As the Lyric gears up for Show 3 of its Secret Theatre season, AYT talks to ensemble cast member Billy Seymour about engaging new audiences and taking inspiration from German theatremakers

Photo (c) Alexandra Davenport

Photo (c) Alexandra Davenport

As I’m led up through the Lyric Hammersmith’s redevelopment to a disused office on the second floor, the building seems far from quiet. Artistically, the multi-million pound redevelopment, secured in pre-austerity times, has already created a new creative space – a space filled by the Secret Theatre season. I’m here to interview Billy Seymour about the nature of Secret Theatre. He’s an unmistakably talented actor, and one-tenth of the ensemble special assembled for the season. In a disused office full of crumpled paper plates, where the walls are festooned with posters for Simon Stephens’s play, Morning, Seymour is swivelling on an office chair as he grapples with what Secret Theatre wants to do.

“We want to give a younger audience a different theatre experience, one which they don’t really see in this country,” he explains. It all started with Three Kingdoms, a Stephens play at the Lyric last year, which got mixed reviews but sold out on word of mouth because young audiences were flocking to it in droves. This approach takes inspiration from German theatre – Seymour warms to his theme, describing it in comparison to British theatre as “weird and wonderful. Bigger and bolder. There’s no apologising for anything they do.” There’s a series of statements about what and who should be on the stage, too: the make-up of the ensemble ensures there’s always five male and five female actors, ethnic minority actors and a disabled actor on the stage. There’s a politics of representation, as well as an aesthetic challenge being extended to what they see as the conservatism of the London theatre.

What strikes you as you see a Secret Theatre show is how it prioritises images above language, and rates how the audience experiences the play over their ability to understand it. Nadia Albina spends much of Show 1 suspended above the stage, elegantly spinning round and round as water drains from her midriff. Initially it seems based on a weak visual pun – that everything goes in circles – but becomes a recurring image of the show; a show that is composed of images, vignettes, and dramatic digressions that are at times barely comprehensible. But that is the core of what Secret Theatre is about – surprise and subversion. Seymour tells me the most surprising thing about Show 3, which will be the next show to open, is that rehearsing it “has been like doing a normal show. So far.”

It’s an approach that has proved polarising, both with critics and in the omnipresent sphere of social media. I ask Seymour what a successful Secret Theatre season would look like, and he’s adamant it has already succeeded on its own terms “by attracting the audiences that are coming, and the feedback we’ve had. Obviously some people aren’t going to like it – we’re bringing something new to the table.”

This difference is why it’s important; a genuinely brave attempt to reshape the mould of what is possible on a London stage. Seymour has no doubt that the key to unlocking this process has been time: “‘if you’re doing a four week rehearsal process, you have three weeks to get the character – that’s it. You’ve got one eye on the next job down the line – you can’t take the kind of risks that we’ve been able to take.” Risks such as spending weeks doing every single thing differently, and taking plays that were written by the company’s resident writers with specific actors in mind for specific roles, and casting them differently. Seymour laughs: “We’ve had a lot of fun. We’ve had too much fun maybe.”

Seymour’s route into acting is as unconventional as Secret Theatre itself: “I fell into it. My Dad works on film – I went with him when I was a kid, for a commercial, and the main kid swore at the director. So the director said ‘can we stick your boy in?’ I said ‘no’, my Dad said ‘do it – they’ll pay you’.” His advice? Don’t swear at directors. His earliest memory of going to the theatre is as an actor – starring in Simon Stephens’s play Herons at the Royal Court when he was just 15. It was after Herons that Seymour “realised that’s what I wanted to do”. Perhaps because of the unlikely circumstances that led him to the stage, he seems intent on grabbing every circumstance that comes his way. The reason that he took Secret Theatre is because he “won’t get another opportunity to do it something like it again”. Part of this is the changing landscape for arts funding in the UK: it is government support for the redevelopment and the resulting lack of commercial pressure that has allowed the extravagant rehearsal times of the impromptu Secret Theatre season.

I love the idea of Secret Theatre but I’m yet to be convinced by its practice. Maybe as something new, it needs the space to try and to fail, a time either to grow into itself or for audiences to become more attuned to its weirdness. My worry is that it won’t be given this time or patience, and something as brave and interesting as Secret Theatre deserves it. The final word lies with the company. I ask Seymour if there’s anything he wants to tell AYT readers: “come and see it,” he says, with a grin that bears the unmistakeable hint of a challenge.

The Lyric’s Secret Theatre season is currently booking until 9 November and will return in January. Show 3 opens on 22 October, and AYT is offering five readers the chance to see the show on 24 October, attend a pre-show Q&A and to write about the experience. For more information about this competition visit the competition page, and for more information about Secret Theatre visit the Lyric’s website.