Gary Owen

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Originally written for The Stage.

A certain philosophy characterises Gary Owen’s work as a playwright, in which complexity of subject matter is married to simplicity and clarity of storytelling. “There’s something very simple about someone standing on a stage telling you a story,” he says. In one-person shows such as Iphigenia in Splott or collections of monologues such as Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, characters simply address the audience and share their experiences. Directness and narrative are key.

Owen never intended to be a playwright. Growing up in rural west Wales, he hadn’t even seen much theatre in his youth – he describes his theatrical education as “very minimal”. But when plans for a career in academia began to founder, Owen found himself in Aberystwyth, where he fell in with a group of actors who persuaded him to write a play for them. That play turned into Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, which – via a long chain of readers – ended up on the desk of Vicky Featherstone at Paines Plough.

“To my extreme good luck it arrived when a couple of their commissioned plays were late arriving,” Owen remembers. “She decided to do it not having met me, which is probably something she’ll never do again. But it worked out well for me.” The play toured, Owen became writer-in-residence at Paines Plough, and Featherstone immediately commissioned him to write another play.

Read the rest of the interview.

Photo: Kirsten McTernan.

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Duncan Macmillan

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Originally written for The Guardian.

“There’s nothing I can do in my life to compensate for the fact that the world would be better without me in it,” says Duncan Macmillan, smiling over his coffee. It’s a bleak statement, but one that the writer and director explains is grounded in climate science. Each of us in the west, with our hefty carbon footprints, is a drain on the planet’s resources.

When we meet, Macmillan is buried deep in research about the worsening state of the environment. This is all in aid of 2071, a new project for the Royal Court that he is co-writing with climate scientistChris Rapley. For the past six months, the two men have been meeting regularly at University College London, trading their respective expertise in an attempt to bring climate change centre stage.

Directed by Katie Mitchell, 2071 follows her 2012 show Ten Billion, in which scientist Stephen Emmott painted a gloomy picture of our planet’s future. Macmillan tells me that Rapley’s outlook is more complex, challenging our understanding of how we affect the environment. “I thought I was concerned and had read well about it,” he says, “but it’s a whole other thing talking to Chris.”

“I sound like a broken record,” Macmillan laughs a moment later, catching himself using the word complicated yet again to describe Rapley’s insights. Conversation with Macmillan is punctuated with these moments of thoughtful, anxious self-awareness. Intense but amiable, he has a tendency to pause mid-thought, picking apart his own statements as soon as he makes them.

It’s a tendency that Macmillan’s plays share. Monster, the play that scooped two awards in the inaugural Bruntwood prize for playwriting, prodded uncomfortably at ideas of responsibility. In Lungs, a conversation about starting a family is folded into concerns about the state of the planet, interlacing the personal and the global. And when approaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke set out to “represent the challenge” of the novel’s ambiguities rather than attempting to solve them.

“I can’t speak for what theatre can or should do, but I know from my perspective I’m interested in complexity,” says Macmillan. “Chris [Rapley] keeps saying, ‘It’s a little bit more complicated than that.’ And I’ve always thought that would be a really good subtitle for any good play.”

The same complexity applies to Macmillan’s career. Increasingly, he has been working in a number of different roles, from co-directing Headlong’s 1984 with Icke to collaborating with Mitchell on her multi-media productions in mainland Europe. One frustration, however, is the pigeonholing impulse of the British theatre industry. “I think there’s a perception that the playwright is someone who writes the spoken text and that everything else is the domain of the director,” says Macmillan, adding that this is not the case with many of his projects.

Not that spoken text doesn’t interest Macmillan any more. He admits that Lungs, for instance, “is essentially just talking”. That play, which is currently on the road with touring company Paines Plough, spans one long conversation over several years. Its agonised back and forth between a couple deciding whether or not to have children was Macmillan’s attempt to wrestle with some of his own anxieties.

“I found myself worrying about these things and I didn’t know the solution,” he says, discussing the “anxiety debt” that his generation has inherited. “Putting characters on stage who talk about those anxieties makes them quite absurd. And they are. It is absurd that you can have a conversation now about whether or not you want to start a family and at the same time you can be talking about the industrial revolution.”

At the same time as travelling the UK, Lungs is also part of the repertoire at the Schaubühne in Berlin, in a German production directed by Mitchell. While the form that Macmillan initially imagined for the play – no sound, no lights, no props – was an attempt to “break out of a certain kind of formal cul-de-sac”, Mitchell’s production finds a new visual metaphor to communicate the narrative. In her version, the two actors are poised throughout on static bikes, powering the stage lights as they pedal.

“What I enjoy most as a theatre-maker and as an audience member is getting my brain to do more than one thing at once,” says Macmillan, pointing to Mitchell’s production of Lungs as one example. Another isEvery Brilliant Thing, which tours alongside Lungs this autumn. In this interactive monologue, misery and ecstasy are two sides of the same coin. The subject might be suicidal depression, but the show itself manages to be joyously life-affirming.

“It’s the least cool piece of theatre ever, in some ways,” says Macmillan. Staged in the round in Paines Plough’s portable Roundabout auditorium, the formal gesture of the show is deliberately democratic, while its message for those struggling with depression is unashamedly heartfelt. “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it.”

Like so much of Macmillan’s work, Every Brilliant Thing came out of a desire to say something that wasn’t being said. “I didn’t see anyone discussing suicidal depression in a useful or interesting or accurate way,” he says. Similarly, at the time of writing Lungs, he felt that he “wasn’t seeing enough about what it’s like to be alive now”. He positions both of these plays as interventions of a kind, adding with an apologetic smile, “that sounds really grand”.

Theatre at its best is, he says, “incredibly direct and incredibly interventionist”. He talks about Wallace Shawn’s monologue The Fever, which the actor and playwright took into people’s homes to shock them into a crisis of conscience. “I find that really inspiring.”

So is 2071 an intervention? The questions it poses – “What is happening to our planet, and what is our role in that?” – would suggest so. Still, Macmillan insists, it is not quite as simple as issuing a manifesto for saving the planet. As Rapley might say, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Photo: Geraint Lewis.

Long-distance relationships

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Originally written for The Stage.

Look at the programme of any regional receiving house and the line-up is typically scattered with popular musicals, famous faces and hits touring out of or into the West End. But beyond these crowd-drawing headliners, touring is often difficult for other areas of the UK theatre industry.

For those artists and companies working slightly below the radar, without big names or familiar shows to pull in audiences, touring is becoming an increasingly challenging and expensive activity. As everyone feels the squeeze on their funding, touring companies get hit twice, as struggling venues can no longer afford to pay guarantees and instead shift the risk onto those bringing in the work. It is difficult to build a relationship with audiences where engagement is often shallow and fleeting, while theatregoers with shrinking budgets are leaving it later and later to book tickets.

As I discovered in the process of researching a report for theatre producer Fuel, challenges faced by the non-commercial touring sector are manifold, but one particular area of difficulty is around the notion of collaboration – or lack thereof. Many touring companies express frustration about the reluctance of venues to cooperate on marketing strategies and share information about local audiences, with the level of collaboration varying wildly from theatre to theatre. At the ITC’s conference in February of this year, meanwhile, the difficulty of accessing audience data was identified as one of the key barriers for UK touring.

“We don’t always have access to audience data from all the venues,” explains Hanna Streeter, an assistant producer with Paines Plough, “so it makes it difficult for us to build relationships with those audiences.” This same frustration is shared by Jo Crowley, the producer of theatre company 1927, who identifies “how tricky it is as a company to access information around your audience” as one of the primary challenges of touring. Somewhere along the line, relationships between companies and venues are breaking down.

There are, however, those working towards a solution to these problems. Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project, one of a number of initiatives funded through the Arts Council’s new Strategic Touring Programme, offers one possible model. As part of their aim to strengthen relationships with audiences on tour, the theatre producers are hiring local engagement specialists in each of the areas they visit, who then act as Fuel’s main presence in that region.

These individuals, chosen for their knowledge of the local community and its arts ecology, can serve as a central point to bring together more collaborative relations between Fuel and the venues they work with. In the project’s assessment, this approach and the “camaraderie” it created was identified as one of the key achievements of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood’s initial six-month research phase, shifting the way in which the way in which the venues in question work with visiting companies.

Going hand in hand with the need for audience data, a number of producers stress the importance of trusting in venues’ knowledge about those who attend their performances. For English Touring Theatre, who are also being funded by the Arts Council’s Strategic Touring Programme to support the roll-out of quality large-scale dramas to regional receiving houses, this is central to the success of their scheme. “Issues with touring, I think, come down to the fact that you’re dealing with such different venues,” says associate producer Caroline Dyott. “It is not the case that one size fits all and so we just slightly have to acknowledge that and trust venues to know their audiences.”

Streeter agrees, explaining that Paines Plough are using their Strategic Touring grant from the Arts Council to build a sustainable base for small-scale touring in close partnership with venues. “It’s a challenge for a touring company to understand the audiences in all of the different places that they’re going to,” she acknowledges. “That’s where the collaboration with the venue is really important, so we don’t just feel like we turn up, we do a show, we leave; we want to have a relationship with the audiences in all the places that we’re going to.”

This sharing with theatres can go both ways, as Crowley suggests: “There’s a huge intelligence and resource that touring companies have that would be really interesting to share.” Instead of acting like competitors, venues and companies might be able to learn more about their respective audiences from one another. Crowley adds: “There needs to be a better conversation between venues and funders and companies about how we work better to collect the information we need and to nurture our audience collectively.”

As Crowley points out, central to the success of these collaborations is a shift in attitude to view the audience as a shared audience. In many cases, this is a shift that is already taking place. Streeter explains, “we’re working with the venues on how we can support them and help them to grow audiences, not just for Paines Plough, but for other touring companies and for the venue and for new work in general.”

Fuel’s co-director Louise Blackwell agrees, expressing her hope that the work Fuel are doing will provide benefits “not only for what we produce but for the wider theatre landscape”. Through closer collaboration and a recognition that venues and companies are ultimately working towards the same goal, perhaps the challenges posed by touring can be collectively overcome.

Photo: Lizzy Watts in the Paines Plough production of Wasted. Richard Davenport.

Touring theatre: a risky business for audiences too?

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Originally written for the Guardian Culture Professionals Network.

Risk is a word that regularly gets aired in arguments about the arts. We talk a lot about risky work, about venues and companies taking risks, about the current economic environment making many organisations risk averse – but it’s rare that this vocabulary is used in discussions aboutaudiences. At a time of punishing austerity and squeezed budgets, what do theatremakers ask audiences to risk when persuading them to buy tickets to their shows?

This question is particularly pertinent for touring companies, many of whom are struggling to reach and engage with audiences through the current touring model. As lots of these theatremakers recognise, touring is challenging, not least because of the limited time spent in each of the areas they visit. Without the time and resources to build a deeper engagement with local audiences, touring companies demand even more risk on the part of the audience than their building-based counterparts.

However, as a number of new initiatives funded by Arts Council England’s strategic touring programme are exploring, there might be ways for these companies to reduce the risk involved for their audiences without having to become artistically conservative.

One method is that of the tried and tested. “The things that are doing well anecdotally are things which have known writers and known faces,” explains Caroline Dyott, associate producer at English Touring Theatre (ETT), who also notes that audiences are “booking later so that they can take less of a risk on something”.

Picking up on this trend, what ETT hopes to do through its National Touring Group is to offer audiences large-scale, ambitious work that has already been successful elsewhere. Instead of offering famous names, it is saying to audiences: “Look at all these quotes and star reviews; this is taking away this element of risk for you.”

There is also room for improvement in the ways in which theatremakers connect and communicate with their audiences. This can be as simple as ensuring that the work is being taken to the right people. Ed Collier, a producer at China Plate, says that “touring and making for us are always completely intertwined … right from the start of the making process we’re already thinking about the audience and how we’ll reach them, through whatever dissemination or touring model that might be.”

As well as targeting appropriate audiences, another way of breaking down the sense of risk is to adjust the way in which work is discussed and marketed. “There are some pretty simple things we can do, like looking at the language we use,” suggests Gavin Stride, director ofFarnham Maltings and a key figure behind touring consortium House. “What [companies] might think makes their show sound esoteric and clever in their world isn’t necessarily the same language that needs to be used to get a show to an audience.”

Reducing perceived risk for audiences can be as simple as building familiarity through return visits. “Most of the venues that we talked to said that returning companies do better,” notes Hanna Streeter, an assistant producer with touring company Paines Plough. “It’s about building that relationship up with the audience and returning, which is what we’re trying to do.”

Taking this one step further, Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is reaching out to form deeper connections with each of the areas it visits. The idea is to establish a relationship with the producers, allowing audiences to take risks on new work because they trust that Fuel will give them a good night at the theatre.

As co-director Louise Blackwell explains: “When we return to each of these places, we hope that people there will have made a connection and will maybe have been to see one of the shows and say, ‘that’s by Fuel, I don’t know this new artist that they’re bringing, but I’m going to go because it’s a Fuel produced event’.”

The approaches differ, but it is all about building a sustainable audience base for future work. “It’s got to be about audiences,” says Collier, “so it’s got to be about finding ways of making theatre more popular.” Streeter stresses that Paines Plough’s work is essentially about “trying to develop audiences’ taste for new work”, while Dyott agrees that ETT’s key aim is to create an audience that will outlive the length of this project.

As Fuel is keen to emphasise, the fruits of this labour could offer benefits for the whole theatre ecology. Speaking about the company’s aim to grow a wide community of audiences who trust and return to the Fuel brand, Blackwell adds: “We hope that by having a deeper engagement with the people that live in these places that will be possible, not only for what we produce, but for the wider theatre landscape.”