Golden jubilees don't come around often for artistic institutions, so it's somewhat edifying to see that Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre bursts into late middle age with little let-up in terms of developing new playwriting. Following new artistic director Orla O'Loughlin's inaugural season, the celebrations begin early in 2013 with 50 Plays For Edinburgh, an evening of 500-word long micro-plays inspired by the capital. The programme is the result of an open call for submissions from writers with no more than two professional stage productions to try and capture the essence of the city in as small a time as possible.
Out of 630 entries, the fifty that were eventually chosen will receive a performance under the guidance of O'Loughlin and Traverse associate director Hamish Pirie, who initiated the idea and whose baby the project remains. Rather than simply providing a one-off showcase developed from a novel idea, however, 50 Plays For Edinburgh has more long-term aims in mind, as Pirie explains.
“There'll be a day in the start of January when all fifty writers will get together with a group of senior writers to do workshops. We want to make sure that it's not just about telling people how to write, because different people are at different stages, and we want to stimulate them and inspire them to carry on writing. I'm a bit nervous of the phrase, but we want to inspire them to inspire us.”
In practical terms, the year will begin with all fifty writers attending an all-day series of workshops with senior playwrights and directors. Similar events will follow the performance, with a series of monthly salons working with other artists experienced in working with new writing. There will be networking events and other initiatives, with each writer developing work for a Scratch night overseen by young directors.
At some point, a space will be given over to a group for them to use as they see fit.
“They might just want to put on their plays,” says Pirie, but they might want to put on a punk gig or a light show. Anything so they're learning about being producers in a way that they can feel this is their building.”
The 500 word pieces will be developed into twenty minute pieces, with three of them selected as the focal point of a new writing festival set to take place at the end of the year.
“When we thought about what should be the centre-piece of the Traverse's fiftieth anniversary celebrations,” Pirie says, “we knew there'd be a certain amount of looking back to everything the theatre has achieved, but we also thought that it was quite right that we should be looking forward as well. So we knew we wanted to do something about Edinburgh, where the Traverse is based, and I quite liked the idea of getting something that's for Edinburgh rather than just about the place. One of the biggest plays that's come out of the Traverse in the last few years is Midsummer, which has been described as a love letter to Edinburgh, and we wanted to explore what that might be for other people.”
In terms of content, the response has been mixed.
“Some people have written stories that are about or are set in Edinburgh,” Pirie says, “but others seem to be telling stories about the world that happen to relate to Edinburgh. In the early stages there were a lot of plays set during the Edinburgh festival or on Arthur's Seat. There were a lot of history plays as well, and I think a lot of Googling went on by people who didn't know where Edinburgh is.
“There's a real challenge with 500 words, and even if they might not get something down perfect, there's maybe a brilliant central image that can be developed. So the most exciting thing about the format for me is that it's allowed different people's different skills to come through.
“There was a lot of theatricality, and a lot of people telling stories in different ways. There was quite a representation of writing that borders on the cusp of performance poetry, and which lives in a very different rhythmic land. There was some stuff that imagines how Edinburgh will be in the future. The ones that were really thrilling were the ones that looked at real human stories, and they were the ones that really sang out.”
While some thirty-one of the writers are Scotland-based, with a predominance from the central belt, contributions from further afield include writers from Dublin, Cardiff, Newcastle, London, Paris, Sydney and Zagreb. Names familiar to regular theatre-goers include young voices such as James Ley, whose work has appeared at Glasgay! and Oran Mor; Tim Primrose, who began writing while a member of Lyceum Youth Theatre, and has continued with Strange Town Theatre Co in Edinburgh; Sylvia Dow, whose first play was produced by the Greyscale company early in 2012 when she was aged seventy-three; and Kris Haddow, who has written and performed his own pieces for the National Theatre of Scotland's Five Minute Theatre initiative.
Some of the fifty are familiar too from other roles in the theatre world. These include actress Molly Innes, who has appeared in a stream of new plays at the Traverse, and Martin McCormick, who has appeared at the Tron and Citizens theatres, as well as with companies including Grid Iron and Vox Motus. Many of the Traverse 50, however, remain unknown quantities.
The project is very much in keeping with O'Loughlin's policy of getting as much new work onstage as possible. This was made flesh in Impossible Plays For Breakfast (Scenes From A play I'll Never Write), the series of early morning readings that took place at the Traverse throughout the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That season has already borne fruit via a mini production of Andrew Greig's dramatised poem, Found At Sea , in February.
“Often when you speak to writers who've been through writers groups, they say the thing they've gained most is being part of the group, because sometimes writing can be a really lonely thing,” Pirie observes. “So many covering letters from writers who are just starting out that will say that they really want to be part of a group. Then you get the people who've maybe had a couple on already, and that can be equally lonely, because while there are lots of groups for writers just starting out, that's not always the case for people who've had something on. Having all these people at different levels in the same group, I think it'll be really interesting to see how the dynamics develop. Again, it's about inspiring people. As soon as you put your play in an envelope and send it away somewhere, you've already done more than ninety per cent of people, and you're already a writer.”
50 Plays For Edinburgh, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January26th.
The Herald, January 1st 2012