Interview: Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Rachel Briscoe

In late 2010, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Rachel Briscoe were appointed joint Directors of Theatre at Ovalhouse, in Lambeth. Last month saw the start of their Lady-Led season, the first they have programmed at their new home, with Lagan by Stacey Gregg.

Since then, they have staged Tomboy Blues – The Theory of Disappointment (written and performed by Rachel Mars and Nat Tarrab) and TaniwhaThames (devised by Shaky Isles Theatre and directed by Stella Duffy), which is on for the rest of this week. Playing simultaneously, Same Same, written by Shireen Mula and directed by Briscoe and Dan Barnard, will run until 10 December.

Hours before TaniwhaThames’s press night, I spoke with Atkinson-Lord and Briscoe about the meaning of ‘Lady-Led’, their vision for Ovalhouse and their belief that theatre should be a place for the people – whoever they are and wherever they come from.

What inspired you to devote your first season to women?

Rachel Briscoe: The title was very much a starting point rather than a definition of the outer boundaries of what the season should be.

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord: We didn’t begin by thinking, ‘We must do a lady-led season about women.’ But we’d always planned to programme thematically. As we were putting the season together, we realised that the lead artist on each of the pieces we wanted to include was female. It wasn’t a conscious choice at all, and we joked that people were going to think we were intent on returning Ovalhouse to its past incarnation as an activist ‘Women’s Theatre’.

That got us thinking about women in theatre now; about how being female is part of who we are but it isn’t all we talk about. Somewhere along the line, someone joked that Ovalhouse is Lady-Led. And it fit. To produce a season of work called Lady-Led where the shows aren’t “about women” is a statement in itself – a provocation. That’s what we want Ovalhouse to be. We’re interested in questions and complexity – in the gaps between easy answers. Lady-Led is our way of saying that an artist’s identity is not subject, but context. Belfast, sea monsters, mixed heritage identity, y-fronts – female artists can make theatre about anything they want.

Female artists being able to create whatever they want?

RB: Your gender or ethnicity or sexuality is an integral part of who you are but it doesn’t preoccupy you the whole time. When you’re choosing your breakfast, you’re not going, ‘oh, I’m a woman, what should I eat?’ This season is about asking artists to work from a position of integrity and to make something that’s personal to them, while acknowledging that their work will be a composite of things.

RAL: Yes. For me, it’s about changing the conversation. Let’s stop talking about artists in their little boxes. We talk so much about black or queer theatre, or women’s theatre, or another “type” of theatre. But what if you could be black, or a woman, or gay and anything else you wanted as well? What if your context didn’t pigeonhole you?

Why did you choose the pieces you have?

RAL: Lagan, by Stacey Gregg, is an amazing set of interwoven stories. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling about post-Troubles Belfast. The writing is among the best I’ve come across in a while.

The second show to open was Tomboy Blues. It explores being in a box as a woman, as a tomboy; but it’s really about the more universal issue of figuring out who you are and becoming happy with that. It came through our development programme, FiRST BiTES, last spring and we loved it. It was the first thing that Rach and I looked at planning when the season was a work in progress; it felt like our baby had grown up into a proper show. It’s beautiful, touching and personal, yet forthright. It doesn’t mince its words.

With TaniwhaThames, Stella came to me (I’d known her before) and we just loved the idea of an open space project. We’re excited by challenging form both in the process and product of a work. So we wanted it in there as a flagship statement that we are open to doing different things; to experimentation. Come to us with your genius, crazy ideas and we’ll help you make them into something! Also, the idea of home not being where you come from but where you belong is interesting.

The last piece is Same Same. Again, it’s about figuring out who you are when you don’t know or don’t necessarily fit in a box. It’s the story of a mixed-race girl and the mother who abandoned her. They spend their time imagining the different types of person the other could be, in narratives that fracture, reset and start again. Watching it is like piecing together the fragments of a broken mirror; you need to see all of it before you can get an idea of the full picture. It’s incredibly structurally inventive, telling its story in a really unusual way. It fulfilled our desire to produce things that challenge form and convention.

Rachel, why did you want to direct Same Same?

RB: Nina Steiger at Soho Theatre had read the play and knew that I have a real taste for work that demands a heightened aesthetic but also quality, truthful acting. She introduced me to Shireen Mula, the writer, because she thought we’d get on – and we did. So, Same Same was already part of my portfolio at my own company, fanSHEN, when I got the job here. It felt like a good fit with the theatre. I would probably have approached Ovalhouse with it even if I hadn’t ended up working here.

When I describe the piece as being about how mixed-race identity is constructed, it can sound quite worthy. And it’s not – it’s the craziest play in the world! It does something with form that mirrors what it does with subject matter; the structure is fractured in the same way that Asha’s identity is. It’s beautiful and theatrical, which can be an overused term. Last night, someone said to me that on paper it makes no sense, but that when it’s performed it really does. As a director, that’s really exciting. More theatre should be like that. If you get as much from reading a play as watching it, it’s not really a play.

Your four-point artistic policy is unusual; playful, almost fairytale in tone but serious in intent. How did you come up with it?

RAL: We agonised over it for quite a while because the first thing anyone asks you when you go into this job is: ‘What’s your artistic policy?’ We knew what it was but we found it quite hard to express it in official speak. So we thought, ‘What if we approach it as the artists we actually are, and talk about it as we would to each other?’

RB: We had such a miserable time writing a normal one. It was so boring that we couldn’t believe that anyone reading it wouldn’t be bored as well. At Ovalhouse, where we co-produce rather than commission work, we’re only as good as the artists we work with. So, much of our job is about creating an environment in which artists feel inspired to create excellent work. That’s about having the right facilities but it’s also about creating an environment in which people feel inspired and able to explore. The tone and message of the artistic policy came from that – wanting other artists to be excited and think about what was possible, rather than agonising about whether they fit into the boxes we wanted ticking.

RAL: ‘Anti-Heroes and Underdogs’ is about stories from and for people that you don’t necessarily hear much of. It links into Ovalhouse’s history of working with marginalised artists. But it’s also our way of saying, ‘OK, that was the old conversation, what’s the new one? How can we place our commitment to artistic diversity at the heart of Ovalhouse’s creative practice?

‘Stories told Sideways’ is about formal reinvention. Rachel and I are story junkies. A three-act structure is great, but what are the other ways that we can tell stories in our lives?

‘The Things Under The Bed’ is about those things you forget are there, or that you’re so used to that you don’t see them anymore, or that you’ve shoved under the bed because you’re frightened of them. In different ways, all of the pieces in this season are things under the bed.

‘Theatre For People With Something To Say’ speaks to my desire for theatre to change the world. Not in a clumsy agitprop way; I just want to come out of a show and feel that I understand something new about the world or myself. And if it can make me act differently, that’s pretty damn amazing.

Has any show had that effect on you?

RAL: Yes – The Fever, at the Royal Court, with Clare Higgins. It explored the sense of guilt you feel when you’re privileged and have enough to live – more than enough really – when so many don’t. It chimed with me and made me go and sign up as a volunteer. I didn’t change the world, but it made me go and do something differently. It showed me myself and made me understand something new, which I found quite exciting.

RB: Most recently, it was Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, performed at the Barbican by TR Warszawa. It was amazing. The company have all of their collaborators in the room during rehearsals, so all elements of the design were engaged dynamically in telling the story. The show was in Polish and had surtitles, but I wasn’t really watching them because I understood what was going on. The quality of the acting, the lights, the sound design, the projection – the combination had such a profound effect on the whole audience. Theatre that affects you not just intellectually but in a way that you can’t always articulate is what I aspire to make.

What attracted you to Ovalhouse?

RAL: What appealed about the theatre was its potential. It has an amazingly loyal local audience, which is incredibly diverse. I think Ovalhouse could be up there as a sector-leading theatre, because of the sheer breadth of people it speaks to. We have the kind of audiences that other venues would kill for. Too many theatres talk to too narrow a cross-section of the population. It shouldn’t be like that. If theatre is genuinely to be about the human experience, it should have something for everyone.

For example, in this country we don’t really talk about class. We’re starting to talk more about race, cultural context and heritage. But we don’t really talk about the things that divide us. We pretend that everything is accessible to everyone. But when I moved to London from the Midlands there were theatres I was frightened to go in. I didn’t feel rich, posh or cool enough. That makes me sad, and angry; because the theatre is where we should be able to go for what unites us all: that we’re human.

RB: I’ve had a relationship with Ovalhouse for a long time. I directed my first show here after graduating in 2006, so it’s always been my theatre “home”. Our predecessor, Ben, was very good about giving my company space to develop a piece we did in 2009, called Shooting Rats. Without that support, it just wouldn’t have happened. So I had an idea of what Ovalhouse could be, in terms of the support it could give to artists who were trying to do something a bit different.

Ovalhouse has two fully flexible performance spaces, which is really exciting. Having that sort of flexibility means that we can programme work which seeks to engage audiences on a visual level as well as an aural one. I think the London theatre ecology caters well for artists working in new writing; there are perhaps less venues interested in work that starts life as an image or sound or company process. I’m not saying that we don’t care about new writing –on the contrary, we have two brilliant new plays in our first season – but that we’re also interested in work that starts with something other than words.

Ovalhouse has been described as bringing international theatre to a local audience. Is that agenda important to you?

RAL: Yes. It has to be. Because our local community is international; that’s part of what informs who they and we are. ‘New work, new audiences’ was our way of saying, ‘We don’t just want to be a new-writing theatre. We want to commit to all kinds of work.’ We have no interest in being London’s eight-hundredth new-writing theatre. New audiences are really important because that’s how you create a dialogue, how you make progress. As a director, I make theatre because I want to add to the sum of human knowledge. Or perhaps I just want to add to the sum of human questions in the hope that one day somebody will be able to answer them!

What has it been like to collaborate so closely with each other?

RB: I’m just a natural collaborator. When I direct I co-direct. In a creative job, I don’t know how people manage on their own. It’s through dialogue that you discover things; people bring to your attention points of view you might never have considered if you’d been sitting by yourself in an office. Working with another person means that the two of you interrogate all of the issues before ever showing anything to the outside world.

RAL: We’re a good pairing because we’re very different but with enough of a crossover of interests that it works. We’re both really driven and passionate about what Ovalhouse can be. We come from different backgrounds, so the work we make individually is very different. But this means that we have a much broader frame of reference when we’re talking to artists or programming work; it means that when there’s a problem to be solved there are two brains working on it. We’re also instinctive collaborators. The thing I would find hard in this job was if there wasn’t someone I could ask: ‘What do you think about this?’ I think it relates back to the development of TaniwhaThames. One of the joys of open space is that you don’t always have to be the one with the right answers – there are other people to share that. And that’s when you can be really creative.

You can book tickets for the rest of the Lady-Led season here:

For general information on Ovalhouse, go here:

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