One of these specially-written city plays could be right up your street
We made it clear to our writers that they didn't have to be literal, and to set their play exactly in the Bristol street that they had chosen. It could be anything about that street that struck them – people they met, items they found, or just a feeling they got from the area. And it's been fascinating to see where they have all taken it."
The speaker is Ann Stiddard, one half of Bristol's brilliant Theatre West who, every year since 2003, have produced an autumn theatre season at the Alma Tavern, in which five brand new plays each get a fortnight's run.
Ann and her partner Alison Comley have put together the annual TW seasons according to subtly different criteria each year. Some years they have invited scripts from local playwrights, and whittled down a final five from the hundreds they receive: in other years, 2012 included, they start with a theme and select a group of writers they are interested in working with. The consistent theme of every Theatre West season, though, has been twofold: to help bring on and nurture some of the region's most promising playwrights, and to give Bristol audiences a first look at some of the very best new theatre being written around these parts.
For last year's season, Ann and Alison had the brilliant idea of allowing their playwrights to choose a random vintage photograph and to write about whatever that image suggested to them. This year, once again, they have given their writers a starting cue: but this time it's not a photo but a Bristol street, chosen at random.
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As they did last year, Alison and Ann began by selecting, in conjunction with local partners including Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory Theatre, a group of playwrights with whom they wanted to work further – a mix of emerging voices and more established local writers. They then got the writers together and asked them to select, at random (using an elaborate system of an A-Z streetmap and some marked ping pong balls), a street somewhere in Bristol.
"We then sent pairs of writers out into Bristol on a wet May Bank Holiday, to investigate the streets they had chosen," Alison recalls. "They then wrote the first ten pages of their scripts, and we came together six weeks later at The Brewery Theatre to hear them. With the help of judges and an audience, we narrowed our total down from 16 to seven scripts."
These seven writers were then asked to expand their ten-minute opening into a full play: five of these have now been selected to get a fortnight's full professional production in the Alma across October and November, while the other two get script-in-hand performances this Friday and Saturday.
Ann and Alison have ended up with an excitingly eclectic set of plays that each owe something to the random Bristol street in which they were first conceived.
Take, for example, the first full play in the season, Sleep Lane by seasoned local playwright (and Theatre West regular) Steve Hennessy. Inspired by the sheltered, affluent Sleep Lane in Whitchurch, Hennessy has spun a parable of love, sex, money and economic meltdown, with characters from Greek mythology emerging from and disappearing back into the leafy suburban street.
"Steve went out with Ioannis Souris, a Greek writer: and, as it was raining, they spent a lot of time sheltering and talking," Alison explains. "His play incorporates some of the Greek characters and references that Ioannis discussed."
Later in the season, Katherine Mitchell's play Items of Value is inspired by the scrapyard she found in her desolate St Philips street, while David Lane's Rush uses the River Avon at Conham to conjure up a merman who witnesses the deeds of the locals across the centuries.
And Joe Ledbury, a winner of the Tobacco Factory's Script Space new writing initiative, uses a cake shop he found in Victoria Street to write Cake, in which the aforementioned delicacy becomes a metaphor for a couple's life.
"Joe's first ten pages were very surreal and we were intrigued to see where he would go next," Ann explains. "His story is about an estranged couple who meet again at their son's graduation, and how they manage coming back together for that day."