Ovalhouse’s FiRST BiTES programme ensures that it takes the risks necessary for creating diverse and experimental theatre, explains Owen Calvert-Lyons.

Photo of a pregnant woman in a forest
Cyst-er Act, a past project in the FiRST BiTES programme

Ovalhouse’s reputation for artist development has been built on one crucial truth: theatre artists learn through making theatre. We have a comprehensive workshop programme, as well as other initiatives that develop artists’ skills and knowledge, but the majority of our artist support is constructed around the process of making theatre.

The plays are developed well beyond the point of ‘scratch’, but they are unashamedly unfinished

At the core of the programme is our FiRST BiTES programme, with its aim to develop a new play to the point of a first draft. The plays are developed well beyond the point of ‘scratch’, but they are unashamedly unfinished. This is really important for artists for whom the driving force of their work is not the script but the idea.

For more traditional, script-led theatre it is relatively straightforward for venues and artists to assess the potential quality of a future production. However, so many brilliant ideas for devised and experimental theatre productions never see the light of day – without a script to fall back on, it takes a leap of imagination to picture how this idea might be realised on the stage.

The programme aims to bridge that gap and level the playing field for experimental artists, developing an idea to the point where artists, collaborators, venues and - crucially - audiences can see what it might become.

Accessible for all

The programme runs all year round, without an application deadline. There’s also no theme. This is important because artists are responding to the world around them, as they experience it now. We want to present plays that have something important to say about the way we live. Creating a piece of art that does this is complicated enough already: we don’t want to impose any additional barriers.

The offer to artists is highly structured and clearly laid out on our website. We offer a week of rehearsal time, a production week in the theatre with technical support, then three nights of performance to a public audience with a small seed commission and a box-office split.

Clarity of information is crucial. If you want a programme to be accessible, you have to tell artists what the parameters are. If you don’t publish this information clearly, only those with cultural entitlement will apply.

Because of the highly structured nature, the programme is able to support artists at all stages of their career. A first-time producer, director or maker can navigate their way through the process with relative ease.

One of the other aspects of our work that sets us apart is the way in which we view the work of young people. For many young people there exists a glass ceiling that keeps them in a perpetual state of development and never allows them to graduate to staging their production. We need to be responsive. Artists who have important things to say now need to be allowed to do that, without having to wait until they have earned their stripes.

Next year we will launch an extension to the programme, so that young people coming through our Young Associates programme are supported to create a FiRST BiTE at the end of their year-long association with us. This is the removal of a glass ceiling which we perceived within our own programme and further reinforces our commitment to bridging the gap in status between young people’s work and professional art.

A risk-taking approach

All of this comes down to risk. It’s easy to forget that we label things as risky when they feel scary, unsafe or uncomfortable. None of us really enjoy those feelings, which is why we stick with what we know. But this is the enemy of open, diverse and experimental practice.

Structures like FiRST BiTES enable us to take risks and ensure that we do just that. Once we as an organisation state that is not only our role but our responsibility to take risks, we are free to find ways to make it possible for anyone to make the art they want to make. We want to ensure that stories are told by the people who need to tell them to the people who need to hear them. It’s a simple mantra, but it’s a guiding light that helps us to stay true to our belief in taking risks.

Owen Calvert-Lyons is Head of Theatre and Artists' Development at the Ovalhouse.
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