I recently met with the lovely Ellie Heydon from theatre company Siberian Lights. She speaks all about the company’s inspiration for starting and of how they are now proud to ask for help when they need it. If you’re thinking about starting your own theatre company then look no further; Ellie shares Siberian Lights’ advice on setting up a theatre company, and of how to stay motivated once you’re there.
For people who don’t know, what is Siberian Lights?
Siberian Lights is a female-centric theatre company founded by 4 graduates from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (Ellie Heydon, Arabella Neale, Charlotte Merriam and Olivia Elsden). We set out to create a safe space that is creative and stimulating which focuses on creating opportunities and platforms for telling female led stories in the industry.
When did it start?
We got a seedling of the idea when we were in our final year at drama school in 2015 but actually went on to found the first community event in January of 2016.
What inspired you to start-up the company?
I think it was a case of repeatedly seeing brilliantly talented women not being recognised and challenged by the work on offer. Despite being warned that is was trickier for women in the industry I think we were filled with naive hope – we were so excited by all the women we were meeting and working with we had no doubt they would smash it. I spoke to a lot of women during the first 6 months after leaving the safety of drama school and realised more and more that not being stimulated and feeling frustrated leads to a lot of resentment and isolation within an already difficult industry. We just thought it would be incredible to create a place where all the women who are sat opposite each other in audition rooms/not getting the opportunities they deserve could meet regularly and form a supportive community that focuses on positivity and solidarity and gives a space to use those creative minds that aren’t stimulated enough!
Was there a specific moment when you decided to create Siberian Lights?
We spent so long thinking of a name that the company very nearly didn’t happen. I remember we were all sitting in Olivia’s living room going insane! The structure of the foundations of the company was very community led; we first decided that we were going to do regular readings and offer them for free. I had gone and read the first draft of a play at a director friends house and realised it was the most challenging work I’d done in months and also realised that it was so easy to actually get people together and make work! So the readings were inspired by him.
How has the journey been so far?
It’s been really amazing, humbling and exciting and has certainly been a big influence on our journey as creatives, and for me has given me a much clearer understanding of feminism! When we began we held fortnightly community readings for a year and a half — these were free for actresses to come to. We would read plays and then discuss and debate them afterwards. Off the back of these readings we started to link all the talent we had coming through to the industry itself and began offering workshops at discounted rates so that people could hone their skills without breaking the bank. We realised that the seed of the problem was that there were simply not enough opportunities or roles for women out there. We wanted to help female-centric writers to develop their work so we began to put on rehearsed readings and auditions.
Our most recent development as a company was DAMES at The Pleasance Theatre, our first full stage production, which was a brilliant experience! When we first started our rehearsed readings they were held in a small back room of The Pleasance – we’d have to open the windows because it was too hot and then the sound of the street would disrupt the reading, but it didn’t matter because we were so proud of what we had achieved! So the feeling of when we first walked into the main space of the same theatre and saw this incredible set and all the creatives we’d brought together for the project was such an exciting feeling and a real benchmark on the progress we’d made. We were so proud of ourselves and of all the women who had been involved throughout the process. It was so wonderful to see so many of the girls who were a part of the wider Siberian Lights network coming to see and support the play.
Could you have done it alone?
No way; it is such a team effort. It isn’t always easy with 4 of us and can be a challenge to work with friends because everyone has different ideas and avenues of where they would like the business to go. It took us about a year to realise what our roles in the company were. Initially, I think we just wanted everyone to be happy and we all wanted to have a go at everything. Running a business, however, requires everyone to play to their own strengths, and we are all so different. Since allowing everyone to dive into their own aspect of the company it’s been brilliant!
What is each of your fortes?
Olivia does all the social media content and all the images, her family are very creative (her dad is a graphic designer) so her eye for everything is just beautiful. Bella is the in-house casting director — she sees so much theatre she just knows everybody and who’s great, and she’s very good at piecing casts together. Charlotte is the wackiest and wonderful out of everyone — she wrote Dames, the piece we just finished at The Pleasance. She thinks so far out of the box that she brings a unique touch to the company that sort of gives it its spark. We wouldn’t have gone down the avenue we have with Siberian Lights if it wasn’t for her. And I do all the admin and am the in-house Director, so will often jump in the driving seat when doing rehearsed readings etc!
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
The journey of coming to the understanding that we all have different strengths, and being able to celebrate that. It required a lot of patience, support and belief in the company.
Another thing that has been a challenge is the audience we’re reaching. A lot of the people who come to us are drama school graduates and it’s really highlighted to us the lack of diversity among people who are accepted to drama schools. I’ve been trying to diversify our audience not just in ethical terms, but also in terms of class. The question is how do we access different pockets of people from different backgrounds, as that is the type of company that we would like to have. We want to tell as many female stories as possible, and that means reaching as far as possible!
What have you learnt?
That it’s okay to ask for help! Before, we felt that we needed to work everything out on our own because we were so ambitious to hit the ground running. Now, however, we can put our hands up and admit that when we’ve tried every avenue we can think of, and look for guidance. We’re now in touch with a lot of other companies and will ask for help when we need it. And we’ve recently been working with formidable producer Rachel Kraftman. She knows the answer to everything!
As a relatively new company, how do you go about getting interest from other companies?
It is sort of about putting yourself out there and contacting people. It always helps if you have a way in through a mutual collaborator but in general, most people have been very supportive of the company. I think it also relies on you being aware of and helping promote other companies and realising how much an investment in all young companies will help yours grow! For example, we’re currently really excited by a brilliant company called OPEN DOOR, founded by David Mumeni, which is a non-profit organisation that aims to help young people who may not have financial support or resources to apply for the UK’s leading drama schools. It’s such an amazing programme. We want to have as many different types of people there as possible so that everyone feels like they belong, so David is someone who is helping us extend our access programming.
What pieces of advice would you give to anyone wanting to start-up their own company?
1) I would say that is quite a lonely thing, even within the unit of the four of us. You are constantly pushing something uphill. Because of this, I would say how important it is to really celebrate the little victories, however small – even if it’s just something like going for a drink after a great meeting. When we do our Jukebox evenings (a scratch night we put on) the run up to it is so stressful, but once it all comes together we feel such a sense of accomplishment that it’s all worth it. It’s so important to really check in with the satisfying moments as this is what keeps you going. When you receive positive feedback it’s so important to share that news around the whole company so that everyone feels like they’re making progress and not just hitting their head against a brick wall!
2) Patience is also an extremely important thing. You have to realise that every little idea/thought/ action that you do is planting a seed somewhere, even if you may not see it straight away.
3) Turn up! We’ve all been in the position where we say we’re going to be somewhere and then for one reason or another have decided not to go. I have realised what a difference simply turning up makes. For example, if we were hosting a reading and 5 people drop out, then that’s 5 other people who could have come. If you’re in a company then make sure you 100% turn up for other companies and invest in the bigger picture of people starting up their own companies.
What keeps you motivated?
It’s in those moments of celebration because the day-to-day of running a company can be really hard. It’s when you get an email saying, ‘this changed my life’ and you’re suddenly given another boost to keep going. I also love seeing actors explore areas of their work where I’ve never seen them go before.
It’s exciting seeing how women, who would normally audition for the part of girlfriend #2, would play John Proctor. There are no constraints within our room — so many people have told me that the acting they’ve done in our workshops is the best acting they’ve done in 3 years, and that is so rewarding for us. There should be more places where you are able to explore texts you aren’t offered in work. I love to watch people work and go beyond what I thought they could do, even after years of knowing them.
What is success to you?
Success for Siberian Lights is all about connection. When I hear people have conversations about us, or when I watch people perform and connect, that is when I feel the success. I love all the companies and collaborations which have come about because of Siberian Lights, that makes us very proud.
In a years time, where would you like Siberian Lights to be?
After doing ‘Dames’ we realised how much we enjoyed devising our own work, and how brilliant it is to use all the amazing women around us. We don’t want to box these women up, we want to create the work which makes them shine! We would love to take a group of actors and put 3 writers and 3 directors with them to create a rep company — we would have 2 or 3 shows that we could push out.
Finally, what have you learnt along the way?
That you may be achieving 100% on your own but when you allow other people to have an effect on your work you can up that to 150%! It’s important to allow others to help. Your best you is never going to be the one who is stopped by your own personal limitations. You need to let people tell you that you can do things and to trust them more than you trust yourself.
Interview by Caitlyn Daroy
Siberian Lights Theatre Company https://www.facebook.com/siberianlights4/