Q&A: Lisa Spirling - 'It's a battle to get in the room'

Interviews | Theatre503 | 23 Oct 2017

Q&A: Lisa Spirling - 'It's a battle to get in the room'

Lisa Spirling is the artistic director of Theatre503 in Battersea, where her new production of Andrew Thompson's In Event of Moone Disaster, which won the venue's playwriting award, runs until 28 October 2017

How did you get into theatre initially?

I'm from a town called St Annes near Blackpool. So my first experiences of theatre were largely watching the shows on the pier. From that I went through the traditional route of studying drama at university, but I didn't really understand that people could have careers doing it.

How did you go about establishing yourself?

Like many people I had to try several different jobs before working out I was a director. And it took me a long time to get into it; I found it a very impenetrable industry. I worked for a long time in theatre in education, at the National Theatre and Albany, but then got to my late '20s and felt I was hiring people to do directing jobs that I'd love to be doing. So I quit my job and went to study directing at LAMDA, which gave me a real insight into the actors' craft. After that I started my own theatre company, Buckle for Dust.

What was the aim of the company?

It was prompted by watching my peers who'd done writing courses struggling to get productions on, and realising that your career doesn't really get going until you've had a show. At that time I began working as a reader for Theatre503, and actually put my first production on here, a play called Cotton Wool by Ali Taylor.

I saw that play and thought it was superb

It was a very special piece. It did very well and won the Meyer-Whitworth award and got lots of attention. That opened the door to a lot of conversations, which led me down the associate route. So I started working as an assistant to Rupert Goold, Michael Grandage, Matthew Warchus, Gemma Bodinetz, Neil LaBute... It meant I was able to work on big shows on big stages.

How did you start directing in your own right?

I fell in love with a play called Here by Michael Frayn, which fortunately the Rose Theatre Kingston were keen to stage. It starred Alison Steadman and Zawe Ashton and that was a game-changer which led to me being employed as a director. I'm very conscious that that is only a situation for a very lucky few. It's a battle to get in the room - that's the area we need the most support on.

What appealed about the Theatre503 job?

I spent three years working with the JMK trust setting up a series of bursaries for emerging directors, which meant I got to meet a huge number of directors and see how buildings are run. Then the Theatre503 job came up and it just seemed a great match; it was a theatre I know well, working to support new writing. I've been here a year now and it's flown by.

Tell us how your new production In Event of Moone Disaster came into being?

It won our biennial new writing award. We had over 1600 scripts from 52 countries around the world, and the quality was very high. Every play is read twice, so we're very thorough. This play was unlike anything me or the panel had read before; it was a brilliant challenge to a director, and also inherently theatrical.

You must be pleased with the positive reaction it's had

It's a very profound, beautiful and funny play. It jumps around timezones and it's pushing the building to its limits in terms of what it can do technically... So many people are coming to see it because they'd read it, and loved it on the page. But Andrew Thompson could very easily have remained an amazing writer who never got a production, so it feels like we're serving a very important function by putting it on a stage. It represents that we have a very important job to do in terms of finding brand new writers.

What's your vision for Theatre503 over the next few years?

I think the reality is that the landscape has changed completely. When I came out of university I got into debt to pursue this profession, but I wasn't already in debt. Now you've got tuition fees hanging over you as well. As an organisation we have to think about how we aid access to this profession... We're an unsubsidised theatre, so we have to think carefully about how our business model best serves artists. Fundamentally we exist to serve new writing and new writers. We're a launchpad, and that's not going to change. But we have to ask how we best serve that purpose. It's great to have people like [producer] Jake Orr in the building who can help me to solve these questions.

How do you ensure diversity?

Through my work at the Albany and elsewhere I forged an understanding that whatever you put on your stage should be a reflection of both the society you're living in and the society you want it to be. But there are challenges. For example at 503 we are not accessible, there are two flights of stairs to reach the venue, and until we make it accessible it's not for everyone. So now we're having those conversations. Every venue's diversity challenges are different - for us it's not just a question of who gets to tell the stories, but who gets to engage with them as well.

- Lisa Spirling was talking to Theo Bosanquet. In Event of Moone Disaster continues until 28 October

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