Interview with Owen Calvert-Lyons, Artistic Director at the Ovalhouse Theatre


Owen Calvert-Lyons, Head of Theatre and Artist Development at Ovalhouse (credit Ludovic Des Cognets) 11.jpg


Can you tell us about your role as artistic director, and what kind of work that entails? 

I’m the head of theatre, so I program all of the art and artists in the building. We’re a commissioning house, so we commission new works, we commission nine full new productions a year, and we also ‘seed commission’ somewhere between another nine and twelve. So part of my role is about creating new pieces of theatre, working with artists and identifying artists who have new stories to tell, creating co-productions, almost all of our productions are made as co-productions with another organisation, so I also help build all those relationships and find the right partners for every project.

We also bring some work in that already exists, so there’s a programming role about finding work that I think suitable for our audiences. Ovalhouse acts as a conduit between London and the regions so there’s a huge amount of great work that is made in London and never reaches beyond the M25, so we’re very keen to ensure that lots of the work we present goes out and reaches the rest of the country. The converse is also true, lots of amazing work made all across England and the United Kingdom doesn’t make it into London, so we also want to ensure that those voices from the rest of the country are heard in London.

And then there’s an artist development role. We have five associate artists, we have an artist training program, and I look after that to make sure our artists have access to the training that they want, and more importantly that they’re a part of a community of artists. As freelancers, as most artists are, it can be very isolating and it can feel like you work alone, rather than feeling that actually you work in a big industry and that London is full of freelancers, so finding ways for them to connect and work together and feel that they’re part of a bigger team is really important, and cultivate that sense that everybody’s on the same side. There can be a really damaging divide that suggests that artists and venues are separate and somehow in competition, rather than actually, we’re all working together, and most of us are, to an extent, paid by the same employer, in that Arts Council England is one of the biggest funders of the arts. They’re our core funder and for lots of our work they’re the core funder as well. So although we’re all working in very different setups, we’re absolutely working for the same goal.


To delve a bit deeper into that programming role, what’s your first step when it comes time to program a new season? 

I guess the starting point is the kind of ethos of our theatre which is about radicalism, politics, and experimentation. All the work we present will adhere to one or all of those facets. We’ll be looking for new voices, we’re very much about supporting artists outside of the mainstream, so sometimes we’re looking at supporting an artist whose voice has never been heard before or sometimes we’re looking to support an artist because we think they’ve got something really important and powerful to say and sometimes those two things coalesce and we’re doing the same thing. Quite often those people who haven’t been listened to before have really powerful things to say, but the reason that an artist is outside of the mainstream doesn’t have to be the reason that they’re making their work, those two things can be separate. A new voice in theatre who wants to say something we’ve heard before is fine, and equally an established artist might want to say something really radical, and we support that too.


I imagine people who are outside of the mainstream, even if they’re dealing with a topic that’s been covered before, will often have a new perspective on that topic.

Absolutely, and that is really what diversity for us is all about, that’s the creative case for diversity: that those voices that aren’t heard might have a very different perspective on the same ideas we’ve seen explored before.


You mentioned before you find it important to create a community of artists. Something you do here at the Ovalhouse that seems to work towards that goal is the First Bites program. Could you tell us about that program, and why you use that structure rather than a traditional scratch? 

For us it’s a program that is working really well at the moment, so it’s something that we want to continue to back. In terms of how it operates, it’s fairly structured, in that we offer one week of rehearsal time, one week in the theatre for technical and performance time, and we anticipate that ending in three nights of public performance  in which an unfinished work is presented to the public for five pounds.

I think one reason it’s successful is that we provide the artists with £500 cash, so there’s a real crucial difference there in terms of putting some actual cash in the hands of artists. Lots of venues, ourselves included, are resource rich and cash poor, and therefore artists can quite often put together a package of support, but what’s missing is the cash match, and then they go to Arts Council and they get turned down because they don’t have that crucial cash match. With £500, that artist can probably get about ten times that in terms of support from a funder like Arts Council. So maybe they’re now looking at getting £5000 pounds to support their research and development, and suddenly they’ve got quite an attractive proposition, they’ve got enough money to pay collaborators for a relatively short period of time, to test some idea.

I think the other reason it’s successful is that it uses a model that’s used a lot outside of theatre, that idea of properly rigorously testing something before it goes to the stage of being made. Scratch is very early-stages and very light-touch, whereas this aims to present something much more developed, something that isn’t finished, but is a good way there, so that everybody, us as producers, the artists themselves, and the audience, can all look at it and say “should we spend money on making this into a full show?” And so for us it really helps to decide where to put our full commissions, things that come out of the back of a really good First Bite, we already know the audience like it, the audience are interested and have questions to ask, we know that we like it, as producers, and think it’s a quality work, that artists feel that the questions in it that are really difficult questions can be ironed out here. It’s still got to go into rehearsal to finish it but the really meaty bits, the really problematic bits can be addressed in a fairly low-risk scenario. So we find it really advantageous for that, fifty percent of our First Bites go on to full commission.

And there’s another facet to it that’s about clarity. I think if you are an artist at the beginning of their career, or you feel like you don’t yet have that kind of experience or support behind you to know which venues to talk to and what support to ask for and how you can get it, there’s something about the clarity of First Bites that make it much easier for a new artist to come and say “I’d like one of those, I can read there that I get £500, a week of rehearsal, a week of performance, that’s what I want. Whereas I think in theatre we can be quite bad about being very vague about things, and artists sometimes, if they know the system and they know those venues, they understand what to ask for, you know how to navigate it. But if you’re a new artist, that is really hard to navigate, and I think this program and its openness allows new artists to come to us, and for us to form new relationships in a low-risk way. That means we’re more able to fulfil that goal of having new voices reaching our audiences.


Are there any common threads in the pieces chosen for this season at the Ovalhouse you’d like to highlight? 

We don’t thematically program, so we don’t set out with a theme in mind, but there often are emergent themes, there are things that we become interested in or where we see a few shows that we think might sit neatly together or might be speaking to one another, which is often really interesting. In this season one of the things that unites a large proportion of the season is that 75 percent of this season’s programming is female-led, and that is something we’re always interested in. The other thread that’s emerged in this season is about gig theatre and music, Medea Electronica feels like you’re in the middle of a gig and has a live electronica band as a part of it, Derailed by Little Soldier is also set up as a gig, it’s got a live band. And after that we’ve got Whatever Happened to Vandal Raptor which is all about punk music. So there’s a definite thread about live music, and I think part of that is our aim to always be playing with the audience experience, in Medea Electronica there are moments where it really feels like you’re in a gig, in Derailed there’s even a moment where one of the audience members is invited up to play one of the instruments as part of the performance, which really kind of turns that idea around.


You’re directing a piece right now, Random Selfies, can you tell us a little bit about what that’s about? 

We’ve been working on that for about year, and it’s part of a three year research project into child loneliness. Which is something we’re really interested in at the moment. In recent years the focus on loneliness has really been around older people, and the assumption is you get lonely when you’re elderly and alone, and the funding has gone to support that. Very little funding has gone to support other parts of the population, even though the problem is much more widespread than people realize. Where it’s having a really disastrous effect is on our children, and really there’s been very little focus on the way in which children can feel lonely, in a way that is not necessarily connected to personal circumstances like living in a rural area, or not having siblings, or not having a loving mum or dad.


What’s so interesting about Random Selfies is that it takes place in a flat in London, which raises the contradiction of being lonely in one of the most populous cities in the world. 

Absolutely, and that fascinated us. It’s written by Mike Kenny, who grew up as an only child in inner-city Leeds, and often felt very lonely as a child in a big city. We’ve worked with local children in and around Kennington, and we’ve gone into schools and we’ve talked to nine, ten and eleven years olds about their experience of loneliness, and that research process has been extraordinary. That’s all happened over the last year. Off the back of that time spent with those children and lots of art therapy workshops Mike went away and wrote the play. We’re going to present it here in March and April and then it goes to the Polka as part of their Techtopia festival, and then it will do a UK tour in the Autumn. One of the challenges we set ourselves was to make it a one-woman show. The other thing we play with is, we’ve got a designer, Rachana Jadhav, and she’s creating an animated set. She’s an illustrator, she draws very beautiful pictures, and that will allow the walls of Loretta’s bedroom to come to life and be a part of that story. So the set becomes the other characters, the set has the ability to take all the things that are going on in Loretta’s mind and present them out to us.


You were appointed here in 2016, and the Ovalhouse has been going through a period of transition in that time. How have things been changing since you got here? 

Well you’re right that Ovalhouse is undergoing enormous change, and that began before my appointment. I would say that change really began in 2015 with the appointment of Stella Kanu, our executive producer. What she set about doing was the beginning of really a five year program of continual change, leading up to the opening of a new building in 2020. One of the things Stella talked about when I arrived was about how uncomfortable change is, and that one of the ways we manage change is we kind of say “oh, it’s okay feeling uncomfortable, because in x amount of time that will change and I’ll feel okay.” But actually five years of change is quite a lot of time, it might be the entire duration of your time at Ovalhouse. So some of it has been about how we manage change, how we learn to be okay with change, how we learn to be okay feeling uncomfortable, and how we make that okay for one another as well. One of those stages was me coming in and changing the whole of the program, which came into effect in January 2017. I brought in quite a lot of change there, a bigger program, a different approach to the work we’d produce. Not long after that we brought into the new participation team, and the next stage is we’re about to bring in a new communication team and a new finance team. So by the end we’ll have almost a completely new team, with some people who’ve been there throughout. Then the next period of change will be the closure of this building, and there’s likely to be a period between the closure of this building and the opening of the new building, and then ultimately all of this is leading to the opening of the new building, but then that will take at least a good year to get used to that new space and all that that brings.

I think one of the other big areas of change is this idea of working off-site. One thing we’ve been really keen on is making work outside of these four walls, which makes us work in a different way, and means that when we move into our new building we won’t see it as an ivory tower. It’ll be a tool at our disposal, but we’ll know that actually there are some things that you can create outside that you can’t create inside. We made a piece in a chapel last summer, this summer we’re likely to make another piece offsite, and once this building closes we’ll make significantly more work off-site.


Outside of Ovalhouse shows, is there a piece of art you’ve experienced recently that’s inspired you?

I saw Tim Cowbury’s The Claim at Shoreditch Town Hall and Benin City’s Last Night in an underground bar in Hackney – both were excellent!


Check out what’s on this season at the Ovalhouse

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s