Literary Manager of Traverse Theatre
Cambridge Street, Edinburgh EH1 2ED, Lothian Scotland
Traverse Theatre was founded in 1963 by a group of young artists such as the Edinburgh Festival regular Jim Haynes and theatre students. At the time, it was called the Traverse Theatre club and its theatre was built in Lawnmarket, an area of Edinburgh that had formerly been the red-light district. Haynes led a theatre company called the Paperback Bookshop at that time, whose name reflected his strong interest in performing new plays and works of literature.
In 1969, the theatre’s center of activities was moved to a theatre built in a renovated warehouse in the of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket district. Later it moved again to the theatre’s present location at Saltire Court off Cambridge Street. In 1992, the city of Edinburgh built a new purpose-designed theatre complex with a 216~350-seat hall, a 100-seat studio and peripheral facilities such as a bar café, and the organization’s management was reorganized as The Traverse Theatre Ltd., Britain’s first studio theatre.
Ever since its founding, the Traverse has been dedicated to the encouragement of new writing in its productions and programming and regularly commissions new works from playwrights in Scotland and abroad. Over the years the Traverse has mounted over 600 world premieres of new plays, including such internationally acclaimed works as Stanley Eveling’s The Balachites in the 60s, Iain Crichton Smith, John Byrne’s The Slab Boys Trilogy in the 70s, Liz Lochhead’s Perfect Days in the 80s and in the 90s David Greig’s Outlying Islands and David Harrower’s Knives in Hens. Plays produced at the Traverse’s productions are staged around the world and the theatre also mounts tours or productions in Britain and abroad.
Recognized in 2000 by the Scotland Arts Council for its efforts in producing new plays and encouraging new playwrights, the Traverse is now being called Scotland’ “new writing theatre.” the 2004/2005 season the theatre has also been actively promoting international projects with countries including Japan, China, France and Portugal to introduce foreign plays. The present artistic director is the director Philip Howard. The new works commissioned by the Traverse are performed by Traverse Theatre Company, which is produced by the Theatre. The Traverse is also actively involved in collaborations with other theatres and companies in Britain and abroad and touring productions.
(*5) Literary Department: This is an important department of the artistic division headed by the Artistic Director. At the Traverse, this department is made up of three people, the Literary Manager, the Literary Development Officer and a Literary Assistant. They work with the Associate Director and the two Producers to commission new works for the Traverse Theatre Company productions and a variety of activities with playwrights.
The Traverse also serves as one of the major venues for the famous Edinburgh Festival during the summer season.
Traverse Theatre 2004 activities
*Income: 1,322,642 (not including bar café sales)
*Stages for the year: 534
[Traverse productions: 80 / tours: 43 / collaborations: 395 (companies: 66) / others: 16]
*Education programmes: 37
*Support programmes: 10
|Calling itself Scotland’s “new writing theatre,” the Traverse commissions new plays from playwrights, holds writing workshops, reviews new plays submitted to its Literary department and conducts rehearsed readings of new works, all with the aim of discovering and nurturing writers for theatre. To find out how the Traverse has become an internationally renowned source of new plays, we spoke with the theatre’s Literary Manager, Katherine Mendelsohn.
(Interviewed by Takehiko Tanioka, comprised by Hiromi Nakayama)
Can I start the interview by asking you about theatre in Scotland?
Scotland has long had wonderful poets, novelists, philosophers, all sorts of very famous writers and in the 60s we began to see plays emerge where people were starting to write in the voice of the street, in the way people were actually living and speaking rather than in a more literary language. This paralleled a similar UK-wide shift in drama that showed in famous TV shows, like Cathy Come Home (see footnotes: *1), which was a very gritty sort of kitchen sink drama on TV about the lives of working-class people. There was a whole shift in the way playwrights were writing. Perhaps Scotland got a somewhat later start in theater compared to England or Ireland, but because of the outstanding literary tradition here the level of plays that have been written is very high and the theatre is also strengthened by having many talented actors and directors.
Part of the historical background in Scottish theatre, is that you had new theatres like the Traverse that were interested in encouraging new creative work and then you had independent companies who exist by touring their work in the Highlands and the islands. Some of the famous companies were the very political-oriented 7:84 Theatre Company (*2) that took its name from the fact that 7% of the population in Britain controlled 84% of the country’s wealth, and more recently Grid Iron Theatre Company (GITC) (*3).
Another more recent big event in Scottish theatre is the start of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) (*4), which is now in its first year. NTS doesn’t have a building, it is a creative organization that works with all of the existing companies and artists in Scotland to do collaborative productions in theatres all over Scotland. For example, in April of 2006 NTS collaborated with GITC and did Roam, which was staged in Edinburgh Airport. I think that the establishment of NTS with this kind of program and the active funding of performing arts projects by the Scottish government is going to contribute to many new developments. So, the current situation in Scotland is very positive, partly because of NTS, which has got a great artistic energy, as well as vision.
What kind of role is the Traverse Theatre playing now in Scottish theatre today?
The Traverse is a theatre that works with living playwrights. That is the main part of our identity. From the 80s we began focusing especially on the development of British writers. Since the 90s, the purpose of the Traverse has been very much on developing new generations of Scottish playwrights, as well as playwrights from outside Scotland. Our aim is serving the writers. We continue to commission the established playwrights for new works but we also focus on discovering new voices. We call ourselves the writers’ theatre, which means that the writers all have very, very high status here. Because what you’re trying to do is realize the writer’s vision, and all the directors who work here work very hard to give that writer’s voice full flow and bring it to the audience.
Could you tell us about the examples of these efforts in nurturing young, emerging Scottish playwrights?
At the Traverse we commission from six to eight new works a year. After delivering the first draft of a commissioned play that they’ve written for the Traverse, each playwright we’ve commissioned is offered the possibility of individual script-development workshops on their commissions. These development workshops are private, and they may be the first time the writers have actually heard the play. It’s very important if you are a playwright that you hear it. It gives you a perfectly different feeling for the length of the piece, the pace, where it’s working, where it’s not working. All commissioned writers also receive one-to-one dramaturgy from the director who will direct their play, and from the Traverse’s literary manager. In these individual sessions the writer is encouraged to discuss and explore the detail and structure of their play. Each playwright is offered personal encouragement and professional critical feedback on their writing. The aim is to try and enable the writer to fulfill the play they are writing and to hone their work
By the way, when we commission a work we don’t give the writer a date that the production will be on, so they can take as long as they like to write that play. But that means that at any one time we have a rolling lot of commissions that come into the theatre. So, at any one time we have writers delivering plays that we can then consider for production. We might also offer new writers a short-play commission, and that may be a step on to a full-length play commission. Other people are lucky enough to get a full-length play commission straightaway. The main point in displaying all these options is that you tailor it to the individual writer every time, and you don’t have a system, a formula.
Do you have programs for writers from the general public?
We accept scripts sent to us in the post from writers throughout the UK and also from around the world. These scripts are all read and reported on by an expert panel and we can then give feedback to the writers about their playwriting where it is appropriate. These scripts are sent in by a mixture of first-time playwrights and also professional writers. We prioritise responding to scripts by writers living in Scotland and are most likely to give these the most detailed feedback as we are one of the very few resources these writers will have.
Writers from outside the UK mainly want to know whether or not we will produce their work, so we do not always include detailed feedback for these writers. It is very rare for any of these scripts to be produced by the Traverse, but it is very important for alerting us to writers whose work we are interested in developing.
In the time I have worked here, I think only one unsolicited script made it straight to the stage. But that one turned into one of our most successful plays!
In exceptional cases where we feel an unsolicited writer has real talent, a member of the Literary Department will meet with the writer in person to talk in detail about their play. These individual meetings can be really important to help us better get to understand what the writer wants to achieve with their work, and also to understand their process and where possible to help them along the way.
Each season we programme two or three Public Playwriting Workshops. These workshops are run for small groups (between 10-15 people) and they are always run by a successful professional playwright who can communicate their own process and approach to playwriting. We also have other workshops aimed at a particular level of skill or experience. The writers who have run these workshops include: Zinnie Harris, David Greig, Douglas Maxwell, and Rona Munro. Very often we choose a writer who has a Traverse production on that season to run the workshop.
We also have our Young Writers Groups run by one of our professional produced Traverse writers. These are fortnightly groups for budding playwrights aged between 15-25 years old. They meet one evening a week to develop their playwriting under the mentorship of the older writer. In the first year the young writers will focus on developing all the elements of playwriting: including dialogue, character, form, plotting, stage directions etc., while they write short plays or scenes. In the second year they will work on writing their first full-length plays and will receive individual dramaturgy from the playwright leading the group.
Do you have any outreach programmes?
The Traverse provides a number of education possibilities, including schools and college visits and workshops, to education packs on our new plays. We also run regular teachers’ forums to discuss our coming work. Once a year the Traverse runs CLASS ACT, which is our schools playwriting project. Leading professional playwrights run playwriting workshops in schools over a number of months and work with the children (14-17 years old) to get them to write their own short plays. These plays are then developed and produced with Traverse actors and directors, and staged here in the theatre. All the plays are also published by the Traverse Theatre.
We run public workshops on playwriting in community centres in Edinburgh and around Scotland. These adult workshops are open to the general public from that area, and aim to encourage people to try writing their first plays, and to then develop that work further through some professional help. In certain projects this may result in seeing the work performed at the Traverse by professional actors, in other projects it’s a one-off starter workshop on playwriting. Also, once a year we take one of our shows and play it in venues around Scotland, from the Borders in the south to the Highlands, and we will quite often run a writers’ workshop to accompany the tour. In these we will work with writers from that region. That’s quite often where you begin making contact with new voices.
*1 Cathy Come Home
Broadcast from Dec. 1966 on the BBC1 “Wednesday Drama Series.” (Screenplay: Jeremy Sandford; Director: Ken Roach; Producer: Tommy Garnet) The young housewife Cathy lives with her husband and children. When her husband loses his job due to an incident, the family begins its slide into poverty. Filmed in a documentary style, this drama became a major hit with its depiction of the various trials and tribulations of the hand-to-mouth existence of the homeless family, culminating with the children being taken away to a Social Service facility.
*2 7:84 Theatre Company
This company was founded in England amidst the social upheaval of 1971 by John McGrath, a playwright previously associated with Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, with the belief that theater needed to break away from the existing control of the bourgeois. That same year the company presented Trees In The Wind at the Edinburgh Festival. This production became a big hit and toured for two years and was strongly received by audiences everywhere. This led McGrath to establish a company in Scotland, with its rich history, culture and tradition of political activism. The result was the founding of the Scottish 7:84 in 1973, based in Glasgow.
The name 7:84 comes from a statistic revealed in the Economist that a mere 7% of Britons owned 84% of the country’s wealth. The company’s policy has been to seek a socio-political role for theatre, to use language that anyone could associate with, to break down the barriers between the audience and the actors, to perform in places besides theatres and to take theatre to people who otherwise would have no opportunity to see it.
Until now the company has received support from the Scotland Arts Council and Glasgow city, but with the decision by the SAC to cut all financial support as of March 2006, they are now involved in a signature petition campaign to regain government funding. The current artistic director since 2003 is Lorenzo Mele.
*3 Grid Iron Theatre Company
The company was formed in 1995 with Edinburgh as its base. They quickly won a reputation for high-quality works after their first production Clearance was staged at the Traverse Theatre that same year. Since then they have continued to present successful works, including ones staged in unique non-theatre settings. In 1997 the company produced their first full-scale site-specific production, The Bloody Chamber, in underground vaults beneath Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile. In 1999, they presented Monumental as a promenade performance using the foyers, back alleys and car parks of The Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow. At the 2003 Edinburgh Festival, their production Those Eyes, That Mouth completely sold out and won an unprecedented five awards.
In recent years the company has performed in venues from London and New York to Jordan and Lebanon and has consistently won high acclaim. The company’s producer is Judith Doherty and the theatre director is Ben Harrison.
*4 National Theatre of Scotland (NTS)
NTS was founded in 2006 as Scotland’s first national theatre. Since it has no theatre facility of its own, budget that would normally go to facility development and maintenance can be directed toward creative work for its own productions, collaborative work with other theatre companies and artists and touring productions. NTS is dedicated to bringing a variety of different types of performances to all parts of Scotland, not only in theaters but also in places like schools and community centers to involve all ages of audience. Through tie-ups with major theatres and collaborations with various companies, productions are now planned for the Royal Lyceum Theatre (Edinburgh), the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre and Troy Theatre (Glasgow). They are also looking ahead to collaborations with overseas companies and overseas tours for their productions.
The theatre is also involved in school and community programs that teach expression skills and working with a variety of local organizations to make theatre accessible to more people. Furthermore, the theater aims to work with artists, including playwrights, designers and directors, to pool Scottish talent and to offer unique educational programs for young actors and production just finishing their training.
From the Scottish Arts Council, the theatre has received one million pounds (220 million yen) in funding for 2003-2004 and 7.5 million pounds (1.65 billion yen) for 2004-2006 (Mar.).
The arts director is Vicky Featherstone and the headquarters are in Glasgow.