The theater-doing scene in London boils down to one story for me. Waiting for a red bus on my way to a rehearsal of my play Birthday, which was receiving its U.K. Premiere, two women in their mid-20s were talking about what was going on at the National—a show which they had seen separately. One liked the play, one didn’t. It slowly dawned on me what was truly unusual—they weren’t in theater. They weren’t artists. And they weren’t family members or friends of the creative team. They were PURE AUDIENCE. Sure they’re talking about the National, a big theater, but even when over-hearing folks talk about the Public here in NYC, I find most often they are folks already in the arts, OR I hear these conversations when the lights go up in the theater. What fascinated me about these two ladies is that they were out in the world, plenty to distract them, and they were choosing to talk theater. They were talking about seeing a play LIKE IT WAS IMPORTANT.
Working in London has lead to all sorts of adventures and most importantly people whose brains I pick about—you guessed it! All levels of theater—especially indie theater! (Which should be noted is still a term we’re mostly using here in NYC meaning fringe or storefront.)
Sharon Willems: London is a busy, vibrant city. Nobody wants to waste their time. We want to see work that’s unabashedly raw and bursting with words that cannot be suppressed. We want well-made spectacles. We want the familial and political, too; we want it all. We just want it to be real.
Pssst. Sharon directed my play Birthday in London. Right now we’re sipping pinot noir at my favorite place to write: The Royal Court Cafe Bar. One of the best things about London is that the larger theaters all have a cafe and bookstore—audience members truly have a place to come and gather! But how do smaller indie theaters like Sharon’s fare? (Hers is just two years old.)
Willems: I started Kibo Productions because I believe in theater’s ability to strengthen communities. I’m quite proud of how the theater community here is responding to our funding cuts and recent social unrest. In a sense, we’ve used these obstacles to strengthen ourselves. The increase in collaborations has helped to ease the financial burdens of playmaking while allowing more artists into the room. For example Lyric Hammersmith’s recent co-production, Three Kingdoms, had theater companies from Britain, Germany, and Estonia all working together to extremely exciting effect. There’s also been an increase in ingenuity regarding theater spaces and pricing. Opening tonight is the Bush Bazaar where pop-up theater pioneers, Theatre Delicatessen, are taking over the Bush Theatre to create a theater bazaar of promenade performances where performers will barter with audiences for payment.
In many ways I find London theater (at all levels) to be in the hands of directors, which is no surprise, of course—they’re the movers and shakers there as well. Here are two directors I adore: London native Lotte Wakeham, assistant directing Matilda (which is transferring to Broadway in 2013), and Gaye Taylor Upchurch—who, in addition to being an assistant director to Sam Mendes’s Bridge project and directing Simon Russell Beale in Bluebird at the Atlantic Theater, is now back in NYC directing Harper Regan (another wonderful Simon Stephen play) in the Atlantic’s new season as well as Bethany at the Women’s Project. For these directors, finding new writers and working with them is just as important as for us to meet them! (In fact G.T. found Simon’s play Bluebird while searching for plays at the National Bookstore!)
G.T. Upchurch: In London, I do get the sense that everyone is paying attention to even the smallest of theaters. The pub-theater culture is huge in London—not only is it a place to discover new writing and artists, but it’s also a culture that attracts London stars to its stages, and people working at very established theaters go to these shows to stay connected to what’s happening in the theater scene.
Lotte Wakeham: Certainly there’s an appetite for new writing. I’m excited that new musical theater work—an area so long dominated by brilliant American writers—is growing in London and finding support and new audiences. I’d say that larger theaters definitely pay attention to the smaller ones—it’s in their interest to “discover” new playwrights, actors, and creatives working in smaller spaces, fringe theaters such as the Bush, the Gate, Theatre 503. There seems to be a lot of cross-pollination: great American work coming over here (e.g. we recently had Gatz) and also British work going to New York. There are also programs such as the Old Vic New Voices T.S. Eliot Exchange, that encourage emerging American theater makers to make links over here, and vice versa.
Ah! Old Vic New Voices—magic to the ears of anyone under 30. (Apply dear playwright friends!) Two wonderful American writers (beloved on the indie scene) Joshua Conkel (The Sluts of Sutton Drive, MilkMilkLemonade) and Stacy Davidowtiz (Pink, The Rubber Room) just got to experience the magic.
Joshua Conkel: I was impressed by theaters’ openness to playwrights. After meeting with literary managers at big, fancy theaters I was surprised when so many of them invited me to come work in their lobby or cafe for the day. It’s a small gesture that meant a lot. I can also say that London audiences seemed more reserved than New York audiences, so I found it difficult to gauge people’s reaction to the work. Obviously that’s a blanket statement, but there it is.
Stacy Davidowitz: The London audiences were absolutely more reserved. I saw a whole bunch of shows, and was quite aware that my gasps and laughter were...well, loud and lacking company. I learned a lot more about the audience’s reaction to these plays and my own work by keying into the moments that did elicit a response and through post-show discussion. The process from page to stage seems to be much quicker in London. Plays are written, read, and produced, rather than plays in New York City which often get read, showcased, or workshopped again and again without ever reaching production on a full scale. I was also tremendously impressed by how receptive and supportive major theater companies were of playwrights.
Conkel: I should also say that I feel Sluts got its world premiere in London rather than New York because the British are bolder programmers of new work. The theater seems to have much, much more support there than it does here, financially and culturally.
Sluts also just got published. Looks beautiful! Reading it right now and loving! Hmmm. How did that happen? As Josh puts it, “My producer Vicky Graham submitted the script to Andrew Walby, who runs Oberon.” So that means that Josh has had the wonderful experience of his script being able to be bought as the program right there when seeing the show! Why oh why don’t we do that here? Producers here take note!
As I wended my way through the London theater scene, a question kept recurring, a question just as valid here as it is there: What makes working in 2012—now—different from any other time? IDEAS can be shared at the drop of the hat with the click of a button. And on our lowest of days, when we’re not sure where the hell we’re going on this crazy theater road of life, IDEAS can start a whole new play, a whole new path. No one knows this better than Rachel Parish, a new works director who started Firehouse Creative Productions, a theater company who starts projects by inviting groups of artists to explore a Big Idea in a week long intensive workshop, then invites the audience in early to participate in the project as it evolves into a play.
Rachel brought me on my most fantastic journey in London—she invited me to The Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshow put on by Improbable Theatre at York Hall. There I entered an old gym-like setting full of an indie theater think tank! Every circle formed by folding chairs was a group jumping into a question posted on a wall. They were looking to make connections and problem solving these issues! Hand written on all sizes of pieces of paper were cries for help—questions to be solved from the more general to the very personal! “WHAT IS THE POINT OF FRINGE THEATRE?” “I HAVE A BABY. HELP!” “HOW CAN WE AS ARTISTS RUN GOOD BUSINESSES THAT EARN A LIVING?” “CAN ACTING MAKE YOU MENTALLY UNWELL?” Folks that gathered (directors! actors! playwrights! producers!) would pick the issue that jazzed them and jump into a circle to brainstorm. One note taker would then run to a long folding table (the media table!), type up the notes from this impromptu meeting, and post them underneath each original question on the wall. The media table was also abuzz with tweeting, of course. It hit home with indie theater playmaking today—you can be in any space at any time and get your engines started.
Being a part of that event actually lead to immediate production—a short play of mine (Moment of Zen) being done by Shama Rahman, whose group the Gung Ho Down, was forming right there before my eyes in that circle of folding chairs as she brainstormed her idea for an outdoor festival exploring science that affects us every day theatrically (from the subjects of memory to environment). I also briefly met Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, the wonderful director of Josh Conkel’s Sluts of Sutton Drive—which is how I first heard of this awesome team-up!
What a scene it is. I think about how London has affected me—all the amazing companies I’ve met, from Finborough (Artistic Director Neil McPherson is a huge inspiration to me—he is a genius) to the Royal Court. I think of the history I pass by there every day—or contemporary events that have captured my imagination (such as the recent riots, which I explore in my play Sex and Death in London). I think of how seeing my play Birthday performed for the second time, in London, was an experience that I will live with forever. It taught me how a play can be universal. That I have that power. We all do. And I’m reminded that our lives in theater beg us to travel. Go, find a way and go—be inspired and create!
CRYSTAL SKILLMAN is the playwright of Wild (just done in Chicago) and Cut. Crystal's upcoming productions in New York City include Follow, to be directed by Daniel Talbott this fall from October 17 - November 3 at Fanfare (Horse Trade) and Geek, to be directed by Robert Ross Parker for Vampire Cowboys in spring 2013. Episode One of her Welcome to the Fearless Indie Theater Universe series can be found in the July/August 2012 issue of the Rail.