Focus On: New Writers

The OUDS New Writing Festival is an opportunity for the latest and greatest
student playwriting talents to get their works performed at a professional working theatre (The Burton Taylor Studio). Each Hilary any current student can submit a script, the best four of which are picked out by world-leading playwrights, including in the past Michael Frayn and Meera Syal, and are produced for a live audience. Recently I caught up with some of the nominated
playwrights, and their student directors, to find out more about their experience of the competition and production process.

At first glance the shortlist seems like a who’s who of our very own ‘Know Your Thesp’. Although OUDS portray this as a competition of raw talent, these people are hardly complete novices in student theatre terms. Take Jamie Biondi, who already has a burgeoning list of plays on a curious range of subjects: “I’ve written a play about salmon, a play about a dead dog, a play about a storm, a play about gods interacting with men, a play that puts Orpheus and Eurydice in a hospital in Manhattan, and this one about a lovers’ suicide”. 

Having studied in the United States under renowned playwrights Donald Margulies and Deb Margolin, Jamie is now reading for a MA on the works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Despite this academic grounding, Lovers’
Suicide is his fi rst play put into production, and this experience he describes as both terrifying and exciting. “It’s a scary thing to hear your own thoughts in other people’s mouths… But I’ve tried to be as involved with the rehearsal
process as possible.” 

The input of his chosen director Holly Isard has been particularly powerful, and often hilarious: “I’ve really learned a ton about the play from Holly’s input and that of the actors, and I’m incredibly grateful for being so openly welcomed into the rehearsal room to be a part of the creation of this strange piece of text. “One particular highlight was in one of the many flirtatious scenes between Gabe and Anna when Holly was trying to teach our actors
how to flirt and ended up revealing that her own style of flirtation involves a frightening amount of getting down on one knee, rolling round on the floor, and shimmying her shoulders”.

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Asking Biondi to sum up his play reveals a self-deprecating sense of humour which refreshingly shows that he doesn’t take himself  too seriously. “This is a play about suicide that isn’t really about suicide. It’s more about love. It’s about trying to reconcile the disconnect between the solitary nature of dying (and especially suicide) and the necessarily interpersonal nature of love.”

Sami Ibrahim is best known for his directing, most recently in Normal and last year’s You Maverick. He also directed a new piece in last year’s festival. Although he’s written comedy sketches, Man Who Loses is his first attempt
at a full-length drama. He describes his style, influenced by Peter Barnes and Peter Greenaway, as, “Anything that mixes puerile humour with something nice and dark.” As a director himself, Sami has tried as much as possible to
keep out of the production process: “I’ve directed new writing before… and, every time the writer came to rehearsals, I always felt a bit on edge, like I was trampling all over his work, so I didn’t want the director, Livi Dunlop, to feel
the same pressure.”

Livi seems not to feel any pressure, however. For her the Festival is so valuable because it allows a relatively inexperienced director to develop their own rehearsal technique without having to focus on any of the administration that comes along with putting a production on. She admits to some surprise when I ask about her thoughts on Ibrahim. Her first impression was that of “a soft-spoken guy in a white cardigan,” which contrasted sharply with the content of his writing. This content is readily admitted by Sami as part of his preferred genre: “I guess the gist of it is I like things that are cruel, cold and fi lled with portent, with a crude sense of humour. I did his [Peter Barnes’]
play ‘Laughter!’ for Cuppers last year: it’s a farce about Nazi bureaucracy and the holocaust – it’s brilliant.”

Building on this dark comedy idea, “Man who Loses” is based on the true story of George Price, a geneticist who converts to Christianity before committing suicide. It has apparently been a learning experience for the cast as well. According to Dunlop, “the play is quite… graphic in parts, and my actress for whom English is her second language has had her vocabulary broadened quite significantly!” Helena Jackson, another Festival director, has been wowed by the diversity of the writing talent. “We’ve got one very naturalistic play, one slightly less so, another surrealist and mine is quite stylized with a hint of physical theatre,” she says.

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One of the perks of the festival has been “the opportunity work with a writer to hand and not simply from a script, because you can see and feel the characters developing around you; for instance, a character in mine who started out calm and sympathetic has developed into a sarcastic and terribly unfunny person who is staunchly resisting any of our moves to convert him back.’ 

It’s been a marathon, not a sprint, but Jackson has stuck with it to the end. “The script has changed so much since the start; sadly I sort of naively decided to print out the entirety of each draft; my printing bill has soared to about £30 and I could wallpaper my room with the abandoned drafts, but it’s all part of the process”.