~ The Early Years ~
Part 1: Founding.
Founded in 1991.
First show was the charlatans, which was Pedro and Mr. Spavento, who were two zanni’s trying to convince the audience that Pedro Muscadet had special powers of hypnosis. He proved his powers, by selecting a ‘random’ member of the audience each time - that random member being Mr Spavento - a long nosed, stupid, dog-like lovable character who had a rubber chicken dangling between his legs. Inevitably Mr Spavento would ‘get things wrong.’ Those two characters would become the zanni for Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and Alchemy, before being killed off at the start of the Miller’s Tale. This show was rehearsed in gardens, parks, and various places on the street in street festivals in London. At one point the show included an acrobatic scene of a non-life sized cardboard cut out of Emma Thompson helping the duo with an acrobatic act in which she was launched un-cermoniuosly with a sturdy kick in order to leap various obstacles. The show was mainly shown around Carnaby Street as part of Alternative Arts Street festival. It also played in various shopping centers around London.
At the same time, a theatre show was developed called the Emigre, directed by Luis Bouy. It was rehearsed in the dusty basement of a squat in Stockwell. It was the story of a long- nosed emigre, and his trusty long-suffering, long-nosed servant. As part of his journey, he met two Commedia Capitains. The show was shown at Wood Green pub (?) and was a mix of clowning and Commedia. The Captains from the show went on to perform a number of times at street events and various squat cabarets around London.
The very first Richard the third was developed for an Alternative Arts street festival in Carnaby Street, and included Cathy Jansen as a masked female zanni.
Part 2: Divergence.
It was at this point, in late 1992, that Howard went to Norwich to work at the puppet theatre there, with Luis Bouy. Geoff then created a number of rapidly created shows, performing in places such as - Carnaby Street, and going to Edinburgh to perform on the streets at the Fringe festival. They also performed in front of the Italian ambassador.
Part 3: Together again.
Howard returned, and a new version of Richard the Third was devised, with Jenny Harris and David George. It was rehearsed at a place in Southwark and became the basis of a show that would continue in the Ophaboom repetoire until 2002, eventually playing in six different languages, and being performed throughout Europe. But it took a while and a few adventures to get there. It was a half hour, or thereabouts, street show which adapted the earlier show by adding the character of the hero, Henry. It premiered at the Hastings Jack in the Green festival as part of their street events. An instant success, it was invited to play in the pier ballroom as part of the festival closing night.
Having busked in Brighton, and Bath, as well as Covent Garden and played at various Street festivals - Winchester Hat Fair, Hebdon Bridge and of course Alternative Arts Street events in Central London, it ended up by a strange sequence of events, going on the Elephant Rouge tour of Northern Europe. It should be noted at this time that John Broadbent, who must be considered the ‘fifth’ member of Ophaboom since he was always on call to step into any role that was needed at short notice. (He actually played Richard and Henry at different times in Richard III)
The Elephant Rouge tour was a tour of several street theatre companies from France, Denmark, Germany and England that toured to Le Havre, Rotherhithe, Den Hague, Hamburg and Copenhagen on a big bus. The English side was organized by Alternative Arts.
The strange sequence of events that got Ophaboom involved, and thus set us up for European touring was this: The original English company had a series of unfortunate mishaps in Le Havre - At a night club, one of the members was beaten up, and hospitalized. The other members of the company decided to get revenge by smashing up the car of the perpetrator. Unfortunately they got the wrong car, and were arrested!
Thus, Ophaboom were asked at short notice to represent England. Returning from busking in Bath, and about to go under financially, we said: “Yes!”
It was a two week tour, and completely eye opening. First of all there was playing in another language - German in Hamburg, and secondly there was the sheer enjoyment and freedom of playing abroad - new jokes, new challenges.
At the end of the tour, the company were dropped off in Den Hague, where they re-united with the blue ford transit, and set off for France. A few festivals to busk at had been lined up, but mostly it was trying to find places to busk. The first stop was a festival in Bourge, and the first performance in French. This went remarkably well. This was followed by a few attempts at busking on the streets of other cities as the company headed South, which didn’t go so well. The nadir was Nimes, and it was here that a fateful decision was made. Would the company give up, go home and fold? Or would it give it one more try and go to Avignon and see if that was any better?
Avignon was a marvel. Perfect for street theatre. A transient crowd of holiday makers with nothing else to do, stopping off for one night on their way down to the South of France meant new audiences every night. It was here that one show had scenes that were performed, at triple time, in English, French and German to different parts of the audience. The show developed and tightened and became a good street show. We also learnt that it was fun to perform abroad, and in other languages.
After another tour of Richard the following year, the company were invited to Venice carnival with Richard III. John Broadbent stepped in to play Henry, and the show went down so well it was moved to the main Palco in St. Mark’s square, where it played to audiences of thousands in a melange of languages. Good times.
The following year - 1995 - the company auditioned for new cast members. Knowing that Commedia worked best when actors knew each other. It was decided that a version of Romeo and Juliet would sell well, and work with our intention of introducing the characters of the inamoratti to the mix of the zanni. The show worked well, and toured for two years with two different casts, and having considerable success in France, Jersey, Germany and Spain, performing in Spanish for the first time at the prestigious festival of Almagro.
This period, with it’s three fairly distinctive parts can be seen as the early years. The theater was rough, the money was mostly scant, the times were fun, the learning curve was massive, and the casts changed. We had developed a good street show in Richard the third, which would continue to be performed regularly throughout Europe in a number of different languages, and we felt that we had found the spirit of Commedia. One year at Venice Carnival, Sandro Bressanello, the artistic director of the carnival said of Richard: “It’s not Commedia, but it has the spirit of Commedia.” The next period of Ophaboom’s work was a search for a greater depth, to combine the spirit with something more. And to find a company that would stay together over a number of years.