Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Tom Littler: 15 Heroines

By | Published on Friday 30 October 2020

I was immediately intrigued when I heard about ’15 Heroines’, an ambitious digitally delivered project from Jermyn Street featuring the work of fifteen well known or emerging playwrights, performed by a star studded cast.

To find out more, I spoke to Jermyn Street Theatre’s artistic director and executive producer Tom Littler.

CM: Can I start by asking some technical info? How is ’15 Heroines’ being staged and how will audiences access it?
TL: ’15 Heroines’ is a set of fifteen new plays based on ancient myths, filmed live in our empty theatre and then broadcast online. There are three sets of five plays each – ‘The Desert’, ‘The Labyrinth’ and ‘The War’. They’re fully staged and filmed live by some of the team behind the NT Live broadcasts, so you’ll get that cinema quality on your home computer.

You buy tickets via our website and you receive a link to watch the show, which is broadcast in evenings and matinees during 9-14 Nov. It’s a real home-theatre event – pour a glass of wine, get an ice cream, enjoy.

CM: Now can you tell us about the plays being performed, and how they are connected?
TL: They are all inspired by a book called ‘The Heroines’ by the Roman poet Ovid. He had the radical idea of writing fifteen fictional letters from the women of classical mythology – so Penelope writes to Odysseus, Ariadne writes to Theseus, and so on. They are very funny and often moving. We’ve commissioned fifteen incredible women writers to adapt them for today’s world, each writing one short play.

CM: What themes will be explored through them?
TL: They give the other side of the story. They’re about the stories we don’t see and the kind of heroism we don’t often explore. These women are queens, politicians, mothers, sorcerers, poets. This is their chance to speak for themselves.

CM: What inspired this project?
TL: I’d wanted to do something with Ovid’s ‘Heroines’ for a long time, and it was in lockdown, with so many people isolated, that we began to think about how we could achieve this. It’s a huge team effort and a big co-production between Jermyn Street Theatre, looking after the writing and staging, and Digital Theatre, looking after the filming.

CM: Who are the writers?
TL: We commissioned fifteen incredible women and non-binary writers to write one short play each. Some are very well known and others are exciting new voices breaking through.

‘The War’ tells the untold stories of the Trojan War – Oenone, Hermione, Laodamia, Briseis and Penelope, written by Lettie Precious, Sabrina Mahfouz, Charlotte Jones, Abi Zakarian and Hannah Khalil.

‘The Desert’ is about women going their own way – Deianaria, Canace, Hypermestra, Dido and Sappho, written by April De Angelis, Isley Lynn, Chinonyerem Odimba, Stella Duffy and Lorna French.

‘The Labyrinth’ is about the women who encountered Jason and Theseus – Ariadne, Phaedra, Phyllis, Hypsipyle and Medea, written by Bryony Lavery, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Samantha Ellis, Natalie Haynes and Juliet Gilkes Romero.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
TL: Here we go. ‘The War’ stars Ann Ogbomo, Rebekah Murrell, Sophia Eleni, Jemima Rooper and Gemma Whelan. ‘The Desert’ stars Indra Ove, Eleanor Tomlinson, Nicholle Cherrie, Rosalind Eleazar and Martina Laird. And ‘The Labyrinth’ stars Patsy Ferran, Dona Croll, Nathalie Armin, Olivia Williams and Nadine Marshall.

It was quite a flexible rehearsal schedule and a short commitment, so we were able to work with some actors whose schedules don’t normally allow them to do stage work. We’re very proud that these stories have found such great storytellers.

CM: I know this is a mean question, but do you have a favourite from amongst the works?
TL: You shouldn’t ask mean questions! I’m directing or co-directing six of these plays and producing all of them, so I’m not going to be drawn on that one. But that is also an honest response – my favourites change depending on the day, or whatever the last one I saw was!

CM: From a logistics perspective, what has it been like bringing this production together during a pandemic?
TL: Horrific. No getting around it – it’s been a nightmare. We have been scrupulous in making the process safe and keeping to the regulations, so I’ve been incredibly grateful for a crack team of people on the Jermyn Street Theatre and Digital Theatre sides looking after hygiene, scheduling, air flow and everything else. But we were determined to make it happen and I’m really glad we’re managing to do it!

CM: Over the lockdown we’ve seen a burgeoning of theatre delivered by innovative online means. Can you see this way of reaching audiences outliving the COVID crisis?
TL: Many theatres will build on these digital and online experiences to keep broadening our audiences and giving our work greater reach and longevity – it is one of the positives of this year. Working out how to make that work economically is the next challenge – we cannot give our work away for free; we have to pay the people who make it.

CM: It’s a very difficult time for the arts industry of course – how is Jermyn Street faring in the current circumstances?
TL: It’s been the worst year imaginable – we even had a major flood that destroyed our dressing rooms and workshop. But we’re very grateful for the support of our patrons and to receive some emergency funding from the Department Of Digital, Media, Culture And Sport and Arts Council.

We’ve also used this year to create a lot of work online, keep our family of freelancers connected, and make steps towards becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation. We have a very small team and low-ish core costs, so that means that whenever we have any money to spare we can try to make projects happen. There’s no point being a theatre unless we’re making theatre and employing artists.

CM: What hopes do you have for the venue moving forward?
TL: I can’t wait to start welcoming audiences back, whenever that can be. We’re in the mass gathering business, and nothing will ever replace the experience of watching theatre live.

During 2020 we’ve appointed a group of sixteen new Creative Associates, young artists at the beginning of their careers, and I’m excited about working with them and seeing what they create. But in the meantime, ’15 Heroines’ is an amazing project to help create, and will truly bring Jermyn Street Theatre into the audience’s living room.

’15 Heroines’ is streamed from Jermyn Street Theatre from 9-14 Nov. See the venue website here for more information and to book.

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