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Iris Theatre, which works with actors, writers and directors at the start of their careers, is building a 70-seat theatre called The Pod in the grounds of St Paul’s Church - known as the Actors’ Church for its long association with the stage.
Artistic director Paul-Ryan Carberry said they were preparing to shut down when Sir Ian gave them a five figure donation.
He said: “In May last year obviously we had to cancel all of our work and we had £300 in the bank account and we were going under.
“I’m the sort of person who thinks well I’m not giving up so we went on a huge fund raising campaign and I was amazed at the support our regular audience gave us.
“We were also a recipient of support from Sir Ian McKellen. I wrote him a letter hoping he would bung us fifty quid and he supported us with £22,000 which was literally life saving for us.”
The Lord of the Rings star raised more than £5 million touring his one man show around the country to support UK theatre.
Among the shows in the Pod’s opening season is a new take on Peter Pan, two Christmas shows and a musical about a girl band who save the world.
Carberry said the church, which dates back to 1633, and the Covent Garden Estate had gone “above and beyond” in helping them build the Pod as a new home for their winter shows.
He said: “It’s a special place and I say this to people, ‘Look the cool kids have got the warehouses and their archways’ and I love that but we’ve got a grade I listed church in the middle of Covent Garden and that is exactly the place we should be occupying. “We’re in the heart of it, in the shadow of the royal opera house, the Donmar and the West End and that’s the perfect platform for a lot of these artists that are just starting out.”
The Pod will open on November 15.