Define a new play…

I’ve just got my hands on a copy of this year’s Absolut Fringe Festival programme and have also been browsing the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival brochure online. Initially, I’m really excited, indulging in a lot of ‘oh so that’s what that three day developmental workshop/ public reading halfway through last year has turned into’ smugness, allowing myself to feel like I had both programmes predicted ages in advance (which of course I hadn’t – I’d just heard the rumours.)

This year’s Fringe Brochure…a mysterious tome full of colourful pictures

As the initial excitement and desire to go and see everything dissipates, I’m noticing a real dearth of anything that I could instantly identify as new writing in either festival. It’s always a little more difficult to discern with the Fringe brochure, which is always packed to the gills with devised/ experiential/ immersive/ promenade/ multimedia/ mutli-disciplinary shows. But generally a little scratching of the surface will reveal the playwright, lurking in the back of the publicity shot looking pale and underfed. Some of the most interesting new Irish playwrights have found their feet in the Fringe Festival over the past 18 years. Even if they go on to create more conventional work, it’s generally a great experience for them to broaden their horizons by working in such a collaborative way. And, actually, it’s a good experience for the audience to challenge their preconceptions of what new writing is and should be.

In general, I’m a fan of a well-made, literary play. This is a totally subjective term that I use to describe something written by one playwright, directed by one director and acted by a bunch of actors. It’s more traditional than devised work, but I shy away from the term ‘traditional’ as I think it can be used in a pejorative sense. There’s a tendency to see this kind of work as yesterday’s news. I think this is unfair; yes, the literary play has been around for millennia, but devised/ improvised/ confessional/ non-linear-narrative theatre has been around for a long time too. Remember structuralism? Post-structuralism? Post-modernism? None of these are new ideas, and neither is the idea of applying them to the arts. This is not a rant against experimental theatre – some of the best work I’ve seen over the past few years has played with form (Anu’s Worlds End Lane, Corn Exchange’s Freefall). But one of these plays had a writer very much at the helm (Freefall) and the other was strongly informed by historical narratives.

In this year’s Theatre Festival, there are a number of interesting writer-driven works, but relatively little of what I would specifically consider new writing. There are a couple of plays, but there are also adaptations, dramatisations and deconstructions which can be considered new work – but are they new writing? What role do they allow the playwright? The theatre world seems to be in the process of re-evaluating the role of the writer, kicking them out of their garret rooms and into the theatre collective. It’s an interesting process and makes a case for theatre as one of the most dynamic of literary art-forms, constantly evolving in order to offer an experience which can still be argued to be the equal of, if not superior to, other media forms. My question is, is new ground being broken here? Is the avant garde still, well, avant? Or will people tire of abstraction and the lack of narrative and begin to crave a good, solid story again? I’d like to see the two traditions overlap a little more to allow for both the universal appeal of a good strong plot and the immediacy of devised or verbatim work. Maybe that’s where the future lies…or maybe it’s been done already…

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