West End showcase for new playwrights

Regular audiences at Greenwich Theatre, or regular readers of this column, will know how much importance I place upon the support of new theatre. Whether you are a writer, director, actor or producer, if you are at the start of your career then getting a big break, or indeed any break, can be incredibly difficult and thousands of people give up because they just can’t make any headway in the industry.

One of the most important support opportunities for writers is the chance to have drafts of your work performed at a relatively early stage by professional actors. Last week, for example, we hosted a reading of extracts from Lest We Forget by Charlotte Green, the inaugural play from new company Home Truths Theatre about the experience of black British soldiers during the First World War. This experience gives writers a chance to hear their dialogue spoken aloud, rather than just running it over and over inside their heads, and it allows them to gather feedback from audiences to help them develop the next draft of the script.

Earlier this year I directed a reading of Sian Rowland’s latest play, Learning To Swim, about a young man meeting the mother of the boy he accidentally killed in a fight. Following feedback from audience members Sian revisited the script, and she was subsequently invited to join the new writing initiative at the Criterion Theatre in the West End – so now I am back, working on the script once again with Sian and a company of professional actors, ahead of a second reading at the Criterion on 3 December.

Greg Mosse, the organiser of the Criterion New Writing Program, explained the thinking behind the initiative. “I devised the program with my friend Peter Clayton. The idea was to find a space in the West End for writers to imagine creating work for mid- to large-scale theatres. Peter was, at that time, a member of the board of the Criterion Theatre Trust. We put our project to Fiona Callaghan, the managing director, and the rest is history.”

“Each year, three groups of six playwrights spend six afternoons on stage at the Criterion” he continued. “The first two sessions discuss narrative form. Sessions three, four, five and six are attended by actors, reading the six writers’ brand new scenes out into the auditorium. Our focus is always story development. We do not nit-pick. We are always saying to one another, “what if?’”

The line-up on 3 December will be the last of three very diverse showcase afternoons – across the three sessions there is comedy, satire, dark drama and even a musical. On 2 November, Omar Khan’s play told a story of an oppressive father driving his daughters to become Taekwondo champions, Alys Metcalf wrote about a Congolese woman returning home from the US and James McDermott tackled fifty years of gay British history through the lives of two gay couples. “Each new play is different, of course” explained Greg, “but one thing I insist upon is that the interpersonal drama of each script should be backed up by broader panoramic dramas. The personal stories must be compelling, intriguing but the imaginary world that encloses them should also be powerful.”

Anyone who would like to see a free afternoon of new writing in the West End should head to the Criterion on 16 November, or join me on 3 December, and be sure to give feedback. Theatre is nothing without audiences, and the best new plays are those which are developed with the input of those audiences at an early stage.

James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre.

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