The New Writing Festival taking place in 7th week at the Burton Taylor is set to showcase Oxford’s best writing talent from the twenty-nine entries received earlier this year. New Beginnings, Roost, Bad Faith and Closing Time are all written and directed by undergraduates, many of whom are freshers, looking to get original writing more attention than it has been awarded in recent years. New Writing? I hear you ask worriedly, not an established writer whose work has time and again been abused by Oxford’s thesps? Yes my friends.
“I think there’s much less interest in”, I am told by Isabella Anderson, Producer of the New Writing Festival, “which I think is quite unfair because it’s really exciting, and there’s so much scope for what you can do with it”. It is true, scope does not seem to be a problem amongst this year’s plays which have made it to the Burton Taylor; speaking to some of the writers and directors about what their plays are about, it quickly became apparent that none of them are lacking in ambition. Matthew Parvin, writer of Roost, which follows the story of an assistant director returning to his hometown, tells me that “there are chickens, there will be actual real chickens” on stage. While this is clearly risky, and I don’t know how it will ever work within the confines of the Burton Taylor, where under normal circumstances if you sit on the front row you are more than likely to get some thespian spit coming your way, the ambition is admirable. And perhaps this sense of ambition and willingness to try new things is something Oxford is missing. Charlotte Fraser, director of New Beginnings, would seem to think so: “there’s less experimental theatre [in Oxford]. That’s what I’ve found from working on New Beginnings, that it’s really quite different from a lot of established plays put on… it’s more interested in challenging the status quo”.
Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but what is definitely true is that each play is very different to the next; New Beginnings is described by Fraser as a “funny portrait of the first day [of the main character’s] new school”, and the culmination of some sketches the writer, Dominic O’Keefe, began when he was fifteen and has since woven into a script. Closing Time, by Sam Ward, is about a midnight conversation had in an office one night and Bad Faith, by Matilda Curtis, is set in Oxford and charts the friendships and love affairs of it’s students “looking for something to believe in”. Whilst none of them sound outlandishly innovative, (chickens excepted), I can believe that there has been more emotional investment put into these productions than there would have been in re-workings of established scripts. Working with original writing also means that the director and writer are able to work together, and somewhat ironically puts “less sort of emphasis on the script, it’s not sacred”, according to Fraser.
For those still cautious about splashing out £5 to see some new theatre, it may be worth noting that whilst there isn’t a lot, some of the original writing that does get to the Oxford theatres is pretty fantastic, such as They Will Be Red to name but one. What’s more, the four plays to be shown during the festival have been picked from a large number, and the best production will be judged by West End Producer Thelma Holt, so these scripts are likely to be the best Oxford’s new writers have to offer. Should you take a chance? Sure, just don’t sit too near the front row in Roost.