Ovalhouse is full swing into its summer season. Daniel Perks catches up with Head of Theatre and Artists’ Development, Owen Calvert-Lyons, to chat about the programme and the big upcoming building move.

It’s May and we are finally in the middle of an overdue heat wave. So far, spring has been pretty much a washout, in true British. But with a new sunny outlook, theatres around the country launch headfirst into their summer programmes. Ovalhouse is one such establishment. Since appointing Owen Calvert-Lyons a year ago, the new programme seems to have catapulted the company back into the mix as a South London venue to pay attention to. Perfect timing, given that Ovalhouse as a building will close its doors in 2018 and move to a purpose built building in Brixton. Even Pierce Brosnan is excited – he personally endorsed the fundraising campaign.

I caught up with Owen (sadly not with Pierce, maybe one day), to chat about the next few months’ worth of work:

Owen Calvert-Lyons, Head of Theatre & Artists’ Development at Ovalhouse (Image courtesy of Ludovic Des Cognets)

Summer season has kicked off, the fourth production running right now – My World Has Exploded A Little Bit. How has everything gone so far?

Owen: So far, great.  Home was a very different piece of work – for audiences with Profound & Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) – so very targeted work, but a great piece to kick the season off with. It’s quick unlike anything else in terms of seeing the impact on its audiences. With so many audiences there is so little work of that style around. Frozen Light present it for six audience members with PMLD, but there’s also seating behind those for others, to watch those six have an experience completely tailored to them. I’ve never seen my ushers have such a good time in a show!

Identity Crisis  and  Bound  also had really full houses, which is great.  Bound in particular was a challenging work, different for us as it’s in the mode of physical theatre with circus elements – not what you’d think of as Ovalhouse programming. But its content, exploring people and sex trafficking and the plight of those women, was extraordinary.

Frozen Light’s production of Home

Straight away in the season you’ve given the message that Ovalhouse is multi-dimensional. Is that reflected in the rest of the season?

Owen: Absolutely, we’re looking at stories that need to be told, stories that challenge audiences to reflect on the work. The current piece,  My World Has Exploded A Little Bit, is all about how we cope with grief. It absolutely feels like the mode of Ovalhouse.

We also have a site-specific work, Trinity, which is in The Asylum. It used to be a set of arms houses and in the middle of it is a chapel, disused post-war with all the windows boarded up. Then about ten years ago, some students pulled off the boards and discovered that the original stained-glass windows behind them had been protected all this time You’ve got this shell of a chapel, in some parts very badly damaged but in others beautifully pristine. It’s a very evocative space and we’re going to put into that a beautiful design-led piece about the representation of women in religious iconography. I can’t think of a more perfect space really.

Brave New World’s production of Trinity

It’s another example of a work in an unusual space, which seems to fit well with Ovalhouse at present, especially given the upcoming move to Brixton

Owen: Ovalhouse has got a strong history of off-site work that will be pushed further in the coming years. We want artists making that sort of work to know that Ovalhouse can partner with them to support and develop it. Through the Brixton City festival that we’ve introduced, we work entirely off-site in non-theatre spaces for three days of that festival.

There is every likelihood that there will be a gap between the closure of Ovalhouse and the opening of the venue in Brixton, so off-site will be our only working mode. There are a lot of London venues that have done this very effectively for short periods of time – the Bush Theatre, the Royal Court, pop-up theatre in Tottenham or Elephant & Castle.

A lot of my background as a theatre maker has been work outside of traditional theatre spaces; it’s something that I’m passionate about.


For that kind of programming, community is definitely key. Is this something intrinsic to Ovalhouse?

Owen: It’s an enormous part of our work – the role of Brixton City Festival aims to do exactly that. It’s about both creating exciting locations for new work and forming partnerships that we will continue when we’re in the new venue. The best way to do that is through art – the process of making a piece of theatre in a participatory context has the deepest impact of all our work. That area of outreach is part of our DNA.


How do you personally go about programming a season?

Owen: It all begins with conversations. I talk with different artists every day of the week – we’re always plugged into exciting artists and the work they want to make. We make sure to pace it right, give the artists the support they need when they need it and bring the play to an audience when it’s ready to be seen. It’s very artist-led.

For me, I’m trying to put together the very best work I can within a period. It’s only once I start that process that an idea or a theme might emerge. I never layer it on top – it doesn’t fit with the artistic process. Artists then would decide to create work to fit a theme, or try and fast-track a piece of work that was supposed to be ready the following season. There are however things that come forward because of my interest, Ovalhouse interest and the political & social climate.

We’re looking at stories that need to be told, stories that challenge audiences to reflect on the work.


Is it important for a theatre season to have a theme?

Owen: No, absolutely not. It doesn’t reflect the way that audiences work – people aren’t thinking that they want to see lots of work about migration in one season. Even if they are interested in that, how many shows are they going to come and see at one theatre?

In a diverse city like London, there are so many people out there with so many different interests. So, if we put on the best work we can, they will come to the things there are interested in. It’s quite a shift for Ovalhouse – in the past we have been theme led and it has been quite limiting in drawing in repeat audiences.

I want a programme where audiences feel like there is always something in every season that really excites them. We’re on course to increase our audience by 50% within the year. Attendance was 89% for Ovalhouse commissioned shows, so we’re tapping into an appetite by opening the programme.


Is London helpful or harmful for a fringe theatre – a large audience, but a saturated market?

Owen: In the coming year, we are seeing at least six new theatres open and ten new theatres in the next two years. That shows there is an enormous appetite for this art form right now. This is a very strong period for artists making theatre – the work I see being created every week is extraordinary. There’s a need to present it; it would be a travesty if all this work doesn’t make it to an audience.

I want a programme where audiences feel like there is always something in every season that really excites them.

Is it important to balance touring work with new work or work-in-progress?

Owen: The First Bites programme, our In-Development programme, is phenomenally successful and has been honed over the last three or four years. It’s slightly different to other theatres – it’s not Scratch, which can be less fulfilling for an audience as it’s so rough. First Bites shows are further down the track, but the audience can still feel that electricity of being allowed in early.

First Bites is also important in terms of programming future seasons – if I know that shows are at First Bites right now, I can tell when they’re likely to be ready for a full production. We’ve got a constant flow of new work that we’re investing in and we know when it’s likely to be audience ready. There’s a journey there – start upstairs in the smaller space; get the audience excitement, feedback and momentum; bring it downstairs as a fully finished show in a bigger space for a longer run.

Associate Artists: Koko Brown, Strongback Productions, Jesse Briton, Yolanda Mercy and Bella Heesom & Donnacadh O’Briain

The Associate Artists programme sits over it all – we’ve got five extraordinary artists that we support for two years, a much longer commitment than other programmes. We deliberately say that we will support artists at all stages of their career – these aren’t all emerging artists but are all at different stages in their creative process.

For Bella and Donnacadh, My World Has Exploded A Little Bit  was already in development and had been to Edinburgh Fringe Festival so we could bring it in straight away for a main house run. Someone like Yolanda Mercy is earlier in her career – she did her second show with us,  Quarter Life Crisis. The point at which everyone presents a main house show will be very different – two years gives us that scope and allows for that.

Bella Heesom’s production of My World Has Exploded A Little Bit (image courtesy of Gavin Smart)

There’s also an important relationship between artist and audience as well as artist and venue. Bella is presenting  My World Has Exploded A Little Bit this season and then doing a First Bite of her next show in the autumn season. So, within a two-year period she can establish an audience base in London and at Ovalhouse – a year wouldn’t give that.

It gives our artists ambition too – Koko Brown came to us and instantly pitched a trilogy of work. There was something so exciting about an emerging artist pitching to make three years of work – that could only have happened by a two-year offer.


Outside of Ovalhouse, what is the best show you’ve seen this year?

Owen: It would probably be  The Roman Tragedies at The Barbican, in terms of the experience of being in that space and being able to move around, sit among the action. They facilitated that to involve the audience – you felt like it was totally focussed on your experience.


Who or what are your inspirations?

Owen: One thing is the artists that we work with who have the drive to make everything happen. You’re constantly meeting artists with the best ideas that have to be made. It makes my life easy, constantly being inspired by these people.

The other thing is the plight of the characters that are presented. In the work we make, there is often a character that is the subject of a great social injustice. Seeing the need for that character to be made and presented to an audience to hear their story, that’s where true passion comes from.


To read more about Ovalhouse’s Summer Season 2017, follow Ovalhouse on Twitter (@Ovalhouse) or visit their website – www.ovalhouse.com