“Everyone has their own ideas about the world, but it takes a lot of energy to put these into a play.”
Nestled in the heart of sleepy Shropshire, Pentabus Rural Theatre Company is very much awake. In its fortieth year, the company is presenting its first ever Young Writers Festival in July, showcasing eight new plays written by eight promising local young writers.
Artistic Director of Pentabus, Elizabeth Freestone, recognises that “young rural people are at a point where they know that they are not represented in the wider culture – the urban dominates everything. What they see in the mass media is rural given back to them in a kind of ‘Escape to the country’ style and they’ve got a lot to say.” So instead of celebrating the company’s fortieth birthday with “the retrospective, the greatest hits”, Freestone and writer in residence Simon Longman felt that they should “do something original and give this celebration to the younger voices of the area”.
On launching the idea in 2013, Freestone and the team “did workshops in schools and colleges and met around 120 young people, and then found eight that were going to be our core group”. They “started meeting regularly in September, and initially we were not sure what would be done at the end of it… there was going to be a kind of cumulating moment”, but ideas of what this would be ranged from a series of readings to each writer producing a monologue. As the months went on, however, “it became clear that each writer was going to produce a complete play… it was quite an ambitious undertaking”. Longman adds that “for some of the writers, this is the first thing that they’ve ever written… [however] if the young people were prepared to take that risk then we wanted to match that commitment”.
The group has been meeting regularly and “have done workshops with writers, directors and actors, playwrights like Phil Porter”. They have been given support and guidance all the way through a process which Freestone earnestly describes as “brave bold bedlam”. “We made a commitment to them”, Longman tells me, and “we said ‘whatever you write we’ll produce’.” Now, each young writer has handed over their finalised script and the plays are in rehearsal.
On enquiring whether they had had input in the direction of their plays I was told by young writers Rory Boar and Michael Wild that they’d “been asked a few questions over email” but that they’d not yet watched a rehearsal. Instead of being protective over the characters Boar says that it’s “really fun to wait and see what will happen to them now”.
This will be left to the directors and ensemble of 10 actors, who have been cast as roles in all eight plays. William Postlethwaite, one of these actors and one of the three who are “Shropshire born and bred”, explained to me that it’s very interesting for him to be working away from London and closer to home, with Longman explaining that “they’re walking through fields with sheep to get to rehearsals”. Postlethwaite, and actress Kama Roberts, tell me that these rehearsals have only been going on for three days, and although both describe the experience as “rushed”, they say this with smiles on their faces and confirm that “overall we’re all really excited to be doing it”. Roberts adds that “audiences will be quite excited by what might happen for these young writers in the future”.
The young writers’ enthusiasm about what Pentabus is doing and the prospect of further writing in the future is evident when talking to them. Wild says that “the project has opened a lot of doors” for him – “it’s helped me to develop ideas that would have otherwise stagnated”. Boar tells me that it’s “been made to suit the individual. In some groups you feel quite batch-processed.” Both would highly recommend Pentabus’s young writers group to anyone who is interested. “For me personally it’s been great for building confidence”, Boar tells me,.“I’d never shared my writing with anyone before and just getting past the point where I could hear it read out loud has been quite a big thing”.
“It’s given them the opportunity to be taken seriously at quite a young age, and has given them quite a safe place to take risks and figure out what works”, Freestone tells me. Longman shares that the plays will be performed “like a professional production with full costume and set”, and although Freestone thinks that there will be “quite a rough aesthetic” lent by the festival being held in a pop-up theatre, I’m under the impression that this will only add to its charm.
For this festival, the location has been one of the biggest challenges in terms of logistics. “We saw loads of different places, from upstairs of shops to basements and derelict buildings”. Eventually they decided on the Charlton Arms, a river-side pub in Ludlow. “Mostly, the people there get what we’re trying to do.” Ticket prices for the festival start at £7, and from what I saw during my visit this strikes me as a bargain to see some really interesting new material.
The Pentabus Young Writers festival runs from 1-5 July. To purchase tickets, or if you’re a young writer interested in joining the group for its next term, visit the Pentabus website.