Britain: A Changing Theatrical Landscape…

There is a growing interest in new plays from Scandinavia; theatre is catching up with TV and film. The Nordic Embassies recently hosted an event at the Free Word Centre, presenting an afternoon of performance and discussion around recent developments in contemporary drama from their countries, and Company of Angels are preparing for their Theatre Café Denmark in October. I recently caught up with CoA Artistic Director, Teresa Ariosto, to discuss our shared interest in presenting new European plays in the UK and to find out more about their model of working. What has become clear is Empty Deck’s position within this landscape.

I can quite firmly place myself within a younger generation of British theatre-makers who are influenced by new international theatre. Teresa, herself from Italy, has seen that interest grow over the past decade, as well as new British writing change since she moved here in 1998. When we talk, the same notions repeat themselves: the diversity of approach to themes and forms found in new European writing; expanding the British theatrical landscape; and theatre that is simply more stimulating.

In the translation or transposition of one country’s play into another, questions around “foreignesss” and assumptions about the reception of audiences seem to recur. Company of Angels have run ‘Theatre Cafes’ since 2003: events where translations of the best new European plays are selected between several host countries, and brought to life in each, in intimate café-style performances. In their first European project in 2007 something interesting occurred though. Between France, Holland and Estonia, 10 plays were chosen with the intention for each country to stage them all. Yet, according to Teresa, Holland and France’s selection of plays were predominantly about asylum seeking and immigration, which as a subject matter was deemed to be of no interest to Estonia. In the end, the four countries decided to split the plays up between them according to their own interests and what they believed would resonate with their audiences.

Theatre Cafe Oslo, 2014-2015

Theatre Cafe Oslo, 2014-2015

I have a strong belief in the universality of human experience, and furthermore I am convinced that sharing stories from other places can only be an empowering thing. At the Nordic Drama Now event, heated and passionate conversations erupted around Britain’s particular difficulty in attracting audiences to new international theatre. I have no idea if it’s the same situation in Estonia, but they’re decision to not stage a play because a political issue of another country could not be shared as a global humanitarian concern in their own, strikes me as a shame, if not narrow-minded. Are we narrow-minded here too? And what is causing this perceived lack of interest? If typical theatregoers, as it is often generally assumed, have such distrust of theatre that is ‘other’ in subject matter or in form, then it seems to me that the task lies with the producers, programmers and marketing departments to reframe the audiences’ encounter with contemporary international work.

‘The more local the theme of a play the more global it becomes’

Johan Storgatd, ACE Production, Finland (Nordic Drama Now)

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In 2008, Company of Angel’s Café Sweden worked to a slightly different model than before. Under the commission of the Swedish Embassy, a committee of readers made up of British programmers, literary managers and artistic directors looked at a whole host of Swedish plays to investigate why they weren’t being produced and staged here. The committee’s task was to find 4 plays that they thought would capture the British attention. Teresa recounts their many discussions about how certain plays or topics were thought to not be ‘right’ for the British sensitivity: they would alienate, the form would be too ‘out there’, and audiences wouldn’t be interested. Again: are these assertions founded?

When thinking about introducing new international plays to the UK I find myself asking: should the transmission be a process of assimilation, where the play is re-worked or even adapted to let it speak to our more “British” sensitivities, or, should the work be revered and honoured in its “foreignness”, as an exemplar product imported from another country? – ‘Product’ being the questionable thing. A playtext in and of itself is never the finished product. Only through its encounter with actors, a director, designer, and other creatives does the text come alive. And what Company of Angels so interestingly facilitates is a space where a play can be brought to life across more than one country at the same time, where in every case that country’s own social, cultural, and political make-up, as well as the personal experience of the actors, will enter the fabric of performance and generate new meaning. This is inevitable. And it is this cultural translation that I find fascinating. If only Estonia had had the bravery to ask itself the imaginary question posed by the rejected French and Dutch plays of Theatre Café 2007: ‘What if people from other countries were trying to enter and make a home in your country?’

Nordic Drama Now, Free Word Centre, Sept 2015

Nordic Drama Now, Free Word Centre, Sept 2015

I feel more and more that Empty Deck’s role is to confront the assertions that new international writing doesn’t have a wide audience and home here, and to embrace and be an advocate for challenging narratives and formal experimentation.

In my reading of new Scandinavian theatre what was challenging was deciding exactly what my criteria for selection was. Andrea Ferran, Artistic Director of the recent Volta Festival at the Arcola Theatre, claimed that her programming choices of new international plays came down to those that showed formal experimentation. Teresa, at Company of Angels, looks for plays that are for or about young people and that come from Europe. In the end, the size of casts (aka finances) and the thematic inclinations of our partner venues provided me with my own parameters whilst reading through the variety of contemporary Scandinavian theatre sent to me. But I have also gone with my gut. I hope that Season Scandinavia will introduce audiences to a different and remarkable canon of work that exists from a part of Europe that, although may have become more familiar through popular TV series, still remains quite distant to us. I hope that as British theatre-makers we do the work justice when presenting it to the UK for first time, as well as make it our own, in discovering what the material expresses for us today.

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Thanks to Teresa Ariosto at Company of Angels for her time in conversation; all those involved at Nordic Drama Now at the Free Word Centre; the conversations had at and around the recent play readings presented by Cross Channel Theatre and the productions at VOLTA Festival, Arcola; and the discussions that took place in the ETRN “Theatre Directions 2020” thinktank symposium led by Kent University. All provided rich provocations in the past few weeks on this topic!

Empty Deck presents a scratch performance of Christian Lollike’s Cosmic Fear Or The Day Brad Pitt Got Paranoia on 30th October, The Other Room, Cardiff.
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