Interview: Ryan Thornhill Talks Couch Readings & Launching a New Online Fringe Festival

Ryan Thornhill has been keeping very busy since theatre spaces went dark for lockdown. Having already launched Couch Readings, an online project which sees creatives engaging with table readings of their work online, he’s now getting ready to launch the Thornhill Theatre Space World Wide Virtual Fringe Festival which will run across the month of August. Thornhill is passionate about providing opportunities for writers across the world to develop and showcase their work and with this upcoming fringe festival being based online, it all looks set to go swimmingly. I caught up with Thornhill to chat about his love of theatre, the Couch Readings project and the upcoming Fringe Festival…

First of all, tell me a little about the how, when and why your love of theatre began.

That would go all the way back to 2006, my freshman year in high school when I was in my first musical, Man of La Mancha. I had somewhere around five different roles and way too many costume changes to count. Before that I wanted to be a music teacher, but the second I stepped foot on that stage for that first rehearsal I knew my life had changed forever. At that point I was only acting – I was in the musicals at my high school and my community theatre.

By the time I had to choose what I wanted to do at university, I knew I wanted to go for theatre and I had really fallen in love with the directing side of it. Not that I had done any, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I enrolled at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It is a brilliant theatre program that basically allows you to create your theatre track, so I went on the tech/management track and specialised in stage management and directing.

Great stuff! So you currently run digital social media theatre space Thornhill Theatre Space – tell me a little bit about how and why you got started with it.

Thornhill Theatre Space started out as a way for me to share theatre news, upcoming events, history and fun facts. I’ve been living in China for almost three years now and it was a way for me to stay up to date with what was going on in the theatre world while I wasn’t actively practicing theatre. When the pandemic started, that put a lot of artists out of work and that is when I came up with the idea for my Couch Readings series.

And Couch Readings offers audiences a weekly live stream table read of new work. Are we talking full works every week or are there works in progress and excerpts too?

My Couch Readings series features new works, live streamed as a table read for the playwrights to get a chance to hear their work out loud. I’ve been working with only shorter pieces to allow for a feedback session between myself, the playwright and the actors after the table read. So to answer your question they are all works in progress, they are by no means finished projects. I wanted to give writers the space to get the ball rolling on their projects, hear it for the first time and then hopefully allow them to continue to develop the script. Everyone was stuck at home so it was my way to offer the artists a place that they could still practice their art!

And all of the work presented is new writing from playwrights from across the globe. How can writers submit their work to you and how does it work logistically?

Anybody can submit their work to me via my email (you can find this at the end of the interview). Logistically, I usually take the script, give it a read and see if it would work as a reading for my series (i.e. 2-4 actors, no longer than 15 minutes, etc), from there I see if I can cast the script from a poll of actors I have and if not I do a call out for anyone who would be interested. I also make sure that I am casting the scripts from the country the playwright is from, logistically it’s much easier to do it that way. I try to have one rehearsal before the stream, that way I can hear it and give some basic direction. It’s a really fun project, I absolutely love new works and working on developing new plays.

So what’s the process for getting a director in place? Are you actively seeking creatives to reach out?

As far as Couch Readings goes, the directing aspect of it has been quite limited. I have been focusing this series on actors and playwrights and doing some minimal directing myself. Pushing the creative boundaries I believe will be a fun exercise in directing and hopefully in the future we can make the directing side of it more a more important aspect as the ideas of zoom/live-stream plays become more developed. Maybe in the future I will seek out a full team, director included and take more of a producer role, we will see. It’s all been fairly simple really, I use a lot of Facebook groups to find people who are interested, as well as Reddit theatre threads. I’ve also pulled from people that I know from past projects as well. Anyone can reach out to me through my email or any of my social media pages. I like to look at CVs and any show reels they may have (not required).

And are there particular elements you’re interested in seeing in the work you feature in Couch Readings?

I have done excerpts from bigger plays, dark plays, comedies, I have even done a monologue festival. I guess the main requirement is that it is a new work that you want to work on developing and making better. It’s exciting to see how different works can fit into this format. I’m constantly surprised at how we push the creativity so it’s not just actors reading off of a script.

You’ve been going for twelve weeks now. What’s the reception been like and what’s changed, if anything, since the launch?

The reception gets better and better every week. I try to do as much marketing as I can to make sure that as many people are viewing it as possible. I also encourage viewers to leave comments and feedback for the playwright as well. If we are viewing the comments in real time we address them in the feedback session and if it’s a comment left after the stream I encourage the playwrights to open a dialogue with that person. It honestly all started out as something fun to do and I cannot believe how well it is received by the audiences!

Following on from Couch Readings, you’re about to launch of a ‘a world wide virtual fringe festival’ running across August. Tell me a little bit about what has prompted you to take the leap.

Fringe festivals all around the world started getting cancelled and companies all around the world started producing digital work. I knew I had already gained a bit of a following from my Couch Readings so I figured why not facilitate a space that companies can present their digital work as well. I thought it was a long shot at first, then I started reaching out to companies that I knew were regular fringe participants and it all has snowballed from there. My head still spins at the positive responses and amount of submissions I have received. The fringe starts real soon and I am still getting people reaching out to me that want to be involved.

Will you continue with Couch Readings during this fringe festival and beyond, post-pandemic even?

Couch Reading has been put on hold for the time being. Thornhill Theatre Space will be premiering it’s inaugural production “Self Help Tips with Tiffany” by Pedro Diegues as part of the fringe as well as launching our new podcast “Couch Chats”. So I’ve been working hard at getting everything ready for that. As far as will it come back after the fringe? Maybe, maybe not. I am really trying to think outside the box and see how Thornhill Theatre Space can really dig deep into theatre in a virtual setting so we will see what comes of that.

And is the intention for this online fringe festival to feature performances of works beyond table reads, with a more developed approach of some kind?

Oh my yes, we have everything being presented as part of the fringe. Zoom performances, full on digital plays, podcasts, interviews, master classes, a new writing night. They’re is a real variety of things being presented and something that everyone can enjoy.

Is there a name for this fringe festival hovering on the horizon yet?

The name of the fringe is Thornhill Theatre Space World Wide Virtual Fringe Festival (#ttsvirtualfringe), I know it’s a mouthful but I really wanted to stay on brand and make sure that everyone knew that we were representing theatre companies from all over the globe. We have productions from Scotland, America, Canada, the Phillipines, England and Singapore so far. It’s all very exciting!!

It sounds it! And finally, how can casts and creatives get in touch about being involved?

Same as before, via my email or any of my social media pages! I welcome anyone to get in touch, and if it can’t be part of the fringe, Thornhill Theatre Space is not going anywhere so I am always open for a chat about what we could do together in the future!

So there you have it! Make sure you stay in the loop via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube pages. You can also email Ryan via thornhilltheatrespace@outlook.com.

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