A statement of our core beliefs, style and approach.
1. Our beliefs about theatre
i) Theatrical insurgents
We are passionate about theatre. We are also insurgents. These two things are often in conflict, because theatre is so often seen as, and so often becomes, the stalking ground of the elite. It had become so in late twentieth-century Britain, where it was regarded as impossible to stage theatre of an “acceptable” standard without public or private patronage. It was in that context that OVO was founded.
ii) Purpose and power
All the vastly expensive trappings of the modern British theatre have often made it unnecessarily expensive to stage and blinded audiences to its real purpose and power. We believe that we can create exciting and artistically innovative theatre without financial riches, and that necessity is often the motherhood of invention.
iii) What theatre is and is not
Theatre is not merely spectacle or technical brilliance. It’s not a specialist interest. It’s not for the cultural elite. It’s the heart laid bare and the society anatomised. It’s for everyone. For everyone to perform, and everyone to experience. Who isn’t concerned with those things?
2. Our house style
i) Authenticity, not realism
We don’t do realism. In the twenty-first century, realism is for television and the movies. There’s no point in trying to pretend you’re looking at a drawing-room with doors onto a garden by building some door frames and painting a backdrop. No-one will be transported to another place by the painted backdrop, and a lot of effort will have been wasted on the doors. Worse, it will create in the audience’s mind the notion that a drawing room leading onto a garden on stage ought to counterfeit a genuine drawing room leading onto a garden. It’s never going to unless you go to ridiculous and expensive lengths, and even then, the audience knows perfectly well that there’s a wall and some dressing rooms out there, not a well-appointed lawn, so who are you kidding? Far better to suggest the garden and, indeed, the drawing room, and let the audience’s imagination do the work for you.
ii) Eating the biscuit
Authenticity, in our terms, is quite hard to define. It’s easier to give examples. If someone eats a biscuit on stage, they may mime the eating of a biscuit. But only if mime is an intrinsic part of the style of that production. They may be offered and appear to eat a cardboard biscuit – but only if stylised properties are a proclaimed and consistent part of the style. They may eat a real biscuit – but then they should eat it, and not mime eating it. What doesn’t work is a pretence that something is what it is not – that an actor should take a biscuit made realistically from plaster and appear to eat it.
iii) A lychee looks just like an eye
Now there are limits beyond which authenticity cannot go – obviously you cannot hurt, kill or fuck anyone on stage. So the style of the production has to allow for this. These intense physical activities can often be simulated to such a degree that they convince, or they can be highly stylised, so the act is suggested, not spelt out. One or the other, but not something in between. Using a blood-splattered lychee to represent one of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear is one thing. Picking it up off the stage with a paper towel during the next scene change ruins the effect. If we are to believe that lychee is an eye, then it must be treated as an eye throughout, by everyone. But the lychee-eye anecdote (true, by the way) points up something else: it’s almost always better, in our theatre, to suggest rather than to spell out. Less is more. The audience’s imagination is far better than any special effects department. “Think, when we speak of horses, that you see them.”
iv) The non-singing Elvis
If someone is playing Elvis, and has a poor voice, he should not sing, though he might do an excellent lip-synch to a recording. Let the audience imagine and believe, rather than ruin things for them by making him sing. If the play calls for a great painting, do not show them an approximation, show them nothing (unless David Hockney owes you a favour). If the play calls for a great battle, do not simulate this with six people running around the stage waving swords and shouting; create the illusion in the audience’s mind of battle taking place elsewhere, as Shakespeare so often does, or stylise the whole scene.
v) Quality is slippery but real
Quality is another of those elusive words. We know what we mean by it, but it is slippery to define. It is also illustrated by the non-singing Elvis. If we were thinking of doing a play about Elvis, and Elvis was required to sing, then it would be essential that the actor’s singing was of sufficient quality to carry the audience. We would not produce a play if we couldn’t reach that quality mark. A play might call for juggling – is the actor’s juggling high enough quality? No? Then we will not have her juggle. Things should be done well, or not at all.
vi) True sleight of hand
But that still doesn’t define quality. How do you decide if the juggling is good enough? It comes down to the audience’s perception. If they observe the actor and juggling, and think “Ah, there’s someone juggling!”, that’s fine. If they observe an actor juggling and think “There’s someone who can’t juggle, pretending to juggle!”, it’s not. Of course, someone in the audience won’t be convinced, because they spent twenty years in the circus. But what we hope, and encourage, is that the non-juggling actor will go away and practise to the point where the illusion can be maintained.
vii) Food of love
The same criterion applies to singing. Music, especially live music has always been really important to our style. But does everybody who sings on stage need a beautiful voice? Self-evidently not. If the song is featured, as part of the play, it can be sung plainly, or even spoken. The key is the way it is performed – it must be communicated well and without artifice, acted well, even if it is not sung to virtuoso level, sung tunefully, even if the actor does not have much of an instrument.
viii) The Café Nauseous
We have often been praised for our attention to detail. What we mean by this is well illustrated by the café sign in our production of All’s Well That Ends Well:
1. The café name must be appropriate to the setting
2. The café sign should be in an appropriate style, and acceptable to the designer
3. The café sign should be handsome
As a bonus, the café sign in All’s Well made a joke all of its own which added to the fun for the perceptive audience member (La Nausėe is the title of a novel by Sartre and the setting for this production was Paris in 1951).
ix) The soldier with dirty boots
We cannot afford (and do not especially care) to make the costumes precise to the year in every detail. Only subsidised theatres and film production companies can do that. But nonetheless they should convince – a soldier’s boots should be polished, and his hair tidy (unless he is Good Soldier Schweik). His uniform should suggest uniform and not a random collection of khaki. The same principle of authenticity applies – a king appears kingly not because he has a gold crown made of plastic, but because his clothes proclaim king. Above all, the costumes and props should be handsome, fit for purpose and authentic.
3. How we work
i) No egos
Surely every theatre company has its primadonnas? We’ve certainly had one or two over the years. But we deal with them ruthlessly and ensure they either amend their behaviour or don’t work with us again. We believe theatre is essentially a collaborative enterprise, and nothing must be allowed to undermine the strength of the ensemble. No egos, no stars.
This extends to the typical hierarchy of theatre companies: the actors at the top, followed by creatives, with the administrative team – the bar staff and ticket collectors – at the bottom. We reject these value judgements and we also encourage everyone to assist with the less glamorous tasks.
This philosophy has helped to create OVO’s unique atmosphere and ethos and is one of the reasons why people love working with us, and indeed watching our shows.
We aim to present a distinctive programme of work, with two main strands:
1. A new twist on the old classics – Shakespeare and other famous texts made accessible, usually through the use of music and a strong concept or setting such as As You Like It in the summer of Love or The Changeling set in a celebrity rehab clinic.
2. Modern plays of the twenty first century and our own commissioned new writing.