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There's 50 shades of variety as Traverse gets things write

This time last year, the artistic team at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, were preparing celebrations for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Scotland's new writing hub.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Orla O'Loughlin wants new plays on stage at the Traverse as quickly as possible after commissioning.    Picture: Stewart Attwood
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Orla O'Loughlin wants new plays on stage at the Traverse as quickly as possible after commissioning. Picture: Stewart Attwood

While a certain amount of looking back over a colourful history since its beginnings was necessary, it was the future that concerned artistic director Orla O'Loughlin and associate director Hamish Pirie the most.

With this in mind, the Traverse 50 was launched. Initially, some 630 writers with no more than two professionally produced plays under their belts responded to an open call for 500-word micro-plays inspired by the capital city. From these, some 50 writers were selected to take part in a year-long programme of events.

This began with Plays For Edinburgh, a performed reading of all 50 selected plays by a professional cast that took place over one long but exhilarating evening in January. The event sold out, and a second evening was added to accommodate demand.

"That was a kind of validation for the writers," O'Loughlin says. "For any writer to have their work performed in Traverse 1 is something to tick off their list of things to achieve, and for the Traverse 50, I think it gave many of them the confidence to realise they were writers.

"It is something to aspire to, so to have that at the start of the year rather than the end of it showed the level of talent as well as the level of our commitment and belief in the writers."

Over the last 12 months, the 50 writers have taken part in a flurry of workshops and master-classes with theatre industry professionals ranging from writers, directors and producers of theatre, radio and television.

There have been scratch nights, where new short pieces were performed script in hand, and speed dating events, at which the writers pitched ideas to assorted industry movers and shakers.

In October, three new 20-minute pieces were selected to form the centrepiece of the Traverse's Write Here festival of new writing, while another 10 pieces received rehearsed readings that formed a series of lunchtime double bills.

The Traverse 50 Takeover saw another 34 plays available to hear on headphones or at assorted sites around the building. These included toilet walls, while diners can read one such bite-size masterpiece on the side of a salt cellar in a booth located in the Traverse bar restaurant.

On the walls around the Traverse bar are portraits of each of the Traverse 50, who were paired with a photographer who responded to their plays to create an image. While a final master-class with leading playwrights David Greig and David Harrower is pending during the current run of Ciara, Harrower's solo play for Blythe Duff,the work really starts with what happens next.

While many of the Traverse 50 graduates have professional projects going on with external organisations, The Traverse itself has commissioned seven of them to write full-length plays.

Names such as Tim Primrose, who has written for Lyceum Youth Theatre and the Strange Town company, and Sylvia Dow, who has had work staged during the Luminate festival, will be familiar, but others will be less so. These include Australian writer Lachlan Philpott, Alison Carr, who has worked extensively at Live Theatre, Newcastle, and on radio, and Armagh-born John McCann, who has had work produced by the Belfast-based Tinderbox company, as well as several readings of work in Scotland.

Also under commission are Molly Innes and Martin McCormick, both well-known to Traverse audiences as actors, but who can now channel their theatrical experience into writing. The commissioned plays will form the Traverse's breakfast slot during the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This slot has previously seen formative works tried out before going on to full production.

"All of the writers we have commissioned are in the long term quite right for our stages," O'Loughlin points out. "Our stages have particular personalities and put particular demands on writers, and I suppose we have got a sense of what our house style is, and what works on those stages. All of the writers understand they are writing for theatre, and there is a celebration of the form inherent in their writing. There is also a sense of mischief, and a lot of them are deeply political."

How quickly the new plays will go from page to stage reflects the process of Quiz Show, Rob Drummond's acclaimed play, which was produced by the Traverse six months after being commissioned.

"We commission writers because we want to put their work on," says O'Loughlin. "We are not that interested in endless development and workshops and readings for the sake of it. We want to get it on as soon as it is ready. The National Theatre in London has a hit rate of one in 12 commissioned plays making it to the stage, and that drives writers mad. That is not what the Traverse is about."

Of the Traverse 50 experience overall, O'Loughlin believes "the year has exceeded our expectations, because we did not quite know what we were getting into. We knew we had ambition, and we knew we wanted to invest a lot of time in an emerging culture, and I think we have achieved that.

"The brilliant thing is we have still got 50 writers who are very much with us and part of the story. They are all still Traverse writers, and we will stay in touch with all of them. All we can hope is that we have inspired, equipped and provoked them to become better writers."

www.traverse.co.uk

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