Old Vic 24 Hour Plays: building a legacy

As the latest group of budding practitioners recovers from last weekend’s 24 Hour Plays finale, we take a look at the legacy of this project which came to the Old Vic nine years ago as a fundraiser for Old Vic New Voices. When Steve Winter, who runs the project, took over they turned it into an emerging talent search, though it didn’t take long for OVNV to realise that it was also a great way to bring people together and to promote them, “And that’s been the power of the project,” says Winter, “that there’s now an understanding from lots of people in our industry that we’ve done all the hard work to find the best emerging practitioners we can. They see it as a mark of quality. Often, straight after the show, people get work”. I caught up with some 24 Hour Play alumni to see what they’re up to now, and  how being part of the project has shaped them.

“I always refer back to the 24 Hour Plays as being the project that made me realise anything was possible,” says Sophie Watson, one of last year’s producers, who reapplied in 2011 after not getting an interview in 2010 – proof that if you are unlucky the first time round it may be worth another shot. She is now Programme and Projects Manager at Watford Palace Theatre and Producer on but i cd only whisper at the Arcola Theatre. “If you can bring a team of people together and deliver to an audience in such a potentially highly pressured environment and time frame then what can’t we achieve as theatre-makers given enough time and the room to think creatively and collaborate?”

It is this emphasis on collaboration that sets the 24 Hour Plays apart from other projects, and makes it very different from your average showcase. Benjamin O’Mahony, who is currently performing in a world tour of Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew with Propeller, says, “Part of the success of OVNV, I think, is the emphasis it puts on encouraging people to collaborate and forge creative relationships beyond the work the Old Vic itself produces. It’s amazing how regularly I get invites to shows that have been born out of OVNV projects.”

But O’Mahony is not going to let misty-eyed hindsight make him forget the reality of the 24 Hour Plays at the time: “It wasn’t fun”, he says. “That’s not the right word for it. It was a brilliant mix of excitement, adrenaline, exhaustion and terror. Luckily I was relatively well behaved the night before and didn’t over exploit the free booze that OVNV had laid on, but I hardly slept when I got home, so when I turned up at Waterloo Bar and Grill at 7am I was already knackered. The day itself was manic. The need to make quick choices in rehearsal was a lesson I learnt speedily: page one of our script read ‘Tom enters, begins to set the table for dinner, and breaks into a complicated spontaneous dance routine’ to which I said, ‘sweet I’ll just go on and freestyle something. What’s next?’”

It’s definitely worth remembering that involvement in the 24 Hour Plays has the potential to be an enormously stressful experience. Perhaps most of all for the writers, although Winter suggests the process maybe benefits them the most, too. “In my view, the inclination of lots of writers is to procrastinate and to labour over something because they are never entirely happy, and often what it [their work] needs is a reading – it needs to be out there and heard before the final changes can be made.” This certainly tallies with the experience of writer Eleanor Lawrence, who is currently filming Sunshine, a sitcom pilot about South London gangsters she co-wrote with Tom Davis: “I learned a lot doing it [the 24 Hour Plays], like how to resist having preconceived ideas beforehand and how to stop being precious about my work. The process of writing a play in six hours left no time for self-indulgence or doubt, just creative instinct.  That experience has definitely helped shape the way I work now. Before the 24 Hour Plays, I generally couldn’t begin putting words on the page until the idea was perfectly formed, with the characters properly defined in my mind. I would procrastinate about what type of hobbies my misanthropic Nigerian nurse would have, before I could write her response to another character’s dialogue. Since the 24 Hour Plays I just get the ideas on the page and edit them later.”

The 24 Hour Plays isn’t just for one night only though. What goes on over this intense annual weekend has an effect on the theatre scene all year round, and with the growth of reputation come some changes. Winter comments that: “The range of people that come and see it now is probably the biggest change. When we first started off we saw it very much as a theatre project but  if you look down the industry list now there are casting directors, TV commissioners, programmers, filmmakers – they are just interested to see the group of people who have been put through their paces alongside nearly 3000 other applicants to get through to this stage.”

But he is keen to make clear that more than being a showcase, what the 24 Hour Plays project seeks to do is create lasting relationships at the start of careers. “Directors always comment on what an amazing opportunity it is to see 20 to 30 actors that they can cast in future, that they have direct contact with. For producers it’s an amazing opportunity to make those peer contacts. In the end it’s about people who can work at speed and who are interested in collaboration, and that’s what it gives them.” Edward Stambollouian, who is currently Assistant Director on The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC, agrees: “I’m not sure the 24 Hour Plays is the place to explore artistic practice. It’s fast, furious and unrelenting. It’s all about the show, and the director’s job is making sure that come 7.30 something happens! But I did learn a lot about the value of instinct, precision, clarity and time-keeping. Sometimes our first ideas are our best (although often they’re not.)”

What shines through as Winter and the alumni talk to me is what a supportive network OVNV’s 24 Hour Plays really is. It is a community with a wide reach, bringing industry representatives and creative practitioners from different fields together to form professional relationships that will develop over years to come. I ask Winter what he would like the legacy of the project to be: “a place you make amazing networking opportunities that will propel you forward, both in terms of who you meet in the wider industry but more importantly your peer group.” Indeed, as director Stambollouian says, “In this competitive and often quite isolating profession it’s comforting to be part of a huge network of actors, writers, producers and fellow directors. The OVNV family as it were.”

Find out more about Old Vic New Voices and the 24 Hour Plays at http://www.ideastap.com/Partners/ovnv.

Image Credit: Old Vic New Voices

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