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Dream Plays (Scenes From a Play I'll Never Write) - From Page to Stage


It's just before 10am in the Traverse Theatre, and artistic director 
Orla O'Loughlin has an awards ceremony to get to. It may be the last 
week of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but O'Loughlin has already been 
at work for two hours, as she has been for pretty much every day of 
August. The reason for such un-artistic early starts is Dream Plays 
(Scenes From a Play I'll Never Write), the series of twelve performed 
readings of newly commissioned works curated and directed by O'Loughlin 
with playwright David Greig, and which ran each day over two weeks.

As the mini season's name suggests, each reading took place at 9am, a 
time when most Fringe carousers are just settling into some rapid eye 
movement after a night propping up their favoured watering hole. With a 
final hour's rehearsal for each play beginning at 8am, for O'Loughlin 
and Greig, at least, sleep has become something of a luxury in the 
rapid turnover required for each play.

The first week of Dream Plays featured works by established writers 
David Ireland, Sue Glover, Nicola McCartney, Alan Wilkins and Janice 
Galloway, plus one from Traverse newbie, Sabrina Mahfouz, who was 
commissioned after O'Loughlin saw her play, One Hour Only, at the 
Underbelly.

The entire Dream Plays experience, according to O'Loughlin, has been “a 
labour of love. It's been a pretty schizophrenic experience holding 
twelve different plays in my head for the last couple of months, and 
then two on a daily basis.”

Dream Plays came about following a conversation between O'Loughlin and 
Greig, who were both aware of the precedents set in previous Traverse 
breakfast seasons, Ravenhill For Breakfast and Impossible Plays For 
Breakfast.

“It was very early on in my tenure, and I was keen to work with as many 
writers as possible,” O'Loughlin says. “It was an open invitation, and 
every play has turned out completely different.”

The second week of Dream Plays began with Room 7, Johnny McKnight's 
scurrilous science fiction play about one woman's entry into what turns 
out to be a glorified baby factory, watched over by a multitude of 
cameras. It's quite a departure for McKnight, who nevertheless manages 
to bring some of his trademark camp to an otherwise dark tale.

For National Health, playwright Lynda Radley sits at a table at the 
back of the stage, blowing bubbles while the three young women in the 
psychiatric unit where her play is set push their situation as far as 
they can.

For Skeleton Wumman, Gerda Stevenson puts a guitarist and cellist 
onstage to accompany actress Pauline Knowles delivering an already 
lyrical monologue written in a rich Scots idiom. Also present onstage 
is a signer, providing access for the deaf in a way which also goes 
some way to illustrate and Stevenson's narrative.

In his introduction to A Respectable Widow Takes To Vulgarity, Douglas 
Maxwell describes his play as “Pygmalion in reverse, which is pretty 
much the case in a yarn in which a merry widow takes to one of her dead 
husband's potty-mouthed employees. As she learns how to "vulgarise her 
inner monologue,” this liberation of her own vocabulary becomes a last 
gasp connection to her self-made husband.

It Ended. Or the body of an unknownman on Somerton Beach was the second 
play by a writer picked up on the Fringe. Australian playwright Tobias 
Manderson-Galvin's play The Economist, was spotted by Greig, and within 
forty-eight hours, Manderson-Galvin's flight of fancy based in part on 
a real life mystery of a man washed up on a beach in 1948, was onstage.

Using elements of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam fused with a 
self-reflexive detective story, Manderson-Galvin's play proved to be a 
fascinating exercise in form that revealed a tantalisingly playful 
voice.

Out of the twelve plays, it is the newest voices that have proved the 
most revelatory. When Mahfouz was first approached by O'Loughlin to 
write what turned out to be a play about three female computer game 
avatars written in streetwise rhyme, “I thought about it for about five 
seconds, and then said yes. It was quite fateful, really, because I 
hadn't been up to Edinburgh yet, so when I got here it made it all the 
more exciting.”

For Manderson-Galvin too, being thrown in the deep end left little time 
for thought.

“It was an idea I'd been playing with,” he says, “so this forced my 
hand somewhat, and now I'll probably write hundreds of pages more and 
see where it goes.”

All parties are keen to continue the relationship begun with Dream 
Plays. If all goes well, new plays by Mahfouz and Manderson-Galvin 
should hopefully be seen in Edinburgh before too long.

As Greig points out, though, “Dream Plays was never about putting on 
complete works. That's been the best part about it, that sense of 
roughness and unfinishedness to everything, and the fact that they 
could go anywhere.”

If Dream Plays has been O'Loughlin's coming out ball, as she gets to 
develop relationships with Scotland's writers and actors, it also 
suggests a new sense of urgency in terms of putting work on in 
increasingly cash-strapped times.

“Our job is to get work onto the stage,” she says, “and not to do 
development for development's sake. It's also been a way for me to get 
to know the writers quickly, and discovering the range of work that's 
out there. It's also about saying that we have the will to get this 
work on. If this year has been about ant anything, it’s about putting 
the writer at the centre of the programme.”

All of which comes through in last week's announcement of the 
Traverse's autumn season, in which O'Loughlin will direct both in-house 
productions. The first of these will be the Artist Man and the Mother 
Woman, a new piece from the fantastical mind of Morna Pearson, whose 
debut play, Distracted, scooped the Meyer-Whitworth Award in 2006. This 
will be followed by The Arthur Conan Doyle Story, a riotous Christmas 
show in association with the physical-based Peepolykus company.

As well as a visit from Grid Iron and a new dance festival, the new 
season will also begin Traverse 50, which, in the spirit of Dream 
Plays, will see the Traverse work with fifty writers in the run up to 
the theatre's half century anniversary in 2013.

In the meantime, it's 10am again, in  the Traverse bar. It's Sunday 
morning, and the final Dream Play, Found at Sea, by poet Andrew Greig 
has just been performed. A dramatisation of a long poem about a sailing 
trip undertaken by Greig, in some ways its the most complete of all the 
Dream Plays.

With actors Tam Dean Burn and Lewis Howden gathered around a pub table 
topped with half-finished drinks, the pair map out a very personal 
voyage awash with little epiphanies en route. A set of sails sits 
behind the actors, who chalk out tents and camp-fires on the floor 
while Greig himself sits to one side, sound-tracking the whole thing 
with his live banjo playing. Greig's writing exudes warmth in 
abundance, and, in David Greig's mini-production, again points to a 
more inventive future.

For now, though, the Dream Plays are over. In the bar, David Greig 
chats with former Traverse artistic director Philip Howard. O'Loughlin 
sits in the corner with her family, relaxing at last at the end of her 
first Fringe in charge of the Traverse. It's an all too rare pause for 
breath before the dreaming begins once more.

Details of the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh's autumn season can be found 
at www.traverse.co.uk
The Herald, August 28th 2012

ends

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