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Presenter Interview
Placing top priority on new writing and nurturing playwrights   Scotland's Traverse Theatre
*5   See footnote on Traverse Theatre

*6   Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland
The organization is a government initiative founded in 2001 aimed at promoting the development of Scottish drama. It was established as a result of long years of lobbying The Scottish Arts Council by director Tom McGrath and the Traverse Theatre. The studio’s purpose is to support the development of new plays by Scottish playwrights, living in Scotland or other parts of the UK (including overseas in some cases) for the improvement of the quality of performances.
The studio’s programs include “Mentoring” of less experienced playwrights by a selected group of highly qualified and experienced playwrights to help develop their craft or a specific play, an “Evolve” program to hone the skills and cultivate the voices of non-produced and aspiring playwrights at the very start of their playwriting career through guidance by the Playwrights’ Studio together with leading theatre professionals. There is also the “Ignite” program, a national playwriting competition aiming to find undiscovered voices for the Scottish Stage, and the “Fuse” program, a unique Scotland-wide initiative in which plays received for the general public are read anonymously by a highly skilled professional who provide feedback to help the writers develop their craft while also putting the new plays in front of the artistic directors at the country’s top theatre companies. At the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, the Playwrights’ Studio collaborated with four theatre companies and BBC Scotland Radio Drama to present a drama reading series.
The Playwrights’ Studio Scotland is based in Glasgow. The creative director is Julie Ellen.
www.playwrightsstudio.co.uk
You said the Traverse is the only theatre with a literary department (*5).
Yes that is amazingly still the case. But now there is also a very good organization called The Playwrights’ Studio of Scotland (*6), and they have started to read unsolicited scripts like we do. They are not a theatre company, so they won’t produce them, but they are giving writers feedback, and mentoring writers. What they are doing is offering to fulfill the ‘literary manager’ role for many of the theatres in Scotland who would like to work with these writers but don’t have the resources to have a literary department. They have also started script-reading this year. The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) obviously does a lot of work with playwriting, but what they don’t accept is unsolicited scripts, because the writers they are working with tend to be of a higher level.

Does the Traverse work with The Playwrights Studio of Scotland?
When the Scottish Arts Council first launched its initial research project into the feasibility of a Playwrights’ Studio for Scotland, the person tasked with that research (Faith Liddell) worked from a base at the Traverse, and our Literary Assistant of the time assisted her in the work. This was largely because at that point the Traverse was (and surprisingly still is) the only theatre in Scotland with a Literary Department, and we had the most experience in and knowledge of working with writers, as well as an extensive database of contacts. So, we made a big contribution there. Furthermore, some of the key initial ideas for the Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland, had come from John Tiffany, who at that time was working at the Traverse as our Literary Director.
The Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland was eventually established as a fully independent entity: not allied to any one theatre, but working for all of Scotland’s playwrights, theatres and theatre companies, and subsidized by the Scottish Arts Council. Today, the Traverse links with the Studio only on specific projects where it can be most appropriate or beneficial to an individual writer or to Scotland’s playwrights in general. For example, recently we co-funded and co-organised a day-long theatrical event at the Traverse of play-readings and discussion panels marking the 60th birthday one of Scotland’s most established stage writers, Tom McGrath. We have also been involved together this year in lobbying the Arts Council to set up a translation bursary fund to provide grants to assist international theatres who seek to translate contemporary plays by Scottish playwrights. And all the Traverse’s development events for writers are also advertised through the Playwrights’ Studio’s monthly e-bulletin which is sent out to writers.

The title literary manager is new to us. Could you describe the role of a literary manager?
A literary manager will work for a theater and help the director to find the plays that the theater will program. If it’s a theater that does classics, it might be about sourcing exciting plays that haven’t been done in a while, or you might do something where you have complementing plays that you put together to make up a season. And if it’s a new writers’ theater, like Traverse, it is about finding new writers, and commissioning new plays from existing writers.
I think being a literary manager is a job you don’t really start early on but one that comes after acquiring skills in a number of areas. There are now some courses at universities on being a dramaturge, which is slightly different. I didn’t do any training of that sort, though I now teach on some of those courses! I did English literature, which is very useful because it helped me develop my skills in analyzing text, ascertaining why a piece of writing is good or why it is not working. That is very important to the job I do. But I didn’t do it to become a literary manager.

The Traverse does a lot of rehearsed readings in your program. Could you talk about what these are?
Rehearsed readings are like a production but without the sets and the costumes. A group of actors will work with the director on the play and they will rehearse the play but for a much shorter time. They will perform it, holding the script in their hand so they can refer to it if they need to. What’s amazing is that when using wonderful actors, it’s very close to a real production, but with less distraction. And, quite often, our audience response is that it’s a much purer experience, both with the play and with the acting.
There is also a very practical side, which is that it’s much cheaper than an actual production. Some theatres can’t afford to do many productions. You can also do readings as a chance to give your audience access to more plays, which is a very positive reason. Bringing an entire company over from Australia, for example, would be quite expensive, but being able to simply invite a playwright and having your own company do a reading gives you and your audience access to a whole lot of exciting plays without extra cost.
Another reason for the reading can be for the writer—it can be a great chance for the writer to experience the work and see the work with an audience for the first time. Sometimes we do rehearsed readings for plays that we will go on to produce, and it’s a great chance for the writer to hear the play when it’s in the draft stage.

Do you find it difficult to put foreign works on stage in Scotland?
The Traverse has always been a very good place in terms of putting on foreign works, because our audience and artistic director are both very open to it. One of my passions is international theater, and very often with new writing that involves translation. One of the big areas of my expertise is working with writers on translation of their play, and making sure those translations have as good a quality as the original—that they are not just about translation of the language, that they are about translation of energy, the spirit of the play, the delicacy. Another thing we do is working with international playwrights to translate works that will specifically gear to production, not just play-reading. This program is called Playwrights in Partnership.

What kind of programme is it?
In out Playwrights in Partnership programme we find some foreign-language play that we really want to do and then find a Scottish (or British) playwright who is well suited for translating that play. And, unless our Scottish writer speaks the original language that the play is in, we quite often involve the original international playwright very heavily in the project to make sure we do as good a job as possible.
One of the methods we use is to have a ‘residency’ that we host. In the residency the original playwright works together both with myself as a ‘translation dramaturg’ and with the Scottish playwright who is working on the text in English for the stage here in the UK. We use the residency to go through the text together in minute detail to uncover points such as this, so that the British writer can then use their skills to make the right choice from all the linguistic options open to them.
We bring the playwrights together to work first on a literal translation of the play—this is just about the language. It’s much too rough to perform at this stage and quite often as full of notes as it is with parts of the actual play itself. The most important thing is the footnotes. You don’t find solutions because it’s not the final text. What happens is that the Scottish playwright will find the creative solutions to that translation and produce the final text that you are performing. It’s very faithful to the original play—it’s not about the Scottish playwright moving in a different direction and making it a different piece. It’s about trying to capture the essence of the original play and understanding that that essence is not just about the literal meaning of the language, it’s about many other things: style, energy, and rhythm.
Many contemporary plays use a lot of colloquial language (such as slang or swearing) for their characters because that is the way many people speak in life. This becomes a vital part of the translation that is quite difficult. So in this instance above, the Scottish playwright or myself would ask the original playwright what they had intended from that moment in the play and what the impact had been in the original play. The original writer always has a clear idea of how their individual character’s language worked, so they can then answer whether the mother swears all the time, how strong a swearword she has used (mild or shocking) and whether it is unusual and out of character for her and therefore in this instance is provoked by something else such as the tension in the scene. The Scottish playwright can then make their own choice of which word to use in the English play-text, and it will now be a choice that is closer to achieving the qualities in the original play.
 
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