JOYCE MCMILLAN on BITE-SIZED THEATRE AND THE FUTURE OF NEW WRITING for the Scotsman Magazine, 3.5.14.
IN THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, this week, audiences have been revelling in the rich and strange tapestry of the National Theatre of Scotland show Dear Scotland, in which twenty of the nation’s leading writers have been asked to put words into the mouths of the men and women immortalised on the gallery’s walls; the length of each monologue is just five minutes. At the Village Pub Theatre in Leith, each of the half-dozen play-readings that make up an evening tends to last about ten minutes; out on the internet, playwright David Greig has led the way in creating tiny twitter plays that are only 140 characters long. And the hugely successful Play, Pie and Pint phenomenon at Oran Mor in Glasgow – also showing at the Travere – thrives on plays that last for a maximum of 55 minutes, but often much less.
What’s more, the current passion for the bite-sized and provisional is having a noticeable impact of the Scottish theatre most closely associated with new work. Last autumn’s Aye Write! festival at the Traverse – which featured many plays so short that they could be written on a sheet of paper and stuck to the walls of the theatre – was almost entirely a festival of fine rehearsed readings; the theatre hasn’t produced a full-length mainstage show of its own since David Harrower’s Ciara during last year’s Edinburgh Festival, although it has co-produced some of the finest current Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime plays. And in June, the National Theatre Of Scotland will stage another feast of online, live-streamed Five Minute Theatre, featuring tiny plays on the yes/no theme beamed from living-rooms and community halls across Scotland.
It’s not that no new plays are making their way to Scottish stages. In its current season, the Royal Lyceum has offered both Tim Barrow’s hugely controversial Union, and David Haig’s Second World War drama Pressure. Dundee Rep has just completed a much-admired run of a new Stuart Paterson play, Cars And Boys; and the Edinburgh International Festival will showcase The James Plays, a massive new trilogy of Scottish history plays by Rona Munro staged by the National Theatre of Scotland.
Yet at the grass roots, where the next wave of new work emerges, the new taste for the tiny and the script-in-hand seems almost overwhelming; Caitlin Skinner, the director of Village Pub Theatre, says that she rarely yearns to see a full production of the plays staged there, so powerful and productive is the interaction between a good script, a fine team of actors woring script-in-hand, and the imaginations of a delighted audience, which can supply the rest.
So perhaps it’s time for some sharper debate about what is happening, in the world of new-play development in Scotland. Are we witnessing yet another cash crisis, wrapped in layers of off-the-cuff informal performance? Or are we in the middle of a crucial generational shift in audience expectations and attention-spans, which make the investment of a whole evening in a single play by a single author seem too much to ask? Has the experience of live theatre come to seem so artificial, to a younger generation raised on 24/7 screen culture, that the business of learning the words and moving around the stage is becoming unnecessary, even counter-productive?
And do we, in the end, believe that a five- or ten-minute play read from a script could ever attain the transformative power of a truly great full-length drama? We know, after all, what a great, short lyrical poem can achieve, in just minutes. So whether the current explosion of short and provisional work is just a passing moment in the evolution of our theatre, or the beginning of a revolution in form and expectations, it’s likely that it will leave its mark, in the shape of at least a few short works – from Jo Clifford’s brilliant Dear Scotland monologue to Gerda Stevenson’s haunting dream play, Skeleton Wumman – that are never to be forgotten.