Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Susannah Armitage - Producing A Play, A Pie and A Pint

In the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, a huddle of four young women sit
in closed ranks formation in the new writing venue's busy lunchtime
bar. At the centre of the gathering, whoo include Traverse associate
director Emma Callander and former Perth Theatre head now in charge of
Sherman Cymru in Cardiff, Rachel O'Riordan, is Susannah Armitage. The
subject of discussion is the ever-expanding enterprise that is A Play,
A Pie and A Pint, the lunchtime theatre set up a decade ago at Oran Mor
in the west end of Glasgow by former head of Wildcat Stage Productions
and co-founder of 7:84 Scotland, David MacLennan.

The premise of the operation was simple. Put short new plays on at
lunchtime for a week on a minimal budget, throw a glass of what you
fancy and a pie of your choice in with the ticket price, and see what
happens. Up until then, there was little history of lunchtime theatre
in Scotland, but A Play, A Pie and A Pint's quick turnover of work
quickly became a must-see phenomenon, its cheap and cheerful philosophy
pre-dating austerity culture and going against the grain of glossier
fare.

Many works first seen at Oran Mor went on to have theatrical lives
beyond their spiritual home, and ongoing partnerships were forged with
companies ranging from the similarly pocket-sized Bewley's cafe theatre
in Dublin to the National Theatre of Scotland. Much of the success of A
Play, A Pie and A Pint was down to MacLennan's shrewd charm, an ability
to recognise a good idea when he saw one, and a knack for working with
talented people.

One of those people was Armitage, who began working as MacLennan's
deputy producer at Oran Mor in 2008. Since MacLennan sadly passed away
last year, Armitage has stepped into her mentor's shoes, and the season
of a staggering nineteen plays that opens next Monday with Anne Hogg's
play, Butterfly, will be her first full season as A Play, A Pie and 
Pint's sole producer. Under MacLennan's guidance, and with a huge
supportive network of collaborators beside her, Armitage effectively
graduated through a unique theatrical boot-room to take up her new
role, even as she continues to work with the innovative Vox Motus
company, who she also produces.

“I really miss David,” says Armitage once her meeting is over, “but
I've been working with him for so long on A Play, A Pie and A Pint that
it's something I really want to carry on doing. I miss him on a
personal level, and I also miss the working relationship we had. One of
the wonderful things about David was the way he took risks and took a
chance on people if they had a good idea. David had faith in me, so
hopefully I can carry on with his ethos.”

The nineteen plays that make up the new season of A Play, A Pie and A
Pint features new writing by familiar PPP names such as Sandy Nelson,
Davey Anderson and Paddy Cunneen, as well as work by less well known
artists. Some of the work being shown was developed by writers who were
part of the Traverse Theatre's Traverse 50 initiative, and there will
also be  Gaelic language take on Whisky Galore and a series of works
from Russia and the Ukraine. Later in the season there is also the
first sighting of a new play by poet and novelist Alan Spence for some
time.

No Nothing is PPP's first collaboration with Aberdeen Performing Arts,
and imagines a celestial meeting between poet Edwin Morgan and trade
unionist Jimmy Reid.

“It's beautifully written,” says Armitage, “and has these two iconic
figures having this political flyting in a way that is really quite
magical.”

There are further collaborations with Ayr's Gaiety Theatre and Sherman
Cymru.

“We're trying to build up how we work with other venues,” Armitage
says, “and how we get scripts from elsewhere. The international
collaborations we do were one of the things I was originally brought in
to try and develop, so now we have the Russian and Ukrainian plays,
which have been in development for ages, and we've lots of other things
in the pipeline as well.”

Originally from the Black Isle in Cromartyshire, Armitage studied
Scottish Literature and Theatre Studies at Glasgow University before
working in the admin department at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow during
current executive producer of the National Theatre of Scotland, Neil
Murray's tenure in charge of the building. At the time, having an
executive producer running an organisation rather than a rehearsal
room-based artistic director was relatively rare, and Armitage learnt
much from the experience before she joined MacLennan on the
recommendation of playwright, composer and PPP regular, Cunneen.

“It was a completely different way of working,” Armitage says of her
arrival at Oran Mor. “It's not like working in a building or with a
company that has a big marketing department, but one of the great
lessons I took from David is the ability to say yes. If you've got a
good idea, just do it, and get as much work onstage as possible. It's
also great being able to work with companies who do have more resources
than us in terms of development. That way I think we can get the best
of all worlds.”

With this in mind, this season also somewhat remarkably sees A Play, A
Pie and A Pint produce its 350th play. For the occasion, Armitage and
co have teamed up with the Philadelphia-based Tiny Dynamite company,
who adopted the PPP model for their own work, and have performed some
of the plays first seen in Glasgow.

“It seems fitting somehow that we do an American play from their
programme,” says Armitage. “Tiny Dynamite have been so supportive of
what we do, so it's important to develop a two-way relationship.”

Armitage is keen to spread the Play, Pie and Pint net even wider.

“My aim is to keep the basic model,” she says, “but to try and develop
more relationships.
I think it's important to keep the ethos, the heart and the momentum of
A Play, A Pie and A Pint in much the same way as we have been doing,
and to build on that. I think it's important too to keep the political
edge of A Play, A Pie and A Pint, in whatever form. There's something
about the rawness and immediacy of getting work on so quickly that
makes it really direct. A Play, A Pie and A Pint will always be David's
baby, but I think it has its own personality and weight now to go
forward and continue everything he started and try and make it even
better.”

The Spring 2015 season of A Play, A Pie and A Pint begins at Oran Mor,
Glasgow on January 26 with Butterfly by Anne Hogg.
www.oran-mor.co.uk

The Herald, January 20th 2015

ends

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