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 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 subsidy and professional resources. We have also discovered that there are many fantastic actors and creatives who have chosen not to make theatre their full time job, and who have the potential to be the equal of their equivalents on the full time professional stage.
iii) What theatre is and is not
Theatre is not merely spectacle or technical brilliance. It is three people trapped in a room for eternity. It is two men confronting each other across a bare space, knowing one of them has to die. It is a blind girl unable to endure pity to the point of suicide. It is for everyone. For everyone to perform, and everyone to experience. It’s not for the cultural elite. It’s not a specialist interest. It is the heart laid bare and the society anatomised. 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 a 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, they know perfectly well that there’s a wall and street 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 extreme 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 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 men running about 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 put on 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 him 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 he teaches juggling at night class. But there’s always one. 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 well. It can be sung in tune, and 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 name must be spelt correctly!
3. The café sign should be in an appropriate style, and acceptable to the designer
4. The café sign should – if possible – 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 specially care) to make the costumes precise to the year in every detail. Only subsidised theatres and lavishly financed film 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 crown covered in gold paper, but because his clothes proclaim king. Above all, the costumes and props should be handsome and be fit for purpose, and follow the authenticity rules outlined in ‘Eating the Biscuit’.
The final, and perhaps most important, aspect of our house style is about the plays we choose to put on. Whilst every production will observe the nine principles outlined above, we aim to present a distinctive programme of work which is distinctive from the typical offer from our competitors.
This broadly consists of three elements:
1. Shakespeare 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 Merry Wives of Windsor at an 80s rock festival.
2. Beautifully produced classics from the likes of Chekhov, Wilde and Strindberg.
3. Modern plays of the late twentieth and early twenty first century and our own commissioned new writing.
3. How we work
i) Proudly undemocratic
Although we aim, and strive, to be inclusive and collegial, we believe that excellence in art is only achieved by a form of benign dictatorship. Directors and designers are artists, and not elected officials. They should and will and do listen, but, in the end, they are allowed to be arbitrary and unreasonable and their word is final.
ii) 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 expect everyone to assist with the less glamorous tasks – from putting up posters, to removing the empty bottles from the bar. This philosophy has helped to create the unique atmosphere and ethos which sets OVO apart from other companies and is one of the reasons why people love working with us.
iii) Inexperience and whoring welcome
We don’t allow anything to compromise our commitment to artistic excellence. We exist to create professional standard theatre, not to provide an outlet for the moderately talented or partially committed, or indeed to run a social club. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, but there are plenty of other theatre companies who do them much better that us.
However, inexperience, for us, is no barrier. All that matters is a commitment to hard work, and to our core values of authenticity and quality. Many of our most able performers and creatives had their first theatrical experience with us, or rediscovered their passion and talent through their involvement in one of our productions. Indeed excessive experience can be a barrier to the sort of challenging, tireless culture to which we subscribe. We especially like to involve younger people alongside our vintage performers.
We also think it’s great that our associates go and work with other companies, and that a goodly number of new people join us for each production. We like to keep things fresh – both for ourselves and our audiences, who would quickly become bored if they saw the same faces in every show. However, we are also very pleased that many of our associates tell us that their heart is always with OVO, even when they are playing elsewhere.
iv) The casting couch
Casting our productions has proved to be one of the more controversial aspects of running OVO. This is partly down to the fact that we don’t believe the conventional audition process is always the best way of casting a show. Like exams and job interviews, some people excel in the fevered conditions of an audition, whilst others shrink. In our experience, these two responses often seem to bear little or no relation to the actual ability of the actor concerned.
We have therefore tended to operate a rather different selection process. The Director of each show makes a decision about whether to audition people, or to simply cast on the basis of their existing knowledge of the actors concerned. The casting policy for each show is clearly and transparently communicated. We encourage Directors to offer all associates the opportunity to express an interest in each production we do. All new associates are auditioned to join the company if we are not already familiar with their work.
People sometimes tell us that they think this is unfair. But the much vaunted ‘open auditions’ run by some other companies seem so often to result in the same old people playing the same old parts. We don’t think this is fair either. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating – every OVO cast is different and distinctive, regular actors are frequently cast against type and generally around a quarter of cast members are new to the company in each show.