Features Guest Column Published 22 October 2013

Becoming the First Follower

On Ovalhouse’s You Might Also Like … commissions.

Rachel Briscoe

You might have watched Derek Sivers’ TED Talk on how to start a movement. If you haven’t, it’s well worth having a look. In the talk, Sivers uses footage of a group of sunbathers in a park. One guy gets up and starts dancing; within minutes, the whole field is dancing. Sivers ascribes particular importance not to the first guy who starts dancing, but to the ‘first follower’ who gets up and starts dancing with the original guy: “the first follow is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.” Sivers suggests that if you really care about starting a movement, you should have the courage to follow and show others how to follow. If I were to state my ambition right now for Ovalhouse, where I am director of theatre, it would be to become the first follower: an organisation can transform lone and often lonely artists into cultural leaders, pioneers within their form, humans who help other humans become more humane.

As part of our Autumn season at Ovalhouse, we’re trialling a new format. Our You Might Also Like … commissions are a series of double bills which allow artists to share the beginning of an idea with an audience, within a supportive context. And so what? -plenty of theatres have work-in-progress or scratch evenings or whatever they choose to call them so what’s the big deal? There isn’t a big deal but I think, within the current economic and political context, it is worth stating again and again the importance of investing in ideas, creating space for uncertainty and recognising that unknown quantities are where the next solutions lie.

We picked our YMAL commissions from open call-out. There were no restrictions on who could apply. Each commission gets a week’s rehearsal space, a day and a half of tech and £500, with an additional £250 relocation for non-London artists/ companies. They can also expect a 40% share of box office. We’re aware that we’re not offering a huge amount of money, but it is a start and, perhaps more importantly, can be used to leverage further funding – as half our commissioned artists have done.

In return we expect some material, of between 20 and 40 minutes in length, which can be shared with an audience. There are four performances of each piece – we want our artists to learn about what they are making, not about how one particular audience on one particular day reacted. We encourage our artists to keep experimenting throughout the four performances, allowing the show to keep developing. Every day, a member of the theatre department team curates a discussion between artist(s) and audience, steering the conversation to the areas where the artists have identified questions that they would like the audience to help them with.

YMAL takes a double bill format. For £10 (or £6 concessions), audience members see two pieces of work. Perhaps the two pieces will be similar in form, tone or subject matter – or perhaps the contrast between the two will illuminate both pieces. An audience member might buy a ticket for the evening because they like one of the artists – and then find themselves watching something else, something completely new that they also like, or which they passionately dislike – and this experience might help them articulate what it was that they liked about the other half of the double bill.

The format gives us the confidence to work with artists from further afield, artists from outside London who may not yet have an audience base local to Ovalhouse but whose work has the potential to inspire London artists and excite London audiences. By pairing them with a London artist, we borrow them an audience base for the period of time before their work is recognised on its own merits. It’s early days but the format also opens up a dialogue with artists and organisations in other places – we want to send out a clear message that we are interested in working with regional partners, learning together, pooling our resources to support exciting artists.

And within the walls of Ovalhouse, it creates spaces where small artistic communities can grow: between the two artists in each double bill; among the four artists/ companies resident in the building at any one time; between the theatre itself and the audiences who, intrigued by the format, return for more because they think that they might also like next week’s double bill.

I think a lot about Ovalhouse’s radical, politically-engaged history and what this means for us today, in our 50th anniversary year: how can we honour and build on our inspiring legacy? It isn’t particularly big or flashy but perhaps the most counter-cultural thing we can do right now is to resist the prevalent emphasis on neatly packaged, politically anodyne product and instead create spaces for process – spaces where discoveries can be stumbled upon, mistakes made and homogeneity resisted.

For me, the role that Ovalhouse has to play is not a million miles from Derek Sivers’ TED Talk. It isn’t by striving to lead some new movement that Ovalhouse can help British theatre be braver, more interesting and more surprising. Rather, it is by being the first follower – by recognising that that lone nut over there is an artist trying to create something special, by taking what resources we have and going over to them, by having the courage to follow – and to show our audiences how to follow too. And who knows, like the people in the field, they might find that they also like it …

Ovalhouse’s You Might Also Like … double bills are running from 23rd October – 23rd November. For more details and to book tickets, visit the Ovalhouse website.

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