With the Autumn season drawing to a close, Ovalhouse’s Owen Calvert-Lyons compares the last two seasons – one full of experimentation, the other cementing the reputation of the venue before it moves to Brixton:
Summer Season 2017 brought migration, violence, love and loss to the Ovalhouse. Halfway through the autumn and we have been promised a voice for those that go unheard or unseen. Tonight is the first night of touring production, Sex Workers’ Opera, a show that certainly fulfils this category. But has the rest of the programme lived up to its promise?
We kicked off with Angela Clerkin‘s The Secret Keeper, a story that talks about how we keep secrets, even ones of collective responsibility. In Angela’s words,
The theatre is where we all sort our shit out
I love the simplicity of that. Her work really gathered momentum based on recent weeks, the way that a community can keep a collective secret – it’s simultaneously out in the open and yet hidden.
Then we moved into the half term season with Princess Charming, which gained publicity after John Lewis decided to no longer print the gender of clothing. It caused a lot of debate around gender identity.
Now it’s the Sex Workers’ Opera, all about those people who are least listened to, whose voices have least agency. 50% of the cast and crew have experienced sex work, but the specifics of that aren’t made public. I think that’s really important as sex work is not visible, so our audience will never know who is or isn’t a sex worker. It demonstrates the authenticity of the piece, but it doesn’t hit you over the head or try to be didactic. It’s fun and celebratory, while talking about some of the more frightening aspects.
Head of Theatre at Ovalhouse, Owen Calvert-Lyons, speaks of the Autumn Season 2017 with a certain reverence. This is the season in the year that announces what the company is all about. If the summer focussed on site-specific work and experimentation, autumn is all about cementing the in-house capability of the venue:
There’s a unifying thread that’s based around people whose voices we don’t hear
We did lots of things quite differently in summer – there was a big focus on the work we were going to take to Edinburgh. Most notable was The Believers Ars But Brothers, a play that exposed the area of 4chan that people know very little.
We also took I Am A Tree and Quarter Life Crisis, which also did really well. It was great to have three different artists up in Edinburgh, including an Associate Artist.
The Ovalhouse Associate Artist that Owen mentions is Yolanda Mercy, whose show, Quarter Life Crisis, triumphed in Scotland and has since toured Newcastle, Exeter and most recently has come back to the Soho Theatre.
Yolanda’s journey has accelerated so quickly, because she’s one of the hardest working young artists in the business. To get Quarter Life Crisis back at Soho Theatre is really important – it’s quite easy often to be a young artist attached to a venue, but there tends to be a big gap to make that next step within those venues and be a programmed artist in their season.
Our other Associate Artists have gone on a great journey as well – Bella Heesom played here [her first show, My World Exploded A Little Bit, was part of the summer season] and then toured for the first time. We also did a First Bite of Koko Brown‘s White, which went down so well that we fast-tracked it straight into the Autumn Season. When a show is ready and bubbling, you don’t want to wait six months to finish it and get it on.
The Autumn Season at Ovalhouse is one that focusses on unnoticed groups in society, aiming to provide a statement by shining the spotlight on those overlooked. It’s also a cohesive season, almost as if the venue is cementing its identity ahead of the move to premises new.
Our message hasn’t changed
It’s about supporting artists who are outside of the mainstream, ensuring that we hear the voices of those who are overlooked or ignored by other parts of the industry.
A lot of the companies working in fringe theatre are under-resourced, trying to make things happen on a shoestring. Every time they grow their pot, the grow their ambition, so everyone remains in that space of trying to make work slightly beyond your means. We had lots of those shows in the season – a real challenge, but at their heart were so exciting.
When we move to Brixton, our programming ethos won’t change. It will just give us the ability to have more seats, allowing some of our artists to have a greater ambition.