New Writing Part Two: London Playwrights Collective (Theatre503 22/3/10) 2 April 2010

Here we are at part two of my new writing month. I went to Theatre503 - the self proclaimed home of fearless writing and the theatre that was first to put on this years Olivier winning best play The Mountaintop - twice. The first for an evening of new writing from The London Playwrights Collective I figured that I keep going on about new writing and figured I had to make more of an effort to support it. I had been intending to go to Theatre503 for some time and when I went onto the website to see what was on I discovered London Playwrights' Collective - a collaborative supportive ad proactive community for writers. Taking chances is what it's all about, right?

When I first read about this one-off evening of new writing my expectation was to see extracts from new work. I figured it would be about showcasing four new writers by giving a peak at their full length plays. The fact that this ended up only being partially true was not a huge problem but I only wished I had known in advance what I was letting myself in for prior to attending, so I could get into the right frame of mind.

As mentioned, this was my first proper visit to Theatre503 and I have to say it exceeded my expectations. For those who have been to the Gate Theatre is Notting Hill, imagine the same with 10 times the amount of foyer space. After I collected my ticket I received a programme from what I believe to be the organiser. She let me know that there was a questionnaire and asked if I could complete it at the end. I had no problem with that but it sort of took me by surprise. For me to give feedback I would have to quickly adjust my head from punter to critic. I took a look at the programme which gave a good deal of information - play titles, cast lists with biographies, playwright biographies and a bit about the evening. Here it is:

'The Platforms are opportunities for the playwrights to go beyond the relative comfort of the writers' group an get a real taste of the theatre making process. More than a simple showcase, it is a crucial step in the development of the playwrights and their work both through working with directors and cast but most importantly by the immediate response of the audience.

These exciting platform performances are the result of a 4 month development period where our writers came together during specially designed LPC workshops, generously pooling resources and sharing knowledge in order to support each other in the creation of their piece. Once selected, the playwrights we given feedback and recommendations from the Theatre503 selection panel and got rewriting. They were then each paired up with a specifically appointed professional theatre director, who, through proactive feedback and dialogue, provided additional support in the conceptualisation of the piece whilst fully involving them into the directorial process. The directors were selected by the LPC artistic team out of the forty plus who applied!'

It sounds as if a great deal of work and energy went into the evening, but unfortunately I had difficulty seeing that work onstage, much to the detriment of the plays themselves.

The evening started on a promising note. The first piece The Inappropriate Conversation by Reen Polonsky, directed by Jackie Kane was a two hander involving an teenage girl and an older man. What I liked about it was the aspect of not knowing if these two were lovers. It was eventually revealed that the man was the girls god father but the girl obviously really fancied him. This story could be spun off into an interesting dissection not only of Lolita style attraction but, as was hinted at here, the differences between age groups. The actors were off book and although I found the performances to be a little stilted and actorly, not entirely convincing, I could still see see the play beneath.

Next up The Lesson Before We Break by Colin Bell, directed by Alexander Summers. Unfortunately I found this one to be a bit of a disaster.

This play concerned an elderly teacher who it seems in the past was convicted of a relationship with a younger male pupil (we sit through an interrogation scene where it is revealed the male officer knows the teacher). He befriends a young male student who is new to the school while he is reading 'Catcher in the Rye'. During a school assembly the teacher verbally insults a female student after she laughed during a bit about the holocaust. It seems that he had been forced to wear a pink triangle during WW2 (This can't be confirmed as we only really see him putting on an armband with the pink triangle). This young female student is 'inner city tough' and files a complaint in a scene where she, accompanied by another teacher, confronts the elderly teacher. She has knowledge of his prior conviction and threatens him with spilling the beans.

Along the way, this female student meets the new kid and tries to get him on her side by threatening violence, he is not interested. He gets a lesson in the 'Catcher in the Rye' from the teacher who dissects the books characters names - Holden Caulfield becomes - Hold On (with all that implies) and Caul - the membrane around a baby - blah blah blah. (I think Catcher has already been done to death). Finally, the girls gang beats up the boy and he goes to the teachers home for help. The teacher is afraid that he will be seen as having a relationship with the boy so tries to get him out. At this point the student brings up how he is scarred by his father being in Afghanistan. I can't really remember how it ended. Mind you, this was just an extract. It was very long and everyone was on book and there were a great many 'scene' changes which made it very difficult to watch and follow. Honestly, just two of those issues raised could make for an interesting play but it was all too much.

After the interval came Cold Hands by John Anderson, directed by Anna Brownstead. This one was partially off book, but I really couldn't figure out what was going on. It's hard to say whether a few scenes were shoved together to give a bigger picture of the story or we were just dropped into it. This concerned something about a cryonics laboratory. Here's the description - 'When the Director of a cryonics firm finds his business world shattering into shards around him, he finally confronts his won personal grief.'

There was something very cold and distant about this, as if it was written by someone from the medical profession. It got a bit too technical at times and I really didn't see the personal grief. Again, it seemed very under rehearsed and this got in the way of seeing the play. From what was presented on stage I didn't find it very interesting.

Finally, the best all rounder of the evening - Waterton's Wild Menagerie by David Bottomley, directed by Daniel Burgess. Here's the description - 'Charles Waterton 1782 - 1865, a traveller, naturalist and benefactor to the local poor. He created the world's first nature reserve at Walton Hall, his ancestral home. This extract recalls his encounter with a group of starving beggars and supposes what might have occurred had he invited them back to eat bread with him at Walton Hall.' Although all actors were on book, it never interfered with the story or performances. It was well directed, very simply relying on the actors to tell the story. It was also funny, witty and well observed. The only downside for me was that for an extract, it seemed to go on for quite some time.

I opted out of filling in the questionnaire. I considered starting it during the interval but I didn't have a pen and then when I had a proper look at the sheet I realised it would prove an impossible task. There was only a very small comment space for each play accompanied by a 'rate this' from two to five section. It also asked which of the pieces I would be interested in seeing as a full length version. Because of the presentation I couldn't comment on the play without commenting on the direction and acting. Did I not like the play because of the directing? or were the actors so under rehearsed that it showed the play in a poor light? I didn't know and there wasn't enough room on the sheet to explain.

Although the intentions were honorable I fell this was a good example of why some 'scratch' type performances don't work. I like to know what I'm getting myself into, how I am supposed to experience the evening. I was never made aware, as a punter, that I would be seeing such unfinished extracts. The plays themselves may have been considered finished but the presentations were so fussy, unimaginative and under rehearsed I felt the only people that would have really gotten anything out of them would be the playwright and those also involved in each writers writing group. In fact, I have the feeling the audience was mostly made up of those two groups and those associated with LPC. There was a very 'in crowd' feeling about the evening, as if they all knew what was to come and I was the only one out in the cold.

What would have made this evening work for me?

1. An introduction on stage to each extract - giving a small overview of where it fits within the whole of the play - finished or not.
2. Better rehearsed actors so not to distract from the play itself.
3. Unfussy direction so the audience could concentrate on the play and not get bogged down with fussy blocking and set pieces.
4. Allowing on side of an A5 sheet of paper for each play and a way to either send in your comments later or email them through.

I think LPC were trying to straddle two worlds by trying to make both playwright and punter happy. I can't imagine the average punter being that interested in seeing something so unformed. Although these were works in progress I feel they should have been shown as finished works with more time put into presentation. If this is what is to be expected from scratch performances I can't see myself attending more unless I am associated in some way.

I wonder if what's keeping scratchs from being an integral part of the process is how the writers view their work. This came up during my 'Devoted and Disgruntled' session. Either you can present something as a work in progress or as a finished piece. My feeling is that there aren't many people who are interested in works in progress but as theatregoers are aware that as with all types of art, things can change. It's all about your intention.

In the present format I'm not sure I will be attending another of LPC's evenings. Funny enough they waited until you arrived to let you know what you were in for. Unlike the description on the website, the evening had a title, it was printed on their programme - Crash Test Audience 2. Enough said.