In 2013, London’s Ovalhouse celebrates fifty years of hosting pioneering Fringe performances with Counterculture50, a collection of plays marking each decade that the theatre has been operating.
We spoke to venue directors Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Rachel Briscoe about Ovalhouse’s history, and what we can expect from the celebratory season.
CM: Counterculture50 marks Ovalhouse’s fifty year anniversary. How did the venue come into being, and how has it grown and developed in that time?
R&R: Ovalhouse became a theatre in 1963. Before that, it was a Boys’ Club (think Famous Five, South London style). Since then, Ovalhouse has been home to some of most radical and exciting cultural movements of the last fifty years. We’ve had celebs like Pierce Brosnan, Salman Rushdie and Stella Duffy work here, a controversial police raid on a Black Panthers meeting, and a donkey living in the upstairs theatre.
CM: The celebration takes the form of the staging of five commissioned plays, one for each of Ovalhouse’s decades. How did you come up with this way of marking the anniversary?
R&R: There are so many faces to what Ovalhouse does. To commission one piece, no matter how good it was, would never reflect what we are and do. So we decided to embrace the diversity and commission five pieces. Plus, it gives us a chance to work with more artists.
CM: What do you think defines each of those decades, and how have the commissioned pieces gone about reflecting that?
R&R: The 60s is Thomas Hescott’s ‘The Act’, which is about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Queer theatre has always been a massive part of Ovalhouse’s history, so it was very important to us that that was reflected.
Next up is Boogaloo Stu’s ‘Crimplene Millionaire’, a board game of the 70s, which reflects socio-political explosion that took place at Ovalhouse in that decade.
Ovalhouse in the 80s was an important home for the Womens’ Theatre Movement; in our current season that is reflected by Mars.tarrab’s ‘The Lady’s Not for Walking like an Egyptian’, a mash-up of Thatcher’s speeches and number one hits by female artists from the 1980s.
Ovalhouse has always reflected the diversity of London and has often played host to exiled artists from the African sub-continent, and for the 90s commission, Bilimankhwe Arts’ ‘Love on Trial’ intercuts the the public outcry following George Michael’s arrest in a public toilet with a Malawian short story, each holding a mirror up to the other’s hypocrisy and prejudice.
Representing the 00s is ‘Kinky’ by 2HeadedPigeon, a trip into the counterculture of the BDSM community; Ovalhouse has always been a home for artists whose work is too risky for the mainstream, but in an age when every tube carriage contains someone reading Fifty Shades of Grey, we are interested in what remains countercultural.
CM: Can you tell us a little about each of the companies that are involved in Counterculture50, and how they were selected?
R&R: We put out an open call – anyone could apply. When we met these companies, we were really excited by their ideas and their passion for what they wanted to do. Thomas Hescott has worked on lots of big West End shows like ‘A Long Day’s Journey into Night’ and it’s really exciting that this is his own project.
You might know Boogaloo Stu from his hit show ‘Pop Magic’, in which audiences get to make their own music video in an evening; ‘Crimplene Millionaire’ sees him develop a new character, with another impressive hairstyle.
Mars.tarrab (Rachel Mars and nat tarrab)’s last show, ‘Tomboy Blues’, was a big success in Edinburgh and then came to Ovalhouse; they’re great, because they manage to be funny and political at the same time.
Bilimankhwe Arts have been collaborating with artists in Malawi for nearly a decade and touring in the UK and Malawi. 2HeadedPigeon, led by Clare Shucksmith, are a Brighton-based company who specialise in dangerous theatre. We’re very excited to be working with this talented bunch.
CM: How different are each of the shows? Is there an even mix of comedy and drama?
R&R: They’re so different! From cabaret to a living board game to a Jane Fonda workout to international new writing to bondage, there actually is something for everyone.
CM: Do you have anything else planned in 2013 to celebrate the anniversary?
R&R: Yes, lots, but we can’t say – right now it’s a secret! But one thing we can tell you about is that we are collecting stories from anyone who has had anything to do with Ovalhouse in the last fifty years – you can contribute your stories on our website.
CM: Is there any one show in particular you are looking forward to?
R&R: We’ve already picked these five from over a hundred applicants, don’t ask us to narrow it down any more! They’re all so different – we’re looking forward to them all, so come and make your own mind up.
The Counterculture50 season runs until 2 Mar. See the venue website for more info and tickets.