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With the Vault Festival returning to London next week, bringing with it six weeks worth of entertainment from an energetic collective of comedy, theatre and music, you can expect the winter chill to be somewhat thawed by the explosive talent. Described as London's answer to the Edinburgh Fringe, the vaults under Waterloo Station take on a brand new life as the cultural hub of new work in London. With so much on offer in terms of new writing and theatre it can be daunting to know where to begin, but the PLAY company are an award-winning and visionary collective that have approached new writing in a brand new way.
“I think there is a certain stigma around the phrase 'new writing'” says Rebecca Durbin, the Artistic Director of PLAY Theatre Company. “It's a saturated market, there's loads of it, and it's sometimes good and sometimes bad. I think it's difficult to get away from that, how do you highlight something as being 'good' new writing?”
It's a question that haunts any producer, writer or director currently striving to get their voice heard on the London fringe, but it's one that keeps creative people striving to constantly break the mould and challenge the wider public's preconception of what it means to be 'new' in the first place. “Maybe if you had the time to talk through with the person to explain what new writing can be about, it's not about sitting in a black box and listening to a monologue about someone's life” Durbin laughs.
It's a challenge that Rebecca has embraced with her company who are about to enter their second season at the Vault Festival after taking home the Vault's People's Choice Award for their production in 2016. Part of the fact she can be so driven with her efforts in a highly saturated market is down to the fact she knows that PLAY is quite unique and offers something different to the 'new writing' scene.
“I went to lots of new writing nights but I felt like none of the final pieces were reflective of the quality of the individuals”, she explains, talking about the genesis of the company that was part inspired by her collaborative training at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “I thought there must be a way of making it more creatively vigorous and setting up something more long-term that could be developed, creating companies that might go on to work together - I wanted it to be taken more seriously. I knew I wanted to work with people who wanted to broaden their creative development, bringing together people who hadn't worked together before and sharing skills and inspiring each other.”
Unlike many other new writing initiatives, PLAY is unique in its construct of bringing together a company of actors, writers and directors and allowing them to literally 'play' in a rehearsal room together in order to collaborate and create new work. For the Vault Festival, their performance includes four 15 minute short pieces that display the fruits of this collaborative process.
“We tend to get together a diverse company as much as we possibly can”, Rebecca explains. “Ten actors, equal gender balance, it's all done fairly randomly and we pick names out of a hat and pair people together in terms of availability. We like to create nice balanced rooms, so we have mixed groups, the writers and directors find out who they're working with a week before, but they don't know which actors they're working with. On the first day everyone meets together as a company – the benefit of meeting 18 young creatives who are going to rise up through the ranks in the future is so helpful, those links that will last beyond the two weeks. We do a lot of ensemble work, text work and get everyone thinking collaboratively and playing.”
In bringing together so many creative minds the possibilities for exploration seem endless, and whilst it's a process that certainly leads to some exciting topics, the finished pieces tend to touch on similar themes. “There has been all sorts of subjects, nothing is really taboo. The idea is that it's open, we never set a theme but something always filters to the surface. Everyone is listening to the news, there's often shared feelings. Last years the January plays were a bit moody and subtle but the Spring ones were much more cheery and positive, they really tend to reflect the mood. Obviously we have to respond to Trump and Brexit, but you don't want to make four obvious 'issue' plays.”
The process itself isn't without its challenges, and Durbin feels the pressures just like any other company working in London. “The biggest challenge aside from scheduling 18 people into two weeks of rehearsals has been getting a company off the ground and how to make them stand out” she explains. “In this climate there's no money for anything. Everyone is talking about the echo chamber at the moment, and that's something I noticed about lots of new writing nights, it felt very much like people just performing for their friends. I didn't want it to feel cliquey, instead I had to think how can we invest more and make it something that might engage different people and have a longer term impact. In London everyone is making theatre all the time – theatre is saturated. How are you going to make people take notice and listen?”
As a company PLAY is certainly going from strength to strength and in their two years of development a lot of people have started to sit up and listen. “I think there's something that's inherent in the surprise and secrecy of it – people want to see the people who are involved, people are curious to see what we've come up with” Rebecca hypothesises. “I think it's unique in the way we work, it's not new or revolutionary, but in terms of the new writing scene we are doing something that other people aren't doing and I think that's exciting people. One of the best pieces of feedback we've had came from someone who said it represented modern life better than any other new writing night they had seen. I think because of the short two week rehearsal period it does then feel very fresh and very current.”
In terms of future development Durbin has her sights set beyond the London bubble and finds herself constantly questioning theatre's role in connecting with the whole country. “We're excited about doing work outside of London, I'm interested to see if people have an interest in this kind of theatre around the country. I think there's sometimes an arrogance about creating a play in London and then thinking we'll tour it around the UK, it has to be something that embeds down in a city – the plays that are made here do feel very London based, I'd like to change that and make it relevant to different environments. Everyone is talking about how we feel disconnected to the regions, the arts can play a really big role in connecting people, we need to get new voices down to London and build bridges of communication.”
With their first run at the Vaults 2017 just around the corner Durbin finds herself managing four different companies rehearsing all over London at all hours of the day. With that many actors, directors and writers to handle, it's considerably more work that one single play, but for her and the rest of the PLAY company it's worth that extra effort. “People often say that it's rare that you see an hour of theatre that gives so much variety” she comments as her various electronic devices ping with scheduling changes, questions from writers and responses from venues. “With ten actors on stage, four plays in the space in one hour, there's a pace and variety to it that's really exciting. It's really worth that additional effort to collaborate, share and really PLAY together.”
The Vault Festival runs from 25 January to 5 March 2017.
PLAY's The Subterranean Season runs at the Vaults from 25 to 29 January and 1 to 5 March 2017.