Mark Kebble talks to Adam Nichols, artistic director of St Albans-based OVO Productions, about stand out moments to date, creating in lockdown and what 2022 holds in store
What’s the story behind OVO and how long have you been artistic director?
I set up OVO with Simon Nicholas in 2003 with me as artistic director and Simon as producer. We named the company OVO because for us it was about creativity and about doing something different – we were keen to develop shows that were bold, imaginative and surprising, and created locally. Since we set up the company we’ve always harnessed talent in and around St Albans, which has led us to work with some brilliant local actors, musicians, costume designers, lighting and sound engineers and many more.
How tough was it to go through the various lockdowns – and what were you able to still do?
It was challenging, but I think that it really forced us to be creative. In a way it played to some of our strengths, one of which was digital work. We used film in our very first production in 2003 – Romeo & Juliet – and we’ve used film fairly constantly during the nearly 20 years since we’ve been going. We were able to draw on that experience to produce online productions at the very beginning of the pandemic when we ‘staged’ a Zoom version of our very entertaining musical production of Twelfth Night. We plunged into green screen technology – such as it was less than two years ago – and managed to attract audiences from all over the UK and around the world.
We also have a long track record of staging productions outdoors, so we were able to run our annual Roman Theatre Festival – at Verulamium Park just outside St Albans – in a short form in 2020 and then in a much longer form in 2021.
How important is it for you to receive the financial boost recently announced from the Culture Recovery Fund?
This is the first public funding we’ve ever received – it’s very exciting and further validates what we do. While we managed to keep producing work in the first year of the pandemic and we would have carried on regardless, the grant has enabled us to produce work on a bigger scale and the importance of that is that we’ve been able to create over 100 employment opportunities for actors and creatives.
Looking back, what have been the stand out moments in OVO’s history?
I think two come to mind immediately; the first was our debut at the fabulous open air Minack Theatre in Cornwall in 2016. We took our production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which was the first time we’d played to a large audience outside our local area; we received an amazing reaction from the audiences at the Minack and we had such a great time we were absolutely delighted to be invited back in 2018 with Much Ado About Nothing, and in 2021 with The Winter’s Tale.
My second stand-out moment is definitely the first night of the Roman Theatre Festival in 2020 knowing we were one of the first theatres to re-open after the first wave of the pandemic. We experienced everything that could be thrown at us including the theatre being completely flooded on the morning of our first night! Being ready to open with our first night double bill, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V, was, ultimately, so exciting. The atmosphere was amazing; we were thrilled to be back in front of a live audience and the audience were thrilled to be back at the theatre.
How great is to stage many of your productions at The Maltings Theatre?
It’s really great to run an intimate venue that enjoys a city centre location that has amazing support from the local community, and that brings really distinctive live performance to a discerning local audience.
Where else in Hertfordshire do you stage work at?
We work regularly at the Roman Theatre in Verulamium Park; in the past we’ve performed all over Hertfordshire including the Old Town Hall in Hemel Hempstead, Trestle Arts Base, the Alban Arena, and the Town Hall in St Albans, Hertford Theatre, the Queen Mother Theatre in Hitchin, and the Hat Factory in Luton.
How long has OVO been based in St Albans – and do you also live there?
OVO’s always been based in St Albans and I live in Hitchin – although I did get married in St Albans Abbey! Being located in the area is fantastic for everything we do – there’s a very diverse community that has a real passion and enthusiasm for the arts
What are your three favourite places to visit in St Albans, or further afield in Hertfordshire?
The Fox Pub in Willian for amazing food, the magnificent gardens at St Paul’s Walden Bury, and the Waffle House in St Albans for the best breakfast.
Finally, any new year resolutions?
Read more plays by non-white playwrights. Theatre still has a long way to go to represent the full breadth of human experience.