Manchester is a thrilling place to be a theatre lover thanks to a buzzing, passionate and talented scene, ranging from a vibrant Fringe to flagship venues like the Royal Exchange and HOME. For the last decade the 24:7 festival has been a mighty force for new writing across the North West and beyond, while, of course, the Bruntwood Prize, run out of the Royal Exchange, is of enormous national significance. And, if I may be so bold as to say so, The Manchester Theatre Awards is the most exciting event of its kind outside London.
It seems there is almost everything. But is there a gap? Are we missing provision for new plays, work which bridges the Fringe and the established larger venues? If so, how do we address this ‘gap’ to serve the writers, actors, directors and theatre-makers in the North West?
That’s the premise of The Gap Theatre Project, launched in Manchester with a striking event called Bridging The Gap at Hallé St. Peter’s (a venue which last really impinged on the consciousness of the world as the venue for Kenneth Branagh’s earthy Macbeth). A quite astonishing wealth of writing talent, including Jim Cartwright, Chris Hoyle, Charlotte Keatley, Ian Kershaw, Sarah McDonald Hughes, Ian Puleston Davies, Punam Ramchurn and Simon Stephens, each contributed a brand-new short play. Over seven hot ticket performances, these were performed by a virtual who’s-who of local acting talent and directed by A-list directors. In between times, the whole notion of ‘the gap’ was discussed by the great and good of the theatre world, ranging from performers and theatre-makers to commercial producers, committed fans and representatives of the local producing houses and the Arts Council.
Kicking off proceedings, former Library Theatre artistic director Chris Honer, one of the prime movers in the project along with writers Debbie Oates and Lindsay Williams, observed that the whole thing had started as “a conversation between writers, wondering where were the stepping stone venues that keep writing talent moving upwards towards the flagship venues?”
“It’s not in any way a criticism of the producing houses,” clarifies actress Julie Hesmondhalgh. “Because I think they do their absolute best. Oldham Coliseum have produced several new pieces of writing, Bolton Octagon the same. The Exchange have the Bruntwood Prize which is a massive force in new writing as well as Suzanne Bell, their new writing associate, who does incredible work with development. So it’s not like it’s not happening but there is a middle section, a gap, where maybe people do well at 24:7 then they’ve got nowhere to go. They might go and get their work developed at the Royal Exchange but, just by market forces and the way the world is at the moment, the Royal Exchange can’t risk endless pieces of new writing in the main house. HOME is fantastic and exciting but it’s very clear in its remit that it’s European theatre and directors’ voices they’re interested in, so it’s furthered the gap really.
“We feel that what’s missing is a paid space specifically dedicated to new writing, somewhere like the Arcola, or the Bush, which they have in London.
“Ian (Kershaw, Julie’s partner) and I had been involved since the beginning as part of an alliance of people who’ve been having the conversation but Debbie Oates, Chris Honer and Lindsay Williams have really been the driving force behind getting this thing created. The Arts Council have funded some research and this event is really to say, look, this is the kind of thing we’re talking about, as well as to raise some funds for future projects and to continue the discussion about how new writers feel about getting their work put on and being paid for it.”
Research consultant Arthur Stafford spoke at the event and outlined some of the possibilities before an enthusiastic and vociferous audience offered some of their thoughts, ranging from the notion of marketing writers like bands to the necessity of taking an audience along with it all to stand a chance of viable commercial success. Even though, as more than one speaker ruefully admitted, this had started out from a “typical group of writers whingeing” the overall feeling was astonishingly positive and in agreement with Stafford that this was just the beginning and there could be yet be a long way to go.
“24:7 has been so fantastic for writers but it’s had its funding cut and god knows what will happen to it?” says Hesmondhalgh (and many others). “It was brilliant but it’s Fringe so there was no payment involved in it. Yes, it’s fantastic to get your piece performed and seen, fantastic to maybe get it further developed at the Exchange, fantastic to win a Manchester Theatre Award. But then what? There has to be something else, I think.
“But if there is a need for somewhere new, then how best to do it? Should it be venue-based or out in the world? Personally I’m quite excited by it being a venue-less space, because site-specific stuff really excites me and it could be tailor made for each piece.
But I’ve been really, really chuffed to be a part of it.”
Hesmondhalgh’s moving monologue, Taking Down (written by Kershaw, directed by Liz Stevenson) was just one magical moment in a genuinely outstanding programme of impressive new short plays. There wasn’t a duff one to be seen as the pieces ranged across the emotional board, from the challenging opener – Punam Ramchurn’s Zilla (directed by Joyce Branagh) – to the campily hilarious closer – Jim Cartwright’s Gaps (directed by Anthony Banks).
Themes were accidental, beyond the loose over-arching concept of ‘Bridging The Gap’ but Talking Down turned out to be one of two plays dealing with preventing a potential suicide, the other being Chris Hoyle’s excellent Broken Bridge, directed by Martha Simon (who previously directed the MTA-winning All The Bens). Sarah McDonald Hughes’s Thigh Gap (directed by Justine Potter) was typically perceptive, whereas Simon Stephens’ The Gap (directed by Liz Stevenson) was atypically poignant. Ian Puleston-Davies is probably better known as an actor but his White Man Overbite (directed by Stefan Escreet) was highly amusing evidence that there’s a lot more to him than that, while Charlotte Keatley’s I Am Janet (directed by David Fleeshman) was all the more striking for its restraint and timing.
The willingness of the writers to donate such high-quality work, plus the startling amount of acting, directing and backstage talent working on the project, is positive proof there’s a feeling abroad that there might be a gap. If you agree and want to help the project’s development or want to contribute to the ongoing debate, contact www.theatregap.co.uk/support-us.