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John Tiffany - NTS Traverse Debuts

John Tiffany is enjoying a rare day at work in the office of the National Theatre Of Scotland. Or rather, the company’s director of new work would be settled if a computer repair man wasn’t hogging his desk. Such unavoidable maintenance necessitates a move elsewhere to talk about Traverse Debuts, a season of four new plays by relatively untried writers, which the NTS are co-producing with The Traverse Theatre over the next few weeks. Then again, while he’s managed three nights on the trot in his own bed, Tiffany isn’t used to staying in the same place for long.

The morning after we talk, Tiffany flies out to Dublin to see in the latest international dates of Black Watch, his production of Gregory Burke’s phenomenal play, which has already toured the world, raising the bar for contemporary theatre at home and abroad. Tiffany will then travel with Black Watch to New York, where the show will play for a second time in a run that looks likely to sell out until Christmas. Once what’s likely to be Black Watch’s last outing for some time is in place, Tiffany’s return to The Traverse will mark his first production in the theatre that was effectively his alma mater since leaving his post there as Literary Director. His move to join Paines Plough reunited him with long-term collaborator Vicky Featherstone before both joined the newly formed National Theatre Of Scotland. As NTS director of new work, getting back to his roots is something Tiffany is clearly relishing.

“It all came from me and Vicky missing the old way of sitting round a table with new writers and great actors,” Tiffany enthuses. “and not having to worry about doing the big play, where everything hangs on its success. So we decided to do a week of development with fifteen writers, and by the middle of the week there were some brilliant things coming out that we just got really fired up about. The ones that felt ready just kind of jumped off the page anyway, so we decided to go for it.”

The four plays in Traverse Debuts are a mixed bag. Cockroach, set in a classroom as a war rages outside, is written by Sam Holcroft, who came through The Traverse Young Writers Group, and is directed by Featherstone. Traverse artistic director Dominic Hill will direct a double bill of The Dogstone, an Oban-set father and son drama by actor Kenny Lindsay, and Nasty, Brutish And Short, a tale of sibling conflict by first time writer Andy Duffy. Tiffany will direct Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, by original Black Watch cast member, Paul Higgins, which sees a trainee priest return from the seminary to a family in turmoil.

“A lot of actors have some kind of poetic ambition,” Tiffany says of the presence of two actor/writers in the Traverse Debuts programme. “Someone like Paul, for instance, was a total joy to have in the rehearsal room doing Black Watch, just suggesting things and bouncing ideas off everyone. His play isn’t autobiographical, although he did have an experience in a seminary for a short time, so it’s just great to have an opportunity like this to get his play out there.”

There are antecedents for Traverse Debuts. At The Traverse itself, 2006’s Cubed season of work presented three plays, most notable of which was Morna Pearson’s white trash grotesque, Distracted. In the early 1990s, when The Traverse was still housed in the Grassmarket, Spinning A Line was an annual season of three or four plays which ran back to back or in tandem. Most memorable of these was Lance Flynn’s play, The Cellar, a brutal vignette pre-dating the so-called ‘in-yer-face’ wave of writers that would define a mid-1990s generation of writers. Where both of these initiatives utilised the same company of actors for all plays in seasons which attempted to link up thematically in some way, other than being presented under the Traverse Debuts umbrella, all four plays here stand alone.

Compared to his recent work, Tiffany’s directorial contribution to Traverse Debuts looks relatively low-key. Black Watch, after all, was not only noted for Burke’s superb writing, but a production style which fused choreography, state-of-art audio-visuals and an emotive sound-score to produce a defining moment not seen on a Scottish stage since John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. With similar panache, Tiffany’s 2007 production of The Bacchae, a co-production between the NTS and Edinburgh International Festival, not only put Alan Cumming back on a Scottish stage in the star role of Dionysus. It also featured a wall of fire and, as the Bacchae themselves, a female gospel choir to add blousiness and groove to David Greig’s version of Euripides’ classic.

Such unabashed commercial sensibilities aren’t newly acquired, however. Brought in as an associate under the artistic directorship of Philip Howard, Tiffany’s early days at The Traverse were notable for sweeps of intelligent populism, be it through Stephen Greenhorn’s ‘road movie for the stage’, Passing Places and Siobhan Redmond’s presence in Liz Lochhead’s mid-life crisis comedy, Perfect Days, or getting Russell Hunter to drag up outwith panto season as the eponymous transvestite in James Duthie’s play, Greta. As the theatre’s Literary Director, it was Tiffany who picked up on Gregory Burke’s raw talent in Gagarin Way, which went on to tour commercially, marking Burke out as a dynamic young voice. The collaboration continued with the global success of Black Watch, which neither Tiffany or Burke could have predicted.

“It feels really lovely going back to The Traverse,” Tiffany says. “I was talking to (playwright) Enda Walsh in Dublin last week, about the summer of 1997, when Enda had Disco Pigs on in Edinburgh for the first time, and Vicky was directing Mike Cullen’s play, Anna Weiss, and Philip was doing David Harrower’s Knives In Hens, all at The Traverse during the festival. We were talking about how amazing that was, and how, with everything that’s happened since, we’re still all producing the same daft work.”

Next up for Tiffany is Be Near Me, a version of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel adapted for the stage by yet another Scots actor, former co-artistic director of The Almeida Theatre, Ian McDiarmid. This is something of a serendipitous double whammy, the roots of which can be traced back to when O’Hagan was guest speaker at The Traverse Writers Group to talk about his book, The Missing. Then, in Christmas 2007, Tiffany was approached by The Herald to name his book of the year. Be Near Me was his first choice. Not long after, Tiffany was invited out to lunch by McDiarmid, who somewhat sheepishly slid a large brown envelope across the table.

“It was so cute,” says Tiffany, “and so humble. He said he’d done this adaptation, and would I be interested in reading it. I mean, of course I would. Then when I opened it and it turned out to be Be Near Me, everything slotted into place.”

The forthcoming co-production between the NTS and The Donmar Theatre opens in Kilmarnock in January 2009. It looks set to be a big show, and one which Tiffany will no doubt apply all his directorial resources to. However it turns out, Tiffany’s eye for the popular should never be mistaken for a lack of depth. As he says of his own development as a director, “It doesn’t mean I’m always going to throw in odd dance routines. It’s just that I think I’m starting to understand the DNA of making theatre for big audiences. But I’ve not cracked it yet.”

The Traverse Debuts season runs at The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Cockroach, October 23-November 1. The Dogstone/Nasty, Brutish And Short, November 6-15. Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, November 20-29.

The Herald, October 14th 2008



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