From a working class family in Brecon, Joan felt written off by an education system as someone who would not amount to much. As a volunteer at a girls club in Slough she met Peter Oliver who had recently qualified in youth work at Swansea University. After a stint in Hyde, Manchester, they moved to London where she studied philosophy at Birkbeck and found it ‘magic’. She worked with Peter in the early 1960s to transform Oval House from its role as youth club, centred on boys and sport (girls had access one night a week) to a vibrant arts centre and venue where young people locally and from across the city worked with innovative artists on ground-breaking and exploratory projects. Oval House became a vital and anarchic centre for a whole range of work where artists like Ian Hinchliffe, Geraldine Pilgrim, Forkbeard Fantasy and Hilary Westlake got their start and The People Show, Pip Simmons Theatre Group and Welfare State developed projects, along with numerous others, and the Black Panthers met in the cafe. While Peter was nominally in charge, the whole family were vital to its functioning and its effectively 24-hour support role for young people locally; Joan was central to admin and artists’ support, Odette was active in youth dance. When Peter joined Pip Simmons Theatre Group as a performer, the family moved to Holland where Joan programmed three key performance festivals at De Lantaren, Rotterdam: for Women, for Children and on Science Fiction. Moving to Shelburne, Nova Scotia in Canada where Odette had settled she and Peter remained active in theatre, creating projects locally in the community. She died on 17 June 2016.
Below are some extracts from Joan’s interview – a full account of the topics covered in her interview can be accessed at Joan Oliver Topic List page.
‘I always felt very threatened by him pushing buttons [Peter Oliver her husband and how he ran Oval House], being really radical. I thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to be out of job, what’re we going to do?’. I was always afraid of that. He was always taking risks and at that time I wasn’t very risky. I am now. I mean I would go over there every night, practically, see whatever was on, talk to the young people. We tried to declare UDI one night….
Nick Hutchinson asked us if he could form a group out of our youngsters. We didn’t know what he was doing but he had a room and he put on this show where they actually picked Peter up, bodily, and put him out the door, ‘Cos he was a dictator’, and they put him out the door. ‘You pay lip service to the fact we can do what we like but we can’t really – you’re always watching’. So he gave them the keys, he really did give them the keys. (John Fox: I always thought of him as a true anarchist.) JO: Yes, he was, that’s right…
It wasn’t necessarily overtly political [the programming] just the stuff you put on was challenging and political. Just putting on Tretaux Libres [extreme French theatre group who put on Oedipus and provoked a riot] was political. I mean you didn’t do feminist theatre or gay theatre till much later. So it wasn’t that kind of political, it was just the act of…it was anarchistic. If I can put it that way. And taking risks…
We did the first production ever [in the UK] of the South African play…Blood Knot [Athol Fugard] was it? I think? Robin Midgley [director] – I forget who introduced us. We put his two man play on. (JF: So part of your policy you were putting on Black theatre?) JO: Yes, but it wasn’t a conscious thing of putting on Black theatre. It just happened that Robin Midgley said, ‘Would you do it?’ This is what it’s about.’ ‘Sure, of course’. I mean it’s the same with the Panthers, the British Black Panthers. I remember we met downstairs and we sat around talking. He was so honest, Peter was, so honest. He said to the Panthers, ‘Yes, of course I’ll give you space’, cos nobody else would give them space. He said, ‘ as long as you promise me one thing, that if you think it’s politically expedient for you to scream ‘racist’ just let me know, so I’m prepared’.
Oval House beginnings
Joan’s interview is deposited with the British Library Sound Archive, Sheffield University and at the Bishopsgate Institute.
Please see Viewing Interviews for further details.
Joan Oliver was interviewed for Unfinished Histories in 2014 by John Fox.