#Iris10: Q&A with artistic director Daniel Winder

As we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this year (what?!), we decided to sit down with artistic director Daniel Winder and have a chat about what’s happened over the first decade of Iris Theatre’s existence. Here’s what he had to say…
10 years! Let’s start with the obvious: what’s been the highlight of running this company for a decade?
Show highlights are many and various; performances I will treasure include Constance Dalrymple’s Woman of Canterbury, Chrissy Gallon’s sexy squirrel, Laura Wickham and Sam Donnelly’s star-crossed lovers, and Laura’s wonder-full Alice, Christos Lawton’s mercurial Mercutio, Matt Wilman’s triumph as Mark Antony, David Baynes’ extraordinary Richard (though I also have a deep soft spot for his Chief Weasel), Diana Kashlan’s iridescent Titania, Nick Howard Brown’s wise Cricket, his joyful Hatter, his Clarence and Buckingham, his extraordinary transformations year after year, Matthew Mellalieu’s Bottom, Simon Kent’s donkey, Anne-Marie Piazza’s soaring romantic voice singing the unspoken sorrow of a hardened female pirate, the whole cast of H.R.Haitch, and Luke Bateman and Mary Evans rip-roaring music and book, the Xmas Factor winners, the list goes on and on. The greatest privilege of being a theatre director is being present at the moment of inception for a great performance; before any audience gets to experience it, a director gets the first glimpse. The particular joy of a writer is to see something you have only imagined on a page come to life in front of you; and much richer and more embodied than you could possible have conceived.
Above all, the personal highlight of leading Iris for me is the opportunity to work with theatre artists at the top of their game and share in the joy of their creativity. Beyond my many wonderful acting companies associate artists like Benjamin Polya, Candida Calidcot, Filipe Gomes, Tara Finney and Ine Van Riet, these are all now not just my colleagues but some of my closest friends; and the chance to go to work everyday to make up stories with your friends, that can’t be beat.
How has your work developed over the years?
The past decade has seen our work grown in confidence and ambition. The summer shows for example now involve a much richer palate of sound and lighting, alongside more fully realised costume and sets. All these things combine to make our work more all-encompassing and audience-enveloping than ever. Over the past ten years we have also broadened the range of our artistic output; from the starting point of verse drama we have expanded into celebrated family shows and musical theatre, opera and circus; whist always trying to maintain our unique immersive and site-specific approach. The largest practical change has been a huge expansion in the number of people involved, particularly on the design and production sides. It has been a particular joy for me to have the opportunity to offer a platform to other emerging writers and directors. As an Artistic Director I think it is essential to support other emerging theatre makers in their professional growth.
My personal creativity has been expanded by the past ten years as well. I have moved from being an actor-director, into pure directing, then writing, then true artistic directoring. I hope the past ten years have provided me with a measure of wisdom. I certainly feel a calmer and more thoughtful theatre maker than I was when I started out ten years ago.
Can you pick a favourite production?
It is too hard to pick just one among all the different shows. I have a deep affection for our Romeo & Juliet productions in 2009 and 2010 as they started the tradition of open air theatre in the grounds of St Paul’s. I will never forget the standing ovations that the cast received night after night on that show; the whole audience rising as one, tears streaming down many faces. There was a peculiar magic to the final tomb scene taking place in Inigo Jones’ masterpiece of a church. I loved the experience of Treasure Island as a writer. The multiple storylines and different parallel audience journeys made this my most complex writing challenge to date; and obviously winning our first Off-West End Award makes it an even more significant milestone. Finally I still have a great affection for a show called Circuit which was a multi-disciplinary circus, dance and movement piece with a strong narrative core.
What do you think makes Iris’ work unique?
Iris Theatre’s work initially grew out of a desire to stage a production of a classic story in a site-specific and site-responsive context. Those instincts that informed our first production of Murder in the Cathedral are still at the heart of what we do. We create work that exists in non-traditional theatre spaces and invites the audience to join us within the world of the piece. We look to create living theatre; to present a new perspective on classic stories. At our best, our productions blur the boundaries between audience and performance, immersing everyone in the same communal narrative space. Though presenting theatre in non-traditional spaces has become increasingly common over the last decade, what makes our work particularly unique is the nature of the relationship between our audiences and our shows. Audience participation is never included as a ‘token’, the interactions between performers and audience is never coercive, and though we have tackled the darkest of narratives, all our shows aim to be an act of communion and a celebration of our common humanity.
How do you see Iris moving forward over the next 10 years?
The next ten years will see Iris increasingly use our Covent Garden home as a jumping-off point to take our work to other audiences in other places. The next eighteen months alone should see us produce two new and exciting site-specific projects beyond our central London location. Our creative year is currently centred around a large summer season but the next ten years will see Iris expand our work to eventually have similar-scaled projects running year round. The challenge for the company will be to maintain our unique artistic approach whilst achieving this expansion. Whatever happens we will continue to be a company that is artist-led, that looks to push creative boundaries, looks to grow the careers of our participating artists and whilst living up to the continuing trust of our dedicated audiences.