BWW Interview: Tom Littler Talks 15 HEROINES at Jermyn Street Theatre
The venue collaborates with leading online platform Digital Theatre for a major new project
Next month, Jermyn Street Theatre, the smallest producing house in the West End, celebrates 15 Heroines in a series of monologues written and performed by female and non-binary creatives.
We asked the theatre's Artistic Director (and co-director of the plays) Tom Littler to tell us more.
15 Heroines is a huge project to bring theatre back to Jermyn Street. Why this project and why now?
Ovid's Heroides are his reinventions of classical myth. Two thousand years ago, he gave voice to the isolated women of myth by writing an imaginary letter from each of his heroines. They are funny, moving and dramatic. In a year when we've all been thinking about isolation and about the structures that amplify some voices and mute others, we needed to do 15 Heroines. Fifteen amazing female and non-binary writers have used Ovid's original letters as inspiration for their own new plays.
Your own digital offerings have included the Sonnet Project and your two rehearsed readings in the summer. 15 Heroines is a clear step-up in partnership with Digital Theatre. Is this something you are going to continue in the future?
Don't forget One Million Tiny Plays, and a thrice-weekly cabaret, and audience reading clubs, and dozens more rehearsed readings behind the scenes, and an all-day live-streamed performance of The Odyssey - we've been busy all year! But yes, 15 Heroines is a step up: it's fully staged in our empty theatre and beautifully filmed with four cameras with a crack creative team of theatre and film people. It feels like a mythical creature with multiple heads; it's a logistical monster.
After this, our Deputy Director Cat Robey is curating a lovely storytelling project called In Dreams We Wake, and our Artistic Associate Natasha Rickman is directing a Christmas show online. We'll definitely generate more digital work and better archival captures in the future - but the point of our existence will ultimately be to gather in our space and tell stories live with great (viable) artists.
There are 15 women/non-binary writers involved across the three shows, bringing Ovid and iconic women to the stage (and screen). What was the process of choosing writers and characters?
The joy of this project is the range of writers, the wealth of experiences they bring, and the different ways they tell the stories. Sometimes I match-made a writer with a story, and sometimes I gave the writer a choice of a few stories to pick from. We wanted variety and verve, writers with distinct voices and a love of myth and storytelling. We're really proud of the group of writers on 15 Heroines.
Can you tell us anything about the cast at this stage? Are we expecting to see JST regular performers or new faces?
We've now announced the whole cast. Fifteen remarkable talents. As in lots of our work, we've cast well-known faces alongside recent graduates and rising stars. Today, I worked on Penelope - brilliantly adapted by Hannah Khalil - with the wonderfully funny and moving Gemma Whelan, and a less well-known myth, Canace, adapted by Isley Lynn and compellingly performed by Eleanor Tomlinson. And Cat worked on Stella Duffy's version of Dido with Rosalind Eleazar, who I last saw being brilliant in Uncle Vanya.
In March, you had to close just as you'd opened a new version of The Tempest, then you had a major flood in your backstage area. How has lockdown affected JST as a venue?
It's been a very tough year for us, as for theatres and theatre artists everywhere. But at least JST has been able to respond creatively. We've tried to learn new skills, to listen to our community, to think more deeply about the stories we tell and who tells them. I'm excited about our new Creative Associates - 16 early-career artists. There's no point running a theatre without artists or making work, so we've worked non-stop to generate as many jobs, opportunities and projects as we can to engage our freelance family and entertain our audiences.
How should audiences choose to watch 15 Heroines? Does each show of five pieces stand alone, and if you book for all three, should they be experienced in strict order of The War, The Desert and The Labyrinth?
Watch all three! See 15 beautifully filmed new plays with great actors, and support theatre. There's no right or wrong order. If you can't see them all, each of The War, The Desert and The Labyrinth stands alone. If you can only see one, pick a writer, an actor, or a myth you love. You're bound to have some new favourites by the end of the show!
Tell us a bit about the creative process. Have the writers been bouncing ideas off each other? Have you been able to reconfigure the space in the theatre to provide a new experience to digital audiences?
The writers worked individually with the widest possible brief - there's no attempt to make the plays feel the same. That's the whole point. For example, you get a very clear impression about Medea in one play - then meet her in the next, and she's not what you expected! We're in rehearsal now - Adjoa Andoh, Cat Robey and I staging a few pieces each. We're making plays, not films, and then our brilliant camera director Anke Lueddekke will capture them with four cameras and a lot of genius.
What does 2021 look like for JST? You're based in the heart of the West End. With some of your larger colleagues not planning to reopen until spring, where do you stand?
We've no idea when we can reopen fully - that's not in our control. But we want to get the doors open from around Christmas if we can. We'll be staging small shows with socially distanced audiences and enhanced safety precautions. There'll be some cabaret, some one-person shows, some script-in-hand new work, and you'll be seeing lots of our new Creative Associates.
Finally, why should theatre audiences engage with the 15 Heroines project at this stage - what phrase would you use to pull them in with so many other shows (digital and live) going on?
Fifteen stories so good they've been told for three thousand years, retold by 15 of our most exciting playwrights, performed by 15 incredible actors. This is a one-off event.
Book for 15 Heroines here. Each of the three sections runs 90 minutes and costs from £22. Tickets are limited to 250 per performance, which run three times each between 9-14 November