Called “a founding father of today’s fringe theatre” by The Guardian, for half a century Ovalhouse has been a space for experimental, original, alternative work. Last year, Owen Calvert-Lyons joined the venue as Head of Theatre & Artists’ Development, following his work as Artistic Director of The Point and The Berry Theatres in Hampshire. Owen brings to the role a commitment to theatre for young audiences, and he has already introduced a programme of work for children and families. Here, he chats to us about his job, the role of culture in children’s lives, and what audiences can expect at Ovalhouse this February half term…
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role?
I’m responsible for all of the art and artists in our theatre. I choose the plays that we present, I work with artists to create new plays and I support the learning and development of artists through training.
Ovalhouse has recently started offering more productions for families, children and young people – what led to this decision? And how are you finding it – are there any differences between programming and commissioning work for adults, and for children?
I am very passionate about theatre for young audiences. I have introduced programming for children and families to several theatres in the past. It is always complicated to invite a new audience to come to your venue for the first time. So far, families in London have responded very positively. Over 500 people came to our first show in December and as I am writing this, we have just sold-out the first show of the February Half-Term – so clearly there is a real need for this work in our community.
I don’t think there is any difference between programming work for children and adults. Children want to be absorbed, challenged, terrified or inspired in just the same way that adults do. Children are rarely seeking escapism in the theatre as they have access to play throughout their day. Children tend to have a very strong sense of social justice and they often enjoy plays which allow them to test their morals and opinions. Children are full of ideas of how to make the world a better place and the theatre allows them to explore these alternative realities. So children are exactly the sort of brave audiences that Ovalhouse makes theatre for.
There are two family shows at Ovalhouse during February half-term – The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad and Moonshine’s Entirely Necessary Adventure. What can audiences expect from these plays?
Moonshine’s Entirely Necessary Adventure is a proper family adventure story. It’s got pirates, mermaids, evil villains and a heroic magpie. It’s got great songs and live music too – both children and parents will love it.
The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad is a more intimate show. It invites children onto a beautiful set to help solve a puzzle – where’s Frank’s mum gone? It’s really interactive. Children are invited to explore a model village, searching one house at a time for Frank’s missing mum. The play is about loss and grief and allows children and their grown-ups to explore these things together in a safe environment. There is a magical moment, where children are invited to hug their parent – it’s beautiful and really emotional and exactly what everyone needs at that moment in the play.
They are both fantastic shows which engage children in a story and at the same time invite them to think about the world in which they live.
Going to the theatre can be expensive, especially if you’re taking the whole family. What are some affordable ways to keep the family entertained?
At Ovalhouse we try to keep our ticket prices as low as possible to ensure that theatre remains affordable. We also keep our drinks and snacks prices down, as those little extras can really add up. We also provide low-cost puppetry workshops, so that children and parents can learn how to make puppets. This is a skill that you can take home with you, so you can make puppets at home from cereal boxes and newspapers for years to come.
Why is it important to engage children in the arts from a young age?
Arts and culture are central to our lives regardless of our age. It is through the arts that we interpret the world around us and test ideas of what a different world might look like. We cannot create something until we have imagined that it might exist, and the imagination is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. So if children want to change the world, they need to have a powerful enough imagination to picture what a better world might look like.
What productions for families and young people will we see from Ovalhouse in the future?
There will be two plays for children and families every half-term from now on and a Christmas production too. We are already working with a number of theatre companies to develop exciting new plays for these holidays. So you can expect bold, beautiful and daring productions, which enable children and their grown-ups to grow their imagination.
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