Ovalhouse is regenerating. In 2020, the south London theatre will open a new, £15 million building in Brixton as part of Lambeth Council’s Somerleyton Road development. Before that, though, its staff need to vacate their current home in Kennington.
“This building was built in the 1930s, and it was never meant to be a theatre,” Ovalhouse’s head of theatre Owen Calvert-Lyons says. “The main house was built to be a space for boxing and badminton. The downstairs rehearsal space has a glass roof, which means it gets very hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. The upstairs space isn’t wheelchair accessible and there’s no way of putting a lift in.”
He continues: “We are already working beyond the capabilities of this building. It’s done an extraordinary job over its lifetime, but its life is absolutely coming to an end.”
Instead of a nostalgic, tearful farewell, however, Calvert-Lyons has decided upon a more explosive way of saying goodbye: a season of shows that each incorporate the demolition of the building itself.
“I wanted to honour and recognise that this has always been a building where artists have tried new, radical ideas,” he says. “It’s been a space for experimentation, and if anything, in its final moments, it should be celebrating that.
“It’s pretty rare that a theatre company destroys its building and moves to a new one, so it felt to me that there were opportunities here that might not come around again anytime soon. That art could be created that might never be made again.”
The Demolition Party will run from September to November 2019, and involve three or four companies creating shows that somehow involve destroying the space around them. “We put a call out last season and artists responded with some extraordinary ideas. We were very clear that we wanted artists to tell us how they thought it might work,” says Calvert-Lyons.
“A lot of people were keen to use power tools,” he adds. “The only limitations we have are that the outer shell of the building has to remain structurally intact. We need to make sure it can’t collapse into the street and it can’t collapse on to anyone. Beyond that, anything that’s inside the building can be destroyed.”
To assist with the practicalities of programming such an unusual season, Ovalhouse has partnered with structural engineering firm Conisbee. “They’re really supportive,” says Calvert-Lyons. “They’re part of the artistic process and helping us to dream up ways of making artists’ ideas a reality. It’s great when you’re working with a building partner who is really experienced.”
They walked through the building with the artists asking what was possible. “What was really reassuring was that pretty much everything the artists wanted to do was physically possible,” says Calvert-Lyons. “Whether that was knocking down walls, knocking through floors, or smashing through concrete. It’s all achievable.”
There’s another logistical challenge to planning the season: making sure one show doesn’t destroy something required by another.
“We need to plan carefully about the order the shows come in,” Ovalhouse’s head of theatre says. “There will be a cumulative impact, so that as audiences come in over a season that lasts a couple of months, they’ll see the escalation of that damage and destruction. They’ll see the remnants of the previous show around them.”
‘A lot of artists were keen to use power tools’
After the dust has settled, Ovalhouse’s current site, the theatre’s home for 55 years, is being sold to the cricket club next door. An off-site season of site-specific work will follow in early 2020, before the move to Brixton.
The new building will echo the current one, just on a larger scale and with state-of-the-art resources.
“We are doubling the size of the auditoria, so the studio space goes from 50 seats to 100, and the main house goes from 96 to 185,” Calvert-Lyons says. “There will be seven rehearsal rooms, too. At its busiest moments, the new theatre will be absolutely full to the brim with artists developing, making and presenting theatre. That feels like a real game-changer.”
Despite that increase in scale and improvement in facilities, Calvert-Lyons is determined to make sure Ovalhouse stays true to its roots. “Our business model is built upon transferring how we are working now into a new building,” he says.
“I think we have a specific role within the theatre ecology of London, and we recognise where we sit in how we develop new artists. We don’t want to disrupt that balance. We want to be the same sort of theatre, just operating in a new location, on a slightly larger scale.”