New Play Festival: interview
with Phil Setren by Aleks Sierz
Was this a deliberate policy? 'No, it just emerged from our selection of the best plays,' he says. But one of the reasons that older writers have come up with such good plays is that 'they have more maturity and write in a style more relevant to a wider audience'. For the LNPF, 'it was really interesting to bring these worlds onto the stage.'
One of Setren's favourite metaphors is that of plays as news items. A playwright, he says, 'brings news to the stage'. They are able to say: 'I have lived this life - here it is. But I'm afraid that the life of a 21-year-old doesn't always have enough news for us.' Older writers 'have a richer life experience, which comes through in the writing'.
The news they bring is both good and bad. This year's themes include 'loss of a parent, the rekindling of an old sex life for people in middle-age, and we even have a play about people rekindling their sex lives in their seventies!' Many of this year's offerings are about 'how you run your relationship', which includes 'open relationships' as well as 'mid-life crises'. It's a very 'lifestyle-based' menu.
That's okay for the over-40s, but what about the brat pack of young writers? 'I'm against the current cult of youth,' says Setren. 'I think the schlock and shock play - the Trainspotting and Shopping and Fucking style - has had its day.' One good reason for seeing the back of in-yer-face plays is that 'they are creating voyeurism in the audience - the public is becoming more interested in how far you go, rather than in what you've got to say.'
A veteran director, Setren is himself directing 48-year-old Chris Preston's The Davids. It's about fortysomething David who first meets Mike after a gap of 20 years, and later Paul, a young singer in a boy band. So his problem is choosing between 'yoof' and experience. Publicity for the play is full of come-ons, promising 'gay sex and a hot night on Hampstead Heath'.
The play is 'a sexy and decadent comedy', says Setren, and it has a pacy farcical ending. 'One of its really good qualities is that it recognises that now we're mature we can cut all the bullshit.' The festival's marketing boasts a picture of gay man on Hampstead Heath, his trousers around his knees and his bare buttocks exposed. 'That's just advertising,' laughs Setren, 'we aim to attract a middle-aged gay audience.'
The festival's plays have been chosen from the 300 scripts it gets sent each year. The other main play is Julie Balloo's Rocket Girl, which is a comedy about a top secret mission to outer space. There are also two hour-long West End platforms, one about Murder and Madness (three 20-minute plays) and the other, Laughing Darkly, comprising three short comedies, including one from Moira Buffini.
Aided by Stoll Moss theatres, these platforms give writers a chance to see their work on a West End stage. 'These playwrights are usually just confined to the fringe,' says Setren, 'so now they've got a chance to see how a play works on much larger stage. It enables them to see what changes when you have that big proscenium arch between you and the audience.'
With both full-length and short plays, the LNPF offers a good mix. 'Our only criteria is that a play has to be a complete journey,' says Setren, 'whether it lasts 20 minutes or 2 hours and 20 minutes doesn't matter. We want to do away with the idea that a play has to be two hours with an interval so patrons can buy drinks at the bar.'
Born in the USA, Setren moved here in 1987 and started the LNPF two years later. Since then, it's given valuable exposure to writers such as Judy Upton, Naomi Wallace and Joe Penhall - in 1993, it featured Close to You, Mark Ravenhill's first play about outing a gay MP. Each year's festival also has other activities such as play readings, a public debate, a benefit tea and a writing school.
All this is
done on a shoestring - funded by the Peggy Ramsay Foundation and Stoll
Moss - and from tiny, overcrowded offices. When not putting together the
festival, Setren lectures in drama at Richmond university. He's amicable,
serious and genuinely concerned about helping young writers. Somebody
should give this man a decent grant.
The Royal Court Young Writers Festival is usually blessed with a funky-sounding title that sums up the debuts of its funky young writers: this year, the title Exposure suggests both a display of talent and an anatomy of Britain.
For 38-year-old Ola Animashawun, new head of the Young Writers Festival, 'This year's festival has an enormous diversity in both age and content.' At the Royal Court, says literary manager Graham Whybrow, 'The bar has been raised on the high jump' - the quality of the scripts has risen consistently.
'The standard is uniformly high,' says Animashawun. 'Our youngest writer is 15-year-old Holly Baxter Baine, who got involved when she came to the Court on a work placement, and in Good-bye Roy she's writing about the experience of Asian people in Britain, based on her research.' On stage, it's a marvellously still play, which then explodes into scenes of rape and abuse, mixing the in-yer-face sensibility of Sarah Kane with the detachment of Brecht.
Made of Stone, by 25-year-old Leo Butler, is - like its title - 'very gritty and down to earth: set in Sheffield, it's about how three brothers and their mother cope with the death of their father.' In performance, it comes across as both a howl of rage and an acute examination of the individual roots of macho posturing and racist attitudes. Featuring an excruciating scene of teenage sex, and some very troubling emotions, this working-class drama ends on a tentative note of hope.
By contrast, 16-year-old Emmanuel de Nasciemento's Drag-On is, says Animashawun, 'about gender-bending and cross-dressing, and has moments of great tenderness'. A 'very challenging theme for an adolescent boy, it's full of life and energy'. Acted with panache by a young cast, it's a short urban fairy tale that struts its stuff joyfully.
Local, by 24-year-old Arzhang Pezhman, 'reflects on his own cultural past - he was born in Iran but raised in Wolverhampton, and he examines how a young man struggles to reconcile two different cultures.' Written with a remarkable grasp of subtle subtext and ironic wit, the play stages a sharp political debate between two Iranian exiles, and includes an unforgettable demonstration, using Mars bars, of the Zoroastrian religion. Both moving and fascinating in its detail, the play, says Animashawun, 'blends the author's personal experience' of growing up in Britain 'with problems concerning mixed parentage, cultural allegiance and politics'. After all, not everyone who came here from Iran following the 1979 revolution which deposed the Shah 'was on the same side - Local explores political conflict as well as personal conflict, debating ideas about loyalty and betrayal.'
All in all, says Animashawun, 'the plays provide windows on our multicultural society and are all vitally concerned with the theme of identity, whether individual or national identity.' The plays are not only entertaining but 'also raise serious issues'. A former actor and youth drama worker, the softly-spoken Animashawun is a director who has 'always concentrated my work on young people', working with companies such as the London Bubble. He's cheerily enthusiastic about the festival - 'I can't wait to see the plays come alive on stage,' he says - and has a quiet 'determination to succeed'.
Starting in 1973, the Court's Young Writers Festival was the first of its kind in Britain, and, in the words of former artistic director Stephen Daldry, 'one of the country's most vital and important sources of new talent'. From the 400 scripts that were sent in, eight will feature in Exposure, which also includes play readings and events organised through the Court's Young Writers Programme (YWP).
In general, the YWP aims 'to discover and nurture the new generation of playwrights and to keep the traditional culture of writing for the stage alive and well, and to ensure that theatre remains pertinent and challenging,' says Animashawun, who has a genuine 'confidence and faith in young people'. Since Daldry put young writers - such as Sarah Kane and Joe Penhall - centre stage at the Court in 1994/5, 'new writing has been re-established in the psychology of the nation,' says Animashawun. Young people are 'much more open to the idea of theatre - and much more excited by it. There's a great confidence in both theatregoers and practitioners - many young directors now want to direct new plays.'
Exposure is the first Young Writers Festival of the new millennium, and, says Animashawun, 'aims to genuinely reflect the society we're living in, celebrating diversity but also quality.' He thinks 'political plays have not died, but have just taken new forms' and would like to see more political drama. 'Dramatic writing is essentially political,' he argues. 'It's about what people do to other people, so it's about power.' In the near future, he also expects to see 'renewed questioning of the status quo by young writers'. You can see why: Exposure feels very much like a fact-finding tour of Britain in the year 2000, a handful of postcards from the cutting edge of a fast-changing country where new ideas collide with hard atavistic hatreds - and where the family is in deep, deep trouble. Truthful, mature, and vigorous, this really is new writing at its excoriating best.
So although 'it's very rare to get a completely finished script,' says Animashawun, he stresses the opportunities the Court provides for 'developing the work of young people through workshops, tutorials and discussion'. So what's his message to young writers? He smiles: 'The door is always wide open.'
Exposure ran at the Royal Court until 11 November 2000
The Bristol Old Vic is having a bumper year. Since David Farr and Simon Reade took over as joint artistic directors in March, the theatre has become a hot venue, exemplifying their belief that regional theatre can compete with the metropolis in quality and newsworthiness.
They've certainly attracted some big name directors: Sam West's Les Liasions Dangereuses, Lindsay Posner's The Caretaker, Great Expectations directed by ATC's Gordon Anderson; and Farr's own A Midsummer Night's Dream - now nominated for two TMA awards. Last but not least, the theatre's studio space has been transformed with seasons such as the Mayfest.
Now, it is hosting a New Play Festival - or, to use the funky style of its publicity: "newplayfest" - which runs for a month and aims to showcase "new plays from Bristol and beyond". A former literary manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company, 37-year-old Reade says, "This is a result of our refocusing of new work at the theatre. We hope that this will be an annual event - in the same way as the festival of visual theatre in May, which was very successful, will be a regular event."
Reade points out that both he and Farr are writers themselves and that Bristol Old Vic gets about 250 scripts a year. "At the moment, we are leading with our main house repertoire rather than doing endless one-off readings of one-act plays that never see the light of day again."
So why a new play festival? "We wanted to have a focus in the year, particularly in the autumn, when students return to the city, when we would be doing nothing but new plays in our studio." Reade is enthusiastic about staging "a complete mixture of stuff - it's a great way of staging 20 new works in a few weeks."
Criteria for selection were "to get as broad a range as possible so we have local writers, national writers and international writers". He rejoices in "being as eclectic as possible", and has chosen touring companies "whose directors were known to us because the most important thing in any presentation of new writing is that you don't compromise on quality. Otherwise, you let down your audiences. I want them to see new work in the best possible context."
Funded out of the theatre's revenue grant, the New Play Festival has been programmed, says Reade, with the aim of recouping much of its costs from the box office. It kicks off with David Rudkin's Red Sun, which was a bit of gift. "When someone says they've got a tour of a world premiere by the veteran playwright who wrote 'Afore Night Come, you sit up," laughs Reade.
Other veterans include The People Show, with Baby Jane, a piece of slapstick, ATC with the British premiere of Excuses!, a black comedy by Joel Joan and Jordi Sanchez from Barcelona. There's also Kushite theatre's Vengeance and John Clifford's The Haunted Man.
Curiosities include Julian Webber, former supremo of the Soho Rep in New York, whose first play, The Angry Brigade, was inspired by his experiences of moving to London's Stoke Newington, the British terror group's stomping ground in the 1970s, and Goodbye Seattle Coffee Company by Julian Fox, a former stage doorman at the Barbican when the RSC was still in residence.
Local talent is abundant. Show of Strength, a Bristol group which founded the Tobacco factory, will present their work in progress. Toby Farrow, a former Vic writer-in-residence and Aardman Animations script doctor, is one local writer whose work will be featured. BRIT (the Arts Council's Black Regional Initiative in Theatre) is organising a partnership with Kuumba, a local black arts group, and will present three plays by black writers.
One of Reade's favourites is Life Story by "Peter", who's been imprisoned for attempted murder, and penned an autobiographical piece about his descent into heroin and crime. "It's got an inherent feel for structure, it's poetic and it's got great character development."
The Vic's ambitious programme is all very well, but is British new writing any good? "It's difficult to tell," says Reade candidly. "It tends to go in and out of fashion. If you are a writer, it's quite a confusing period now because theatres are constantly changing artistic directors, so policies shift. As well as the new writing venues, theatres such as the Almeida are staging many more new plays."
Is there a Bristol writing style? "I've only been living here a year, but the obvious example would be Catherine Johnson, whose plays also appeared at the Bush. Her work is a really good benchmark." He also points to the city's lively pub theatre scene and its cultural diversity. He sees a younger audience with an appetite for the fusion of dance, drama and words exemplified by companies such as Frantic Assembly."But pale imitation of Frantic Assembly work can end up as quite insubstantial. In the end, it's the writer that gives theatre substance."
But, given that new writing is better funded than ever before, what happens if no new geniuses emerge? "With any art form you can't take a short-term view," he says. "But, more importantly, people like me who commission new work have to look to ourselves and ask whether we are exploring in the right areas - are we interesting enough or are we prescribing too much?" It's still early days for Farr and Reade, so let's wish them luck as they develop new work.
The New Play Festival ran from 13 October to 15 November at the Bristol Old Vic
Plus: new writing bibliography