Monday, 27 August 2007

Edinburgh round-up: stab two

Walking through the Assembly Rooms foyer just now it struck me that there are absolutely no original playscripts for sale here this year (the script of the verbatim World War One drama Forgotten Voices is, however, available). For a venue that used to be regarded as one of the more prestigious of the Big Five (Pleasance, Underbelly, Traverse, Gilded Balloon and Assembly) this seems incredible. In the past, the Assembly Rooms has hosted tours of Shopping and Fucking, Disco Pigs, etc. and seen the premieres of plays by Liz Lochhead and etc.

This year it is hard to think which of the shows housed here actually demand publication. Perhaps, in retrospect, the sell-out success of Scarborough will prompt a London transfer – but with its deliberately fringe-friendly standing audience configuration, it is difficult to imagine the venue that will want to stick its neck out. Soho studio, perhaps? Trafalgar Studios Two?

The same scriptlessness is true across other venues (with the obvious exception of the largely published output of the Traverse). Following past Fringes, plays like Peter Morris’s Age of Consent and Guardians, or Adriano Shaplin’s entire oeuvre have been transferred and subsequently published. It is hard to imagine what might receive the same treatment this year*. I would love to read Melanie Wilson’s Simple Girl, and also Hippo World Guest Book. Similarly, I think La Femme est La Morte might profitably unleash an enjoyable rash of student productions if it were published – although given the vast amount of copyright material within the show, which is in part effectively jukebox musical, I foresee problems. But, depressingly, I can’t imagine any publishing house touching them in a month of Sundays.

Overall, this feels like a Fringe during which the written word has been utterly steamrollered by the devised and the performance-based. So many shows, even if written in part, seem to take much of their life from the specific performers involved. Roles have not so much been allocated and assumed as created from scratch. I’m not complaining, or even sounding the alarm just yet – one year’s worth of successes on the Fringe certainly doesn’t represent anything like a trend, but I do find it interesting. Not least because if the Fringe represents artists doing what they most want to be doing, then the way that most theatres are currently run seems to amount to a vast obstruction to this material.

The pervasive management model of a literary department and the requirement of an extant script prior to rehearsal would disallow many of this Fringe’s greatest successes from inclusion. In one respect this is why the Fringe is so valuable – it allows artists to stage the work and potentially achieve entry into theatres without having to submit non-existent scripts or draft exactingly detailed proposals. They can simply do their thing, prove that it has an audience, and wait for the offers of a transfer to roll in. That’s the theory, at any rate. But then a new problem arises: given the way that London theatres have chosen to brand themselves, there don’t seem to be many plausible spaces for these deserving shows to go. There’s the Lyric Studio, The BAC, The Shunt Vaults, possibly the Arcola, and God help us, the Soho, but off the top of my head, those are about the only places in London that I can imagine seeing any of the innovative, non-literary work which I’ve been enjoying on the Fringe. And there are problems with each – the Lyric, and Arcola are already programmed well in advance. The BAC has an almost pathological aversion to a decent length run and the Soho already has a problem with its image as a scattergun receiving house with nothing even faintly resembling an artistic policy.

Okay, there are all the non-producing, non-artistically directed Fringe theatres, but these generally have such appalling hit-and-miss reputations that audiences tend to stay away in droves. Come on. When did someone last go to the Oval House, White Bear, Etcetera or CPT with the same confidence that they go to the National, Royal Court or Almeida, without a friend being involved? Sure, I’ve seen some astonishing work in some of the spaces on the former list and some utterly abysmal work in the latter, but at least with the latter one has a sense that there is some guiding intelligence behind the work rather than an ongoing desperate struggle to pay their rent by filling the space with any company prepared to stump up the exorbitant weekly-rental charges.

So, what to do? The Fringe is dominated by a sort of a work that while prevalent and wonderful for a month in Scotland, seems largely unable to find anything like the same homes in London. A show can sell out Edinburgh for a month, but totally fail to even reach London (or anywhere else) or to make an impression once it has finally snuck in. Perhaps it is something about the rare atmosphere of the Fringe. For one month, people put their prejudices on hold, shelve their preconceptions and simply go to work hoping to be amazed. Do audiences in London behave in the same way? Perhaps it also has something to do with the almost tapas-like way in which theatre is consumed during the Fringe – shows are never even one’s sole daily, let alone weekly or fortnightly theatrical fix – they are one piece of a multiple-show puzzle. So the hour-or-under format rises to the fore. What might feel unforgivably brief in London seems mercifully compact in Edinburgh. Audiences want a brief intense hit, not a feature-length thought-provoker. Attempts to recreate the heady Edinburgh atmosphere in London would ultimately lead to the collapse of all concerned. The Fringe can only be intense because it has parameters, if it was as long as everyday life, it would be approached as sensibly.

I guess the obvious, if boring, answer is that since the Fringe cannot be recreated, we should simply give thanks for its existence, enjoy it when it arrives, and then go back to normal life. However, there are clearly lessons regarding alternative modes of creating work aside from the single-playwright method which need to be learned by producing houses across the country if they are to capitalise on some of today’s brightest young talents.

*Yes, SilverTongue Theatre’s Man Across the Way at the Underbelly is also published, but as a consequence of its pre-arranged post-Edinburgh transfer to Theatre 503, whose chief script reader Will Hammond also works for Oberon.


Statler said...

Interesting post. The Assembly Rooms programme just didn't catch our attention this year, with the exception of Emergence-See at one of their associated venues, although I've got a feeling prices may have been a consideration.

Regarding scripts, as you say the Traverse seems to have cornered the market on this, but they make copies accessible to audiences at a good price.

I'm hoping that Douglas Maxwell's "Ballad of James II" that we caught at Rosslyn Chapel will get published, and it's also one of the few shows we saw that has a London run arranged (albeit a short one) at the start of September at the Greenwich theatre.

There aren't many others that I can see being a sufficient draw on their own, although I'd make case that there's room for a London venue to pull together 2 or three shows as a double/triple bill and recreate the Fringe vibe. Say David Greig's "Yellow Moon" and Megan Barker's "Pit" (although this did little for me personally) and Daniel Beaty's "Emergence-See". Three very distinctive storytelling techniques but that could combine to form a great evening.

Or the powerful "Failed States" musical about terrorism laws paired with the light-as-a-feather "The Butler Did It?!"

With so many shows to choose from, surely theer are some combinations that could attract an audience...

Jon said...

Andrew. Lots of the shows that do well in Edinburgh go on to tour throughout the UK into many well established venues that promote this kind of work. Thus reaching a wide (non London) audience in its live, performed, intended medium.

I know this isn't the point of your post, but it remains tedious having to point out the widely prevalent London centric attitudes of many people in the industry. And I know that's because many people are based in London but you, more than most, I would expect to be on guard against further promoting this unhelpful point of view.

With regard to documentation, I would suggest that there might be other (more interesting/engagaing) ways for people to gain access to work either again (having seen it in Edinburgh or anywhere) or having missed it in its original production.

Even though Unlimited always end up taking a final, scripted version of what we've made into rehearsals (subject to constant change and development of course, even once it's up and running) we have also always filmed the shows we make - and I know many other companies do the same. The investment we've made in the last 6 years to this is in always filming with at least 3 (sometimes 5) cameras. We're in the process of archiving all of these and developing a way of distributing them widely (and possibly/hopefully freely) through streaming on t'internet.

We also have some (well, currently one) "script" available for download (of our first company devised/written show) in "The Shed" area of our website.

I would further suggest that the publishing houses get in the way because they remain very old fashioned in the way they insist on printing hard copy, individual playscripts at exorbitant prices (because really, who wants to pay the £8 cover price for a play by a new writer when you can pay a little bit more for an entire volume of Philip Ridley plays?) And then of ocurse, if there's more than one writer on a show, publishers and agents are too lazy and set in their thinking to work out how to credit (and pay royalties) to everyone involved.

How about a fat volume of scripts for 5 or 6 plays from some of Edinburgh's particularly well-received shows? Or more companies being encouraged to make their work available for free in digital form? If someone gets in touch with me asking for a copy of a script for an Unlimited show, I'll more often than not send them a PDF by email. I just make it clear that the copyright remains with us and please could they respect that.

Many of us continue to enjoy holding a glossy, printed book that we can put on our bookshelf but maybe the artists and the industry need to be thinking a wee bit harder about how we distribute the work to a wider audience. While also *always* remembering that as an audience member you have to make that extra bit of effort with theatre and get out to see it in the live state it demands and rewards. Wherever it might find a place to breathe again.......

Ben said...

Among other things I'm interested by this: 'I think La Femme est La Morte might profitably unleash an enjoyable rash of student productions if it were published'. I think the argument has been made before that a playtext might lead to a second life for a piece of theatre (with a published playtext in your hands you're all set - containing as it does all the information about acquiring rights, while the play itself is conferred a magical legitimacy). What hasn't struck me before is the argument that publication could lead to a rash of student productions. I find this interesting because people often remark that the relationship between students and new writing theatres (both in London and at regional producing houses) is, most of the time, curiously undeveloped. Though you do get some students working front of house, even the drama students don't quite seem to make it into the New Writing studios. I don't know what they're doing instead - painting their face white, probably, or doing Blood Wedding. Or rehearsing to go up to Edinburgh.
Indeed, it's only in Edinburgh that you get the emphatic engagement of students with New Writing. As a student, Edinburgh was where I first really encountered PROPER New Writing (I remember getting very excited by for example, Enda Walsh's Bedbound). Edinburgh was also the first time I ever bought a playtext for a new play. Returning a few years later, it seemed to me that the plays being most revived (ie by students and young companies fresh out of university) were those that a) had been published, and b) that had premiered in Edinburgh in previous years: Crave, Bedbound, Disco Pigs etc