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Omnibus Theatre: the south London fringe venue fostering a creative community for all

Omnibus' building is a former library by Clapham Common in London
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Saved from the hands of developers and transformed into a thriving performing arts space, the Omnibus Theatre boasts a glorious shabby-chic interior that tells a story of its past life as a local library at the heart of its community.

Every piece of furniture in the venue’s bar area, known as the Common Room, has been donated or “found”, including a grand piano, which came from a local school (with a leg missing). The bar itself is constructed out of discarded pine library shelving from its former life. It only adds to the feeling that the space was built by and for its south London community.

The redbrick building, which overlooks Clapham Common, opened in 1889 but just over a century later faced closure, with fears it would be sold off and turned into flats. Following a seven-year campaign, the building was saved and opened in 2013, as a multi-use performance venue.

‘We are a civic space and we have a duty to be accessible to whoever crosses the threshold’

Omnibus artistic director Marie McCarthy

More than five years on, Omnibus has established itself as a force to be reckoned with on the London fringe, offering an eclectic and ambitious mix of re-imagined classics and new writing, as well as work focusing on LGBT themes, and mini-festivals. It also offers a wide range of educational and creative learning activities.

“We are a civic space and we have a duty to be accessible to whoever crosses the threshold,” says artistic director Marie McCarthy, who has been with the project since day one. “I want people coming here to have the best experience they can possibly have.”

Despite the imposing building, the Omnibus has a friendly aura, especially as visitors are often greeted by Molly, the well-fed theatre cat. McCarthy says Molly is “the venue’s best marketing asset”.

The main performance area, adjacent to the bar, seats 110 and can be configured in may ways, according to the demands of the show. Another space on the first floor, with a seating capacity of 67, doubles as a rehearsal room. The day I visit, the company Theatre Rites was rehearsing its new show there, while Improbable was doing the same in another room on the ground floor.

McCarthy’s passion for the Omnibus comes through loud and and clear. Driven by the legacy of the library’s mission to tell stories, she feels a responsibility to enrich the lives of her customers with the highest-quality work.

Before taking the job, McCarthy was based in north London, so she spent months getting to know Clapham, and acquainting herself with the theatre’s potential audience. She says: “It’s really important to know who your audience is. I spent a lot of time distributing flyers in the local coffee shops and bars, telling people we are here.”

One of the problems with the Omnibus is that, from the outside, it can look intimidating – the Bush Theatre had a similar problem when it moved into Shepherd’s Bush Library. This year the Omnibus hopes to undergo the first stage of a redevelopment programme in which the bar area will be moved to the front of the building in an effort to make it appear more friendly.

McCarthy says: “As beautiful as this space is, we need passers by to be able to see that we have a cafe and bar that spills out on to the street. I’d be happy for people just to come in with their laptops, buy a coffee, do some work and buy a ticket to a show. At present you have to negotiate three sets of doors to access the cafe-bar.”

All this is estimated to cost £150,000 which, for an unfunded, building-based theatre, is no small outlay. Patrons Judi Dench and Michael Gambon – as well as supporters including Bill Nighy, Alison Steadman, Celia Imrie, Toby Jones and Timothy West – have helped the fundraising effort by doing unpaid ‘In Conversation’ evenings, attracting full houses.

Judi Dench lends support to south London’s Omnibus Theatre as patron

McCarthy is painfully aware of the need to bring in other revenue streams – through commercial sponsorships and co-productions – as well as seeking to change their status with Lambeth Council, which owns the building. Even though Omnibus is a charity, providing many learning and literacy opportunities, in rental terms it is classed by Lambeth as a commercial property.

One of McCarthy’s early priorities was to establish a youth theatre, which accommodates three age groups on Saturdays, under the leadership of Camilla Gurtler. Each year, the youth theatre responds to the annual in-house production. This year, it is presenting OR/AND in association with Stonewall. Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the show examines gender stereotypes.

An Offie award, a nomination from the Peter Brook Open Space Awards and now a nomination for The Stage Awards 2019 (which take place on January 25) have all helped to raise Omnibus Theatre’s profile, and arouse the interest of other creatives.

McCarthy says: “I’ve had enquiries from companies wanting to take over the entire building with a show and, although we haven’t done that yet, it is entirely possible we will at some point. Our space is both flexible and manageable, so you can do promenade work around the building and even extend onto the common. We did a production of Macbeth, directed by Gemma Kerr, where the witches’ brazier was situated in the duck pond on the common, and the building was turned into Macbeth’s bunker.”

This year promises to be one of consolidation and growth for the Omnibus, with McCarthy’s ambition to have two performance spaces in regular use, as well as a more accessible cafe-bar, becoming an attainable reality. She says: “We really need core funding but the reality is that it forces you to be really imaginative and creative in many different ways.”

Omnibus Theatre profile


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