Some time ago, I co-founded a theatre company (that still feels weird to say out loud. Give me a minute). Its main aim was to give a platform to new and emerging playwrights (as well as actors and directors), as well as to provide another ‘pub theatre’ type experience, which I, perhaps unreasonably, thought there should be at least half as many examples in Brighton as there are in London. Actually, I still think that. And just as unreasonably.
There was at least one other reason why I sought to set up the theatre company, and it says perhaps more about my ego than it does about any high-minded intentions I had regarding Brighton’s theatre scene. Fact of the matter is, I’d recently entered a script of mine into a local short play night, and it didn’t get past the gate. Which is not particularly important or even relevant: I’m not arrogant to assume that any one of my scripts should absolutely be produced on stage, particularly when it’s in competition with at least five others, all of which may be more interesting or more exciting to an audience (or, let’s be blunt: simply better). I went along to see the show that showcased the more successful plays, and while there’s possibly no way to separate my own bruised ego from my critical appraisal of that night (or, at very least, successfully convince you that I was able to do just that), I do remember being intrigued by what scripts had made it through when mine had not. Not, you understand, because I automatically thought that my effort was superior – indeed, since opinion is subjective, such griping on my part is largely irrelevant – but because it appeared that I had fundamentally misunderstood what was being asked for, in terms of a short play.
To be fair, it seems lots of people misunderstand this. And you might have to trawl through a lot of opinions before you find the definitive one. Simply put, a lot of the plays that went on that night were what I might term as ‘sketches’, as opposed to short plays. There are a lot of critics online who (rather sniffily, in a lot of cases) state that short plays are exactly that – mere shallow sketches that don’t have enough elbow room to get under the hood of anything meaningful. As you might imagine, I don’t have a lot of time for that argument, but it does remain true that a significant amount of people – both those who generally dislike the short play format, and those who actually write a hell of a lot of them – think of the form as an extended sketch, and nothing else.
It’s perhaps worth pointing out here what I personally think the difference between a sketch and a short play is, especially as that’s yet another point on which you’re likely to uncover a different opinion with each person you ask. It’s a deceptively complex question, to be sure, but I think that generally – with a few smudges round the edges – a sketch can be defined as being driven by plot or idea, and short play (again, generally), is driven by character. This, for me, is when the ‘sketch’ version of a play doesn’t work, and earns the bad reputation: the narrative essentially spins its wheels for eight minutes until the ‘gag’ conclusion (everyone’s dead!), or alternatively, the world-building weirdness set out at the beginning (everyone’s an egg!) gets repeated ad nauseum for eight minutes until a punchline that was trundling over the horizon from the opening line. So, it’s easy to see why – for some critics – short plays come across like sketches that are at least three times the length they should be.
So, in some ways, setting up a short play night was a fit of pique: of throwing down the gauntlet and stating, quite firmly, that short plays were not sketches, that they could be richer, more involved, explore relationships and personalities, and did not have to depend on an artificially delayed punchline. We invited local talents – some of whom had never written before – and produced a night of some gorgeous short plays, which sold out, got great feedback, and firmly set out our intentions for the foreseeable future.
In all the excitement, I quite forgot to put my own play on.
This was of course, a basic failure on my part. I mean, if you’re going to put a short play night on in order to salve your ego because another theatre company didn’t recognise your genius, the very least you should do is make sure you yourself accept your own script. After all, that’s lesson 1, surely? After a few times round, someone (I actually forget who), gently suggested to me that I should try putting on my own scripts alongside everyone else’s, otherwise what was the point? (well, actually, the point is to give a platform to upcoming new voices, etc, etc, but I get the point). To be fair, I had put my own script in one of the early shows, but subsequently, for about a year or more afterward, I didn’t. Which made me look all very magnanimous and generous and so on, but I was clearly missing a trick or two here.
Anyway, Cast Iron Theatre is now in its fifth year (as is often the case with such things, there’s a bit of blurring round the edges as to when exactly the fifth year kicks in), and we have produced over fifteen short play nights. Officially, it’s about eleven if you look only at our ‘numbered’ nights, but we’ve also done themed nights for Christmas and Halloween and so on, as well as any number of satellite shows – story nights, and so on. In addition, about once a year, we give a night over not to six different playwrights, but an evening of plays by one writer. For instance, a while back we showcased the work of Richard Hearn, who had been successful each time he’d submitted a play. I figured enough time had finally elapsed that I could get to put on an evening of my own plays without too many people accusing me (to my face, at least) of indulging my own ego.
Talking of which, I was suitably nervous about the night. I mean, I’m pretty good at championing the work of others, but less brassy about my own: I sort of assumed that very few people would actually come along to see my words (that was OK, though – we’d still have an audience full of people supporting the actors and directors). This, for any avoidance of doubt, is one of the main thrusts and reasons behind this blog entry: me trying to blow my own trumpet a little bit.
The six plays we selected, Joy, Last Supper, Babble, Watch Us Wreck The Mic, Dick Joke, and Will Of The People, are all suitably different from one another to let at least me believe that I have some range as a writer (I’ll leave it to the audience to tell me otherwise), but there are still connecting themes. Most are fairly light, but a couple hint at a mild anger – or, at the very least, upset bewilderment – at the world. I haven’t done the maths yet, but it’s fairly likely that there’s an imbalance of around 75% / 25% in the dialogue between genders in favour of female characters (certainly, out of sixteen characters on the night, ten are women, and two of the plays are entirely female), and it’s probable that for most – if not all – of the plays, I as writer am trying to unlock or decode a particular linguistic or narrative challenge. Which, as long as it’s not so self-indulgent as to ignore the audience, is not something I particularly have a problem with.
We got some nice audience feedback and reviews, including this one, and it seems somewhat odd that those six plays have had their own evening. It’s reasonably unlikely that they’ll get performed again in Brighton anytime soon, at least by Cast Iron – it’s not that they have a shelf life, but it is true that we have more things on the way, and increasingly little time to do them. But I am, despite my natural instincts towards self-deprecation, very pleased with these six little scripts, and very proud of the actors and directors who made so much of them.