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Flourishing on the fringe: new writing in London

Posted on 21 May 2012 by Chelsey Burdon

Despite the economic gloom and cries of austerity, London theatre is thriving. But beneath the glitz and glamour of the West End lies the heart of artistic experimentation and revelry. In studio spaces and pub theatres across the capital theatre-makers of tomorrow are sowing the seeds of their careers. A Younger Theatre met with Ziella Bryars, founder of LoveBites (a series of new writing events with the theme of love and relationships) and emerging playwright, to talk about breaking into writing and working on the London fringe.

What do you consider to be the greatest hurdles facing new writers in the theatre industry right now?

A lot of the time, with the opportunities you see advertised, there’s a lot of importance on names helping you; if you’ve been involved in one project or initiative and it’s with a decent ‘brand name’ then you get the next one. If you’re going into something just based on your script it can be really tough. If you did something at Latitude for example you’re just up that little bit higher on the pile. It is a hurdle to feel like if you don’t have the right credits you don’t get your foot in the door or you don’t have the attention given to your piece in the same way. But I think that if you write something that really works you have a good chance.

Also, it’s important to hit the right theme at the right time. If you’re trying to break in you have to have that hook that means that you’re different, and that your piece is political and timely, and that’s harder if you’re starting out. You might want to do a story that’s personal to you and that you find interesting. and it might be a great play – but if it’s not about something that is ‘sell-able’ right now, unfortunately I don’t think you’ll get noticed.  You could be a worse writer and write a play about, for example, the London riots and you’d get way above somebody who had written a great family drama.

What about the representation of women on the London stage?

I think they maybe have a better chance in fringe than in the West End; there are a lot of women who produce and put things on themselves, and that’s much more popular on fringe. A lot of the comedies that I hear about are often run by girls who are creating their own work, and their own writing.

I don’t know how well they are represented in the content of plays. That’s a different problem because a lot of the time when you hear something is a ‘female play’, it’s a bit worthy; everything is overly seeped in female stories and themes, and I don’t think you get that with men. Plays that have more men in wouldn’t necessarily be about stereotypical males – they wouldn’t stand around and talk about football for the whole play. So yes, I would say it’s definitely a good area for women to try and work in, and produce and write in but it’s hard to have a story or a play be focused on women without that being the marketing edge.

A lot of theatres seem to be embracing new writing now and we have seen a renewed interest in contemporary British playwrights. How do you think this is shaping the industry?

I suppose I’m a little bit cynical with some of the bigger theatres because I think it’s a really good PR exercise to have that on your website - to have photos of happy young people going to the theatre and taking part in something.  The new writing theatres like the Bush, the Royal Court and the Finborough, they’re doing it because it’s good PR but also because they really care and they want to find good writers. Whereas a lot of the big theatres, it’s not their focus it just becomes an additional element to their work.

I think that what will come out of it is probably the most interesting writers will come out of the smaller venues. And although it must be really exciting if you’re a writer and you have a big theatre take you on with one of these programmes, I would say it’s important to focus on the smaller theatres because they will nurture your writing more. Lovebites is doing a showcase at the Southwark Playhouse of the best pieces we’ve done over the years and I think that’s a wonderful way of a bigger venue helping fringe. It’s a lovely way of stepping up – if you’re working in fringe and you get these little moments of being in a bigger space it’s invaluable.

So what do you believe to be the fundamental differences between writing specifically for the fringe, and for example something that you might submit to the Royal Court?

There’s the basic element of size; if you’re in a smaller venue you’re going to write differently because you know that it’s going to be more intimate. Also the expectation of the audience is different – that can really work in your favour in fringe. There is so much stuff that’s bad, often when people turn up they’re not expecting something really great. So if you work hard and write something that really matters then you can make a massive impact, which I think is really exciting. Writing for a big theatre - I can’t imagine it evolves in the same way as it does in fringe.

Doing fringe you get to edit so much; often the actors writer and directors are working so closely together because it’s a friendly set up. No-one’s getting paid a lot of money – you might even be rehearsing in your living room! If you’re working in fringe you have to really enjoy it. You have to do it for the love, at least that way if you’re going to spend a long time struggling you are also having a really good time. I think that must be the way most people work in fringe – they really love writing and they love putting on theatre.

Bryars is currently producing a showcase of new writing, LoveBites at Southwark Playhouse on Sunday 27 May at 8pm. Tickets are £12 and are available on the theatre’s website.

Image credit: LoveBites

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