Rebecca Atkinson-Lord is joint director of theatre at Ovalhouse, where the 50th anniversary season launches tonight (31 January 2013).
When Rachel (Briscoe) and I took over at Ovalhouse we were really interested in exploring the venue as a bastion of revolution and counterculture. Since its foundation in the 60s it's spearheaded so many major social artistic movements; it was home to the first queer theatre and the first black theatre, to name a few.
So the 50th anniversary season is all about exploring a world of ideas beyond the mainstream, spear-headed by five pieces that represent the five decades of Ovalhouse's history, but from a contemporary perspective. For example with The Act and Love on Trial we look at homosexuality nearly 50 years after it was decriminalised, and how society perhaps isn’t as comfortable with it as the government pretends it is.
Elsewhere, in Crimplene Millionaire Boogaloo Stu (pictured) has created a character who can best be described as the lovechild of Des Lynam and Bruce Forsyth to guide the audience through a 70s boardgame. Whoever wins will get to decapitate Orville! Essentially it’s reflecting the idea that the 70s represented the last gasp before capitalism completely took over.
And The Lady's Not for Walking Like an Egyptian is an extraordinary mash-up of the speeches of Maggie Thatcher and the words of every number one hit by a female artist in the 1980s.
In general I'd say the Fringe isn't especially counter-cultural anymore. Many shows, including I confess those I’ve directed myself, often ape venues such as the Almeida or the National, because it’s all about getting the next job, and less about artists having their own unique voice or political stance. The 50th anniversary season explores whether counterculture has been decommissioned when no-one was looking.
Funding & ethos
Something that Rachel and I struggle with is that we’re a government-funded venue, so how can we possibly be counter-cultural? It doesn’t make sense. But we try to serve local audiences whilst also leading and driving political debate. Roughly half of our income comes from public funding bodies, and we actually got an uplift in the last round because we applied for a new commissioning fund to allow us to develop work from the ground up, as it were. We feel extremely lucky to have secured extra funding at a time when so many other organisations we care about are being decimated.
For people who’ve never visited us before, I’d say that Ovalhouse is a place where you can see stuff that you can’t see elsewhere, in a really welcoming environment where people are genuinely obsessed with creating a positive audience experience. Our front of house team are amazing and really caring - I’ve even seen them heating baby’s bottles. It’s an experience where the audience have shared ownership of the art and the space.
When people think about Ovalhouse they often assume we do a particular kind of work, or serve a particular kind of audience. But the joy of being counter-cultural is that it’s such a broad church; there are so many lives and stories that are never told.
We have an open submissions process, and we meet as many artists as we can and give them space to develop ideas. If we like it they can be part of our ‘first bites’ programme, where we help them to make a nicely realised work-in-progress showing, which can then become a full-on production. We also send out open calls for commissions; anyone can apply and we provide a £15k commission to successful applicants. So my message to new artists is not to feel intimidated - we very much want them to get in touch.
For more information on Ovalhouse and the 50th anniversary season, visit www.ovalhouse.com