Flo O'Mahony is staging a show with her learning disabled sister.
The artistic director of Zoo Co. on Perfect Show For Rachel at the Barbican, and her company's fight for radical inclusion.
Hello, and welcome to another issue of The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
This issue features Flo O’Mahony, artistic director of Zoo Co., the Croydon-based company that was recently made one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations. Its new show, Perfect Show For Rachel, opens at the Barbican tonight!
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That’s all for now. More from me at the bottom, but first: Flo O’Mahony of Zoo Co.
Amid the mayhem and misery caused by Arts Council England’s announcement of its next round of regular funding a fortnight ago, one happy story was overlooked: the radically inclusive, Croydon-based company Zoo Co. has been made a National Portfolio Organisation and will receive £200,000 per year until 2026.
“We send solidarity to the organisations that have lost or didn’t receive funding,” says Flo O’Mahony, Zoo Co.’s artistic director. “We are really thrilled that the Arts Council has invested in our work for the next three years so we can work more sustainably, and champion access on our stages, in our Croydon community, and with the brilliant people and partners we work with.”
The news comes as O’Mahony and Zoo Co. are preparing to stage the company’s most ambitious, most personal production yet. Perfect Show For Rachel is a co-winner of The Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, along with HighRise’s The UK Drill Project, and opens at The Barbican tonight. It is, O’Mahony explains, something of an experiment in genuinely inclusive theatre-making.
“My older sister Rachel is learning disabled and lives in a care home,” O’Mahony explains. “She loves theatre, too, and she especially loves seeing people she knows on stage and heckling them. Obviously, most shows aren’t made for her to engage with like that. Most shows can’t tolerate that kind of interjection. Perfect Show For Rachel started as an experiment to make one that could.”
Zoo Co. secured some funding from the New Diorama Theatre to develop the idea: O’Mahony, her sister Rachel, their mum, and Improbable Theatre’s Lee Simpson, a long-term supporter of the company, playing around with ideas, figuring out what a Perfect Show For Rachel might look like.
“It quickly became apparent that if we trusted Rachel, if she was in charge and we followed her instincts, really exciting things started to happen,” O’Mahony remembers. “We realised that she couldn’t just be involved. She had to lead the process. She had to be the director. We had to figure out a way of making open, generous offers so she could control what happened in the show.”
What does that mean, practically speaking? It means a large, diverse cast of creatives that know Rachel well, including O’Mahony’s mum. It means a carefully curated “menu” of around fifty theatrical options for Rachel to choose from. And it means five minutes of explanation from O’Mahony, then Rachel, sat at a custom-made directorial desk, controlling proceedings via a range of fifty labelled buttons.
“One triggers four people playing a card game with her,” she adds. “One triggers someone singing. One triggers some video content from Rachel’s life. There’s music, dancing, projections, and terrible special effects. Rachel might press every button once, or she might press the same one seventeen times in a row. Or she might do nothing at all, in which case we all just sit around and have a chat.”
“We realised that Rachel had to lead the process. She had to be the director…”
O’Mahony was born in 1992 and grew up in “leafy suburban Surrey.” Her high school had a “really great drama department” with a “really great drama teacher called Dave Morris,” who inspired O’Mahony to begin devising theatre while still at school. She subsequently spent a year training with Fourth Monkey, then returned to Surrey to start a theatre company with her schoolfriends.
Their first show The Hive - “a very sincere dystopian play that we threw everything at, from puppetry to poetry,” O’Mahony recalls – won the 2014 Les Enfants Terribles Award, which catapulted the company to the Edinburgh Fringe. Other successful shows, made with the support of other companies, followed: 2015’s Monotone Man, 2016’s Giant, and 2018’s Sirens.
Along the way, the company started finding its own identity - with Rachel’s help. “Rachel would always come and watch our shows, so we would make those performances relaxed,” O’Mahony explains. “We realised that those performances were more fun and more alive, so we just started making every performance relaxed. That was the catalyst for us thinking about inclusion more.”
It was, O’Mahony says, “a critical point” for the company. It changed its name, from The Human Zoo – a phrase with unfortunate, unintended connotations – to Zoo Co. It found a permanent base in Croydon and started establishing long-term relationships in the area. It became a charity, too. And, through the Covid-19 pandemic, it started evolving into a company that, in O’Mahony’s words “fights for access and radical inclusion” for “d/Deaf, disabled, and neurodiverse people.”
Hence Zoo Co.’s new associate artist scheme. Hence the company’s new young company for those aged 13 to 18. Hence the workshops and engagement programmes it runs with schools, youth groups, and other community programmes in Croydon. Hence Perfect Show For Rachel, hence Zoo Co.’s incorporation as a charity, and hence its successful application to become an NPO.
“I now imagine the company like a tree,” O’Mahony says. “We have deep, nourishing roots in Croydon. We have a trunk of core work, elevating and platforming different people’s voices in our processes and our shows. Then we have our branches, taking our nationally relevant work on tour. Then we have our propagation, which is us sharing our knowledge and our experience with others.”
What do you want to do?
I hope our trunk is stronger, our roots are deeper, our branches stretch further, and our propagation is spreading our practices around the industry.
What support do you need to get there?
Getting this stuff right and making it sustainable long-term takes a lot of resources. Like a lot of companies, we have previously done everything on not enough money, and we can’t go on like that. NPO funding will definitely help.
How can people find out more about you?
People can come see Perfect Show For Rachel. We will be publishing three micro-commissions from three disabled, Croydon-based artists who have been involved in the creative process over the coming weeks, too, so people can look out for them. And I am also chronically on Twitter, so people can find me there.
That’s it for now. Next week’s issue will feature five fringe theatre shows to see in December. After that, there is an interview The Revel Puck Circus’ artistic director Luke Hallgarten lined up, and after that, who knows? Feel free to suggest someone that deserves a spotlight!
One final reminder about the various ways you can support this newsletter: you can share it with anyone you think might be interested, you can become a paid subscriber using the button at the top, or you can get in touch with me about using it for promotional purposes.
That’s all. Thanks for reading. If you want to get in touch for any reason, just reply to this email or contact me via Twitter - I’m @FergusMorgan. See you in a week!