In our latest feature, Samuel Nicholls talks to Paul-Ryan Carberry, artistic director of London’s Iris Theatre, about getting through a pandemic, the strength of their local community, and their plans for the future.

Given everything that’s going on right now, the biblical story of ‘David and Goliath’ feels more prescient than ever: we’re all ‘David’, isolating and standing up to the gargantuan ‘Goliath’ that is COVID-19. As the theatre industry adapts to this towering threat, changing our ways and adjusting our practices in an underdog tale of survival, this Old Testament parallel is hard to ignore. However, no one realises this analogy better than Iris Theatre… and not just because they’re based out of St Paul’s Church.

Even at the best of times, the award-winning theatre company and charity has every reason to feel like ‘David’: based in the same postcode as industry titans like the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Opera House, the smaller-scale company has fought tooth and nail to exist alongside these established behemoths and offer incipient artists an olive branch. “Location is everything”, says the company’s Artistic Director and joint-CEO Paul-Ryan Carberry: “we live in a hugely popular postcode, and we want to be a space within that theatrical ecology for artists at the beginning of their careers.”

The company was formed in 2007 and, to hear Carberry tell the story, their relationship with St Paul’s was serendipitous: “our old AD, Dan, just turned up one day, asked if we could perform a show there… and then we never left!” Usually staging  popular family productions like The Three Musketeers or Pinocchio, or perennial Shakespeare favourites like The Tempest and Macbeth, Iris has spent the last 13 years calling the Grade-1 Listed building home: “we have an idiosyncratic, respectful working relationship”, says Carberry. “Simon, St Paul’s Reverend, is a fantastic champion of the arts, and he’s made us feel so welcome”.

From the outside, St Paul’s doesn’t even look that much like a church: with its sunny orange brick walls, expansive courtyard, and big, arched windows, the building looks more like a Mediterranean mansion than a house of worship. Known locally as the ‘The Actor’s Church’ due to its long history of supporting nearby theatre, St Paul’s is beloved by residents and visitors… which is something Carberry is all too aware of. “Look, you’re not going to go into someone’s home and piss in their tea; we’re so grateful for this space, and we want to support the work it does”.

Indeed, since taking over as AD of the company last year, Carberry has set himself a goal of “throw[ing] the gates wide” and offering the church as a literal and metaphorical support structure for new artists. Whether hosting performances and rehearsals or running programmes to develop skill sets, Iris Theatre wants St Paul’s to be a welcoming space of cultural growth. This is perhaps best epitomised in their START scheme: a 7-month free programme for would-be directors and designers without any formal training. With no requirements apart from being over 18 (and with no upper-age limits), the scheme offers those unable to access traditional forms of education the opportunity to break-into the industry and develop key abilities. “It’s an incredibly important project of ours,” explains Carberry, “we wanted to do this no matter what”; even if the country went into lockdown half-way through…!

Breathing deeply, Carberry compares the experience to being a frog boiled in water: “I didn’t realise how bad the situation was until it was almost too late.” Like many companies, Iris were rocked by the cataclysmic impact of COVID-19, and how it came out of nowhere. Although the START scheme survived by being moved online, Iris had bigger fires to put out: nonsensically, they were denied the Arts Council England’s emergency funding and, by May, it looked like it was all over. “It was only due to our audience making up the lost revenue of cancelled productions by ‘buying’ tickets that we managed to stay afloat – I just remember thinking to myself, ‘look, if Iris is one of those companies lucky enough to make it through this, then we have a massive responsibility.’”

A Salford lad born and bred, Carberry looked to his home team, Manchester United, for inspiration on how to act on this ‘responsibility’: “always invest in potential”. “Essentially, Iris had two choices”, outlines Carberry: “hibernate and hide away until the situation got better, or hand over St Paul’s for the summer to a wave of ‘homeless’ artists; those courageous, young creators who had the art, but just not the venue”. And that’s exactly what they did, “throwing the gates wide”, hosting a summer festival of new work and inviting audiences to enjoy theatre again, safely and securely in the church’s garden. Ranging from the family-fun adventure Fiona and the Fox, to the beautiful folk musical St Anne Comes Home, to the reflective work-in-progress Words I’ve Said, Iris’s summer season offered an eclectic and inviting mix of theatre, ensuring that audiences had every reason to come and visit.

Indeed, with many of the performances selling out, the festival was a veritable success, allowing art to thrive again. “There’s a lot of fear out there at the moment,” ruminates Carberry: “Fear that the old industry status quo of bankable stars and well-known IP will be the only thing to survive the lockdown. This festival is us putting a flag in the ground: theatre can and is still working at our level; we’ve just got to support it”.

So, what’s next for Iris? For Carberry, it’s about showing gratitude to the audiences that saved the company. “The only word for it is bravery: they were brave enough to not only travel on tubes and buses to see our festival in the middle of a pandemic, but also come see new work; unproven, experimental new pieces of theatre. For me, now, it’s all about giving back”.

With aims to expand the START programme beyond directing and designing into realms like producing and marketing, and to launch a monthly networking event called ‘PLATFORM’ where artists can share their ideas, Iris Theatre is dedicated to fostering the next generation of creatives; “giving back” by generating new prospects and new talent. With the industry still reeling from COVID, opportunities like these could possibly be the lifeline the theatre needs – in a few years, it’s very likely we’ll see Iris as the pebble that toppled this ‘Goliath’.

For more information about Iris Theatre and how to support their COVID 19 appeal, visit their website.