was, Wickham tells me, “so loud that you couldn’t speak or think or do anything”. But this appears to be one of the joys of Iris’s work. “That’s a time when you know the audience is really with you,” Baynes agrees. “You’re looking round and everyone’s still smiling.”

Whether improvising around challenges or interacting with audiences (“You’ve got all sorts of noise,” Wickham says. “You can never predict; it’s different every single day. You’re so influenced by the environment”), it is clear there is something in each performance for everyone. “That’s something that we very much aim for – to please everyone,” Baynes says. “The family show isn’t just there to make the kids happy, it’s very much that we want engage everyone, and there’s bits in there for the adults that they’ll appreciate.” Finney tells me that Iris has plans for touring and taking Iris outside its main building. With the growing success of the company so far, it is likely that Iris will, as Finney hopes, “get bigger and better” as time goes on.

Iris Theatre’s season of shows at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden runs from 25 June to 30 August. For more information and tickets, visit Iris’s website.