The New Writing Festival at the Traverse was an event. Its significance at a time when, like Scotland itself, theatre is seeking to redefine itself in a 21st century context, cannot be ignored. What was most visible was the strength of the Traverse identity that paradoxically confirmed its newness, while maintaining a determined adherence to its now fifty-year-old commitments and beliefs.
While many theatres continue to play safe, the Traverse continues to champion new writers and writing, leading a march away from the predominant and commercially successful theatrical traditions of musicals and revivals, towards a brave new world.
To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, throughout 2013 the Traverse Theatre has nurtured fifty fledgling playwrights through a programme that includes workshops, panel discussions and one-to-one mentoring. From originally submitting plays of no more than 500 words, these fifty writers have spent the year conceiving and developing new, more lengthy scripts. The New Writing Festival was their opportunity to place these works-in-progress before a paying audience.
Rehearsed readings took place in the evenings and two plays were performed each lunchtime (where the £10 ticket price included a free portion of stovies and a pint of beer from sponsors Innis & Gunn). During the introduction to each session, the director stressed that these pieces were all in the very early stages of development and, as such, it seems inappropriate to comment on them individually.
In a setting in which the actors were seated and largely static as they read from hand-held scripts, with the stage directions read aloud by the director of each piece, the plays whose focus lay in the dialogue rather than the staging were the ones that worked best.
Reinforcing the inclusive and informal atmosphere of the event, and in the interests of furthering the development of individual works, the audience was invited to meet with both directors and writers after the performances, to make comments and share ideas. While some may have undoubtedly felt rather daunted to be offered such a privileged opportunity, the distinct buzz of creativity that this generated around the Traverse Bar, and other public spaces within the Traverse, was a happy ambience everyone could bask in.
Being the Traverse, the chance to experience new writing wasn’t confined to the usual performance-on-stage format. ‘Hidden Plays’ had been placed around the building: snippets of writing that would suddenly confront you on the wall of your toilet cubicle, on the paper towels pulled from the wall-mounted dispensers, or scrawled across the mirrors in the Traverse Bar.
Other short plays by the Traverse Fifty had been specially written for the Traverse’s Front of House spaces. These could be listened to on headsets, free of charge, in their locations – from the entrance space and the box office on the upper level, down to the stair mirror and the payphone at the foot of the stairs and on into the Traverse Bar and the booths beyond.
What the Traverse does it does wholeheartedly, with flair, ingenuity and - especially in their hosting of events - with such enormous generosity that it leaves you feeling indebted: not just for the optimism generated by such an extraordinary celebration of new writing, but also literally; that you have taken from the experience more than they have taken from your purse. And in a climate where, despite the hard times, an emperor’s new clothes theatrical experience can cost more than £50, you cannot put a price on the integrity of the Traverse and the quality of its work, it is beyond value.
The Traverse New Writing Festival ran 21-26 October, 2013