"They will have to drag me out of this theatre. We will keep it open"

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 29 September 2020 9:24

You can expect a former actor toput on a brave face in a crisis, to be creative, to cope with the drama– but perhaps not to roll them all into a successful business plan to take on a global pandemic as well. 


If that is fact, then Iwan Lewis is breaking the mould. And we don’t mean by being a Welshman in charge of one of the Cotswold'scultural gems, The Barn Theatre, in quintessentially English Cirencester. 

As theatres nationwide face being swept away as the pandemic cripples their ability to operate, artistic director Mr Lewis, business director Rachel Wright, and the theatre's tightly knit crew are operational, have the theatre off the runway, airborne and fighting for its life.

After establishing itself as a safe place to go, within the current imposition of social distancing, and drawing audiences (albeit in a reduced capacity), its model of pared-back casts, crew and therefore costs and still delivering quality, is already being borrowed to rescue at least one other much grander county theatre we will not name here. 

“This is not just a job for me. It is my life and I am not going to let it fail. They will have to drag me out of this theatre. We will keep it open,” said Mr Lewis, who first came to the theatre 15 years ago as a teenage actor in a youth production and never forgot it. 

He had grown up influenced by power of the eisteddfod festival movement of West Wales and saw theatre, like rugby, embedded in communities, uniting and empowering them. 

But a career as an actor beckoned – after exploring film and the West End he decided six years ago to leave the stage and managed to convince Ian Carling, chairman of the theatre, that he was the man to run the venue. 

So much seems to go against the venue succeeding throughcovid – it is a former 1940s Nissen hut, admittedly transformed with air-conditioned into an attractive auditorium – but even without social distancing it can only seat 200. 

But it got creative from the start, experimenting with outdoor theatre post-lockdown when the weather was good and its imaginative programmes proved a winner. 

It also runs a very tight ship. 

“We did not want to go down the route of furlough. Our team (‘less than 10’) sat down and said ‘let’s find way’. We said ‘this is the target we have to make to survive (financially)’. 

It ran a series of free and typically eclectic events which tested the water – live-streamed council broadcasts, interviews with the local MP and interview shows hosted by mountaineer Kenton Cool.

Pictured: Joe Harris, leader of Cotswolds District Council, with Iwan Lewis

Then it moved back to the commercial. 

We began with outdoor theatre – all the time with an eye on the bottom line.We ended up doing nine shows in five weeks. That was a lifeline – for August. Then we started on September, said Mr Lewis. 

A theatre of a similar size in Newbury has 50-plus members of staff on its books, compared to the Barn’s compact team. Many of those who provide technical support – sound and lighting – are freelance, and he has been working hard to protect those relationships. 

“We want all these people to be there when this is over. It is not just about looking after ourselves,” he said. 

After a number of successful performances, not least the critically acclaimed two-actor production of Private Peaceful (running until October 4) - fittingly, about battle and its impact - he can now state with confidence that if you want to forget covid-19 and go somewhere safe and enjoy yourself, there is nowhere safer in the Cotswolds. 

There have, he said, been no complaints about the health and safety side of the operation and no positive covid-19 tests – on either side of the curtain. 

The theatre intends to reschedule the postponed productions to 2021 with new dates being announced in due course. It is still in battle mode, but dodging flak with aplomb. 

In place for the end of 2020 is what it is calling TheTheatre Recovery Season - which began with the two-hand actor-musician production of Simon Reade’s adaptation of Private Peaceful.

Pictured: Emily Costello and James Demaine in Private Peaceful

This will be followed by a new revival production of Stephen Sondheim’s Marry Me A Little, 16 October to 8 November, and the world debut of Alan Pollock’s new stage adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan from November 21 to January 3 2021. 

The Barn Theatre have also recently announced that they will be co-producing the world debut of Henry Filloux-Bennett’s new digital play adaptation of Jonathon Coe’s What a Carve Up!, with the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield and the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. 

Directed by Tamara Harvey, the digital production will run from October 31 - November 29, 2020.For those who want to see it in black and white, “numerous procedures to ensure audience safety throughout their experience.

It is running at a reduced capacity with Perspex screens being placed between groups in a new seating layout which ensure social distancing measures are adhered to. 

The theatre has also announced that they have a new and upgraded air filtration system which exceeds governing guidelines to ensure the experience is the safest the theatre can provide.

The cast and creative team will also adhere to Government guidance on social distancing and temperature checks. 

Masks are mandatory for all patrons over 11 years old, arrival times are staggered to allow sanitisation of public areas and there is hand sanitiser at entrance and exit points continue for indoor theatrical performances. 

It is a business plan as much as it is a battle plan and the fight is not over. There are two things on the theatres side – a determination to do whatever it takes and the dogged determination to do it. 

And then there is its secret weapon – the reason it exists, in fact – its community. A bit like Cotswolds answer to an eisteddfod, you might say.

Private Peaceful will be performed by Emily Costello and James Demaine, directed by Alexander Knott with Zöe Grain as associate director and movement director. The transfer production will feature sound design by Harry Smith (Henry V, Daddy Long Legs) and lighting design by Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner (Henry V, Just So). Private Peaceful is a co-production by BoxLess Theatre, Barn Theatre and Take Two Theatricals, with associate producer Thomas Hopkins.