It's one of their final seasons in the current building, but Ovalhouse are still as excited as ever about upcoming work and the upcoming move. Executive Producer Stella Kanu and Head of Theatre Owen Calvert-Lyons share their secrets:

The ethos of Ovalhouse programming

What makes working together so great, aside from some ‘extraordinary’ wit and a love of sharing snacks, is that when we come to work we actually have fun. We are serious and thorough but we weave fun into all we do. It’s how we stay a welcoming theatre, how we put artists at ease. So even when we have to say “no, not this time,” it is less disappointing because humanity is at the heart of how we approach being a theatre – for a commissioning theatre like Ovalhouse this is vitally important.

We are serious and thorough but we weave fun into all we do

Over time the commissioning umbrella has created a uniquely dynamic artistic team at Ovalhouse, steeped as much in strategy as it is in the exciting innovation of programming, curation and delivery. There is no Artistic Director as such, but instead a new model hybrid of Executive Producer (Stella Kanu), Head of Theatre and Artist Development (Owen Calvert-Lyons) and Head of Learning and Participation (Mahri Reilly). It’s a heady mix of skill & mindsets – sometimes ideas are flowing before you’ve even taken your coat off, other times we create space for thinking that is quieter, more reflective and done in a group setting.

Ovalhouse Summer Season 2018

Stella Kanu, Mahri Reilly & Owen Calvert-Lyons (image courtesy of Sharron Wallace)

The art of commissioning at Ovalhouse isn’t in the dryness of a super-tight contract; it’s the variety that keeps us firmly rooted as one of the UK’s longstanding commissioning houses. Ovalhouse can feel both organic and electrified, every room filled with artists testing new ideas and new ways of working.

Summer Season 2018

One of the things that marks out our Summer Season is the number of new plays in development through our FiRST BiTE programme. Many of this season’s artists are experimenting with digital technology – with Last Night I Met You Dreaming using projection mapping to create volcanos & earthquakes and Jack O’Kent using 3D projection to fuse theatre and film.

Not being too old, dusty and shabby ourselves, the Ovalhouse in-house team is developing a new digital project, The Virtual Theatre, which will enable audiences to watch Ovalhouse productions in 360˚ virtual reality. The Virtual Theatre will open at this year’s Latitude Festival and will come to London in September as part of Brixton City Festival – our annual four-day celebration of Brixton, now in its third year.

Ovalhouse Summer Season 2018

Brixton City Festival 2016

Brixton City Festival is also built on a commissioning process we have developed and fine-tuned to create an open call truly for all artists. The only thing we ask is that artists submitting love Brixton. Not hard. Totally not elitist. There is always a scramble to be on the commissioning panel because we open it out to all different staff in various functions across the organisation – it’s fascinating what people want to do in a phone box or, more frequently in the front store window of Morley’s.

Ovalhouse can feel both organic and electrified

The biggest news of this season however is the first professional, touring production of our own Performance Company (they are also on the front cover of our brochure). Established last season, this collective of twelve local 18-24 year old South Londoners will tour Austerity & Me to National Theatre of Scotland’s Exchange Festival this summer. This is part of our overall strategy to bring out the work of Learning and Participation and the theatre programming, especially when it comes to preparing young people in a professional context for their artistic work.

Ovalhouse Summer Season 2018

Austerity & Me

So often in theatre, creative learning, engagement and participation is treated as something separate to the main programme. At Ovalhouse, we have consciously approached our planning & programming to be curated in a totally different way. We are currently recruiting for our new cohort of Young Associates, who will work in much the same way as our Associate Companies – quality, professionalism and bags of talent means we will increase our capacity to commission more work by and for young people, and give them the support to produce fierce pieces that can hold an audience for more than a few nights run – something we are planning to lay down with a big splash next year.

The transition to Brixton

We are in the middle of a five-year artistic transition programme, building towards the opening of our new theatre in Brixton in 2020. In anticipation of this, we have been staging productions each year in off-site locations across Brixton. Last year we presented Trinity by Brave New Worlds in The Asylum, Peckham and this year we are staging Undersong by Verity Standen in St Mark’s Church (opposite Oval Tube Station). Verity is an a-cappella composer, who creates remarkable performances which immerse audiences in song.

We want artists to dream big

Audiences can also get a taste of our next off-site production, Tokyo Love Hotel, by Lemonade + Laughing Gas. This will ultimately be a large-scale, site-specific, design-led performance that explores a world of digital screens and diminishing touch, inviting audiences to question ‘what happens to intimacy now?’ A miniature version of this production will be tested through our FiRST BiTE programme in July, with ten audiences able to explore the ‘hotel’ at a time. We hope to bring the finished production to our audiences during our off-site programme in 2020.

Ovalhouse Summer Season 2018

Tokyo Love Hotel

Now that we have a confirmed closure date for our building in Oval, we are excited to announce our final season of theatre here – The Demolition Party 2019. We are inviting artists to be commissioned to create productions that destroy the building through performance.  We will team artists with structural engineers to dream up ways of including demolition and destruction in their plays. We are being careful not to prescribe what this might look like – we want artists to dream big. If they want to knock down walls, blow things up, dress their audience head-to-toe in protective clothing… everything is possible. For us, the most important thing is that we use our final season to celebrate over 50 years of radical experimentation in this building. We want to honour that dedication to creative risk not through nostalgic retrospection, but by taking the greatest risk we can. It’s also a symbolic act: destruction is a vital part of creation.

We want to honour that dedication to creative risk

All of this goes some way into explaining why artists come and work with us.

We have an ethos and a style of working that draws artists in.

We are agile and responsive to their needs and ambitions.

Whether it’s young people, offsite or site specific work or festivals, works-in-progress as FiRST BiTES or pieces for our Downstairs Theatre, commissioning and our relationship with artists & their ideas is the heartbeat of what makes us one of London’s most loved spaces among theatre makers.

Ovalhouse Summer Season 2018

Stella Kanu, Mahri Reilly & Owen Calvert-Lyons (image courtesy of Sharron Wallace)


Stella Kanu, Executive Producer

Owen Calvert-Lyons, Head of Theatre and Artists’ Development

For more information about any of the work at Ovalhouse, please visit the website.