Interview: Arcola director Owen Calvert-Lyons
By Lucia Blash
Think grand visions and exotic locales and a basement studio in Dalston doesn't immediately spring to mind.
However, next week, director Owen Calvert-Lyons will seemingly stage the impossible when he brings to life Jules Verne's epic adventure story Around The World In Eighty Days in the 100-seat studio at the Arcola Theatre.
Adapted by writer Toby Hulse, the production tells the story of Victorian adventurer Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout who attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager.
In what may be considered as madcap a mission as the one undertaken by Fogg himself, Owen will attempt to take audiences on that journey by land, sea, air and beast while rooted in the confines of the small theatre space.
Oh, and along with the small matter of conjuring up such colourful destinations as Egypt, India and Hong Kong, he has just three actors to play 30 characters.
"Yes, I suppose it seems a little madcap," said Owen. "Jules Verne writes a really epic story and we're attempting to do this in a studio.
"Plus, we are setting ourselves a similar challenge to the one Fogg faces - we are rehearsing and staging the show in two-and-a-half weeks so we will be working at that speed.
"We have three fantastic actors, Matt Odell, Iain Ridley and Simon Snashall, and part of the joy of doing it that way will be about keeping the sense of fun and anarchy."
To help him recreate Jules Verne's world, Owen, who is head of creative learning at Arcola Theatre, is working with set designer Amy Yardley and Punchdrunk theatre company's sound designer Steven Dobbie.
"A huge challenge in this production is how you present the more physical things," said Owen.
"So how do you present ships and boats and those forms of transport that are really important in the story? How do you present an elephant or a hot air balloon?
"We go to Egypt, Japan, New York and San Francisco. How do you give a sense of that?
"Steven is going to create a lot of our sense of journey and our sense of environment through sound. While Amy has created a very simple but ingenious set that will certainly give the illusion of boats and trains.
"However, it needs to be about invention and imagination, small beautiful things rather than grand production elements."
It is evident from speaking with Owen that, similar to the hero of the story Fogg, he believes anything is possible.
"I grew up on adventure stories. They were always what excited me as a child - great epic stories filled with excitement and danger," Owen explained.
"In this story we have a world where 80 days seems an absolute miracle to travel around the world.
"Fogg believes he can do this thing that no one else in the world believes is possible.
"So the essence of the play is really about adventure and aspiration. The pursuit of ones dreams - and, yes, that really excites me."
■ Around The World In Eighty Days, Jan 29 to Feb 9, Arcola Theatre, Dalston, 1pm & 7pm (Sats). Box office 020 7503 1646 or arcolatheatre.com
Off on my own adventure
Around The World In Eighty Days will be Owen's last theatre production for Arcola Theatre before he embarks on his own epic adventure, taking up the post of artistic director at The Point in Eastleigh and its sister venue The Berry Theatre in Hedge End at the end of March.
At just 32 he will be the youngest director appointed to head The Point, one of the south's leading venues for contemporary performance, and the newly built The Berry Theatre.
"It's always been my ambition to be an artistic director. I have worked in some really beautiful theatres and I have seen how key that role is in terms of how it sets a tone in the building. It can excite and galvanise a structure or it can do the opposite.
"I'm really looking forward to leading a new team and encouraging everyone to make exciting work.
"The Point, in particular, has a great reputation for its work with emerging artists.
"My background is about how you give young artists the break that is going to allow them to make the work they want to make.
"So often great young artists never find that first way in. It's slightly clichéd that idea about 'the foot in the door' but, actually, so much of young artists' energy - and when I say young I don't necessarily mean age but in terms of experience or where they are in their career - is expended trying to get seen and get noticed.
"It distracts them from making the work they want to make. The Point says, 'Let's make that bit easy. Let's create ways to give young artists a platform or get advice from people in the industry. Let's make that bit easy so the really hard part, the making of exciting and innovative work, is where they can focus their creative energies'."
On the Arcola
■ Based in Dalston, one of the hippest destinations in London, Arcola Theatre is at the centre of this culturally rich neighbourhood.
For the past four years, Owen Calvert-Lyons has been the venue's head of creative learning, engaging with the community and building the theatre audiences of tomorrow.
He said: "The Arcola attracts a broad range. We appeal to people living and working in Hackney. We also appeal to a real arts crowd, people who know good productions and know the names of some of the more obscure pieces. We also attract the Dalston hipsters."
On East London's emerging culture
■ In the past few years, Dalston has gone from being in the shadows of Shoreditch's uber chic enclave to being declared by Italian Vogue as being the trendiest, coolest, most caldissimo neighbourhood in London.
Owen said: "East London is really enjoying a revival. It's a very exciting place to be. To an extent that's been spurred on by the Olympics but it started long before that.
"The renaissance of Shoreditch has been at its heart. It has become a creative hub.
"In terms of theatre though, east London is only just developing. If you take a map of arts institutions in London, you'll still see the east is relatively sparse.
"Yet when you're here it feels art is everywhere. It's less about venues and more about things simply happening in the street."
On theatre for inner city children
■ Arcola Theatre's production of Around The World In Eighty Days is part of a three-year development programme with The Prince's Foundation For Children And The Arts that supports the creation of theatre for school groups.
"For a lot of children coming to the theatre is a new experience. We started on the project with them a year and a half ago and most of the children had no theatre vocabulary.
"They talked about the productions very filmically. Some even came away from shows saying: 'I really enjoyed the film'.
"Around The World In Eighty Days is the third show and they're already starting to compare them, using theatre vocabulary. It's a joy to see the transformation."