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Omnibus Theatre, Clapham. Marie McCarthy: ‘Our work is to offer alternative views, offer inspiration, empower people to change and facilitate that change.’

In some ways, Omnibus Theatre is just what you’d want from a converted Victorian Library on Clapham Common.

Other aspects of this 90 seat theatre you’d definitely want to see a show in are more surprising, and the property’s proximity to one of London’s busiest tube stations, just 2 minutes away from an extraordinary amount of hustle, bustle and footfall, seems somewhat at odds with this rather modest arts organisation (that receives no public funding).

This is a remarkable community arts organisation that aims to inspire audiences of all ages to learn new skills and discover their own creativity.


Marie McCarthy outside Omnibus Theatre, Clapham.

Omnibus’ Artistic Director, Marie McCarthy, is giving me a tour of the building and telling me all about the vision. “Being a fan of architecture, I was very interested by the fact that it’s previous use was as a library and essentially a found space,” she says.

“Throughout the last four years, I have been discovering how flexible the space is. Performances occur in stairwells, dressing rooms, back corridors, the bar as well as the theatre. The artistic programme is inspired by the legacy of the library so the work we make includes Classics reimagined for a contemporary audience, adaptations, spoken word, storytelling across multiple platforms.”

Access and inclusion are the key both to her work and her ethos, which marks her out as a conscientious artistic director. “There are three festivals a year: Perception Festival in the Autumn for unheard voices, LGBTQ+ in February and then in May, we have a festival of story-makers. We have 8 associate artists and from a variety of disciplines including a poet, writers, directors and cross art form theatre makers.”

The Perception Festival kicks off in October and contains a dynamic programme of 14 events including a festival launch night. Highlights include Scandal and Gallows new staging of Nickolai Gogols The Overcoat, I Walk in Your Words, headphone verbatim theatre by Kristine Landon-Smith And A Cracked Plaster Spy, a new play by Futures Theatre. “We have been developing the Perception Festival for the last three years exploring how we view the world and how the world views us,” she explains.

“This year is the biggest and most well-defined festival that we have done to date. We’re looking at difference, moving from one tribe to another – It’s about looking at the journey from the place of feeling different and not accepted and what that journey entails.”


Part of the job of being a really good AD is to know that you have brought what you can to an organisation and knowing when to step aside. On the topic of moving on, what will the organisation look like after 7 years, I ask. “Physically the building would look different. In the four years that I have been in post – I understand how the building works but also how it could be working more effectively by moving the café /bar to the front of the building and developing a second performance space,” she says.

“I would hope that after 7 years we are in a position to make more work and that relationships with regional companies are more developed, that core funding is in place. We receive project funding but no core funding as yet and I want to support more creative learning and participatory work. I believe Artistic Directors are guardians of buildings and I think it is important to have a sense of when it’s time to hand over. If those ideas aren’t fresh and the hunger to make a difference isn’t there then it’s time to move on.”

Another significant achievement, says McCarthy, was winning the Royal Court Theatre Support Award, which offers a year of the venue’s expertise. “We were delighted to have won the Peter Brook Empty Space award last November and our relationship with The Royal Court has been instrumental in helping us to raise our profile and communicate our identity more effectively.”

How does she balance the books with risk taking? “My reference point is the building. What work fits, how can we push a boundary, find a new slant. What do our audiences want? How can I listen more effectively, watch more acutely,” she says.

We are 6 years into a Tory arts policy and talking during the week that the barmy narrative of British politics seems to be taken straight from a Carry On film. What are her thoughts on May’s Britain, I ask. “We had a young person participating in a workshop playing the game Fruit Salad – he said “If you are disappointed with your life – jump in the centre.” He was 8 years old. This is a real problem, it is about a lack of hope.”

“It feels to me that our work is to offer alternative views, offer inspiration, empower people to change and facilitate that change,” she says.

PERCEPTION FESTIVAL 2017 – A festival about going against the tide runs Wed 4- 28 Oct

Box Office: Tel: 020 7498 4699