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Ovalhouse theatre is being demolished in the name of art

One of the capital’s major fringe theatres, the Ovalhouse, is being demolished later this year in preparation for the theatre’s relocation to Brixton in 2021. Opened in the 1930s, the Ovalhouse has been a beacon for London independent storytelling - and one of the artists that’s had a close relationship with the theatre over the years is theatre maker Rachel Mars.

Mars has collaborated with her longterm creative partner Greg Wohead to respond to the Ovalhouse’s demolition, by contributing a stand-alone and site-responsive piece of theatre called Gaping Hole which will in its staging help contribute to the demolition of the building - by literally tearing holes in the Ovalhouse’s physical infrastructure.

The Ovalhouse’s Demolition Season is a marvellously fun idea - a once-in-a-lifetime chance to allow artists full disclosure over a space; to punch holes in walls and play their part in helping bring the building down.

Speaking to Run-Riot, Rachel says their contribution is about more than just physicality. It’s about “radical and outrageous formal ideas,” and how “when you make an outrageous formal choice [such as smashing up a building in this case] it cracks open the boundaries - for an audience - of what’s possible in the theatre space”.

Here, Rachel discusses the textual meanings behind their physical theatre piece, while discussing the importance of site specific theatre when it comes to engaging audiences. At the same time, she recalls her favourite memories at the Ovalhouse, as the theatre’s final season in its current location gets underway.

Adam Bloodworth: Hey Rachel, nice to meet you. The Ovalhouse's Demolition Season sounds a crazily fun idea: smashing up a building sounds like an incredibly fun opportunity. Is smashing up a building in the name of art the funnest offer you've had yet?
​Rachel Mars: Hi. Yes I think it probably is. I used to do a piece called Rage Arena which culminated in young girls getting to smash up stuff with hammers, so this feels like an epic version of that.

Adam: When it came to Gaping Hole, I'm assuming the work was written as a direct response to the brief from Ovalhouse about the destruction of the building?
​Rachel: Greg and I have a long-term collaboration, so we are always thinking of possible projects, but the idea for this was in relation to Ovalhouse's call-out.
Adam: If any, which parts of the story were in place before this site-specific commission?
​Rachel: We have a few guiding principles when we work together - around recklessness, pleasure, singular concepts and queering story, those are always in place. We are always thinking about story, narrative and construction. But, none of the specifics were in place.
Adam: Gaping Hole is all about truth and the things we're willing to overlook. There's obviously political parallels, but does it become harder and harder to write fresh work about truth and post-truth now that everybody's so interested in it and there's already so much already out there? How does your piece tackle the subject differently?
​Rachel: I would say the main thing is about form. We aren't setting out to write about truth or post-truth or politics - that's not what the content will be. The way we approach things is to think about radical and outrageous formal ideas, ideas that when you first think of you go 'oh no, you can't do that in a theatre': like showing an uninterrupted episode of 'Come Dine With Me' for 50 minutes, which we did in our first show 'Story #1'. We're asking: 'what's a formal way to examine truth, what's a queer way to approach these ideas?'. I think we've found that when you make an outrageous formal choice it cracks open the boundaries - for an audience - of what is possible in the theatre space. It makes us all ask 'well, why CAN'T you do that', and once you are thinking that about theatre, you begin to think like that about other structures in life, and rules we've just accepted without question.
Adam: There's talking about feeling comfortable, but will the show be a comfortable experience for the audience?

​Rachel: We've been thinking about the things you overlook in your own life in order to stay comfortable: wilful ignorance, magical thinking - and when those things become unbearable and you have to look at them.
I would say we are profoundly uninterested in deliberately making an audience uncomfortable for the sake of it - all the choices come out of the concept, and queer ways of playing with story. Of course each audience member is different - my last solo piece talked about queer female sex: for some people that is an uncomfortable experience, for others a profound relief. I would say we are interested in moments of joy, shock and delight, especially for communities whose everyday experiences of being in the world can be full of discomfort.
Adam: Can you go a little more in-depth about the physical/smashing up elements? How on Earth do you rehearse for that?!
​​Rachel: The builders come on the first day of rehearsals proper, and make some 'adjustments' to the space. After that we are working with our design team and production manager to ensure we are safe as we make the show. It'll probably involve a lot of careful walking and some bruises.
Adam: It sounds as if the 'holes' are also a metaphor for narrative, as well as truth and lies: would that be fair to say?
​Rachel: We are interested in different shaped narratives. I'm super into cunt-shaped stories and narratives rather than dick-shaped: linear, come-shot, the end- ones. Long, complex, looping, pleasure-filled, defined by absences. So maybe not holes as a metaphor for narrative, but as a shape for it.
Adam: You and Greg obviously have a close personal working relationship. What are the benefits of having a partner like Greg when you're selling shows to theatres and working alongside one another day-to-day?
​​Rachel: Greg and I make solo authored work and collaborate with other artists as well as this ongoing collaboration. It feels very obvious when a show is something that should be part of our collaboration as we have fairly strict principles in our joint work. Our work together can be bolder and faster because we have other works we are making at the same time that are slower and more careful. Day-to day even when we aren't collaborating we use each other as a sounding board for our other works, check-in with each other about the sector, see a lot of other people's work, alert each other to opportunities. It's important to have family when you are in this industry. That's what this feels like.
And what are your finest memories of Ovalhouse, and your thoughts about the venue move?
​Rachel: When Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Rachel Briscoe were Artistic Directors they gave me great opportunities - most of my work had some starting point there. I think waiting in the wings on a space-hopper dressed as Thatcher with a snorkel mask on, ready to bounce into the space to sink a cardboard Belgrano is a strong memory. But ​some of my finest memories of the place are linked to the community lunches for older people that were held there, with that brilliant Welsh woman calling bingo, its history as a home for Queer performance, and the woman with the red hair who made Carnival costume. I hope the new venue provides that kind of space too.

The Ovalhouse’s Demolition Season comprises shows from October 5th until December 14th 2019; the theatre relocates to Brixton and reopens in 2021.

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