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Spotlight on: Playwright Joel Horwood

Posted on 25 June 2013 by Amelia Forsbrook

Think that short has to be sweet? Think again. In Short and Stark, a flavoursome assortment of nimble plays opening at Southwark Playhouse at the beginning of July, playwright Joel Horwood is teaming up with Urgent Theatre to prove that theatrical clout can’t be measured with a stopwatch. Here, with talk focused on anti-feminist blackmail, pseudonyms and our use of the word “emerging”, he tells Amelia Forsbrook about a few more assumptions we should be ready to challenge.

Short-and-Stark

Why do you think it’s important to draw attention to short plays?
In the current climate, producing shorts tends to be more like having a stab at something; no one is really paid, no one can give them much time and audiences tend to be made up of friends of those involved. Urgent Theatre is doing something that no one else I know of is doing; it is giving short plays the credit of a rehearsal process, a run and (limited) production values. Urgent Theatre is producing ‘shorts’ with as much weight, integrity and detail as one would a full-length play because they are, at their best, complete plays. Only shorter.

In your plays you tackle some rather hard-hitting themes. Do you ever worry about being too rude – or, indeed, too polite?
No.

How important are readings in your creative process?
I rely really heavily on hearing my plays aloud. I tend to try to read it with a group of friends as early as possible. This is absolutely excruciating of course because you hear everything that’s wrong with what you’ve written. But that’s also the point. I also don’t stop writing. I collaborate closely with the director and designer in the run up to a project. If we are doing a reading of something I tend to invite my colleagues. When rehearsals start is when I can rewrite with actors, refining characters, words and choices with their worm’s-eye view of their own journeys. Then the audiences arrive (or don’t) and the play begins to really reveal itself – jokes either work or fall flat, moments you thought would have people weeping and calling their fathers die on their arse, pretty quickly you learn what to change again. When I have directed my own writing I have never stopped rewriting. It strikes me that plays are living things, the script is just a blueprint for what happens on stage, so naturally they live, breathe, change and die.

Your work appears on the festival circuit. How conscious are you of the context of performance when writing?Very. Some of the plays at Short and Stark were commissions to write plays for music festivals. I was so excited when that was part of the brief; your writing has to hold your audience in a place where they can hear things that are much more fun just outside, so to have the opportunity to compete for their time and attention felt like a brilliant test. When I’ve written pantos for the Lyric Hammersmith I’ve loved the detail, expectation and precision that comes with those titles. Tonic theatre company gave me the toughest brief I think I’ve ever been given: to write a one-hour educational play for children about climate change, but avoid metaphorical narrative. After two years of research, workshops and interviews with scientists The Planet And Stuff is the closest I could get to a TED talk for ages eight and above, and it’ll be on at The Polka Theatre in October. So, all plugging and self-marketing aside, I really enjoy being given a brief that includes an element of performance context, I think it frees me up in the same way that sonnets can be easier to write than free verse.

Is it ever wise to shy away from a theme that makes you uncomfortable?
No. I think that when you get a sense of discomfort you’re probably onto something good. I’m currently adapting The Little Mermaid for Bristol Old Vic. The adaptation is of Hans Christian Anderson’s original (which contains mutilation and suicide) and it will be aimed at a family audience. When I originally read the fairytale I felt a little uncomfortable about the religious and (potentially) anti-feminist blackmail that the story includes. I’m still not sure if we’re finding our way around those uncomfortable themes – and I say we because I’m including Simon Godwin (director) and Jon Bausor (designer) in this conversation – but it’s those challenges that appeal so much about the adaptation. We don’t want to Disney our way out of Hans Christian Anderson’s emotionally complex coming-of-age story, so we’ll have to find a way to reconcile the themes with the performance context.

How conscious should an emerging writer be about defining him/herself as a playwright, or in stating their genre or political stance?
I think playwriting requires opinions and objectives, so whether a playwright should be conscious of those things is, I think, irrelevant. I also think that a playwright who is starting out in their career needs to work mentally to avoid the term ‘emerging’. I think the term probably began as a means of justifying the relative anonymity of someone a reader may never have heard of before, but it has come to reference a kind of hierarchy and destructive competitive nature that undermines artistic endeavour. You’re not emerging when you write a play, you’re writing and I think that makes you a playwright. Even if you’re not a great one yet.

Playwriting takes courage. Have you ever been tempted by a pseudonym?
I’ve written anonymously before and hope to do so again. I think that here in England we have always elevated the playwright above all other theatre collaborators and I think that’s problematic. Pseudonyms and anonymity tend to resist our obsession with crediting one collaborator over all others, and with tracking (and perhaps limiting) a playwright’s ‘voice’ with expectation and ideas of ‘development’. Although I agree that playwriting takes courage, I feel that making theatre at any level requires bravery, viewing theatre should involve risk-taking; hopefully we are all engaging in some kind of a leap by engaging in an age-old communal tradition.

We’ve all heard about playwrights who have struggled to cut their play’s umbilical cord. Which of your characters has developed the most after you’ve submitted a play to a director?
I don’t really think I’ve ever ‘submitted’ a play to a director. Characters have developed most in the relationship between the actors playing them and the audiences watching them. Sean Campion revolutionised my writing when we worked together to make Food. Milo Twomey and Jay Taylor did the same when we made I [heart] Peterborough. Joseph Arkley brought something to Dim that was wonderfully playful and alive; at Short and Stark we’ll be able to see another actor doing something utterly different in the same role. I really don’t know what to expect at Short and Stark beyond what the actors are going to say and I can’t wait to be exhilarated by the opportunity to see those characters breathe again.

Short and Stark is on the Southwark Playhouse from 1-13 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Playhouse’s website. 

To be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to Short and Stark, click here for our competition.

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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Theatre Uncut goes global

Posted on 19 November 2012 by Nadia Newstead

Now in its second year, Theatre Uncut has gone truly global. An initiative established in 2010 to respond to the cuts being imposed on the UK by the coalition government, in 2011 it took responsible, proactive theatre-making to exciting new heights. This year, the preview shows that were supposed to simply raise awareness secured them three awards at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in the recent “week of international action”, there were over 180 performances of the 2012 Theatre Uncut plays in the UK and across the globe, in countries including Romania, Chile and South Africa.

For co-artistic director Emma Callander, discussing politics through the medium of theatre was a natural progression. Theatre Uncut itself began as a conversation between co-artistic director Hannah Price and playwright Mark Ravenhill in October 2010. Price contacted her favourite playwrights to ask if they would assist her in the project designed as a week of action to explore current politics. Each playwright wrote a ten minute play which could be downloaded online and performed rights free by anyone who wanted to during one week. The format followed suit this year, with performances taking place across the globe from 13 to 18November.

Theatre has “forever been a medium of debate and discussion because of its live nature,” observes Callandar. “It’s the most immediate form of being able to explore big issues through having the distance of a narrative, character or metaphor. You can really access these issues in a much deeper way.” Back in March 2011, there were 87 performances of plays written by the likes of Jack Thorne, Clara Brennan, David Grieg and Dennis Kelly. The first year had a national focus as it was in response to the UK cuts and so were mainly performed in the UK “in community centres, schools, theatres and universities, by professional actors and Arab groups all across the board and then some of the performances happened in Chicago, in Berlin and in Dublin, so it became clear that it wasn’t just the UK that was interested in speaking about these issues.”

In response – which is of course precisely what it does best – Theatre Uncut 2012 has gone global. Contacting playwrights in countries experiencing the greatest political upheaval was an active attempt to discover what the situation is from the population’s point of view, not from that of the national or international press. “We wondered whether there was a reason for us to do Theatre Uncut again or whether it was just something of its time, but sadly we realised that it was important for this project to happen because there were a lot of people who needed to discuss and to hopefully take action on some of the injustices going on around them.” Ten-minute plays from Egypt, Greece, Spain, Iceland, Syria, the UK and USA all follow a brief to “respond to the political situation in your own country with the future in mind”.

Callander explains, “We admitted that we were just very confused and that all of the news that we read, really was quite overwhelming… we wanted to know what the political situation was in their own words and then we’ve shared that all over the world.” Theatre Uncut has become a distinctly revolutionary and creative way for people to become part of larger conversations happening not just in our country but around the world, whether they seek to support resistance, take a stand for what they believe in or simply find out more about what’s going on and form their own opinion on it.

Each play has an element of the local and the universal, perfectly encapsulated in Clara Brennan’s play Spine. Written about the closure of British libraries, something particular to the arts in our own country, Callander comments: “we’ve recently had an email from a South African girl, who’s performing in Swaziland and that’s the play that’s touched her the most and she’s been telling us about how it is really helping her to express an issue that she has about libraries in the black communities of South Africa and the complications that still remain in education that are left over from apartheid”. This must be a hugely exciting moment for everyone behind the scenes at Theatre Uncut, when something that seemed so British actually has such huge resonances. “It’s like a big international exchange of ideas through theatre,” agrees Callander.

“Every play is as important and vital as the next. The audience will be in for an amazing treat because of the scale and breadth of what these plays approach and tackle. My dream would be to have all the writers in the same room so they could discuss their ideas.” The intention is that audiences will see a snapshot of the political situation in each country and have a chance to respond directly afterwards with special guests leading the discussions such as comedian Mark Thomas and journalist Owen Jones. “I’m a huge believer that theatre is a really powerful tool for positive social change. In times like these [when faced with opposition] theatre finds its power again.”

Amidst the recent politicisation of our generation – from student protests to creative enterprises like these – we are clearly ready to stand up and make ourselves heard. Callander admits that the August 2011 riots had an over-arching negative effect, but that “cannot cloud the fact that [our politicisation] was one of the most important things that has happened in this country in terms of politics and young people’s engagement with politics since the conservatives were last in power in the late 1980s.” The reason why Theatre Uncut is taking a second bite of the cherry this year is because the energy required for protest can only be sustained for so long. “It falls to people like us in theatre to sustain that level of activism… we keep bringing these issues back to the fore so people carry on thinking and talking about them.”

That’s not to say that Theatre Uncut is just for young people. Anyone can engage or be involved but the important thing for Theatre Uncut is to make sure that after the buzz about protests or riots has died down in the media and the next latest scandal or disaster takes its place in our minds, we don’t forget that our daily lives are still being affected by decisions being made by the people in power and the cuts are going to keep on coming. In our age of austerity with the arts experiencing the brutal lash of funding cuts, Theatre Uncut is turning the tables to question those who have the power to question us. With two successful years under its belt, Theatre Uncut is certainly keeping up its side of the conversation so it falls to us to keep up ours. After all, if we don’t talk, think and play, how can we expect anything to change?

Find out more about Theatre Uncut at www.theatreuncut.com.

Image credit: Zawe Ashton in Theatre Uncut 2011 at Southwark Playhouse. Image by Theatre Uncut.

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Tennessee Williams’ Hotel Plays: three different times and places

Posted on 18 October 2012 by James Fennemore

“James, I’ve got this beautiful Tennessee Williams play, you just must read it! It’s called Green Eyes, it was done in New York earlier this year and it was an absolute success – you just must read it!”  This is James Hillier, director of Green Eyes, the first of the three Tennessee Williams Hotel Plays currently on at the Grange Holborn Hotel, remembering what Tennessee Williams’ UK executor, Tom Erhardt, said when he first approached Hillier about putting on the plays.

“I read it – I loved it – I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to do that’. So I then read a number of other plays in the compendium, and I found that several were set in hotels, so it struck me: what if we did more than one play?” And so Hillier came to the idea of staging three of these plays set in different hotel rooms – Green Eyes, The Traveling Companion, and Sunburst – on three different floors of a London hotel. The inspiration was practical as well as artistic: “I thought it might be quite tricky just to put on one play; I don’t know how you’re going to get an audience along to see a 25 minute play. These plays are perfect for a small audience.” The plays run simultaneously – as soon as Green Eyes finishes, its audience moves upstairs to watch The Traveling Companion, and a second audience comes in below to watch Green Eyes, in what turns into a conveyer belt of Williams’ drama.

Hillier is exceedingly complementary about the Grange Hotel, where Defibrilator Theatre’s production is being put on. “Straight away they wanted to do it; they do a lot of work with theatre companies, they have an awesome attitude towards the arts, and they are very bold and brave to allow a production like this in their hotel.”

Williams himself spent much of his later life living in hotels, and these three plays, written between 1970 and 1981, draw upon the atmosphere and his experiences during that time. “They’re three very different plays,” explains Hillier. “The first one, Green Eyes, is more familiar territory for most Tennessee Williams fans. It’s slightly inflected with the Streetcar relationship of Stanley and Stella. There’s a man who’s returned from Vietnam; he’s a soldier and he’s met a girl and they’ve had a whirlwind romance and they’ve got married and ended up in New Orleans for their honeymoon and we first find them in the bed. She’s asleep and he’s awake, staring at the ceiling. She’s got lots of scratches and abrasions on her body, and bruises, and he wants to know why.”

Hillier sees the content of the play – with themes including adultery and rape in the honeymoon bed – as symptomatic of Williams’ manoeuvring to find dramatic space in which his particular style could remain effective. “The ‘coming out’ of society in the 1960s, with the youth movement and rock and roll, put the kibosh on Tennessee Williams’ dramatic style, because his style is very much based around the idea that there’s something under the surface, bubbling away. Suddenly it became difficult for him to write these sort of plays, because there’s nothing under the surface, because you can say, ‘I f**ked someone else’ or ‘I’m a homosexual’, all these things that you’d have had to keep a lid on now became acceptable. But in this play he does maintain that sort of tension, because it’s still taboo.”

The second play, The Traveling Companion, is about an older man who arrives at a hotel with his younger travelling companion. The younger man doesn’t want to share a bed with him; “the play becomes a straight negotiation”. Hillier identifies the older man as a persona of Williams himself. “He’s this incredibly eccentric, vain, heartbroken, but still sharp and poetic man.” Written in 1981, Traveling Companion is one of Tennessee Williams’ last plays before his death two years later.

Finally, the audience moves onto the third floor and sees Sunburst. “It’s about a retired actress who’s living in a hotel. Now I was talking to the hotel owner at the Grange, and he said that when he first started out in the hostelry business, there were quite a lot of people that still lived in hotels. And they would have room service, which was effectively a butler service – they would have everything done for them. If you look back to the heritage of the Golden Age of acting and the legends of the ’60s, people like Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris – they lived in hotels, so it’s a familiar idea that this retired actress lives in a hotel.” The actress is unwell, and gets a knock at the door from a worker at the hotel, who pretends to be a doctor in order to try to take a famous diamond, the eponymous Sunburst, from her finger. The play escalates and becomes a struggle between the man and his friend over how they can get the diamond from the actress. “They’re goons in the Woody Allenesque style. They’re hapless, they’ve stumbled into this situation where potentially they could commit a really atrocious crime.”

I was surprised that these plays hadn’t been put on in the UK before, given Williams’ popularity and eminence. Hillier explains: “They weren’t accessible to people. He wrote so many plays towards the end of his life that plays are being uncovered all the time in old manuscripts. The work of Williams is very much in the hands of university lecturers and libraries; there’s a process of unearthing going on. There are lots of versions and drafts, putting them together, releasing them as collections. In this collection there are several plays – none of them have been done – a lot of them are very obscure, some very dark, some quite masochistic, some broad in their humour, and a bit difficult to place.”

Connected by one consistent character, the porter of the hotel, The Hotel Plays allows its audience to explore three different times and places – three different hotel worlds – in the same evening. But more than that, it’s an unprecedented opportunity to engage, from an immersive, interactive perspective, with plays on the furthest frontiers of Tennessee Williams’ undiscovered later work.

The Hotel Plays are at the Grange Holborn Hotel until 27 October. Visit www.thehotelplays.com for more information and to book tickets.

Image credit: Simon Annand

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Love Bites

Posted on 02 December 2011 by Chelsey Burdon

This week sees Waterloo East Theatre go amorous with Love Bites, a yearly event that invites writers to contribute a monologue or two-hander based on the theme of ‘Love and Relationships’. A well-known topic, perhaps, but playwrights are encouraged to think outside the box and deliver stories that are heart-warming, fresh and entertaining.

First-time playwright Edward Franklin snapped up the opportunity to take part in the project. “For me it was the idea that it was something I could do concisely but that it would also force me to push my creativity into that space, into just 10 minutes.” Since beginning in November 2008, Love Bites’ theme has always been ‘Love and Relationships’ but each year the pre-defined setting changes. With an open script submission policy, the strongest entries are chosen and come together to form a cohesive piece of work exploring a set theme within a set location. Characters this year are all guests at the same cocktail party and the plays unfold chronologically. Previous Love Bites events have seen characters explore lust, loyalties and loss at a Christmas office party, a summer wedding and a restaurant, and to date the project has showcased more than 20 examples of new writing. So what is the appeal of this project compared to other open submission showcases?

“There was something nice about being given a brief,” recalls Franklin. “Although – obviously - briefs are there to be stuck to because they want there to be a consistent theme, they’re also there in a way to be subverted so that you can take what may be superficial or obvious about the brief and think about tackling it from a more interesting direction. Which as a new writer was something that was quite interesting to me.” After spotting a Twitter call out from Love Bites (@lovebitesplays), established writer Franklin turned his hand to playwriting. Perhaps that is one of the many beauties of Love Bites: it is open to all. You don’t have to be a practising playwright or even somebody who has studied the craft - you just need to have a good story to tell and a desire to see your creations come to fruition on stage. The process is supportive, with chosen writers given feedback and guidance from original submission to final draft, making the project all the more inclusive to budding and established writers. As Franklin adds, “Anyone who has an idea and decides that they want to sit down and work at something can potentially bash out nine or ten pages of a script.”

Franklin’s contribution to Love Bites is entitled Everybody Happy. “The theme was ‘Love and Relationships’ and I suppose that although love might be the word that stands out there, what I really wanted to explore was the idea of relationships and the balance of relationships.” ‘Love and Relationships’ is a very broad term. They are things we all experience in some form or another, not to mention them being pervading themes in film, TV and literature. The challenge for each of the five writers involved in Love Bites is to present characters worthy of our intrigue and emotional investment whilst bypassing the clichés and gushiness that we have come to expect from a typical love story to remind us that love can exist in the mundane, the familiar and the unexpected. Franklin explains: “Everybody Happy has two men, Greg and Mark, as its characters. It explores the relationship between them, and although their romantic relationships are referenced throughout the piece, it is the balance and the interplay between the two of them as friends - and as men – that interested me.”

The appeal of Love Bites goes beyond aspiring and established writers. Casting Director Sophie Davies reveals that more than 400 actors expressed an interest in the challenge. “I think that shows how much of an appetite there is for performing new writing. We’ve been very lucky with such a high standard of applicants.” New writing is often considered an exciting field to work in for actors – as well as writers and directors – and it is important to explore new drama in a safe creative environment. Open calls were posted across the internet for Love Bites and Davies relished the opportunity to match top quality talent with such an interesting mix of characters. “The actors that we’ve got this year are outstanding, and we’ve got a broad range; we’ve got established actors, actors who have toured with the NT, and we’ve also got some who are just starting out in their careers. And I think that its a real springboard for them; its a lovely community and a real ensemble.”

To young actors interested in tackling new writing, Davies advises an understanding of where new plays sit in the larger theatrical landscape. Having also worked with Paines Plough on open call auditions, she knows that a genuine thirst for and knowledge of new writing contributes to an actor’s potential. “Go to companies and do your research; know what they have done in the past; know about the successes they have had, the writers they like to work with; and immerse yourself in new writing so you’re in a better position to take that script.” Whilst companies such as Paines Plough and new writing theatres such as the Royal Court Theatre and the Bush Theatre can demand a proven practical familiarity with new writing when casting, Love Bites is a more fluid process. For Davies, “the draw of Love Bites is the fact that it is an opportunity for actors to get their teeth into new writing. They get the opportunity to work with great new writing and the writers have their work showcased to the best it can be. So its really mutually beneficial.”

The benefits are clearly being felt by audiences too, as Love Bites has grown out of its previous home. Davies herself first experienced Love Bites as an audience member. “I went last year to the Calder Bookshop Theatre and it was a fantastic night. It was such a high standard. I couldn’t believe how much talent was in the room. The producer really had everything down to the last detail - the set, the look of the show, the feel of it – it was very classy. It had lots of nice touches.” Having outgrown the cosy but quaint Calder Bookshop Theatre, Love Bites now plays to larger audiences at the 110 seat Waterloo East Theatre and last year visited Southwark Playhouse. Love Bites Producer and Founder Ziella Bryars has overseen these changes: “We want the audience to have a great night. We want to produce an engaging set of plays, and I think more and more Love Bites will build on that ethos. Moving to the Waterloo East Theatre, which is a bigger and commerical space, we can’t act as if we’re a small company which is just trying things out.”

However, that doesn’t mean sacrificing Love Bites’ ethos or individuality. Bryars continues: “For me, the focus of Love Bites has always been on content and entertainment. It can sound a little wholesome when you say you produce new writing, as if the audience is going to have to suffer in some way. Love Bites’ use of new writing and young talent keeps the show fresh and gives it energy but the intent has always been to create a professional, entertaining show. When people come and see the show we want them to have a great evening. And from a new writing perspective that feels like the best way to get exposure for new plays and encourage people back into the theatre; by making sure the whole process is enjoyable.”

Love Bites has gained much momentum and critical acclaim since its inception in 2008, offering a refreshing and entertaining evening for the typical fringe theatre-goer whilst presenting an inspirational challenge to those aspiring to write for the stage. As Bryars and team make the move into commercial venues, it seems that its nourishment of new writing, young talent and engaged audiences will be one relationship that shall continue to flourish.

Love Bites plays at the Waterloo East Theatre until Saturday 3 December. Tickets and more information on 020 7928 0060 or via the website. Read our review of the evening here.

Image credit: Love Bites

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