Student New Writing at the Fringe: Oxford, Warwick and St Andrews Students Compare Notes

The Fringe is the single most exciting date in the student-theatre calendar. Although accommodation and production costs are rising, it still represents one of the best chances young playwrights, directors and actors have of getting that much-feted big break – not to mention the all-important opportunity to meet and make friends with hundreds of theatrically minded students from all over the UK. Broadway Baby’s Alexander Gillespie speaks to representatives of three student productions from different Universities to talk about the differences between their universities’ scenes, trends and problems with student writing in general, and the call of the Fringe that keeps them coming back for more. Meet Joanna Bowman, director of Delay Detach at Greenside, coming from St Andrews University; Sam George, director of The Murderer at Zoo Southside, from Warwick; and Flo Read, playwright of Cold/Warm at Pleasance Courtyard, from Oxford.

There’s this sense, particularly at the Fringe, that something could happen

So what brings you all to the Fringe?

Flo Read (FR): Come back every year, feel like a complete masochist. Once you’ve had one Fringe, you can’t not come back, because every Fringe feels like it might be your Fringe. Then you get there and you realise that it’s not going to be your Fringe. That’s the joy of student drama at the Fringe: it gives you the sense that you could make it big and then rips it from under you, just so you come back next year. I’ll probably be forty and still be saying that I’m taking graduate drama to the Fringe. It’s addictive in the worst and best possible way.

Joanna Bowman (JB): You see just enough student plays become successful, like one or two a year are going to get picked up by dear dear Lyn [Gardner of the Guardian] or whoever, and you think “Oh, that could definitely be us next year!”

Sam George (SG): I’m trying to take a slightly more long-term approach the Fringe, because last year we just sort of came up and thought it would be fun, basically – but this year we have a show that we think is good, but has more to do to it. The idea is that we take the run as an opportunity to work out what’s good about the show, what’s doesn’t quite work yet, make it better, and then tour it hopefully (fingers crossed).

Sounds great! So let’s go around the table – first of all, Jo, what is your show actually about? (Delay Detach at Greenside)

JB: So the play itself is a bit of new writing by a former St Andrews student who is currently studying writing for performance in New York. In about December last year, a seed of an idea of a script fell into my inbox. I read it, thought this would work really well for the Fringe, because it’s the right length, so then we worked on it for the past eight months or so. It’s about a friendship between two women between the ages of six to seventy. The story is about their friendship, but it’s also about how borderline personality disorder has an impact on that friendship.

Sam – What’s The Murderer about? (At Zoo Southside)

SG: It’s set in a parallel world in which murderers get rehabilitated back into society through a special program. So it's slightly faintly sci-fi, but not like lightsabers sci-fi. It’s kind of about care and rehabilitation and control, very abstractly. But it’s gentler perhaps than it sounds from the title, it’s a kind of off-beat comedy drama. It’s a three hander and it’s got one actor playing the carer, one playing the murderer and one playing everyone else in the world. And it's adapted from a poem by Luke Kennard, I really should say.

And Flo, what is Cold/Warm about? (At the Pleasance)

FR: It’s a play about gentrification in cities like London, where I’m from. It’s about one man who lives in the last block of council flats in an area with his microwave. I have a firm belief that all of us replace our mothers with a microwave when we grow up, and this was my growing up play about what happens when you do, quite literally. So it’s this guy’s final stand against the world around him. It’s really funny, really dark, and hopefully quite moving. It took us quite a long time to develop, but I started writing it around Christmas time, and wrote it in a burst of about three days.

How do you feel Edinburgh audiences compare to the audiences that you have been making theatre for at university?

JB: It’s weird to see people who aren’t your friends in the audience. I mean St Andrews is not a city, it's three streets, and it’s a theatre community of about 100 people which means that our theatre sells out two nights with just them. So this is the first time that work is judged not by people who are going to support you whether it's good or not, it’s people who are going to give you more honest appraisals. It’s that change from getting a friend to give you five pounds and getting a stranger to give you a tenner.

FR: Last year I was doing the PBH Free Fringe, and that is very different to having two shows at Pleasance as I do now. For Pleasance shows, even the cheapest preview price is £6, which to me seems like absolutely loads. The people who are going to risk their money on shows they don’t necessarily trust, are going to be older, are going to be people with full-time jobs, people with regular income. Suddenly you shift from having a student audience, to having one which might have a different sense of humour, or one that might have different references. You have to shift the way you write for that audience.

SG: At University the only adults you get are parents or the occasional lecturer. I’ve really noticed that it's affected the sense of humour. But it's also have a positive effect as well. With the show we took up last year we noticed that the humour was really geared towards the under 30s, and that’s ok, but if you are making something for the Fringe that’s maybe not the most helpful way to go. When we working for this year’s Fringe, we realised that although the laughter was not always where we expected – people have found it more moving than we expected. I wasn’t sure if it would create an emotional connection with anyone, and it has, and that’s been a confidence boost as well as a weird shift.

You all seem like intelligent people – when you could have spent your summers doing an internship in investment banking, you are instead coming to the Edinburgh Fringe, presumably making no money whatsoever. With that in mind – why theatre?


FR: You’ve just spun us into existential despair!

JB: You’re right, I’m just going to go work for Accenture…

FR: A lot of my friends are doing just that, they are going to JP Morgan and they are doing a couple of months and are coming out with 40-grand starting salary, and you think “Why not?”. But then you think, “Why can’t I do that?” There’s something there, there’s something stopping me and it's not a deep Marxist sense about what is right and what is wrong, who is a consumer and who is not.

It’s really just a sense that if you can do this, although it is hard, although it is near impossible to make anyone care about you, or what you are doing, even if people walk out, or people say that it wasn’t their kind of thing, or if they give you back your flyer because they don’t like shows about microwaves, even though that happens, even though you stand all day on the Mile, there’s still something about it that makes you want to come back. It’s probably the same thing that drives you away from the shiny pearly gates of JP Morgan – it’s the same urge.

I think it’s the same urge that a lot of people here share – I think that’s the best thing about the Fringe, its sense of solidarity. Even though people are going to be awful, and people are going to say terrible things about you in reviews that you don’t like, you know that there is going to be a solidarity there, a solidarity with people who have chosen this path.

JB: I think there’s this sense, particularly at the Fringe, that something could happen. And even if it doesn’t, you’ve spent a month seeing theatre, of posting in a group asking what have people seen that’s good, and getting fifty responses back with different things. There is a sense of something happening.

Also, it’s just fun, theatre is just a fun thing to do. I spent our rehearsal two weeks just laughing. Maybe I just have a silly approach, but it’s just laughing really.

You mentioned a little about the rehearsal process – what does the rehearsal process look like for you?

JB: Oh, dicking around. We didn’t even pick up a script for the first four days, we just walked around the room. I kept asking if they needed breaks.

The best thing about working with a new writer is that you can ask them to change things and play around with the script. With new writing, there is no preconceived expectations of what this play should be, so you can afford to play around a bit more.

FR: I typically come in on the last night of a run and see it for the first time. I’m not one of those people who hover over the shoulder of the director at all; I give it to them and run away from it. But with the Fringe – because of the fact that you are doubling your numbers by simply sitting in on the show – I have to sit in every day and watch a show that has lines that to me sound awful. They keep coming – over 30 times – over and over. It’s a good way to learn that nothing is perfect.

Sam, your show has a rotating cast, how does that factor into the rehearsal process?

SG: So the rehearsal process has been fairly complicated – loads of fun, but very complicated – because we are a devising company, or, we were a devising company first and foremost rather than a traditional new-writing company.

We got the poem, played around with it, we liked it. And then someone out of the blue wrote a monologue and we thought “Oh we like this monologue!”. Then someone else wrote another thing and we thought “Oh, we like this too!” Then we started giving different bits to different performers to write, then we would take it to the rehearsal room and give it to someone else to rewrite it until we were happy with it. That means everyone is really familiar with the show from the first stage, and it also makes life very easy when we want to change things. No one is precious about their words, because no one owns them wholly themselves.

There’s five people with three different parts. The total number of combinations you could play is 18, and you can’t rehearse 18 different parts for a show which only has 25 performances – that’s impossible! So we cut it down to seven or eight variations, which was much more manageable.

Back home and in Edinburgh, what do you think of the state of student theatre?

SG: Obviously my experience is limited to just one or two universities where I and my friends are. What’s really good is that people are feeling increasingly not bound by traditional forms or structures, people are free to write for the first person and third person, free to write one person shows, free to write massive casts, ensemble shows, free to write physical theatre into their stage directions – which is loads of fun.

On the other hand, I’ve tended to find that we get a kind of political uniformity to the writing that happens, and that uniformity happens to be “the Labour Party is good”. That’s fine – our company is all left wing, that’s how theatre tends to work – but it’s not very helpful if you want to hear something thought provoking. What you need is someone who is going to engage in other perspectives with which you might profoundly disagree, and give them an honest voice. I don’t know if that ever happened regularly, but I don’t think that is happening now.

JB: I think, from my experience with student writing, is that things often happen before they are ready to happen. I don’t know what it’s like at either of your universities, but at St Andrews it’s very competitive to get a slot to do your play, so often student writing gets shunted to the beginning of the semester, because we assume that it will be a one-act play. So shows go up in week three or four of a semester when they’re not ready to be seen.

FR: In Oxford there is such a vast amount of support given to theatre, from individuals and the institution itself. But no matter how great that is or how privileged we are to have that, I think there is a sense that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This applies to my own student theatre, but I think that given a few years or real experience in the world, something great could come out of that – but I think people are desperately searching for their big break and forget that most people’s big break doesn’t come for a goodly while. That’s why people come back to the Fringe: people realise that being young isn’t a free ticket, you have to work through your immature direction to a point where you can say that this is something you believe in, and doesn’t just concern me, but concerns other people.

There is a real egotism to young theatre right now, which I feel is the biggest problem with student theatre at the moment. I love student theatre, partly because it's so hit and miss – that’s hilarious – but also because some of it is so great and you are shocked.

SG: Are there divisions between people putting on published plays and student-written plays?

JB: Often student writers will direct their own work in St Andrews, which means there aren’t that fresh pair of eyes. This is the first thing, other than scratch nights, this is the first thing that I’ve directed that has been a with-rights play. So for me this has been a massive change in how I’ve worked. But yes, often in St Andrews student writing is directed by the writer, which is interesting. I’ve seen a lot of student writing that with different eyes could have had a lot more in there.

FR: Oxford has quite a diverse scene in terms of new writing. It has quite a few groups who work together and are loyal to each other and work as more of a team. That means that if you are more of a lone wolf – like I am: I write and tend to give to different people – you become somewhat of an outsider.

So I do think that’s a problem with student writing, that it can be very cliquey. I do think there needs to be more space given to radical voices, because student writing thinks it’s very radical and it is actually not.

SG: It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s more difficult where I am [Warwick] to find a platform for student writing, rather than just getting a play and putting a concept on it. If you do do student writing, you tend to have to work with absolutely no money, and do it in a classroom or a tiny tiny studio. Which produces really interesting results… but I’ve found it quite hard where I am to put on plays with tech. I don’t think that’s quite the same at Oxford?

FR: No, it’s not. And I’ve been very very lucky this year in finding a group of people who are really really passionate about that side of theatre. We have a designer who is absolutely incredible. He’s built (in a garage in South Wales) a stack of thirteen microwaves that light up individually, and brought them all the way up here to the Attic in Pleasance.

Things like that, although we don’t have any money – it’s about the ambition. What Oxford is really good for is that: it gives you a sense of ambition and entitlement that in some people manifests itself horribly, and in others means that they go out and say “This is something I should be doing”. For that, it’s great; for everything else, it’s horrible.

Delay Detach at Greenside:

The Murderer at Zoo Southside:

Cold/Warm at Pleasance Courtyard:

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