Omnibus Theatre’s artistic director talks about her new play SAD, the challenges of the last few years and what the future holds

This month marks a major celebration for Clapham’s Omnibus with the premiere of SAD, the theatre’s first major in-house production since the pandemic, with artistic director Marie McCarthy’s return to directing.

Marie is nearing her ninth year as the artistic director of the multi-award winning independent theatre. She tells us how she got into the role: “I started as an actor, and I retrained in the early 2000s because I realised that I was actually enjoying directing more. I took two years off and did a Master’s Degree in directing. I then ran my company for seven years, focusing on immersive shows.

“When I came to Omnibus, it really felt like a natural transition. The building was a library for some 125 years, so it’s essentially a soundscape – my company specifically looked at the architecture of buildings and spatial relationships, so to be in this gorgeous building is an honour and a privilege.”

The past few years hit the industry very hard, and Omnibus was no exception. “The last show that I directed was in 2019, The Little Prince”, says Marie, “until now, everyone’s been dealing with the pandemic and navigating their way through, so now it’s all just like a dream.”

Although Omnibus had to remain dark, its spirit was far from it. “In March, when it all started, I reached out to local schools and I managed to get volunteers who helped in delivering packed lunches on our bikes for young people who would normally have free school meals.”

She also worked with Age UK Lambeth and their social membership service MYsocial. “They already had elders who were doing activities on online, so we managed to set up creative writing and storytelling sessions via Zoom,” says Marie.

She and her team went even further, creating the Kitchen Table. “We delivered food to elders, inspired by memories of their favourite recipe and worked with actors to create a doorstep performance.” Special drama classes with meals for under-11s were also part of the community support Omnibus provided.

Innovative ideas were explored – for example, a show called ‘Rice! ‘where she worked with a Malaysian theatre company. Before the performance, people were delivered food parcels and a chef in Malaysia taught them how to prepare a selection of small dishes. “We couldn’t have done that without digital elements,” Marie admits, and so Omnibus is looking at how best to utilise the hybrid model going forward.

“Right now, I think we’ll always have a digital offer. It still has a role for people who don’t want to go to the theatre or they can’t, or they reside in a different city or even a country. Last night we had online audience members in Brazil, in Germany, and in Colombia.”

Now that the theatre has reopened for audiences, Marie and playwright Victoria Willing’s new brainchild SAD, a dark but tender comedy, is set to premiere on 5 April.

The women have worked together before. Their creative collaboration on Spring Offensive was a five-star sold-out hit. Says Marie: “Victoria is brilliant and she has a great flair for dialogue. And the play is funny! It’s essentially about the messiness of life. Very dynamic. And that’s what she brings to her work – the unexpected.”

For Marie, SAD isn’t that far off from immersive theatre which was her specialty for years. “The audience will be sitting in a slightly different way. And so they’ll have a different relationship to what’s happening on stage. Our theatre has bay windows, arches, this beautiful architecture which we’re going to be using. The play is set in the attic, so that was an exciting creative challenge. And it’s also really interesting to be working with our cast, they are all excellent, seasoned actors.”

When SAD finishes at the end of April, the summer season will begin. “We’re having an outdoor performance by a duo called Ghost and John and a piece called New Pacific about an island in the Pacific Ocean. We will have an LGBT Festival, and we’ll also be home to Edinburgh Fringe previews, plus the Out of the Wings Festival celebrating international playwrights and their translators.”