Jenny White interviews Rachel O'Riordan for Western Mail's Weekend magazine. Read the full article below:
After nearly five years as Artistic Director of Cardiff''s Sherman Theatre, Rachel O'Riordan is moving on, taking up a new post as the first female Artistic Director of the Lyric, Hammersmith in London. Her final project with the Sherman is this month's bold and imaginative staging of Mike Kenny's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
Highlights of O'Riordan's hugely successful tenure have included world premieres of three plays by award-winning Welsh playwright Gary Owen (Iphigenia in Splott, Killology and The Cherry Orchard). Alongside these, she has created popular Christmas productions of Arabian Nights and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which have resonated with aduience members of all ages.
It's therefore fitting that as her final production she is staging another family-friendly festive show. Here, she outlines her aims for the production, and looks back on her time at the Sherman Theatre.
What attracted you to the role?
I was very excited by the potential the theatre had, right in the capital of Wales. I wanted to make Sherman synonymous with Cardiff. Also, the theatre wasn’t in good shape when I took over and I wanted to see if I could make it work. It was a challenge, and I liked that.
What did you do before that?
I was the Artistic Director of Perth Theatre in Scotland.
What are you going on to do?
To be the first female Artistic Director of the Lyric, Hammersmith in London.
What will have been your highlights of your tenure, and your stand-out memories?
My relationship with Gary Owen has been a real highlight; Iphigenia in Splott, Killology and The Cherry Orchard are plays I have really enjoyed working on and the success they have brought the Sherman has been so satisfying (we were the first Welsh Theatre to transfer to the NT, to play Schaubühne and the first to win an Olivier award, for example).
All the Welsh writers- too many to mention! – I have commissioned here over the five years have been really special.
I am also especially proud of our sector-leading artist development work, which has brought numerous opportunities for learning and for career development to Welsh artists. Three years ago we launched the New Welsh Playwrights Programme, and then the Sherman/JMK Directors Group, both generously supported by The Carne Trust. It has been incredible to watch new writers and directors find their creative voice and evolve in our building. It feels we are making a real contribution to Welsh theatre and its future, which is wonderful.
Also, the team of people I work with-Julia Barry, our Executive Director is a powerhouse and a woman of huge strength and integrity; Ed Newsome, our Head of Marketing, is the best I’ve worked with. And all the Sherman team- they make it happen every day and their pride in being excellent is inspirational to me. It’s a wonderful place to work; being an Artistic Director means long hours and sometimes difficult times, and these people make it seem a joy.
What are the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome these?
Well, there was a resistance to some of the big changes I wanted to make- that wasn’t something I found easy. It took a lot of focus, and determination. However, I think challenges are part of my job so I don’t shirk that side of it, or fear it.
Tell me a bit about your approach to your role - what characterises your artistic direction?
A clear vision, a strategic approach, a head for business and a total trust in the artists we work with. It’s also really important to trust yourself. I have a strong work ethic which is vital in this job; you need to do the graft. And some ability to make theatre which excites people, and says something.
Why did you choose Alice in Wonderland as your final production?
Because I love the story. It’s a very special, magical world. This is the fifth Christmas show of my tenure which has been part of our focus on live music and I felt this story would work well in that form, and that it would be a thrill for audiences.
What do you like about this production?
Lots- but in particular, Lucy Rivers’ incredible score, played live, the wonderful design by Hayley Grindle and Lights by Katy Morison; and an incredible cast.
What elements did you try to draw out/highlight in the production?
Female empowerment and the joy of learning for yourself. Alice goes on quite a journey!
What are you most proud about with this production? The whole team – cast and creative – on this show are Wales based / Welsh. I’m really happy with that.
Anything else you would like to mention?
I am sad to be leaving this incredible place. I am very grateful to our audiences and our community for making my time here so special. However, I hope I stay in touch with – and work with- many of the colleagues I met here in Wales.
Originally published in Weekend Magazine, Western Mail, Saturday 8 December.