Fringe Box



Dragon Interview: Guildford Shakespeare Co-founders Matt Pinches and Sarah Gobran

Published on: 2 Oct, 2018
Updated on: 2 Oct, 2018

GSC co-founders Sarah Gobran and Matt Pinches

It’s 150 years since Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) purchased a house for his sisters in Guildford – the Chestnuts, close to Guildford Castle. As the Guildford Shakespeare Company prepares to re-stage its sell-out 2015 adaptation, Alice Fowler talks Alice and more with GSC co-founders Matt Pinches and Sarah Gobran. This interview was originally published on September 11, 2018.

GSC’s new ‘Alice in Wonderland’ opens this month and Matt will talk about Lewis Carroll at the Guildford Book Festival. What’s brought you back to ‘Alice’?

Matt: We did Alice three years ago for the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s adventures underground. It was another six years before Looking Glass was published. Our audiences loved the show so much we thought we couldn’t wait another six years for that anniversary. Aside from that it’s 150 years since Lewis Carroll made the family home in Guildford.

Alice – © Steve Porter

What’s different this time round?

Matt: It’s the same promenade performance at St Mary’s Church, the Museum and the Castle, but there’s a couple of new elements. There’s a bar – the Mock Turtle Bay bar – in the Museum. We’ve also developed a pool of tears; and the White Rabbit has more to do.

Sarah: We’re adding to it rather than changing it. What’s really exciting is that three years on we’ve got a new generation of children who’ll see the King and Queen of Hearts in a real castle. To see little girls holding Alice’s hand – that’s a special kind of magic.

The Queen of Hearts – © Steve Porter

Has the cast changed too?

Matt: We’ve got one Alice and one White Rabbit returning. The Queen of Hearts, the Duchess and the Mad Hatter are back. Of course we’re three years on, and everyone is three years older, which matters when an adult actor is playing a child. So some things have had to change.

Why do you think ‘Alice’ is still so popular, 150 years on?

Matt: It’s a story that works for grown-ups as much as for children. Lewis Carroll is the third most quoted writer in the English language, after Shakespeare and the Bible. He was a mathematician, a photographer, a creator of puzzles. His ideas on voting reform are still used today.  You think: goodness me, this isn’t just a chap who dreamt up stories of talking caterpillars and girls falling down rabbit holes. There’s a sense of freedom about Alice in Wonderland that absolutely works for audiences today.

You’re the Guildford Shakespeare Company but in recent years you’ve staged Robin Hood, King Arthur and of course Alice. What makes a story work as a GSC production?

Sarah: For me it’s about sharing: enticing, engaging and inspiring. We take people on a journey and an adventure. We want to get them hooked.

Matt: We set up the GSC to challenge people’s experience of theatre. In a traditional theatre you go in, sit in the dark and watch something at the other end of the room. More and more, people want experiences: they want to be part of the action. In our Julius Caesar, for example, they were part of the cheering crowd. We need that audience complicity.

You founded the GSC in 2006 and ‘Alice’ will be your 39th show. How do you keep things fresh?

Sarah: We’re always looking for new venues, for one thing. Holy Trinity church has become our winter base, but otherwise we constantly keeping it moving. Sometimes the first time at a site can be difficult. Racks Close for example [used for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Robin Hood] has no facilities. It can take a couple of goes to make a venue work.

Matt: It’s also about building a sense of community. We’ve brought thousands of people through the doors of Holy Trinity church who may not be at all religious. It’s the same with Racks Close: bringing people in. We love what we do and we have a wonderful board of trustees to support us.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party- © Steve Porter

Are you still searching for a permanent base?

Sarah: We’ve been in this building [on the Midleton Road industrial estate] for two years now. That’s made a massive difference, but we’re already starting to outgrow it. There are sword marks on the ceiling! We now have two options: either to find a bigger version of this; or to find a smaller building with land that has room for a Spiegeltent [an antique mirror tent, used for previous GSC productions].

What else has changed in the last two years?

Matt: We’ve really expanded our education and outreach department. We run weekly classes for all age groups and take workshops into schools. We’ve just announced a year-long programme of projects which aims to reduce social isolation and assist disadvantaged schools across Surrey. In Guildford we’re going to become resident at Kings College and Guildford Grove, and Weyfield primary is in the pipeline. When you come from a disadvantaged area, to be friends with the GSC can be quite something.

Do you feel there is a limit to how much you can grow?

Matt: We now have five full time and two part time staff. We have to get the balance right – of knowing who we are and not becoming something else. This region doesn’t need another big theatre or arts centre. That’s not what we’re about.

How are you funded?

Matt: We don’t receive any core funding for our shows. We apply to the Arts Council for each show individually. Each show costs £145,000 to stage and we need to make at least 80% of that in ticket sales. That’s a huge challenge.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – © Steve Porter

Do you feel your role in bringing visitors and income to the town is sufficiently recognised?

Matt: We receive a rate reduction from Guildford Borough Council on our current building. Over the years we’ve built up a wonderful relationship with individuals within the council. We don’t receive any funding annually from GBC.

You founded the GSC together. Are you a couple personally as well as professionally?

Matt: We were. We’ve known each other 16 years…

Sarah: The change happened six years ago. We’re very lucky to have a relationship that remains significant and important. That’s quite a special thing.

Joanna Read, the GSC’s honorary president, recently took over as director of the Yvonne Arnaud. Will this mean a closer relationship with the theatre?

Matt: Jo first worked with us in 2008, directing The Comedy of Errors, and returned to direct a year later. She was one of the original board of Trustees when we became a charity in 2010 and then served as Chair of Trustees. We’ve always had a close relationship with the Arnaud and hopefully it will continue to be strong.

You describe yourselves as actor-managers. Is there an inherent conflict in that dual role?

Sarah: You have to compartmentalise. So long as you respect the people you’re working with, it’s actually very easy.

Matt: We’ve never said, “It’s our company, I’ll play Romeo”. We don’t appear in every show as actors. It’s very rewarding to do both roles.

What’s coming next?

Sarah: Measure For Measure in the New Year at Holy Trinity church. We’ll be focusing on themes of corruption and sexual politics and the abuse of power within gender roles. Then we’ll have our summer shows. And we’re hoping to do a co-production with a theatre in London for the autumn.

Any ambitions yet to be fulfilled?

Matt: To have a long term home, that’s certainly a major one. My first job as an actor was in The Three Musketeers, and I’d like to do a big swashbuckling production of that. And it would be lovely to do Shakespeare’s history plays – one day….

Sarah: Alice was a big personal thing for me. At the moment my dream would be our very own Spiegeltent.

Matt Pinches will discuss Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Guildford as part of the Guildford Book Festival, on October 7 at the Electric Theatre. See

The GSC production of Alice in Wonderland, starting at St Mary’s church, runs from October 13-November 3. Box Office 01483 304384, see


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Responses to Dragon Interview: Guildford Shakespeare Co-founders Matt Pinches and Sarah Gobran

  1. Karin Walker Reply

    September 12, 2018 at 8:43 am

    KGW Family Law is so very proud to be sponsoring this autumn’s production of Alice in Wonderland. Sarah and Matt are two particularly special people who have brought their own brand of theatrical magic to Guildford.

    It is a privilege to be associated with them and I wish them continuing success in the future.

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