New Directions for Theatre by the Lake: Interview with new Artistic Director, Conrad Lynch

By Ken Powell

Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) is looking forward to a new season with a new Artistic Director, Conrad Lynch. E2D’s Ken Powell spoke to him about the challenges ahead and what we can look forward to during 2017.

Conrad Lynch, TBTL Artistic Director (Photo: TBTL)

Ken Powell: Why on earth Cumbria? I had a look at your resume – you were at the Globe and so on.

Conrad Lynch: What brought me to Cumbria was family. We moved up to Cumbria two years ago to Kirkby Stephen as my wife’s parents live there. When we were down south, We were based in south Wales, I was working in central London and I thought actually all our family are up north. We’ve got two small children so why don’t we just move to be near them? So that’s what we did! We decided to enter the world of being feckless freelancers and moved up to Kirkby Stephen.

I had been working for the Ambassador Theatre Group working as a producer then which was amazing, it was brilliant putting on anything from a one-month Simon Callow show in the West End, to massive touring productions of Annie Get Your Gun, all sorts of different and exciting projects. It was amazing – but having two small children slightly changes your perspective! We thought we could be nearer family rather than people coming down for a week. We’d just be able to have people pop in or we’d be able to pop in to see them. As you get older that parenting moment falls on you we thought they’re not going to move to London so we’ll move to be near them. So that’s kind of what brought us up here and why I ended up by the lake.

KP: How does it feel taking over from Ian Forrest as Artistic Director – you’re kind of combining two roles together aren’t you? Ian’s and Patric Gilchrist as Executive Director.

CL: It is and it isn’t. There’s James Cobbold who is our admin director who is our general manager. So he’ll be taking on quite a bit of the Patric side while I’ll be doing some of it. But obviously I won’t be doing all of Ian’s job because I don’t direct so we will be employing directors to deliver some of that work. It’s more about curating and putting together while those teams of people deliver the work over the next season. But it is quite a big job to take over from three people –  Patric, Ian and the resident designer Martin Johns – who have been here a long time. Hopefully we’re building on the work that they’ve done. It’s going to be a hard task to make sure we live up to that expectation!

KP: Looking at the season coming is there a direction you’re wanting to take? Are you intending to keep the ship sailing as it was, or heading elsewhere?

CL: Well it’s a bit of both. We’ll be keeping the idea of that summer ensemble together, flexing it slightly. I think the audiences and participants will see something that’s very familiar, but some things will be a little bit different. We’re still looking at those classics, those well-made British plays and those comedies –  predominantly British ones.

This year we’ve got ‘Handbagged’ which is a very British comedy. I’m looking at the work in the studio in the summer season which will all be new and seeing how we can work with our audiences to champion that new writing. There will be a lot that’s familiar while also giving our audience a slightly broader perspective and giving them work they might not necessarily have had the chance to see before perhaps because we haven’t had the opportunity – sometimes the rights weren’t free for instance.

Another thing is about collaborating, so we are collaborating with other partners, more than we have done in the past. ‘As You Like It’ is in partnership with touring company, Shared Experience, and that will have a life that goes on tour nationally after it’s run here. Also, rural touring is something we want to continue to champion so ‘Two-way mirror’, which is a little Arthur Miller double-bill, is going on rural tour as well as playing here. That will be in partnership with Highlights and Arts Out West.

And then there’s the Christmas show – We’re continuing the tradition of doing a fantastic piece that speaks to audiences whether you’re 7 or 70 with ‘The Secret Garden’. That’s an adaptation by Jess Swale Who won the Olivier Award this year for Best New Comedy and Liz Stevenson is going to direct that –  she’s our new associate director.

KP: Is there a personal favourite out of all of these you’re especially looking forward to that you’ve not had the chance to grapple with before? An old favourite or playwright you’d particularly like to champion?

CL: I think Rattigan, championing him as a playwright who is one of the best of the 20th century in a piece of work that audiences don’t get to see that often. ‘After the Dance’ is beautifully written. But I’m looking forward to everything really! I don’t think I would have chosen anything in the season if I wasn’t excited by it. I do like the Secret Garden because it was one of my favourite books when I was a kid. It’s hard though, trying to pick out a favourite – ask me in October when they’re all nearly done! (laughs)

KP: What am I going to find hilariously funny?  I think 39 Steps was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen…

CL: Yes, I think it was brilliantly constructed.

KP: …what’s going to get us this year?

CL: I think in different ways everything will touch your funny bone but particularly ‘Handbagged’ is just very funny satirical look at Thatcher and the Queen, about what really happened behind closed doors in those weekly meetings they used to have. And, again, it’s very cleverly constructed. You’ve got two Queens and two Thatchers: a younger Queen and Thatcher and then you have the older when Thatcher was coming to the end of her tenure at number 10. ‘As You Like It’ is one of the most glorious pastoral comedies from Shakespeare and there are some very funny moments. Even with ‘After the Dance’ there is one particularly funny party scene where one character has a spectacular series of lines.

KP: And what’s going to challenge me? I like to go away thinking “that was really powerful” and thinking about a lot of different issues. ‘Iron’ did it for me last season – it was just brilliant and one of the highlights of the season. What’s going to get me in this next season?

CL: ‘After the Dance’ is probably going to get you because…I don’t want to give the game away… but because it is looking at a world where you’ve got those ‘Bright Young Things’ in the 1920s – they probably weren’t very, very bright and now aren’t very, very young – on the cusp of the Second World War, and life probably hasn’t panned out quite as they planned. That capacity for self-deceit, the very British veneer, without giving an end of act one giveaway, there’s a moment which is very poignant.

And ‘How My Light is Spent’ looks at those issues of loneliness through humour; with ‘Remarkable Invisible’ those issues of children going back to a family home when the parents are retiring and there’s that whole thing of the question of perhaps. Perhaps if I did this? or I if have done something else?

KP: I’m particularly looking forward to the Arthur Miller ‘Two-Way Mirror’…

CL: It’s one that will go on rural tour. It’s about creating a piece of work which sits very nicely with the other offers – whether it’s a stand-up comedian or your one-man Dickens or one-woman Austen. Elegy for a Lady and Some Kind of Love Story is arguably a kind of comment on Miller’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe – whether that’s true or not I don’t know! John dove is directing that project is known for doing a lot of Miller productions.

And we’ve got our local show ‘William Wordsworth’, a new play about Wordsworth and Coleridge, and that’s something I think that will make you think about that idea of celebrity and that hard home life and we’re doing that in partnership with English Touring Theatre who famously started life here.

KP: What about for the cast for next year? At what point will they be appointed?

CL: We’ve got more voices this year so we’ve got more directors to put together that company…

KP: Are they all going to agree? You’ll have a set cast won’t you for the summer season?

CL: No, it will slightly change. We will have a company but they will kind of be separated into two teams so we will have three directors working with one group and two directors working with the other. You won’t have five directors working with one large group. I would imagine by the end of February we will have the company in place.

KP: Are we likely to see some old familiar faces particularly from over the last two years?

CL: It would be very nice to have that mix again. You’ve got those people who have been here before and are familiar to our audiences but we can also be that support to new people.

KP: With your role of herding the directors, as it were, are you going to be in the back running the administration? Or are you going to be hands on, being in there watching the rehearsals and giving nudges to your ‘underlings’ when needed?

CL: It’s going to be a bit of both. We’ve got James who is our admin director so that kind of day today looking after the operation will be James. From an advocacy point of view we’re going to be looking for funding from all different sources and working in partnership with other people, there will be an element of that I will and want to do but I still want to make sure that while I’m not directing the shows I want to ensure that they are the best that they can be. So offering that producorial support to those shows, while I won’t be in rehearsals every day, I will be making sure that we – the whole team – are touching base with those people particularly in what we call ‘production weeks’ where you will be around in those rehearsals at crucial points and be around for the preview and opening because that’s when things change. With putting things in front of an audience it’s important to be in those first performances as the actors and the audiences are getting used to each other.

KP: You’ve obviously got a vision for the season overall but do you have individual visions for each production or are you relinquishing control to the directors?

CL: I think the key thing is being true to the text and making sure we honour the writer because their words that we are interpreting. I don’t think I would necessarily want to prescribe what a director does with the show because then it’s a bit like directing by numbers and it’s not our place to do. It’s about letting them have the space to create their vision and it’s about giving our audiences different styles of work.

KP: When Conrad Lynch isn’t directing here what does he do to relax?

CL: Having two small children takes up a huge amount of time but because of our glorious landscape here we will be doing more walking than we currently do! We do like to walk but we don’t do as much of it as we would like or should. It’s about enjoying the outdoor life it’s a great opportunity and if you’re here you should really savour it.

Tickets can be booked from the TBTL Box Office (017687 74411) or online at theatrebythelake.com 

Read the E2D’s preview of all the plays in the 2017 season here!