Eric Lomas: Theatre in Two Worlds
Bringing the best of English and Austrian stage traditions to the new ‘Open House’ company
Actor-Director Eric Lomas is something of a phenomenon even in a theatre-obsessed town like Vienna. Born in Styria to an Austrian father and English mother, he left for England at 16 to train with the Westcountry Theatre Company, in Torquay; at 19 he launched a youth theatre called Frontal Theatre in his home town of Bruck an der Mur, and in 2004, moved to Vienna to begin a career on both the English and German-language stages, while returning each summer to run his youth theatre in Styria.
Since his return, he has been a fixture at the International Theatre, where his roles have included George Gibbs in Our Town, Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, and Eric Birling in An Inspector Calls, whose revival he directed in 2012. In German, he has played at Theater an der Wien, Theater Akzent and Theater der Jugend in Vienna, as well as for a European tour of Cabaret for Germany’s Arena Theater.
Four young theatre-makers
And now, at 28, he has just become the Executive Director of The Open House Theatre Company, Vienna’s newest English-language theatre company and successor to the beloved International Theatre that closed its doors at the end of last season. [see "Facing the Final Curtain", TVR June 2012]. He is joined by two other IT veterans, Artistic Director Alan Burgon and Education Manager Julia Thorne, and by Financial Manager Paul Elsbacher.
We had agreed to meet at Café Prückel at 16:00, in the side room to the left of the stairs. But Lomas was already there – and had been for some time, apparently, having unpacked his laptop, cell phone, spiral notebook open and odd bits of paper strewn around and spread out over one of the oblong white Formica tables in the café’s pleasantly seedy, ‘50s-era décor.
Prückel has become Lomas’ second home, where he reads, writes and conducts business and where, in the theatre space underground, the company will have its base of operations. Called "KiP"(Kunst im Prückel), the 120-seat cabaret theatre has twice the capacity of the old IT, something the team considers essential for the project to succeed. Its location on the Ring at Stübentor and underneath one of Vienna’s most renowed literary cafés, is also an asset in itself.
Lomas looked up as I entered, eyes alight, cheeks slightly flushed, excitement written all over his face. It had all happened very fast. The phone call had come from the City of Vienna in early April, declining further support for the International Theatre. It was the end of an era.
Finding a way forward
"But there could be a way forward," said Theater Referent Christopher Widauer of the City’s Culture Department MA7, and offered their help to continue the annual production of A Christmas Carol, which had become a fixture in Vienna’s holiday calendar over nearly three decades, routinely playing to sold out houses throughout the pre-Christmas season. The next call was to Eric Lomas from the IT’s founding director Marilyn Wallace. Would he like to take it over?
"I was reluctant," Lomas admitted. "At that point I didn’t know the liabilities, no one did. But I knew I had to act fast." There had been other inquiries. If he wanted to do it, he needed to say so now. "But it had to be on my terms," he said. "Under the old structure, I couldn’t bring in new artistic ideas or any new ideas actually. I wasn’t really prepared to do that."
He met with lawyers, potential partners and sponsors. Within three weeks they had the outlines of a plan for going forward. They would found a new theatre company, with a new name and a new vision.
They would also start with several important assets: a mailing list of some 6,000 names, some lighting and sound equipment (as compensation for salaries unpaid), and the legacy of The Christmas Carol. The IT also had a long tradition of theatre in the schools, which Lomas is planning to build on and expand. Their plans include a "Children’s Theatre" and "Open Classroom" outreach programme of theatre in the schools, as well as a summer Shakespeare in the Park, with the dazzling twist of presenting the Bard in both English and German on alternate nights, with the same cast.
The waiter came by and I ordered a Mélange. "I’ve already finished mine," he observed, looking down at his empty cup and fiddling with his pen, but doesn’t order another. I suspect he doesn’t need it. He’s very wired. There is a lot that has to happen in a very short time: raising money, finding sponsors, polishing the script, writing and designing the programs, brochures and posters, and in less than two weeks (6 October, see note, below), they will be holding auditions for the last of the six actors in this year’s production, a young male for the combined roles of the young Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and Tiny Tim. They hope to find a native speaker in his late teens or early 20s who can play younger, but is still old enough to work as an adult. Rehearsals will begin 17 November, giving them just two weeks.
Was that enough? With so much at stake…
"In England it’s frowned upon to come to rehearsal and know your lines," Lomas said with a laugh. "I can remember productions when we would still be standing there with our scripts on the day before dress rehearsal!" I must have looked sceptical. That was an extreme, of course!
"But here theatres usually have immensely long rehearsal periods that focus on a lot of work sitting around a table and talking about it. The concept is very important here. In the Anglo-American world, it’s much more, ‘Let’s get up and do it!’ Which doesn’t mean it’s careless!" I had seen Lomas on stage; it was not careless. But it puzzled people in Austria.
During rehearsals for a German language production at the Theater der Jugend, German director Lukas Hartmann was puzzled by Lomas’ approach.
"But how would you handle props?" Hartmann wondered, out of curiosity rather than disapproval. "How would you be able to think with a script in your hand?"
To Lomas it’s the other way around. "How can I learn my lines if I don’t know the intention of the other person I am talking to in the scene?" he said. "I just feel it frees the whole process up." It’s a reflection of under lying philosophical ideas about what theatre is.
"Obviously this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t do their job and a director shouldn’t prepare a concept and know what he wants. It’s not, ‘Oh let’s meet up and see what happens,’" (which is something he has no patience for). "To me it’s just that the minute you learn a line, you connect it to a movement, to a thought, to a feeling. And in my experience – because I have worked that way as well – it’s just very hard, no matter how talented that actor is, to get him to sincerely move off that initial impulse that he has to memorise that line."
This was his biggest challenge, coming back to Austria. "I thought, ‘I cannot do this, I cannot sit down and learn this text.’ I have to be on my feet. I need to interact!" It is a process he calls "more organic," and when he uses with actors when he is directing, it works. "I can’t put my finger on what it, but there is a different outcome."
This approach is central to The Open Theatre Company’s planned "Open Classroom" project, in which he hopes to get children involved in thinking about the mechanics of theatre, to get them to reflect on and challenge what they see. "I want to get them to scratch the surface and go, ‘Right, I see. That music is there to achieve this or that effect, the costumes, the delivery of the lines … that everything is there for a reason, to tell you something. And that this is a craft, not just a lot of people fooling around.’"
What has been fun is to see how responsive children are. "It doesn’t take much to spark that," he said. "It’s not a process that will go on and on for months. Once you give them the basic tools, they can do it." It breaks down the barriers of conventional theatre with a proscenium stage and an audience sitting in rows and becomes a dynamic experience that is shared.
It was easy to share Lomas’ excitement about launching Shakespeare in the Park, the fourth initiative of The Open House Theatre Company, which will begin in summer 2013 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each time you come back to read or see one of his plays, you wonder, "How could he have imagined such modern characters?"
"Where did he get it from?" agreed Lomas in astonishment, "Absolutely! Every time I do one, I just stand there in awe, all over again. My hero!" He sighed. We both laughed. Shakespeare’s plays are actors’ plays, but they are also audience plays, with extraordinary characters, rich language, irresistible comedy, gripping drama, mystery, pageant, humour and heartbreak. Everything you could ask for, everything that theatre should be. So it is important that people, particularly young people, have a chance to discover this.
With all the new plans, Lomas is clearly grateful for the opportunity, a new theatre, yes, but one standing on the shoulders of those who came before. For the trust that has been placed him by Marilyn Wallace, and indirectly, by the city.
"I think in the end, for her, it was more important not so much to keep the IT going, but to keep the idea and the legacy going," he said, "that there is a second English-speaking theatre in Vienna, or even a third. And I think she just didn’t want it to stop...
"Which is really quite nice."
Auditions for A Christmas Carol:
Saturday, 6 Oct., 10:00-12:00
Kontrastes Music & Dance Atelier
15., Hanglüßgasse 3/1
Audition by appointment only
For reviews of past performances of A Christmas Carol, see:
"The Immortal ‘Carol’" in TVR Dec/Jan 2008/09
"A Christmas Carol: Savoring Scrooge" in TVR Dec/Jan 2007/08
"Scrooge’s Christmas" in TVR Dec/Jan 2006/07