Interview with Iwan Lewis, Artistic Director at Cirencester’s Barn Theatre
- Credit: Archant
The Barn Theatre’s artistic director, Iwan Lewis, talks to Candia McKormack about a rather special project aimed at bringing the Cotswold community together in commemoration of the Great War’s fallen
The first time I entered The Barn Theatre in Cirencester – a mere few months ago – I was staggered.
In its previous incarnation the theatre had been a 1940s Nissen hut, used for occasional live music and theatrical productions, but it was more than a little ragged round the edges, and had most definitely seen better days. After more than three years of hard graft and an injection of nearly £5 million, though, retired businessman Ian Carling and Welsh actor Iwan Lewis redeveloped the building, turning the tired hall into a state-of-the-art theatre space, easily worthy of a gasp of surprised delight from whoever had seen it in its previously less-than-loved days.
Ian had been supporting the arts in Cirencester with his wife Chrissie for many years, but it was the vision of that young Welshman who made the bold proposal to transform the hall into the exciting space it is today.
Iwan is from Carmarthenshire – a little village called Cwmifor, near Llandeilo – a community rich in the Arts.
“Wales as a whole, of course, is very Arts-rich,” he says, in his velvety smooth, warm Welsh lilt. “Everything we do is through rugby or song – whether it be through the Eisteddfods, church or chapel, the schools or through the Welsh language, there are many competitions. So, it is very much the arts that brings these communities together.”
And bringing communities together is very much what The Barn is about.
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In 2015, while the hard work of raising funds and transforming the building was going on, The Barn Academy was established, taking in raw talent and nurturing it to such an extent that one of the young students – who hadn’t previously acted – has gone on to perform in a professional production of Les Miserables. No mean feat.
“As a charity, we try to offer as much as we possibly can,” he says with enthusiasm, “whether it’s scholarships to the Barn Academy, or going out in the community offering workshops. I know the value of the arts and what it can do for an individual – at any age, but especially so for a young person.
“The arts have made our communities rich, even though they may not have much money, and this is something we’re going to find out over the next two years, with dwindling Arts Council grants and drama being taken out of the schools; is it going to have an effect on our quality of life? It’s our USP as a nation: we’re really good at theatre and arts. This important part of our culture is being taken away from us.”
I agree with him wholeheartedly. Just imagine living without music in your life. Without film. Without theatre. Without exhibitions. Do we want to lose our standing as being a great nation of culture? Surely not.
“If you look at various places around the world, it’s those that are government subsidised that do well. Should it be individuals’ responsibility to make sure we have culture and arts at the heart of what we do? It’s there for debate, I know, so I’d love to know what people would think if it was taken away.”
He laughs, apologising for getting ‘political’, but how can he not? It’s evident Iwan is intensely passionate about the arts, and is deeply worried about a future without the funds to sustain something that’s so important to us all. He makes an excellent point that we’re all working so hard that it’s theatre, music and fine art that bring joy to our lives, transcending the mundane and giving life greater meaning.
“And that’s what The Barn’s here for,” he continues, “to bring that vitality, that vibrancy, that excitement into Cirencester and the Cotswolds. It might be considered small-scale, but I take this role incredibly seriously and won’t stop until we’ve given everyone access to this theatre.”
As a 15-year-old, Iwan came to Cirencester as part of a youth theatre project – playing romantic lead in Les Miserables at The Bingham Hall – and built up a relationship with not only the town, but also the people involved in the project. The volunteer sound man at the time was none other than Ian Carling, and the volunteer wigs mistress and make-up artist was his wife Chrissie. Iwan went on to become a professional actor, and the couple continued to support him – going to see him in shows in the West End, and following him on tour across the country. “I had no idea at the time,” he smiles.
Iwan and Ian would meet up for dinner every once in a while, and it was during one of these meetings that the young actor said he was looking for a new challenge and that he thought he could make more of an impact off the stage rather than on it.
Ian took Iwan to see Ingleside House and the Barn Theatre that he’d bought 12 years previously to see what he thought of it. “I went along, thinking it was going to be a little village hall, and it was that… although the scope of what it could be really struck me.”
It did take a lot of imagination, envisaging what the 1940s Nissen hut could be, but between Iwan and Ian, they had the vision and determination to make it happen. And Cirencester was exactly the right place for their new project to come into being.
“I love the people from around here,” he says. “I think we’ve got an incredibly varied demographic, from royalty to the real folk soul of Gloucestershire… and that makes for a very exciting environment. It’s the combination of all these people coming together in one location that makes a great community.
“Cirencester is already amazing; it just needed something to bring together all those ingredients, and The Barn Theatre is the perfect artistic solution to that. By buying a ticket, you’re putting your faith in us, and I know that in five or ten years’ time, The Barn Theatre is going to be the theatre that everyone is talking about.”
Iwan made his directorial debut with One Minute at The Barn in May this year – an astonishingly moving piece that not only showed off his skills as a director, but also showcased the technical abilities of the theatre and the rest of the team. I went along myself and found it to be a thrillingly immersive experience, so I wasn’t surprised when Iwan was nominated in September’s Stage Debut Awards for Best Director.
And this month, Iwan is taking his directing skills to another level when he aims to create the UK’s biggest human poppy in Cirencester’s Market Place as part of the We Remember 1918 commemorations. The Cotswold community is being invited to join together from 2-5pm on Sunday, November 11 to represent the fallen, each being issued with a red, black or green poncho.
This will be followed by a commemorative spectacular at the Corn Hall at 7.30pm for a concert involving large numbers of people of all ages, including professional performers and Barn Academy students. Last November, Iwan went to Ypres and delivered a wreath on behalf of the We Remember 1918 project, saying he felt “incredibly honoured” to be part of the Last Post ceremony.
“We’re trying to involve as many Cotswold schools as we can, and are going out to deliver workshops to them,” he explains. “The Barn’s ethos is about nurturing young people, and so the core of the poppy – the black part – will comprise schoolchildren.”
Other members of the community will form other parts of the poppy – the petals, the leaves and stalk – and it’s hoped there will be anything from two-and-a-half to five thousand people involved.
“It’ll be a poppy with a difference,” Iwan smiles. “It’s not just going to stay there and look pretty… it’s going to do something very dramatic. It will be very theatrical!”
“I do think it’s projects such as We Remember 1918 that help keep us grounded as a society,” he adds, thoughtfully, “this is going to be the highlight of the year for me.”
The Barn Theatre, Beeches Road Cirencester, GL7 1BN, tel: 01285 648255, barntheatre.org.uk
Visit cirencdt.org.uk/we-remember-1918 to find out more about We Remember 1918 and to apply to be part of the human poppy.
We Remember 1918 programme of events:
WE REMEMBER 1918 – THE CONCERT
Sunday, November 11, 7.30pm in the Corn Hall, Cirencester
November marks the 100th Anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the Barn Theatre will play a central role celebrating this poignant date and remembering those that sacrificed their lives. Held on Armistice Day at 7.30pm, this will involve large numbers of people of all ages, including professional performers and our Barn Academy in a spectacular event in the Corn Hall. Tickets £15.
Friday, November 2
7.30pm in the Parish Church ‘THE ELEVENTH HOUR’ by Coln Choir - music and readings focussed on local stories
Friday, November 9
ROYAL BRITISH LEGION
6.30 for 7pm at Parish Church, Market Place ‘Albert Hall’ style remembrance concert
COMMUNITY AWARDS EVENT by CDC
7.30pm at the Royal Agricultural University to celebrate the work of local volunteers
Sunday, November 11
Normal services in the church.
10.50am REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY service - wreath placing at the War memorial and March Past
2-5pm CREATION OF THE HUMAN POPPY in the Market Place, Cirencester
5.30pm COMMUNITY SERVICE in the Parish Church and peal of bells at 7.05pm to mark the time of the Armistice signing
7.30pm THE BARN THEATRE in The Corn Hall – ‘We Remember 1918’ Remembrance Spectacular