Ovalhouse recently announced its new Summer Season 2018, comprising an eclectic and accessible programme of six new shows plus seven FiRST BiTES of short pieces still in development. It’s one of the last seasons to be announced ahead of the demolition of Ovalhouse’s current home and the theatre’s move to a new, purpose-built facility in 2020. For full details of the season, click here.
We caught up with Owen Calvert-Lyons, Ovalhouse’s Head of Theatre & Artist Development, to discuss the new season and his Demolition Party plans.
What are you most looking forward to in this newly announced summer season?
It’s always hard to choose one production from such a great season, it’s like picking your favourite child. I am really looking forward to Undersong by Verity Standen. Her work is quite unlike anything I have seen before. She surrounds her audience with song. They are often fairly short experiences (this one is 45 minutes) and they are incredibly moving. I’ve seen audiences come out of Verity’s performances crying with laughter or in floods of tears. I think that the power of the human voice in close proximity connects with us at a primal level. We are staging Undersong inside St Marks Church in Oval to give the production even greater impact.
What is FiRST BiTES? What successes have come out of it to date?
FiRST BiTES is our work-in-development programme as – a theatre which prides itself on developing new voices, it’s right at the heart of what we do.
There have been a huge number of successes: productions like The Believers Are But Brothers by Javaad Alipoor, which went on to have sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Bush and is now embarking on a world tour; How To Win Against History by Seiriol Davies which went on to the Young Vic last Christmas; and Quarter Life Crisis by Yolanda Mercy which went on to Soho Theatre. There have also been some amazing FiRST BiTES which haven’t yet reached full production, like Annie Siddon’s Dennis of Penge and Nick Makoha’s The Dark, both of which we can look forward to this autumn.
Fifty years at your current address is quite a run. What are you most proud of achieving in that time?
We are very proud that, over our 50-year history, we can genuinely say that Ovalhouse has changed the way that theatre operates in the UK. We were a home for the Gay & Lesbian Theatre movement (as it called itself then), the Black Theatre movement and the Feminist Theatre movement throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. All of which radically transformed the theatre industry by promoting voices which were either being ignored or actively marginalised.
The impact of these movements goes beyond art, of course. All of these individual movements were part of the wider Equal Rights Movement, so these artists had a significant impact on British culture and the social fabric of London. Ovalhouse was a founding partner in London Pride and hosted the first UK meeting of the Black Panthers.
Ovalhouse has also produced some individual artists who have gone on to have equally significant impacts: Sanjeev Bhaskar, Pierce Brosnan, Tamsin Greig, Paulette Randall, Tim Roth and Jenny Sealey (Artistic Director of the Paralympic 2012 Opening Ceremony and of Graeae) to name but a few.
You’re inviting artists to submit ideas for a Demolition Party. Can you say more about what you’re looking for?
We have a rare opportunity in that we have a building which we no longer need. As the building will be demolished in the near future, we can do things to it we usually wouldn’t dream of. We’re partnering artists with structural engineers in order to create productions that involve some element of destruction or demolition within the performance.
We have never done this before, so we don’t know what to expect, but we encourage artists to think big, bold and playful: it will be the engineer’s job to tell you if it’s feasible, it’s your job to imagine what is possible.
“This is no time for nostalgia. I am a great believer in destruction being a vital aspect of creation.”
This is the final season in a venue with a 50-year history of radical theatre, but I was determined that this wouldn’t be about looking backwards. This is no time for nostalgia. I am a great believer in destruction being a vital aspect of creation. It is only by demolishing this building (and selling the land) that we can afford to build a brand new, state-of-the-art theatre in Brixton in order to better support artists for another 50 years.
When do you move into your new home? What can audiences look forward to there?
Our new Brixton home will open in autumn 2020. We will continue to be a home for artists outside of the mainstream; a venue that develops new artists and promotes new voices. We will continue to be a home for risk-takers, ground-breakers and mischief-makers. But we will also be able to provide artists and audiences with far better resources.
We will have a beautiful bar opening directly onto Coldharbour Lane, becoming part of Brixton’s thriving night-life. We will have seven rehearsal rooms, meaning that we can fill the building with artists developing new ideas. Our two auditoria will double in size to 100 seats and 185 seats so that even more audiences can see our work – at the same time, they will still be studios so we will continue to work at the same scale.
We were not interested in simply becoming ‘bigger’. London has plenty of great venues with 250+ seats. At Ovalhouse, we want to continue to play the vital role in the UK theatre ecology that we have played for the past 50 years – supporting new artists to tell powerful and important stories.