"The pair evidently surround themselves with the inspirational, and when it comes to the shaping of their apartment, 'eclectic' is their chosen descriptor."
Running your own company is something many of us dream about, but for Nina Flitman and Dan Dawes, it’s a reality. Together they assembled, moulded and continue to manage their theatre company, Idle Discourse Theatre (don’t let the nod to Samuel Beckett pass you by – “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!”). But they’ve got other things going on, too: Nina is a financial journalist, and Dan is a full-time actor, often travelling for weeks at a time with a show.
So when they invited The Peninsulist into their home, we jumped at the chance to delve into their theatrical world. Most of the time, on entering someone else’s home, you might notice the odd pop of colour, but Nina and Dan’s apartment is a swathe of arresting visuals, turning you every which way. It takes a moment to pick something and settle on it, so eager are you to analyse each and every piece that adorns the walls. But it wasn’t always like this, Dan says: “When we moved in, we had an outdoor table and chair set, an inflatable mattress and one sofa chair.”
It’s quite the leap from that to the apartment’s current look. Nina says they were excited to work with the blank canvas, using a wide palette to give the white walls a splash of colour and create something balanced but visually stimulating. And it points directly to their craft: Dan explains that they are always heavily involved with the design of their sets, so the blank space is one that gives them joy, knowing what it can become with a little spontaneity.
Spontaneity, it seems, is the key to much of Nina and Dan’s lives. “We came to the Peninsula on a complete whim,” Dan explains. “We’d been looking to buy a flat for a while, and then I saw an advertisement on the tube. So we came down to see the showroom, and we thought it would just be a case of looking at a beautiful space and then going back to our rented flat, and thinking it over for a while. But it ended up being the complete opposite. We walked away that day having bought a flat on the spot!”
Nina says that when they moved in, they were the first ones in the building for a while, “which was quite strange, but great. We make spur-of-the-moment decisions, but it always pays off.”With already demanding jobs, you can’t help but wonder about the trials of adding in the running of a theatre company, too. But Nina says that this was made possible, in part, by the location. “My ‘regular’ job is down at Canary Wharf, so it made sense for us to move here, and I can’t tell you how much of a difference it’s made to my day. I love being able to get home from work in 15 minutes, and it also means that I have so much of my day left. I get to spend that time working on something I’m really passionate about – the theatre.”
Dan says that it’s also about being by the river. “We’re both from coastal towns, so being here has a nice tranquility to it. And part of the appeal was that we were moving into somewhere that doesn’t quite have its own fixed identity yet. We get to be a part of that now, and help to shape it in some small way.”
Their theatre company, though, takes up the majority of their time, with six shows this year, two of which Dan has written. “We spend most of our time getting funding for projects and then finding the location. Nina produces, and I write, direct and act full-time. I love to sit here at the dining table actually, because there’s an amazing view straight out across the whole of the area and out to the river. I prefer to write at night because it’s so quiet and still.”
“He often writes until 4am,” interjects Nina, “blaring whichever music he’s chosen to score our current play with. Most recently it’s been tracks from the Red Army to match our Soviet space-race play, Tales from Star City.” They have a playful back and forth, and it’s obvious that they both care deeply for their craft.
Dan explains that music and movement is essential to their work. “If I’ve got an idea for a play, I have to find a soundtrack to get the ideas flowing. We also went to the Science Museum and got this Russian poster, and that really inspired things.”
The pair evidently surround themselves with the inspirational, and when it comes to the shaping of their apartment, “eclectic” is their chosen descriptor. “Our most recent production was sweet and funny and also devastatingly sad,” muses Nina. “And so it wasn’t possible to categorise. I think that’s what we really love, and that’s what the apartment is built around. That, and the sofa chair.”
The sofa chair does command the room. Old and possibly once leather, it is now splattered in brightly coloured paints. “The chair did come first,” explains Dan. “It’s been the thing that has set the tone for our whole aesthetic. I found it at an old mirror shop in Ealing and took it home in the back of a taxi. It’s followed us ever since. And colour scheme-wise it’s what started everything off. It’s our statement piece.”
And looking closely it becomes obvious that the colours from the chair have been highlighted around the room. The bright green filing cabinet; the stand that the pair have decorated with scraps of old wallpaper on a bored afternoon; the Greenwich clock; and the giant red heart bordered with light bulbs from a production of the Taming of the Shrew that was destined for the skip, when Dan rescued it and brought it home.
Their claim that they are “fans of as much colour as possible” is not to be taken lightly, and they avoid being compartmentalised in every way. Though Nina admits that she does quite enjoy having a creative side through the theatre, and an analytical one with her journalism. Which would explain the meticulously colour-coded bookshelf that wraps around the hallway far above head height.
It’s refreshing to see two people open to changing things up at a moment’s notice, rearranging a room for one piece of furniture, which they did again recently when they were given Nina’s great-grandma’s old writing cabinet. “I studied for my A-levels at this desk,” she reminisces. “We used to have an Ikea shelf in this spot,” she explains. “And I think that’s the problem with trying to decorate too quickly. It takes time to find what fits.”
So they have slowly collected little mementos that are carefully arranged around the flat. There’s a tea set from a trip to Morocco, prayer flags from India, a very enticing selection of spirits from a show Dan did in Belgium, a carefully balanced set of wooden boxes that make up a shelving cabinet. “We like to pick up bits from wherever we go, be that travelling or from a show.” It all serves as a little reminder that influences can come from anywhere, shaping us in little and myriad ways.
Nina and Dan’s apartment has a rare quality. For all the colour and vibrancy, it reminds you to stop and really look at something, for the story behind it and the story ahead.
Top tips for starting with a blank canvas?
D: Don’t do anything too quickly. Take your time to find beautiful pieces and don’t be afraid of changing things around as your tastes grow.
What do your friends think of the apartment?
N: One of our closest friends has now actually bought an apartment just over the road! We can see each other from our balconies. So friends really like it, to say the least. And another friend just bought the same bed as us. We’re always getting asked about particular statement pieces we have.
Most exciting moment since moving in?
N: We have a duck. She’s laid an egg in our big blue plant pot on the balcony. We put a bright pink plastic flamingo there to try to deter her, but she keeps coming back. Last year, she laid eggs and we had lots of little ducklings waddling about the balcony. We had to get someone from the nearby ecology park to come and rescue them and release them back into the wild for us.
Favourite theatre genre?
D: We love a bit of everything. Creatively, because we’re still quite a young company, we’re conscious of keeping our options open. Our shows for this year are made up of two of my own pieces of writing, and three that are a mix of Shakespeare and other genres and periods. So we like to mix it up. But I particularly love to write about different experiences and cultures to my own.
What do you love about your neighbourhood?
N: The sky. Most of London is so built up, but here, when you’re walking along the river or in the park, you can see from side to side. And I really appreciate that. It makes me feel more in tune, and I can breathe a little bit more.