Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Theatre West: The A - Z of Writing

Ann Stiddard of Theatre West explains the company's approach to the latest season, supporting ambition, imagination and artistic talent in the South West.

Last December found Alison Comley and me, as co-Artistic Directors of Theatre West, luxuriating in the warm afterglow of a successful season.

Our Picture This project – where we randomly allocated photographs to writers to use as the impetus for new plays – had delivered not only five cracking productions and three script-in-hand readings, but also a really inspiring weekend where script extracts were read from plays by 40 writers from around the region.

There was only one problem – what now? As we are not a National Portfolio Organisation with regular funding, every one of our applications for Grants for the Arts has to have a new and different focus. We wanted a project that would build on the most successful elements of Picture This.

The ‘story’ of the whole project really caught people’s imaginations: from us buying the photos in Berlin to the writers pulling an image from a hat. Both writers and audience found this engaging, and its cohesion worked really well from a marketing perspective. The public readings of the short extracts also worked in not only giving the writers the opportunity to hear what was working, but also in engaging the public in the project at an early stage. Finally the social aspect - writing can be a solitary business, and our participants welcomed the opportunity to meet with other writers and to be involved in a common activity.

In addition we wanted a project that would span two years, to enable us to forward plan with funding in place. As a very small company (with precisely zero employees) the luxury of knowing that we have funding in place for two seasons cannot be underestimated. Not only does it free up time that would otherwise be spent planning budgets and filling out funding applications, but it also enables us to undertake a project in which we can work with writers who will benefit from a longer development time than we usually offer.

After a few false starts (and some genuinely awful ideas) we settled on The A-Z of Writing: a project that would use specific locations randomly allocated from the Bristol A-Z to give writers a starting point. There would be two groups: Group One working on scripts for 2012, and Group Two concentrating on plays for 2013.

In order to spread our net wide, we asked six organisations around the region to nominate writers who they thought would most benefit from this opportunity. This meant we would be working with a smaller pool of writers, but with the opportunity to develop some longer term relationships with them, improving the quality of our work.

We have worked on past projects with Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory Script Space and BBC and we were delighted to include this year Cheltenham Everyman’s Writers' Lab, the Writers’ Forum in Bristol and The Bike Shed in Exeter. In addition to those nominations, Theatre West included a number of writers who had narrowly missed being included in the last two Theatre West seasons. In total we approached 40 local writers and 29 of them took up the challenge.

A dismal May Bank Holiday Monday found most of those 29 at the Hen and Chicken in Southville, pulling ping-pong balls from three buckets to select a random square on a random page of the Bristol A-Z. They then set forth in pairs to visit their locations and make some short films to record their experience: all available to be viewed on You Tube. Our intrepid writers trudged the rain-sodden streets from Avonmouth to Withywood and from Inn’s Court to Blaize Castle, returning in various states of sogginess to a well-earned pizza.

Hungry Writers Lap Up Ideas and Pizza
At this point the writers went off to... well, write. Group One had six weeks to complete a 1500 word extract and a treatment for the play they’d like to write – and there was no leeway. On Sat 23rd June, 47 days after first visiting their locations, we were at The Brewery with a panel, a bunch of actors and an audience listening to a truly diverse group of scripts. The audience, actors and writers got to cast a vote for their favourite and a panel composed of me, Alison and representatives from some of our partner organisations had some long, hard discussions after each reading.

It was no easy feat but we eventually arrived at a shortlist of eight and these writers are now working with a range of support on their first drafts:

Timothy X Atack - Steady State
Steve Hennessey - Sleep Lane
David Lane - Rush
Joe Ledbury - Cake
Shaun McCarthy - Palm Island
Katherine Mitchell - Items of Value
Shiona Morton - AWOL
Alice Nicholas - Them & Us

After more readings in late August we will eventually choose five of these to produce and the other three will be performed as script in hand readings. The writers whose plays didn’t get through to the final eight have been offered the opportunity to submit short plays, which will be produced as curtain raisers during this year’s season.

The second group is also hard at it, each writer preparing (with some dramaturgical support) a curtain raiser to be performed during the season. Next year this group will go on to participate in a similar process as Group One – meaning another season’s work will have had its genesis with some people pulling ping-pong balls from buckets on a very rainy afternoon in Southville.

We hope that Theatre West fulfils a unique role in the region by marrying focus on the development of new writing with the opportunity to actually get work produced and put in front of a live audience with all the thrills and spills that brings. As we develop as a company, we want to continually raise the level of the work so that we contribute towards the bigger picture for new writing and really put the talent in the South West on the map.

1 comment:

  1. As one of the Group Two writers who was sent to a random location in the pouring rain I can confirm that this is a truly inspiring project to be involved with. Thanks Ann & Ali