This morning, the Royal Court Theatre announced Open Court, its summer festival (10 June – 20 July) of plays, ideas and events chosen and suggested by a group of over 140 writers.
As well as being the first project of its kind for the Royal Court, it is also the first programme to be led by the theatre’s newly-appointed Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone, who took over from Dominic Cooke earlier this month and whose first full season of plays starts in September 2013. Featherstone began this morning’s press briefing with a few words about her artistic vision, not just – as she was keen to stress – for the landmark building on Sloane Square, but for the community of writers that makes the Royal Court what it is. She said: “the new vision for the Royal Court is that the writers are going to lead the way – so nothing ‘s changing.”
But if the principles are long-standing, Featherstone – with her self-professed dislike of routine – will be doing all she can to keep them fresh. As her vision for Open Court unfurled, the sheer scale of the project became apparent; half as much would have been impressive. It includes Caryl Churchill’s suggestion of a weekly rep of six new plays in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs in six weeks, with one company; Surprise Theatre (a hugely exciting sounding project about which not much could be said!) in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs; and Playwright @ Your Table – a suggestion from the Royal Court Writers Tutor Leo Butler which will see playwrights such as Moira Buffini, Caryl Churchill, Simon Stephens, Roy Williams and many more, read their own plays aloud, to small audiences of five or six people in secret locations around the building.
That there were so many writers gathered at this morning’s press briefing is a testimony to Featherstone’s commitment to placing writers at the heart of the theatre’s programming. David Edridge, whose career has so far spanned three artistic directorships at the Royal Court, spoke about writers growing most when they get “outside the garret and think of theatre in a holistic way”, for instance by painting the set or making the tea. This collaborative spirit is what Open Court is all about.
Next up was Anthony Neilson, who will be working with six writers over the festival to explore collaboration through his unique devising style. He spoke elegantly about what he sees as the need for theatre to adapt: “The world is changing and I don’t think that theatre is changing fast enough to keep up with it […] It seems to me that new writers are being rewarded for writing like old writers.”
Other projects include a theatrical treasure hunt with headphones, a soap opera written by Royal Court playwrights (to be performed in nightly five-minute episodes at the Bussey Building in Peckham) and The Big Idea – Friday night events exploring the big themes of sex, age and death through plays and talks. There’ll also be a series of events and verbatim reports, called The Big Idea: PIIGS, which will focus on those countries in the EU hit hardest by austerity (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Plus, a writers’ group for the over 80s and a week of plays, workshops and special events curated by young playwrights aged 8-11.
As she hands over the keys of the Royal Court to its writers for this six-week festival, Featherstone explains that she hopes the events will be taken “in the spirit in which they are meant, which is playful, serious, open, honest and ambitious.”
There’s certainly no questioning the ambitiousness of Open Court. “It’s a huge unknown,” says Featherstone, “That’s why I’m calling it a summer fling.”