Monday, October 19, 2009

As you might have gathered from the gap since my last post, I'm taking a break from blogging for the time being as I have a new play to write. I've got Arts Council funding so it's suddenly serious.

I hope to be back in the New Year. In the meantime, Merry Christmas.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Some pics from Edinburgh...












Monday, August 17, 2009

We have two more lovely reviews for The Unravelling, both of which really capture the beauty of the girls' performances:

The British Theatre Guide here, and the hard-working and ever-reliable Statler of View From The Stalls here.

Got home late yesterday after an emotional full-company meal the night before (such a lovely do, all the kids get personalised speeches and gifts) so having a well-earned rest for a while, but what a week. We were turning people away in the final sell-out shows and could easily have filled a month-long run. It's really exciting that this has happened to a state school in one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK - such an endorsement of the work (theirs as much as mine) and raises everything to a whole new level, potentially opening all sorts of possibilities for where we go next (e.g. I found out at the awards do that getting a Fringe First means you are automatically shortlisted for further awards to take the show to New York or Adelaide! Watch this space...)

If Carslberg ran schools, they would be like Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review for The Unravelling in today's Scotsman ... if you're in Edinburgh all I can say is you'd better book quick! I'm so pleased for our girls, they've worked so hard for this...

Theatre review: The Unravelling
Published Date: 12 August 2009
By Sally Stott
THE UNRAVELLING

THE SPACE @ VENUE 45

TO SAY Fin Kennedy and the Mulberry School for Girls are one of the best writer/education partnerships there is doesn't do them justice. To say they're one of the best companies at the Fringe comes closer.

Mulberry isn't a stage school, it's a normal comprehensive – such bright fresh perspectives and truthful performances couldn't really have come from anywhere else. The young people, who are predominantly of Bangladeshi heritage, provide a strikingly fresh and imaginative view of their cosmopolitan London home. Kennedy then uses this beautifully to weave together a fairytale version of their reality: a fantastic place where Tower Hamlets is a 'magical land', the Tube is a gateway to the underworld and you fly to the top of Canary Wharf and watch the sun go down.

As with last year's Stolen Secrets, the set is stunning, created through reams of coloured fabric that becomes the walls of houses, skin of monsters and the very thing that binds characters and stories together.

For the abundance of companies who seem to think you can't have a decent backdrop without a decent budget (and so consequently have none at all), then prepare to be proved wrong by Barbara Fuchs' beautifully integrated design.

With so much fabric around it's appropriate that the piece is set in the shop of a seamstress. She's a vivacious character who specialises in telling tantalising stories where the next chapter comes with the next purchase. Her three daughters – an emo, a wannabe and a princess – think she's a bit tragic. But when some shocking news threatens to blow their world away, they must learn to appreciate their mother before they lose her altogether.

As the rolls of fabric are unravelled, stories are unfurled, taking our characters on a journey from childhood to the brutal reality of growing up. The play's world is both fantastical enough to be enjoyed by the young and real enough to resonate with those a bit older.

While the show is essentially a morality tale that draws references from other well-known fables, it's conveyed in such a striking, original and passionate way that you easily forget this. The ending, in particular, is bold and surprising – you'd be a hard person indeed not to find it very moving.

Until 15 August. Today 12:10pm.

UPDATE 11AM - Just had a call from the Scotsman to say we have been awarded a Fringe First!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Good grief, has it really been 6 weeks since my last post? I suppose I have been vaguely aware of the time passing, but in all honesty, I haven’t really had all that much to say. And I’m sure the last thing you’d want is for me to twitter on about nothing. The internet is full of that after all. Plus after my previous flurry of loud-mouthedness over adopting playwrights I’d hate for you to get sick of me.

But the good news is that there is now something to say. The launch of the Edinburgh Fringe 2009 brochure has released to the world my latest offering from Mulberry Theatre Company (the production arm of Mulberry School for Girls in east London where I have been part-time writer-in-residence for the past 3 years.)

Our latest show, The Unravelling, has already had a couple of press mentions (one in Lyn Gardner’s ‘pick of the fringe’ previews, and another from the ever-reliable Statler at View From The Stalls) which is always exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure when the show has barely started rehearsals. There’s also a page on my own website about it here.

This is the third year running that Mulberry Theatre Company have performed a new play of mine at Edinburgh, and for various reasons – some to do with funding, some to do with the timing of Ramadan next year, and some general refocusing of the company’s operations – I can reveal that it will be the last time we perform at the Fringe for a little while. I know, it's a bit sad. But I’ll still be working at the school next year, but not doing Edinburgh will free up considerable time and resources for both me and the other artists-in-residence to do other projects with the students a bit closer to home (watch this space…)

Anyway, we now have a trilogy of plays broadly charting the teenage female experience in east London. As we’ve done every year, we’re going to publish this latest one as a script programme booklet for sale in the foyer, then maybe commission all three in one edition for use in the school (and beyond, if anyone wants them.) I’ve been writing my programme note for this latest one, and been looking back a bit at how they evolved and how they compare. I thought it might be interesting to share some of those thoughts on here. In many ways, each year’s show has been a reaction to the previous year’s, and explored a different way of working with this age group.

2007’s Mehndi Night was very much born out of the fact that 98% of Mulberry’s students are of Bangladeshi heritage. In giving them a completely open brief for the play, they chose to draw upon their immediate experiences as second and third generation Bengali women, negotiating the pleasures and pains of a cross-cultural identity, in particular the competing (and often contradictory) demands of family, faith and modern society. The politics of belonging were explored through the personal stories of four sisters and three aunties, the night before a wedding. I tried to do justice to these characters by inflecting their dialogue with dashes of lyricism, which are such an important part of both traditional Bangladeshi and contemporary east London popular culture. The result was a heartfelt family drama about a rebel daughter returning to the roost after years of going it alone in the wider world.

I was asked to speak about the experience of developing this play at Birmingham Rep’s ‘Generations’ conference on theatre-making for young people in 2008. It was a really fascinating day, with practitioners in this field coming together from all over the country. In one of the workshops after my talk an interesting discussion started. A young black actress from south London began, in a friendly way, to challenge my approach in developing Mehndi Night. Wasn’t it a bit of an obvious play to do with a group of young Asian women – saris, samosas and weddings? Haven’t we seen this before? She claimed that we were trading off the girls’ “exoticism”, and setting them up as ‘the Other’. Why couldn’t they just be artists, and tell stories about whatever they want? Why do they have to do a play about ‘being Bengali’? You wouldn’t do a play about ‘being white’ with a group of white kids.

These comments were meant in a generous spirit of interrogating the process in order to develop it, and she did have a point. The whole package of the play was perfect for Edinburgh; the girls marketed the show on the Royal Mile looking glorious in full saris, the venue was decorated like a Bengali party space complete with free samosas, and the audience really seemed to enjoy being welcomed into what was ordinarily a private space hidden from view behind another culture. The critics loved it too, with Neil Cooper at The Herald likening it to a “stylised latter-day Muslim take on Jack Rosenthal's Barmitzvah Boy, which captured the Jewish East End so well”. But that young actress’s comments stayed with me.

In my defence, I did point out that the girls had a completely open brief, and that idea for the play was a unanimous decision. But this was my first year at Mulberry. I’ve since discovered, in working very closely with many students there over the years, that this idea is quite often the idea they come up with when you ask them ‘What do you want to write a play about?’ Negotiating inter-cultural conflict, often explored through the prism of domestic inter-generational conflict, features large in their thinking. (Either that, or – somewhat paradoxically – extreme issue-based subjects they know little or nothing about, which they’ve probably gleaned from soap operas.)

However, I’ve since come to realise that one of the responsibilities of a professional artist-in-residence (in a school anyway) is to encourage students to go beyond the obvious choices, beyond simply being versions of themselves onstage, or parroting back cheap TV storylines. It’s about helping them to develop an aesthetic that allows them to be ‘actors’ in the fullest sense of being able to take on any character and any story that interests them, with integrity, and to offer meaningful interpretations of their own on the subject in hand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enormously proud of Mehndi Night and it still stands up as a great little play with genuine moments of insight and originality – and so far as I know it can still claim a theatrical first as an all-female Bengali play. But one of the joys of long-term community arts residencies is being able to refine your developmental process, so that you as an artist are stretched and developed just as much as the participants.

2008’s Stolen Secrets was very much a reaction to Mehndi Night, in that we decided to move beyond autobiography and encourage the girls to focus on any local stories that took their interest. To do this, we asked them to be our eyes and ears around east London, to harvest characters, lines of dialogue, scenarios and settings from the local area. We scoured local newspapers and kept an ear to the ground for gossip. Our designer Kollodi created a beautiful set of ‘secret vaults’ - boxes with a deposit slot, for anonymous secrets from students and staff, to be placed around the school. I went into English and Drama classes to explain the process and solicit contributions. We then took the best of this material and over several weeks teased out, imagined, added and fictionalised until we ended up with a set of five ‘urban fairytales’ about the hidden side of east London.

In order to allow the girls to play characters that were completely unlike themselves, the written style had to shift to place them as narrators on the world outside their windows. As such, a direct-address, ensemble storytelling style emerged – something I have experimented with in my work for Half Moon Theatre, but only fully realised at Mulberry due to the larger cast sizes available to me. The resulting series of short plays owed as much to performance poetry as theatre, while their darkly grotesque content drew upon a great tradition of using east London’s landscape to map the darker side of the human soul. But perhaps the most exciting discovery of last year was the beauty and immediacy of the physical storytelling aesthetic with which directors Julia Voce and Camille Cettina responded to the text – along with the girls’ own incredibly focussed performances which rose so proudly to this challenge. Both these directors trained at LISPA, which has a strong European sensibility and trains its student devisors in creating stage worlds in the blink of an eye with nothing more than a group of bodies on stage.

There’s an acknowledged fault line in professional theatre between the playwright-led, text-based camp and the actor/devisor-led, physical theatre camp. Some recent articles suggest that playwrights in particular feel aggrieved, alleging that the latter are more to the tastes of arts funders, and are in some way undermining the traditional role of the writer. The two approaches are often presented as mutually exclusive. I don’t really share this view, and this is mostly down to my work at Mulberry. If anything, in student productions at least, these approaches have seemed to be mutually complementary, indeed even symbiotic to the point where neither can survive without the other. Young people often think best on their feet, yet having a professional writer in the room makes the best of the material they generate by shaping it into narrative threads. They do the inspiration and I do the perspiration – then hand it back them the following week in the form of script, for them to play with it further, generate more brilliant ideas, and the cycle starts all over again. In this way the end product is always a genuine collaboration. I couldn’t do without them, nor they me. Taking an active part as a playwright in a three-dimensional rehearsal room devising process in this way has been one of the greatest joys of doing Edinburgh for the past 3 years. The room fizzes with characters and scenarios from their world, and mine, but also an imaginative plain which we both share. It’s really excited me to see what can be achieved when these two approaches work together so happily. I don’t know what you’d call it, but I love it, and it works.

This year, our approach was slightly different again, and built upon what we learned from Stolen Secrets. The most successful of 2008’s five ‘urban fairytales’ was one entitled Make n Mend, about a mother and daughter running an east London clothes repair shop. This setting was so immediately embraced by the students, and the industry so germane to the fabric (sorry) of east London, that we decided to take it and give it to the following year’s group as the location for the 2009 play – with only the minor tweak that it is a fabric shop as well as a tailoring service, with all those rolls of cloth from which to wring stories and stage effects.

Deciding on a location for the story is probably the single most important decision we have to make during our process. Everything follows on from there – character, mood, status, territory and almost all the possibilities for action. As I tell the group, the location is like a silent character in the play. It’s also the part that takes longest for an inexperienced group to settle on – and the element about which they are often least well-equipped to make an informed artistic decision. Make that decision for them, and they then have an arena which not only are you certain will work, but which they can still populate with all their own ideas for characters and storylines.

The Unravelling is in many ways an existential fable about the power of the imagination; the challenges it sets its performers and production team are certainly the greatest so far. It builds upon the previous two years in that it places a metaphorical ‘handover’ between female generations at the heart of the story, as Mehndi Night did. Yet it also uses direct-address storytelling as the means by which the characters summon their imaginative worlds from the apparent emptiness around them, and in so doing, discover their power – the legacy of Stolen Secrets. Perhaps most importantly, it takes the Mulberry Theatre Company aesthetic to a whole new level, and showcases the heights that can be achieved when artists with complementary backgrounds work together with a committed large cast, backed at the highest levels by the school. Perhaps this is something to do with having the added layer to the artistic process of being responsible for creating a piece of work not just for its own sake, nor for the adult artists to show off their skills, but for the good of a group of fledgling artists still in their teens, to whose ideas we must do justice. It is certainly testament to what happens when schools invest long-term in developing meaningful relationships between artists and students.

It feels like an appropriate story to complete our trilogy. In celebrating the nature of creativity and its power to change lives, the play is itself an apt metaphor for Mulberry School and its extraordinary theatre company.

The Unravelling runs at The Space UK @ Venue 45 from 10-15 August 2009. Book online here or call 0131 226 0000.

Monday, May 04, 2009

More on Adopt-A-Playwright over at Guardian theatre blogs, where they have commissioned an 'offical' post from me to respond to last week's criticisms.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

You might be interested to hear that Alfred Hickling on Guardian theatre blogs has posted a critical (and in my opinion, misrepresentative and cynically written) article about Adopt-A-Playwright, the scheme described below.

You can read his post, and some of the daft comments following it, here.

You can read my response below:

Oh dear. I can hardly let this sorry excuse for an arts blog go down in the Guardian archive unchallenged can I?

Alfred, you seem to have wilfully misrepresented and misreported this innovative and necessary scheme in order to laugh at it. Only you can tell us why you would want to do this (and I hope that you will, for it feels rather like you’re punching holes in the boat we’re all floating in.) But for now let’s take your points one by one...
The winner receives a free 10 grand ‘on spec’: Not quite. The winner is sourced via a process of nomination taking place over the best part of a year. They are then invited to apply for the scheme by submitting a previous full-length play, an lengthy proposal for a new play, a CV and assessment of where they are at in their writing career and how they would spend the money (it’s not just for time to write, they can spend some of it on workshops, readings, and hiring actors, directors and dramaturgs to develop the piece, if they wish.) Their applications are then assessed by a panel of established theatre professionals and a shortlist drawn up who are invited for interview. The panel’s assessment takes place over the best part of a week of meetings.

During this whole process, potential recipients are expected to demonstrate not only an innate playwriting talent, but also initiative in having produced their own work up to that point, genuine financial need, lack of any other funding from ACE or one of their clients, as well as meeting the criteria that either they or the subject matter they want to write about (or preferably both) represent the voice of a community from whom we hear all too seldom on British stages – anything from minority ethnic or religious groups, through to traveller communities, rural communities, or any number of subcultures, professions or other human experiences which don’t normally get a look-in as subject matter for your average stage play. The winner then gets the money in several instalments over the course of the year, and enters into a contract agreeing to deliver regular drafts. This agreement can be terminated at any time should its terms not be met.

You complain that the selection process lacks transparency. Your evidence for this appears to be the website’s use of punctuation. Let me reassure you that the ‘talent scouts’ are made up of staff from a variety of professional and fringe theatres, regular fringe theatregoers such as the reviewers for Resonance FM’s On The Fringe team, as well as the supporters and members of OffWestEnd.com’s various groups and schemes – including arts patrons and even (brace yourself) enthusiastic members of the public. The panel of ‘experts’ making the final decision in previous year’s has included: artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East Kerry Michael, playwrights Diane Samuels and Hassan Abdulrazzak, film producer Clive Brill, BBC producer Alison Hindell, Geoff Colman of Central School of Speech and Drama, major arts patron Joachim Fleury of Clifford Chance and myself. I’d like to think that between us we could spot a decent writer.

You also seem to be rather sniffy about patrons getting to meet the writers and socialise with them. I see no reason to sneer at this. The scheme is inspired by one of the most ancient forms of arts patronage, that of ancient Rome, where private patrons would gather round an artist they believe in and support their work with direct contributions. Sure, the patrons get something out of this - the satisfaction of engendering a new play (and hopefully launching a career) as well as the thrill of seeing the creative process close up in a way that traditional ‘angels’ schemes do not allow. The main difference with our scheme is that the patrons are strictly prevented from having any creative input, and one step removed from the selection process by trusting their panel of industry experts to make the right choice.

You acknowledge my original point that the existing system favours the wealthy, but you seem to see no problem with this. One of the commenters above also displays a rather cosseted ignorance in exclaiming that ‘Money to live on can usually be found.’ How great that there are some people for whom that is the case. This scheme is for the other 90% for whom money to live on usually can’t be found. When I was starting out I subsidised my own first play by giving up a full-time job and living on my credit card for three months. I racked up £3,500 worth of debt which it took me the best part of two years to pay off with more full-time work, during which i was unable to write anything further. I was lucky enough to get AHRC funding to do the MA Playwriting at Goldsmiths, and jammy again to get a Pearson bursary to be Soho Theatre’s writer-in-residence for a year. But after that it all dried up and I had to go and re-train as a teacher in order to make ends meet, before being plucked from obscurity once more by winning the John Whiting Award. I’ve worked ever since in inner city communities, teaching playwriting, writing plays for and about, and giving careers advice to (among others) east London Bengali teenagers, kids in care, teenage Mums and members of various youth theatres. I do this not out of a sense of worthiness but because I find these people interesting and want to get their voices and experiences on our stages. The commissioning system at present actively works to exclude them, along with all manner of other people. I don’t want to be part of a theatre industry, either as a writer or audience, where large chunks of the population are excluded from being able to tell their stories and have a stake in the nation’s cultural output. This is bad for art.

These are real issues which materially affect the face of our nation’s theatre professionals, and indeed the future of our industry. It was in explaining these problems to Sofie Mason of OffWestEnd.com that the idea for this scheme came to her. I admire her tenacity in trying to plug this gap. It’s in its infancy, but since the scheme’s inception and the British economy’s apparent implosion it seems that we are more in need than ever of innovative new ways to fund our art. Guardian blogs have recently been very supportive of London Bubble’s scheme Fan Made Theatre, and rightly so. I see no reason why they should be commissioning cynical articles like this that laugh at a similar and (arguably) even more ambitious scheme, with potentially far greater impact.

Finally, you suggest that a better use of the money would be to fund 10 writers for a month. But there are already plenty of short courses and schemes of this kind, and theatre companies often bung writers £500 or a grand as ‘seed’ money. I can tell you there’s a limit to how far you can develop a decent full-length play in a month, especially if you want to write about subjects more ambitious that your own love affairs. Investing a large sum in one writer is what theatres aren’t doing enough of, but is precisely what is needed if amateur writers are going to make the leap from occasional scribbling whenever they get a few weeks off, to full-blown immersive playwrighting where they can properly engage with their subject and craft, with access to a network of professional supporters and advisors should they need it.

A commenter above similarly notes that playwrights need venues and productions, and ‘a person in place who will produce their play’. Whilst this is of course true, it’s the second stage in the process. Surely writing the play in the first place needs to come first! Or else what is there to stage? Theatres don’t commission beginner writers on a concept, they want to see a full draft, and this is where wealthy writers have the advantage, and where the system is inherently unfair.

I note from your Guardian profile, Alfred, that you are based in York and regularly review plays in the north-east. It can’t have escaped your notice that writers from this region and the communities they represent very seldom make it onto higher profile stages, either as artists or subjects. This scheme aims to directly address this imbalance. Indeed, I also note that you yourself are a sometime writer (and director). You may well be eligible to apply for this scheme, and put all this Guardian blogging to one side for a year while you hone your craft. I’d encourage you to do so. It could be the start of a whole new career.

Readers who’d like to know more about this debate, and to read my full speech from which Alfred selectively quotes, should check the articles on my own blog here:

http://finkennedy.blogspot.com/2009/03/this-is-first-of-two-part-enrty-ive.html

http://finkennedy.blogspot.com/2009/04/what-makes-good-playwright-drumroll.html

Sunday, April 05, 2009


What Makes a 'Good' Playwright?

Drumroll please .... Here it is!

Yes, after teasing you for nearly a month it's finally time to publish the long-awaited Adopt-A-Playwright Talent Scout CRITERIA!

Those of you who have been paying attention will recall my previous post explaining my involvement in this scheme, and the speech I gave at its launch. Further info can be found on Sofie's site OffWestEnd.com here. The rest of this post will be a bit out of context otherwise, so if I'm already not making much sense then go and have a look at those links now. Go on.

No, it's fine. No, really. Me and the other readers will wait for you here.

Sorted? Right.

What follows is a further document I wrote at Sofie's request, in an attempt to provide the Talent Scouts for her scheme with a set of guidelines of what to look out for when they are scouring the Fringe for potential candidates.

The areas she asked me to expand upon were as follows:

1. What defines a writer 'in need'?
2. What constitutes a play of 'quality' or 'promise'?
3. What factors indicate a playwright of 'promise'?
4. What constitutes a 'different voice'?

These might seem like obvious or even stupid questions to ask. Surely we all know these things when we see them? Maybe. But like 'good acting' the exact specifications are notoriously hard to pin down. And for a scheme where people were being selected to be put forward to possibly be awarded thousands of pounds, it seemed not only fair but essential to try to draw something up.

This is my attempt. You'll see from the intro that I always wanted this list to be just a starting a point; a 'living document' to be argued over, edited, added to, rephrased and expanded. And what better place to do that than here, with all three of my loyal readers?

Adopt-A-Playwright

Talent scout criteria

What constitutes a writer in need? How do you define a ‘quality’ play? How do you spot a ‘promising’ writer? How can you assess whether they are a ‘different’ voice? Different to what? How do you know your endorsement as a talent scout isn’t tainted by your own filters of cultural background and personal taste?

These are some of the questions it is necessary to ask as part of a scheme like Adopt-A-Playwright, and with which I have been grappling for a few days, after somewhat unwisely volunteering to put this document together for Sofie Mason. The truth is that judgements of any artistic endeavour will always be largely subjective, and this document is no exception. Put together by one opinionated playwright, it is likely to be as full of contradictions and exceptions and personal opinions as my own taste in plays. Rather than a definitive guide, it is intended to be the start of a debate among the many professionals involved in this scheme. My aspiration for it is that it becomes a ‘living’ document, constantly being amended by many different people, until we have a sprawling ‘bible’ of assessment criteria, as thrillingly diverse as its contributors, and as open to interpretation as any genuine Holy Book. Because while we are unlikely, if ever, to all agree on all the points in a document of this nature, our best guarantee of getting it right most of the time will be the diversity of backgrounds and professional experience among the people conducting the search. Because a scheme like Adopt-A-Playwright will only ever be as good as its scouts and judges.

Let’s start with the easiest one, In Need. The following criteria are largely Sofie’s, I have just tweaked them slightly.

A writer in need:

• Has demonstrated some initiative in writing and/or producing own work in the past;
• Lacks sufficient funds to continue writing;
• Relies on non-arts industry income to make ends meet (or non-creative employment within the arts, eg. ushering, office admin);
• Has not received significant funding from theatre company, Arts Council, or other arts funding body for their writing (in this context ‘significant funding’ would be more than £1000 in total over the course of their career);
• Is not from a family or community who are able to support them while they write;
• At the point of giving up without some break.

Now onto the hard stuff:

Quality

Note: Scouts should be able to distinguish between a quality play text and a quality production. They should be able to see the potential of a good play given a bad production, yet not be fooled by a poor play given a slick production. They should also be able to recognise the potential of a playwright who has not yet written their best work, but who shows promise in their early plays.

I would suggest that a play of notable ‘promise’ or ‘quality’ is one which demonstrates at least two of the following:

• Some understanding of dramatic writing as being about writing stage action as well as words.

• Some understanding of dramatic structure – characters actively pursuing an objective as the ‘engine’ of dramatic storytelling.

• Some understanding of drama as being about a process of change, and of characters having gone on a journey.

• Some ability to write original, believable characters with their own voice and perspectives on the world.

• A delight in the possibilities of spoken language in all its messy complexity; dialect, slang, subcultural lexicons, puns, double meanings and misunderstandings, language as liberator of some characters and jailor of others, language as power, language as a tool with which we define the world and our place within it.

• A ‘quality of mind’: an interest in using drama to offer some original insight into the subject in hand. A feeling, having left the auditorium, that you have been in the presence of someone with something new and important to say about the world in which you live.

• An interest in the poetry of drama, physically as well as verbally, e.g an ability to create resonant and memorable stage images; an awareness of metaphor; an ability to juxtapose dramatic action with dialogue; images and action creatively arranged not just for aesthetic pleasure but in order to actively comment on one another and add meaning to the overall story.

• Using lyricism or other non-naturalistic techniques intelligently, in the service of the overall play, rather than simply because it can be done.

• A play that has an emotional impact on you and moves you in some way.

• An ability to sustain these qualities over some time (ie. 45 minutes plus). Exciting short plays are often unreliable indicators of promise as the real test is in sustaining energy, pace, wit and form over a longer drama.


A promising playwright is one who demonstrates at least two of the following:

• An interest in pushing the form of drama beyond the traditional western sensibility of the three or five act structure and/or an interest in questioning or challenging the traditional barrier between audience and actor. However, neither of these should be for the sake of meaningless experimentation, but in the context of serving an overall narrative and creating a theatrical experience in which innovation in form facilitates new and fresh understandings of the drama’s content. Form should always be appropriate to content, and born out of it in some logical way. Formal experimentation should not be about ‘showing off’ but about adding new layers of meaning.

• Innovative ideas about staging, which cannot be attributed to the director alone, e.g. a script that responds imaginatively to a specific performance space, or an interest in merging text-based script writing with non-verbal, devised, or other performance media.

• Choice of subject of some relevance and urgency to modern world; awareness of current affairs in UK and beyond and the quality of mind to make an original and meaningful contribution to those debates.

• An interest in using theatre as an organ of democracy, to debate, stimulate and provoke audiences into discussion of difficult, complex or taboo issues.

• An interest in people and experiences beyond their own; an understanding that the writer’s own love affairs and family dramas are not necessarily of equal interest to a wider audience. (Or, if these well-trodden subjects are used, to offer a new and original twist or insight.)

• An interest in presenting audiences with places, characters and communities that have not been seen before in British drama, or seen too seldom.

• An interest in analysing and providing some critique of the channels of power in any given society which seal a character’s fate.

• An interest in undertaking research as a means to sourcing new material, and opening themselves up to new experiences.

• An understanding, however faltering, of the dramatic writer as ‘wrighter’ (ie. ‘wringer’ or shaper of reality) of a stage event. In this sense the role of ‘wrighter’ goes beyond ‘writing’ words and becomes the primary creative mind shaping the audience’s experience (e.g. pre or post-show scenes which take place beyond the main performance space, viral marketing campaigns involving teasers for the show, imaginatively engineering news stories in order to gain press coverage for the show).

• An interest in analysing and debating the ideas within their work and in the work of others, including taking on board audience feedback, for example through taking part in post-show discussions, writing a blog, or organising amateur writer’s groups.

• Takes an active interest in the wider theatre industry and can talk knowledgably and enthusiastically about recent productions or industry developments.


A ‘different voice’ means in relation to the usual backgrounds of the majority of writers receiving commissions from the mainstream new writing houses in the UK, and should comprise at least one of the following:

• Not articulating the white, male, middle class twenty-to-thirtysomething experience as the central tenet of the play’s story.

• Provides an insight into worlds under-represented in current British drama. This could include, but is not restricted to: minority ethnic or religious groups, non-western, working class, non-traditional lifestyles, so-called ‘closed communities’, communities newly-arrived in the UK, communities stereotyped or demonised in the mainstream media, rural communities.

• If the writer is not personally from the same background as the characters in the play, s/he should have some valid claim to be able to write about them with a degree of insight and knowledge, e.g. a significant period of research, or contacts with those groups who have provided access over a significant period.

• Note: ‘different voice’ does not mean solely different aesthetically, e.g. non-naturalistic writing styles, performance art or devised work. The ‘difference’ refers to the background of the writer, compared to the usual backgrounds of those receiving new play commissions, or the types of characters and experiences they are trying to give voice to.

• A ‘quality of mind’: an interest in using drama to offer some original insight into the subject in hand, which other media cannot.

Good luck!

Monday, March 30, 2009


I'm not trying to tease you by postponing the promised second part of my post about Adopt-A-Playwright, but something else has come up with a more imminent deadline which I thought might interest you.

You may recall that in the aftermath of last year's Arts Council funding bloodbath, large-scale community theatre company London Bubble was one of the organisations to get it in the neck pretty badly, to the point that they were fighting for their life for months. I blogged about the whole sorry debacle here, and mused a bit on what it said about ACE's philosophy about who they see fit to make art...

Well, under the inspired leadership of Jonathan Petherbridge they're back from the brink (for now - they've got a 'transitional grant', whatever that means) and they've come up with a really innovative scheme to overhaul the way they develop and commission shows.

Entitled 'Fan Made Theatre' it's actually a similar concept to the way in which Franny Armstrong of docudrama Age Of Stupid funded her film (see post below).

The idea is brillaintly simple: for £20 (£10 concessions) you can buy a stake in the London Bubble's next production which will allow you to suggest your own idea for what you'd like it to be about. You also get to vote on the 5 shortlisted ideas, attend rehearsals, and attend opening night for free - which would normally cost you £15 alone, so in effect you get the whole lot for a fiver.

I love ideas like this. They genuinely seem to connect companies with their audiences, not just in a 'discount tickets and education pack' sort of way, but by giving them a voice in what is actually staged in the first place.

It's not a million miles away from they way I work with students at Mulberry School where we devise a play each year to take to Edinburgh. (More on this year's show in another post soon...) But, so far as I know, Bubble's version is the first time something like this has been tried on this scale, and brought out into public from behind the closed doors of the community rehearsal room. Doubtless it will be a steep learning curve for them, but it's a really exciting new model which I will be watching with interest.

I've bought my stake. You can read more, and buy your own, here.

Monday, March 16, 2009


In a change from the advertised schedule, I’d like to beg your indulgence while I plug something non-theatre related for a moment.

Over the weekend I went to the London premiere of The Age of Stupid, an extraordinary new climate change docudrama by Franny Armstrong (the guerilla filmmaker behind McLibel) and starring the inimitable Pete Postlethwaite.

It’s a brilliantly simple premise – six documentary films about six different protagonists in six different stories about climate change are bound together by Pete Postlethwaite flicking through them; a lone archivist of humanity’s salvaged culture in a post-apocalyptic landscape. He is trying to work out the answer to one question: Why didn’t we save ourselves while there was still time?

It’s a uniquely affecting conceit that packages a familiar subject in a new and really quite humbling way, putting into stark relief all the petty excuses we make not to do our bit and start changing our lifestyles and lobbying our representatives.

What I love about this film is that it’s so much more than a film, it’s the start of a grass roots movement. Not only is it as good as its word – making the whole premiere carbon neutral by holding it in a solar-powered tent in Leicester Square, publishing detailed stats on the carbon footprint of the filmmaking process, and issuing campaign packs to everyone who sees it - it’s also revolutionised the way films are funded and distributed. The entire £450,000 budget was ‘crowd funded’, i.e. raised from volunteer’s contributions, who hold a stake in the film’s future performance, and maintain full control over the distribution rights, meaning they can license it to village halls and community groups around the world for as little as they like. In terms of people power it’s up there with Obama’s campaign.

So unlike other films of this genre, the film isn’t the end product but the start - a tool to galvanise communities into an entire campaign, in advance of the new UN climate change treaty, due to be finalised at a meeting in Copenhagen in December this year (described by one speaker as ‘the most important meeting in the history of mankind’). All the science does indeed suggest that we have a rapidly narrowing window between now and 2015 to do something about this, after which we will all be royally fucked, and nothing we can do from there on in will make the slightest difference.

The premiere itself was dramatic enough. Climate change Minister Ed Miliband was mightily stitched up on stage when he was unexpectedly confronted by Franny and Pete wielding a huge pledge card on which Pete wrote that he would hand his OBE back to the Queen, with a request to dissolve Parliament, if the government licensed the new coal-fired Kingsnorth power station. You can get a sense of his discomfort here.

The entire Age of Stupid website is dedicated to encouraging 250 million people to make a similar bloody great stink, and I’d urge you to have a look. The sales figures during this first week of the film’s release will dictate whether or not it goes nationwide, so please go and see it.

I don’t normally discuss personal politics on this blog, or digress into browbeating, but this is one issue I can’t stay quiet on. Those who know me will testify that I’m a quiet, pessimistic sort of greenie. I don’t go on about it much because I’m basically convinced that we’re all going to hell in an SUV, and that it will serve us right for being such selfish, greedy cunts. I’m as guilty of the hypocrisy as anyone, but I can’t help feeling that the honourable thing is to go down fighting.

Go and see this film. Apart from anything else it has a devastating thesis at its heart: Maybe we didn’t do anything because deep down, we didn’t think we were worth saving.

Amen, Franny. Amen.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

This is the first of a two-part enrty I've been meaning to do for a while, with big apologies to Sofie Mason of OffWestEnd.com for not having got round to it before.

Sofie is a bit of an inspiration - not only does she tirelessly promote fringe and Off West End theatre on her (entirely self-founded and independently funded) website, she's also an accomplished arts journalist, arts fundraiser, and, as of last year, inventor and administrator of the Adopt-A-Playwright award.

This is an innovative scheme which seeks to address an important gap in arts funding for new playwrights, which Sofie credits me with having pointed out to her during an interview I did with her for The Stage newspaper in 2007. Not long after, Sofie contacted me again to ask what I thought about an idea she had had: to rally a group of private arts sponsors around an individual playwright at the start of their career, in order to 'buy' the writer the time off from regular full-time work to allow them to write the first draft of a new play.

The scheme is now in its second year and onto its second writer and, so far as I know, looks set to run and run (recession notwithstanding). I've been meaning to blog it since its launch last summer, but last year was a bit of a right-off blogwise. Anyway, not being a proper journalist or anything I don't have to worry about date relevance and having a 'hook' to hang the story on and all that. The hook is that you'll be interested, so I'm going to tell you. I've mentioned the recession, what more do you want? If it's 'news' news you're after go and read Guardian theatre blogs.

Anyway. The idea is that it's a sort of medieval or even Roman style of theatre sponsorship, where individual patrons gather round a particular artist because they like and believe in their work. They can put in as little as £50 or up to £1,000 (though if anyone wanted to put in more I'm sure they wouldn't object.) The idea is to get the fund up to about £6,500 - roughly the same as the TMA/Writer's Guild minimum commission fee for a full length stage play. The writer gets the money in instalments to prevent them pissing it all away, and has to keep the patrons up to date with the progress of the writing process. There are regular private readings of sections of the work, to which the patrons are invited. Then at the end there is a full reading with a bigger invite list which can include people within the theatre industry who might want to commission the play.

The patrons have no editorial control and no creative input, unless the writer solicits it. They don't get their investment back and they certainly don't get a return on it (other than in love and general fuzzy warmness.) All future earnings from the play remain firmly with the writer. But they do get an up-close-and-personal experience of the creative process, which donating to a large organisation wouldn't afford them. And of course the chance to share in the glory should the play or playwright they invest in become a big hit.

The writers themselves are initially sourced by a team of 'scouts' - regular fringe theatregoers recruited by Sofie from her extensive range of contacts. They scour fringe performances over a year of theatregoing for potential recipients. A shortlist is then put together and submitted to a panel of professional theatre industry folk, including actors, writers, directors and producers. Applicants submit one previous full length play, one proposal for a new play, a CV and an assessment of where they are at in their career and how the award would help them. They're then invited for an interview to discuss their ideas further. The panel then make the final decision - the patrons themselves aren't involved in that bit, they just stump up the cash once the decision has been made. Separation of powers and all that.

Although I was due to be on the panel last year I had to withdraw due to workload, but I've been supporting the scheme in spirit, in so far as I can (I gave an interview to Jane Edwardes of Time Out about it and have generally been bigging it up as a Good Idea.) I also did a bit of a speech at the Award's launch, in which i expanded on some of the arguments i made to Sofie in the initial interview which sparked the whole idea. I've reproduced the speech below. It would be interesting to see how many of you share my analysis.

I also drew up some guidelines for the Talent Scouts, trying to nail down certain criteria which would constitute a Good Play and a Promising Playwright. I'll post these soon, because it would be interesting to get a bit of a debate going about that, and to add to the list. But I don't want to overwhelm your lunch break with too many Theatrey Thoughts all at once, so here, for now, is the text of that speech:

"Thank you all for coming tonight, it’s great to see so many supporters of such an innovative scheme. And big thanks to Sofie for organising such an enjoyable evening.

I’m a full-time playwright and teacher of playwriting. As well as writing my own plays I do a lot of work with aspiring young writers near here [Wilton's Music Hall], in a school on Commercial Road. Sofie has flattered me into saying a few words tonight by telling me that the seeds for the Adopt-a-playwright scheme were sown during a conversation she had with me last year.

It was part of some research Sofie was doing for an article for The Stage, in which she looked at the biggest barriers facing beginner playwrights. I told her that the biggest of these was overwhelmingly finding the time and headspace to devote to a sustained period of playwriting, in order to get a script into a decent enough state to be taken seriously by theatres.

Why is this something that should be subsidised? The answer is simple: the system as it stands is discriminatory. To be fair, this is through neglect rather than design, but the fact remains that the outcome is that the British theatre establishment is still overwhelmingly dominated by white middle-class male graduates – and mostly from south-east England. Now these people can of course produce great plays, and I speak as one of them. But I’m eager to broaden the backgrounds of our playwrights in particular because as storytellers, we hold a unique position. Everything starts with us. We decide which stories are worth putting a frame around. Whose lives are worth putting on stage. If the people who hold this responsibility are from a narrow and broadly similar background then so is their raw material for drama - the life experience on which they draw.

One of the reasons I spend so much time working with communities in inner city London is to get round this problem. I get to meet people completely unlike me, and to whom I would never otherwise gain access. I try my best to immerse myself in their worlds, to absorb their language, hopes and dreams, fears and longings, and to do them justice in the stories I create. But I always worry that the end result will by definition come through my own cultural filter, and be less than satisfactory as a depiction of their truth. I would rather these communities were able to represent themselves.

Whether they’re a single mum from Peckham or a minicab driver from Tower Hamlets, there is one common reason why the system works against them: it places the onus of responsibility on the beginner writer to invest in their own play. They have to write unpaid, for some considerable amount of time, effectively on a speculative basis, in the hope that their efforts might be rewarded further down the line. Alongside a full-time job and all the other responsibilities of life, this is not a good system for producing great plays. It also means that only certain people will ever get to write plays: those who can afford to.

I’m not from a family with money. I’m middle class in the sense of having had cultural capital and the encouragement to pursue my creative ambitions, but the financial side of things was always left up to me. The greatest gift my mother passed on to me was resourcefulness; it got me a scholarship to study playwriting at Goldsmiths, and later won me a writing residency. But despite that even I almost didn’t make it. Only three years ago I had given up on ever being able to make a living in theatre; my second play had been turned down by almost every theatre in London and I had run out of money. I went off to re-train as a teacher. The same play then won one of the biggest awards in the UK. It was only that award, not dissimilar to the one you’re all here to support tonight, that rescued my career. This is why awards are important: they don’t have to worry about box office. They can invest in plays which make theatres nervous. But once a play or playwright is the recipient of an award, the risk for theatres is lessened. All of a sudden they have an award-winning product to sell.

Sometimes I wonder for every one of me, how many equally talented and deserving young playwrights fell by the wayside. It bothers me when some of the young writers I teach get excited about the possibility of doing this for a living. I think to myself ‘Can I honestly recommend this to you as a path to follow?’ And the answer is I can't. But is it really fair that only the wealthy or the lucky get to write plays?

As an audience member too, I want to see work from as broad a range of voices as possible, to reflect the world I live in as representatively as possible, and from previously unheard perspectives. At the moment the system (such as one exists at all) is geared up to ensure only a very narrow range makes it through. For me, theatre in a civilised society is an organ of democracy. It’s one of the few areas of collective self-examination which we have left. And like democracy, it isn't good for theatre when access to taking part in it is restricted, however unintentionally.

Sofie said earlier that this isn’t about box-ticking, and she’s right, it isn’t. It’s about fairness. We all support the subsidised theatre sector through our taxes so we should all have an equal stake in it. But more importantly it’s about representation of people and communities whose voices we hear too seldom. Apart from anything else, they are an untapped source of new and exciting stories for us all.

Sofie Mason’s Adopt-a-Playwright scheme is imaginative in its structure, elegant in its simplicity, and timely in its appearance. It’s an idea that feels like it has legs, and if successful, could go on to become a model for similar schemes up and down the country.

I recommend it to you without reservation."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Right then, I think six weekly posts are going to be about my limit. Thanks to all who commented on my previous musings and faintly existential crisis about what the point is of committing this drivel to the internet, but it’s nice to know that at least four of you have some vague interest in hearing it.

As it happens, I have more material than usual this month due to just having got back from America, where I was attending the US premiere of How To Disappear. It was great!

Not only was it the first foreign production I had been able to attend, it was also my first time ever to the United States. At the risk of sounding like an excitable adolescent who’s just lost his virginity, I have to say I absolutely loved it. I suppose like many Brits I had never got round to visiting before as I had always prioritised more exotic locations for holidays, and America feels so familiar because it’s there whenever you turn on the TV. But whilst you’re there, that odd sense of familiarity mixed with strangeness makes you feel a bit spaced out, like you’re in a film, which of course is how most of us experience America from outside, through drama. It was exciting and unnerving at the same time, like having taken a mild hallucinogen.

[Sorry, those of you who go to America all the time will have heard all this before. But indulge me, it was my first time.]

I was in Portland, Oregon – which lots of people told me was a great place to start as it’s one of the most cultured and liberal corners of the US. The whole city has such a relaxed atmosphere, lots of artists’ collectives and galleries with late night openings and play festivals and microbreweries and local organic food and a bookshop which took up a whole block. Everyone was so proud of their city, and not in an annoying small-minded way, but genuinely because it was such a brilliant place with such an exciting DIY can-do ethos, much like the people themselves.

There’s something very refreshing about the openness and honesty of Americans, and it really made me realise how, by comparison, our own culture is steeped in cynicism, sarcasm and world weariness. Now I’m as guilty of that as anyone, and don’t get me wrong, there’s times for being cynical and questioning about the modern world – not least for the humour it can generate. But what I loved about Americans and America was that everything is so much more simple over there.

I know what you’re thinking. Your cynical, sarcastic British mind is thinking I mean ‘simple’ as in ‘stupid’. But you see, that’s a sign of your world weary culture having turned you into a git. I mean ‘simple’ as in ‘straightforward’. Simple as in plain-speaking. Simple as in honest. Americans say what they mean and mean what they say. There’s no having to read between the lines, or catch an ironic tone of voice, or pay attention to raised eyebrows or knowing smirks or double meanings and ulterior motives. Things are much more as they appear over there. And you know what? It made me into a nicer person. Honestly. Because Americans are genuinely pleased to see you. All the time. And that was so infectious.

A typical conversation went something like this:

American: Hey, how you doing?
Me: I’m doing great!
American: Great!!
Me: Yeah!! How are you doing?
American: I’m awesome!!
Me: Yeah?!!
American: Yeah!!!!
Me: That’s awesome!!!!!!
American: Awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Me: I’ll have two coffees please.

And that was just in shops. Imagine how pleased the company were to see me.

[Those of you who don’t want to hear about the ins and outs of how great it all was should maybe skip the next bit. You have to remember that my Mum reads this stuff too.]

When I arrived in my hotel there was a hamper of local organic Portland produce on the bed, with a card and a signed photo of the cast. They’d already flown me over there, and paid for the hotel. That was just the start. There were dinners and lunches and drinks and more presents. At press night they made me stand in the auditorium while everyone clapped. The show got a standing ovation. A news report about it even ended up on Oregon’s state TV! (You can watch it here.) The whole experience was amazing. In fact I think I would go so far as to say it was awesome. I’ve certainly never had a British theatre company make such a fuss of me.

Portland Center Stage were the company producing my play, and it was totally fascinating to see how they’d interpreted it, entirely independently of me, and through their own cultural filter. The director, Rose Riordan, had done a stunning job - as well as being smart and savvy and an all-round pleasure to meet and hang out with; as I knew she would be ... I have a couple of spies in Portland who told me in advance how well regarded she is.

[Those of you who are bored of hearing about How To Disappear might want to skip to the end at this point, because I’m going to compare the two productions. Forgive me the indulgence but it was the first time I have ever seen more than one version of a play of mine, so I want to get it down for posterity. Hey, I’m a writer. This is how I order and digest the world.]

The US production was completely different to Ellie Jones’s productions in Sheffield and London. Both were slick and stylish, and benefitted from great casts and stunning lighting, sound and set designs. But the American version really was like watching an adaptation or a translation of the play. All the Americans I spoke to commented on how British it all felt to them, which of course it would – they did it all in British accents for one thing. The London and Essex place names naturally evoke a sense of the exotic for them, which always made me smile, especially applying that word to Essex. But to me there was something decidedly American about what they had chosen to highlight.

For example, much more of the play was directed out towards the audience – not just Charlie’s bits but many of Mike’s sections about the minutiae of exploiting bureaucratic systems. The effect was that it became much more about selling en masse the dream of escape and renewal - or the nightmare, as of course it turns out. Charlie’s big speech in the middle of Act One was much more nightmarish; unlike in Ellie’s version, where the rest of the cast were employed as an ensemble to act out the scenes as he describes them, Rose’s version stripped that right back and had Charlie speaking alone, with increasing desperation, as atonal sound effects and unsettling light flashes built up around him as his hysteria peaked. The difference between the two, looking back, was that Rose’s version emphasised the psychological intensity of Charlie’s breakdown, with the result that the play became much more a story of an individual man’s demons. Ellie’s interpretation, by contrast, emphasised that it was the world he inhabited that drove him mad. The physical language with which she illustrated this was perhaps more European in sensibility, whilst Rose’s lingered far more on Charlie’s loneliness and suffering – there was a good two-minute section after his speech where we watch him silently tremble as he binds his broken, bleeding knuckles in toilet roll.

An American friend I met up with out there said an interesting thing: ‘Americans are in love with individuals who push themselves to the extreme in search of themselves.’ This really seemed to fit with what I saw. Although Charlie doesn’t really have that many redeeming features, they liked him, and went with him, because he was the vehicle in which they could travel to vicariously explore their own darkest fantasies. They admired his pursuit of the truth about himself – even if that journey turned out to be ultimately meaningless.

In a way, the play had come home to roost, because the self-help books about identity change which I read while researching it (of which How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found had the best title – so I nicked it) were all American. There aren’t any British ones, so I had to read the US ones and extrapolate. But what was so great about them was that they somehow managed to link the whole dubious enterprise to the American dream, and the idea of ‘self-actualisation’, which is a much more significant tradition there than here. In changing your identity, they’d have you believe, you’re not running away from yourself but rediscovering and becoming who you really are.

[Those who are really bored should maybe call it a day here. I don’t think it’s working out. It’s not you, it’s me... I won’t mind if you want to start seeing some other bloggers. It might be for the best. I’ll still be in your browser history, maybe we should take some time out and see where we’re both at in a few months...]

The decisions about the set were great too. Both productions had chosen square-ish sets with lines going off to vanishing points, but whereas Ellen Cairns’s black walls brilliantly sloped to one side, suggesting a world off-kilter, Chris Rousseau’s clinical white box, criss-crossed with hard, straight lines suggested a world viewed through broken glass – and also a morgue. In this way the US production was more fatalistic from the outset, implying that Charlie is already in the morgue at the start of the play, and that everything from there on in is a fantasy. His fate is sealed before we even start.

(Are any chief examiners reading? Put this play on your syllabus, I’d write you a stonking education pack.)

There’s a slideshow of images here, and a great 'resource pack' the company put together with an amusing glossary at the end, translating all the UK-specific slang and cultural references. Whilst those of you who give a shit about things like critics can see what they thought of the show here, here and here.

I found out something else interesting while I was there. The play is on for 8 weeks (I know!!) and apparently the reason for that is because of the comparative lack of government funding of the arts in America. Companies have to be a lot more resourceful as a result, and go to great lengths to cultivate groups of subscribers (ie. season ticket holders who get discounts for booking for every show.) Although we do this in a small way over here, in the States it’s huge. PCS alone have 10,000 subscribers on their books! So the first 3 or 4 weeks of any run is entirely booked up with them. If the general public want to get a shot at seeing it then they have to come in weeks 5, 6, 7 and 8. But how great to have that long for a show to build up a head of steam! Over here the reviews have barely come out before the bloody thing has to close. I think we could learn a lot from that. Apart from anything else the royalties are so much better, providing greater security for artists which (dare I say it) may well encourage them to take a few more risks.

Talking of risks, I was lucky enough to be at PCS for the final week of Nancy Keystone’s epic Nazi Germany / NASA space programme / Civil Rights Movement drama Apollo, which had been 7 years in the making (7 years!) My god, what a show. It was a Complicit√©-style saga set over 30-odd years of American history, starting with the hunt for Nazi rocket scientists after the defeat of the Third Reich, how they were absolved of their crimes and granted US citizenship to come and work on the NASA space programme, through investigations and recriminations in the 60 and 70s – then, brilliantly, because NASA was based in Alabama, and cotton harvested by poor black workers in near-slavery conditions is an ingredient in rocket fuel, it drew a direct and provocative parallel between the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis and the recent history of black Americans. It was a stunning piece of visual poetry from start to finish, alive with big ideas, grand historical narratives, and breathtaking ambition. I loved every second of its 3 and a half hours. I was so impressed that a theatre company would invest over such a long time (7 years!) in a show like that, with 20 in the cast, a challengingly complex form, and a tough message for an American audience to hear. I can’t think of a comparable show or process over here (7 years!) The sheer scale and brilliance of it all made me a bit sad that we don’t take such risks any more (if we ever did).

Only in America.

I will definitely be going back.