Phil Morris is at the Royal Court talking to those behind the scenes of Dirty Protest’s series Plays in a Bag, written by Kath Chandler.
It’s an hour before the curtain goes up on Dirty Protest’s evening of Plays in a Bag at the Royal Court, and playwright Kath Chandler is bemoaning the conditions of secrecy surrounding the ‘Surprise Theatre’ season: ‘My play is going on at the Royal Court Upstairs and I can’t tell anyone about it’. The call had gone out to Chandler ‘about six weeks ago’ so the turnaround from commission to first staging is incredibly quick, which only adds to the sense of excitement. The buzz of expectation is rippling throughout the Dirty Protest production team, tonight represents something of a statement for this exciting Fringe theatre company, who have built a name for themselves staging short plays by new playwrights in bars, kebab shops and other unlikely venues.
Chandler is clearly enjoying the fruits of her success with the Sherman Cymru / Bristol Old Vic co-production of Before it Rains last year. She also won the Wales Drama Award in 2012 with her play Parallel Lines, which is going into production later this year. Yet she retains a fondness for Dirty Protest with whom she began to develop her craft. Discussing the relative merits of their short, immediate and direct process of developing and staging new plays Chandler explains, ‘With a shorter play I can experiment in ways that I can’t always do with a full length play.’ So while Chandler’s career profile rises with commissions from large scale companies – she is currently adapting Terry Jones’ Silly Kings for NTW this Christmas – she also feels it is important to continue working with Dirty Protest. ‘I want to take audiences to places no one has really taken them,’ she adds, which led her to write a ten-minute play that Dirty Protest performed in a club. For Plays in a Bag she has contributed a twenty-minute monologue Leaves on the Line, which is different to her previous work for the company. ‘It is a bold play, a more substantial play than what I’ve written for them before.’
‘Monologues can be quite boring to watch,’ Chandler whispers confidentially, she is aware of a tendency in the monologue form for the character to simply ‘talk at their audience’. Leaves on the Line later proves to be something more than a monologue, as it presents the work-life struggles and ethical struggles of two care-workers, both played expertly by actress Rebecca Harries. It is a dark exploration of mortality, which also happens to be very funny in places. What is most striking about Chandler’s play, however, is its focus on the ‘real life’ pressures faced by working class Welsh women, both well over thirty. ‘The best feedback I received on Before it Rains,’ says Chandler, ‘was from Cardiff people who enjoyed hearing Cardiff voices on a Cardiff stage’. She has not given herself a mandate to be some form of spokesperson for the Welsh working-class, her work simply reflects who she is and where she comes from. I ask her, does she ever mind being pigeon-holed as either a Welsh or working class writer, she replies quickly, ‘You can call me whatever you want, Phil, as long as I’m working.’ There speaks the pragmatic voice of a writer who is more interested in finding stages on which she might express herself than in how she is defined by others.
Alun Saunders is another Dirty Protest regular who regards the company’s rapid production turnaround as a key strength. The idea for his monologue 6:37 had ‘been brewing for about ten years,’ but the invite from company director Tim Price ‘reignited my enthusiasm for the story’. The inspiration for 6:37 came when Saunders met a former classmate at a RWMCD reunion. He explains, ‘She told me that she had felt the calling to train as a vicar, and was going back to university. From that, the idea germinated of someone receiving the calling but also having to face something resurfacing from the past, something suppressed from an early age.’ Asked why it took him so long to write the story Saunders concedes, ‘my discipline can be rubbish’.
Saunders studied for a BA in Drama at Aberystwyth, before doing his post-grad studies at the RWCMD. His parents ‘had recommended that I do double science for my A levels because they said I preferred my own company’. A life-changing stint with the National Youth Theatre Wales cured him of his shyness and set him on course for a career as an actor and writer. A creative breakthrough came from a clowning workshop Saunders took with Firenza Guidi. He explains, ‘Her ethos was when things go wrong enjoy it, laugh about being in that danger.’
As a writer, Saunders says his aim is to ‘push boundaries in the best possible way, and surprise people’. This attitude made him the perfect candidate for inclusion in the Royal Court ‘Surprise Season’ event. He had a one-line brief from Tim Price: ‘Pull the rug out from under the feet of the audience.’ Saunders took this to mean that he should challenge the preconceived notions and received wisdom of his audience, rather than to shock or sensationalise his themes of paedophilia and religion. ‘I like to keep people guessing,’ Saunders explains; ‘I love leaving the theatre with a little nagging question.’
‘People are never just one thing,’ Saunders continues; ‘I’m often quite quick to judge…but then I think, hang on, let’s just think about where this person has been and what they might have been through.’ ‘Do you collect people?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, definitely’, he replies, ‘Well I collect their stories.’
Kate Wasserberg is an associate member of the Dirty Protest collective, she was asked to direct Matt Bulgo’s The Knowledge and Sandra Bendelow’s One Hour and Forty-five Minutes. Fresh from tech rehearsal, Wasserberg gives some indication of how quickly the project moved from inception to opening night, ‘I got called up a couple of weeks ago and was asked – do you want to do something at the Royal Court? And I said, yes please.’
Her recent career was spent at Theatr Clwyd, where she worked on new plays and old classics. Has the change in working process been a difficult transition I wonder, ‘It’s been a real shot in the arm, actually, because the focus is entirely on the writing. So what you are looking to do is give the writer the most urgent, immediate, exciting platform you can, and give the audience a good night out. And there’s nothing in the way of that.’
Work on Plays in a Bag has clearly been frenetic and a challenge. The rehearsal period was a mere two weeks and involved only four rehearsals per monologue. There has been rewriting, while some of the plays have pretty much stayed the same – others have been rewritten right up to the day of the performance. ‘Literally, five minutes ago we were restaging and tweaking the lighting for the end of the show,’ Wasserberg exhales, but the fast pace has clearly invigorated her. ‘Of course it’s a much shorter process. So what you are looking to do is take the shortest route to making a play really strong.’
The theme of pragmatism, and having the drive to simply get things done, recurs when talking with the members of Dirty Protest. There is a high premium on communicating directly and immediately with audiences, and learning to work within unavoidable restrictions. ‘Terry Hands at Theatr Clwyd once gave me some great advice’, says Wasserberg; ‘He told me theatre is about looking at what you have, and not what you thought you would have or wish you had. Learn to see what is there.’
As the curtain rises on the cast of Plays in a Bag, it reveals a backdrop on which the names of all the writers who have worked with Dirty Protest in the six years of its existence are handwritten in large yellow chalk. There are about sixty names, including the famous and the yet to be discovered. The message is clear, Dirty Protest is a writers’ theatre, albeit one in which directors and actors are valued for their creativity. As the interview closes, Wasserberg announces that, ‘I’m moving to Cardiff in the autumn, and the reason I’m doing that is because I feel that it is the most exciting place to be right now, theatrically speaking. The culture is so vibrant.’
On the evidence of Plays in a Bag, there are other writers developing their craft with Dirty Protest who might one day emulate the successes of Tim Price, Kath Chandler and Dafydd James. Such development work should be supported somewhere between the fringe and the larger companies such as NTW and Theatr Clwyd. The playwriting culture in Wales is emerging into an exciting period, which has been recognised by the Royal Court. For this culture to take root, however, more mid-scale opportunities to have their works staged must be provided. There has to be a stage between Dirty Protest and the NTW that puts the work in front of audiences instead of groups of fellow workshoppers.
‘What is the Royal Court without The Gate, The Bush or The Finborough?’ asks Wasserberg, ‘Big buildings sometimes need small buildings to develop writers for them’.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis