Theatrical Matchmakers


Originally written for The Stage.

If there’s one thing Old Vic New Voices can’t be faulted for, it’s ambition. Last year, the Old Vic Theatre’s talent, education and community arm took a season of five plays to the Edinburgh Fringe, showcased a handful of brand new pieces from the US, supported several new productions in London, created a series of short films and mounted its ever-popular 24 Hour Plays – not to mention its extensive work with schools and local communities. At the heart of all these projects, it soon becomes clear from conversation with director Steve Winter, is an impulse to bring people together and link up emerging talent.

“We’re theatrical matchmakers,” is how Winter puts it. “That’s what we’ve always been and that’s what we want to continue to be.” This statement of intent comes as Old Vic New Voices implements a major overhaul of its Talent strand, reassessing the support it offers to emerging artists. Driven by a shift from project-by-project support to initiatives that will nurture talent over longer periods, the new opportunities being introduced this year include start-up funds to get fledgling projects off the ground and a dedicated venue for projects supported by the organisation.

Alongside hooking up like-minded artists and venues, Old Vic New Voices will now be connecting emerging artists and companies with the space to develop their work, offering free slots in a rehearsal space it has dubbed the ‘LAB’. The aim is as experimental as the name suggests; Winter describes it as “a place to fail and a place to succeed and a place to try things out”. Most strikingly, the emphasis is on process rather than product, with artists under no pressure to present a performance at the end of their time in the space.

“That’s one thing we’re absolutely clear about; it shouldn’t be a performance space,” says Winter. “If there’s one thing London doesn’t need, it’s more theatres.” Instead of being driven by the end goal of a full performance, Winter hopes that the LAB will be used “to develop and make work, to allow people to get together and talk, for writers to go somewhere to write quietly, for people to hold meetings, to invite people to watch a piece of work that might need funding – anything that propels creativity forward”.

The initiative has emerged from discussion with artists themselves, who highlighted space as one of the most important resources they could be offered. “I think there comes a point with any application or any job you’re doing where space becomes absolutely key,” Winter explains. “It’s an underrated, simple idea to give space away for free, because it’s so expensive in London – it’s expensive for the Old Vic, it’s expensive for the National, it’s expensive for everybody. And so it stops and stagnates many projects that I think would go on to be successful.” To fight this stagnation, Old Vic New Voices is offering companies and individuals the opportunity to book up to five weeks in the LAB across the year, asking only that applicants tell them what the space will be used for.

The response to this offer has been hugely varied. Winter tells me that more than 40 projects used the space in the first three months, including everything from devised theatre companies to poets to comedy performers. This represents something of a departure for Old Vic New Voices, whose focus in the past has been firmly on traditional theatre artists, primarily supporting writers, directors, actors and producers. While he’s keen to emphasise that this is not a complete break, Winter is enthusiastic about the possibilities of these new influences, saying “it’s been nice to get a different energy in the room”.

The only problem with this initiative, as Winter freely admits, is how to assess its impact. “I think for us this year the measure of success will be how much work gets off the ground and to what end,” he says, at the same time acknowledging that this evaluation might not satisfy everyone. He also suggests, however, that evaluation across the industry is beginning to shift, with definitions of success no longer as clear-cut as they once were.

“For a lot of people, their barometer of success is that they’ve got a rehearsed reading together, and they’ve had people see their work and they have felt creatively satisfied. I think the way that people are getting work out there is very different, and it’s about that too. If you get 20 new Twitter followers or you have an online phenomenon, then that’s a barometer of success; if you do a piece of work in a fringe venue that has less people than you might have on your Twitter account, is that less successful or more successful?”

Ultimately, the answers to Winter’s questions are down to the artists; amidst all the changes taking place at Old Vic New Voices, the determination to listen to the needs of those they help is key. “We just want to bring them together and facilitate creativity,” Winter says simply. “In principle that sounds rather empty and worthy; in practical terms it’s massively important.” While the future of Old Vic New Voices might be far from certain – Winter would love to install the LAB as a permanent space, but at the moment it is only secured for a year – the organisation is adamant that its direction will be steered by the artists it supports. “Rather than us leading and expecting them to follow, we’re being led by them.”

New Voices in Edinburgh

As part of the giddy, hectic and slightly insane experience that was my first fringe, I was lucky enough (thanks to IdeasTap) to catch all five plays that made up the Old Vic New Voices Edinburgh season at Underbelly. This is just one example of what seems to be a growing trend towards curation within the uncurated, amorphous bubble of the festival; other models along these lines include those adopted by Escalator East to Edinburgh and Northern Stage at St Stephen’s. While the hit and miss nature of the fringe is part of its quirky charm, there is something quite comforting about having these reliable miniature programmes to retreat to through the haze of clumsy adaptations and misplaced whimsy.

The emphasis of the Old Vic New Voices programme is, unsurprisingly, very much on “new writing”. The pieces are small, with a bias towards monologues and two-handers, but the writing and productions all proved themselves to be solid and often exciting. The whole season was, as Edinburgh goes, a pretty safe bet, though without the safeness of subject matter that implies. The advantage of a curated programme was also in seeing how these different pieces refracted through one another, experiencing them both as standalone plays and as part of a wider context.

If they have a future life, which I suspect they will, it would be fascinating to see these plays reformulated into double bills. Chapel Street and One Hour Only would be my top pick for a pairing, but Bitch Boxer and Strong Arm could also make a fascinating juxtaposition. While Edinburgh can easily become a distorted blur of production after production, seeing pieces whose placement alongside one another actively informs their reception is a refreshing and intriguing exercise. Here are a few more of my thoughts on the programme …

Glory Dazed

While his friends come home in coffins and wheelchairs, Ray knows that war can make you lose something other than life or limb. Returning to Doncaster with frustrated aggression and tortured memories, the only thing that Ray is any good at these days is fighting. But there’s no memorial service or prosthetic aid for being messed up in the head. Read more …

Bitch Boxer

Every fighter has a reason.

That’s the thinking behind this new show written and performed by Charlotte Josephine, taking a particularly timely dive into the world of female boxing. Read more …

One Hour Only

AJ’s mates have bought him a banging present for his 21st birthday – quite literally.

Out of place in a classy London brothel, the gift he ends up with is Marly, a cash-strapped student in her first night on the job, with whom he has more in common than he expected. Read more …

Strong Arm

Sporting ambition and athletic excellence are high on the national consciousness as the country continues to ride the wave of Olympic success. When competitiveness goes up a weight class into pure obsession, however, that same determination to succeed becomes altogether more disturbing. Read more …

Chapel Street

On Chapel Street, “every week it’s shit”.

Same people, same bars, same drinks. Or so we’re told by Joe and Kirsty, both out on a Friday night and each with their own reasons to seek oblivion. Through these two characters, Luke Barnes’ viciously funny and quietly devastating two-hander sketches out a searing, booze-stained portrait of the Pro-Plus generation, grabbing at their next energy kick while putting off tomorrow. Read more …