Lee Lewis: "Griffin is creating the future classics"

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2013 has seen consistent success for Griffin Theatre Company, with big critical hits, including a sell-out season of John Romeril’s The Floating World. Lee Lewis took over the reigns from departing artistic director Sam Strong, who moved south to take on a role as associate artistic director at Melbourne Theatre Company. We asked Lewis a few questions about the year that has been and the challenges and rewards of being at the steering wheel of a company like Griffin.
Lee-Lewis-WEBIt’s been your first year as artistic director.
I cannot believe it is a year. It feels like three months.
How has it been?
Incredible. This has been the hardest, most inspiring, most challenging, most confronting, most satisfying, most frustrating, most eye-opening, most exhausting year of my life. Give me another one just like that please. I am having the time of my life.
Obviously though, it’s the final season that Sam’s programmed. Does the fun and the pressure really start now that we’ll be seeing the works you’ve programmed?
It has been a real joy watching this year’s programme unfold. Sam was an incredibly generous artistic director to work with so I had been very involved in the programming conversations that generated this year’s season… so I already felt very responsible for it. I know what you mean though – it will feel different next year. This year has been about shifting my life from being in a position of influence to being a decision maker. It turns out the difference is enormous. Way more pressure. Way more fun.
The entire mainstage season has been very well-received, but the biggest hit would have to be The Floating World. Why do you think audiences connected with that production so much?
John Romeril is a great writer. Sam Strong is a great director. The cast was great. The Griffin audience is filled with really smart people who love Australian stories told well. The Floating World speaks directly to the heart of who we were 40 years ago and asks us big questions about where we are going. All the ingredients were in place and then some of that old Stables Theatre magic took over: that production could have run for 6 months. I apologise to all the people who couldn’t see it. It was special.
The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars, which you directed, was also a big success. Were you expecting that? What do you think it was audiences connected with?
The fascinating thing about working with new plays is that you never expect success. There is no magic formula. You just don’t know until the play meets the audience whether it will work or not. Making a new play is like competing in the Olympics: sometimes you win a gold medal but all you can work to do is make sure it’s your personal best.
The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars thrilled and delighted audiences. It was so inspiring to watch audiences fall in love with the idea of love – there are not that many romantic comedies in  theatre! I think the language of the play was enchanting and that Silvia Collocca and Matt Zeremes were so incredibly charming that audiences couldn’t help themselves.
You wrote a Platform Paper in 2007 about cross-racial casting and the current casting practices in Sydney theatre. You called for diverse casts and diverse voices. Do you feel the pressure, now that you’re Artistic Director at Griffin to “walk the walk” and deliver that?
Griffin has a very specific purpose and role as Australia’s new writing theatre. How well do you think Griffin has achieved that this year?
As Australia’s new writing theatre our job is to show everyone how exciting and important new plays are for the future imagination of this country. Griffin is going from strength to strength. Our audiences are engaged and growing, we are working with a greater number and more diverse range of artists than we ever have, we are reaching new audiences, exceeding all our targets , experimenting with new development programmes, and growing in ways that are sustainable. You could say that in the last year Griffin has come of age. Audiences and artists around the country should be able to look to Griffin in the future as a real centre of the conversation about why and how we make the best Australian stories for the stage.
How can we expect your legacy to be different to Sam’s?
The only legacy that is important is the Griffin’s legacy for Australia. One hundred years from now, Sydney may be a mega-city of 80million people but those people will still, like us, need to look back and understand where they came from. Griffin is making and keeping the stories those people will need to know themselves. Griffin is creating the future classics. Every year. We have been for over thirty years. And every Artistic Director here resists the temptation to ‘make their mark’ on the company, instead we let Griffin make its mark on us. I look back to Sam, to Nick Marchant, to David Berthold, to Ros Horin, to Ian Watson and Peter Kingston (and further back to the old Nimrod ratbags) and know that it is one huge relay team passing on an incredibly valuable baton. That baton is the idea that we must commit our best work to the making of stories written here, about us, now. It is the only theatre that matters.
[box]Featured image: Griffin’s production of The Floating World.[/box]

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