Back at Ovalhouse, Theatre Editor Daniel Perks catches Head of Theatre and Artists' Development, Owen Calvert-Lyons, to chat about the summer 2019 season:

It feels like no time at all since I first sat on a sofa in Ovalhouse’s café interviewing the Head of Theatre & Artists’ Development, Owen Calvert-Lyons. In fact, it was May 2017.

We talked about the FiRST BiTE programme, which gives artists a few precious performances to present their latest work to an eager audience, something more developed than a scratch show. I caught the FiRST BiTE of then Associate Artist Koko Brown’s White in that summer season. Brown has since toured White across the UK and has completed the Associate two-year programme. She has recently collaborated with one of the new Associate Artists trio, Joana Nastari, to bring Amazonian Sweat Lodge as a FirST BiTE to the Ovalhouse stage,

“Joana [Nastari] has just had great success with Fuck You Pay Me – she feels like an artist who has a lot to say,” comments Owen. “I love that as a young artist she is tackling a big concept in her own unique and playful style. The fact that she is collaborating with Koko [Brown] makes it all the more exciting, joining the strands of Ovalhouse.”

Vault Festival 2018 Fuck You Pay Me

Joana Nastari’s Fuck You Pay Me

Now I’m back on the Ovalhouse sofa with Owen, chatting about the upcoming summer 2019 season. The atmosphere of the building is safe and familiar, an old friend I haven’t seen in far too long filling me in on what they’ve been up to. As is the work – a project last seen in 2017 is embarking on a UK-wide tour, and past Associate Artists are returning with new ideas to prove that they are more than simply alumni of the Ovalhouse programme. These three full-run shows are tried and tested, long-term partnerships with the leading fringe establishment,

“We are very excited that Custody is making a comeback. It was two years ago that Tom [Wainwright] and Urbain [Wolf] first presented here – a sell-out hit of the season. We’ve being working to be able to bring them back and finally they will return for three weeks.

“There will also be a new play from Bella Heesom, who with Donnacadh O’Briain has just come to the end of a two-year Associate residency. Our relationship doesn’t end there, so we’re excited to bring their next production to the stage!”

Ovalhouse Summer Season 2019

Bella Heesom’s Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself (image courtesy of Michael Wharley)

Ovalhouse feels like more than a venue that simply produces. Performers and audiences alike are part of a theatrical community, greeted back with open arms as they return time and time again. It’s in this enveloping safety that artists can seek to push the boundaries of their storytelling – the spring season alone saw clown Richard Stamp deliver his honest, heart-warming experience with penile cancer and the dogma that continues to plague masculinity in its most toxic form. Then, Rhiannon Faith transformed the building into a J9 venue to support women who experienced domestic abuse, a safe space epitomised by her work Smack That (a conversation) where an audience were seated in a circle and given the same name to link them together,

“Instantly there’s that sense of community, of having a shared identity that sets the tone right from the beginning,” comments Owen. “You immediately feel very welcome; the stories are told in a playful way, open space for the performance to go that bit further. It can be quite shocking but invites us into such territory because we know from the beginning that they’re going to look after us in that space.

“We often put challenging content into our programming, content about some of the darkest depths of our society that we want to shine a light on and encourage discussion. We want to have a tangible impact on our community and J9 feels a part of that, a function of a theatre that goes beyond the art it produces.”

Artist depiction of Brixton’s Somerleyton Road Project

But the community and artistic spirit of Ovalhouse is about to be truly tested. Including the upcoming summer work, there are just three seasons left before Ovalhouse leaves its current home and produces a year-long programme of work entirely in community spaces,

“We’re going to present work entirely offsite in cafes, bars, night clubs, basketball courts, playgrounds, in the streets,” says Owen. “It’s for us to completely reinvent how we meet our audience.”

True to their ethos, the creative team actively chose to embark upon this programme of community-presented theatre, rather than moving straight into their new Brixton home,

“If we are going to move into a building that will be our home for the next 50+ years, we can change the way we inhabit that building by having a period that might change our mindset and the mindset of the artists we work with. Our artists and our staff, having got used to the agile and unpredictable nature of working in other spaces, will richly benefit.”

“Every production, every play, every performance will have to reinvent their relationship with the audience”.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018 Ladykiller

The Thelmas’ Ladykiller (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

And what of the new Associate Artists, those who will be making work in these new alternative spaces?

Including Joana Nastari, there are three in this intake. I have had the pleasure of catching past work by all three theatremakers – The Thelmas produced Coconut at Ovalhouse in 2018 and also took award-winning Ladykiller to Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018, whereas poet & sound designer Xana helped bring Offies-nominated Half Breed to Soho Theatre and Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017,

The Thelmas – they’re everywhere at the moment, which I love,” says Owen. “Fatty Fat Fat was at VAULT Festival 2019, as was Ladykiller. They champion great, exciting, feminist work, which is exactly what we want to see.

“Xana is really entrenched in sound design and music, approaching and making work from a different angle – Swallowing Your Idols will be in the autumn season. We’ve talked a lot about the way in which designers in the broadest sense are often excluded from the genesis of new work. They’re not seen as collaborators and more as people who can add to the project in a conventional process. Stories are not often design-led.

“These artists will be with us for two years, making work in this building and then offsite before transitioning to Brixton. Each of those three made it clear that they wanted to work in different spaces.

“They feel like artists who are more than capable.”

With Owen as a guiding hand, these artists, and indeed the institution that is Ovalhouse, seems in safe hands for another few years to come.

For more information or to book tickets to the Ovalhouse Summer Season 2019, please visit the venue website.