est. 1981

Reality TV that almost sounds like… reality. Category: Writing and Poetry

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2006 at 11:28 pm
you see, now i have to find this and watch it. it sounds interesting if nothing else.

thoughts from all my theatre friends?

‘The Play’s the Thing,’ an Amazing Race to Opening Night
from the New York Times
Published: June 25, 2006

It worked for would-be opera singers, pop stars and restaurateurs. But will it work for aspiring playwrights?

That is the question behind “The Play’s the Thing,” Britain’s latest, boldest and possibly most foolhardy effort yet to discover new talent via a televised competition open equally to the unexpectedly gifted and the sadly deluded. But because this time the contest concerns the theater, with its singular complications and exigencies, the questions it raises go far beyond the usual “can you create a star overnight?” scenario.

Is it possible, the series asks, not only to select a credible winner from a pool of inchoate works in progress, but also to muscle it into shape rewrite it, cast it, design it, stage it in the space of a few months, so that it can open in the West End? And perhaps even more to the point, can it ever make money?

“Quixotic is a friendly adjective to use” about the enterprise, said the actor Neil Pearson, one of three panelists who whittled the pool of applicants down to a final winner. “Suicidal is more like it.”

Even Sonia Friedman, the project’s driving force and the tough-minded producer of plays like “Faith Healer” with Ralph Fiennes and most recently Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” started as a skeptic. She signed up for the show, she said, as a challenge, a wild experiment to see whether it was indeed possible to find and produce new work in the West End virtually from scratch. But when Channel 4 approached her with its idea, she said, “my immediate reaction was, ‘This is not possible.’ “

But maybe she was wrong. Last Monday the winner of the yearlong contest was revealed to be 51-year-old Kate Betts, a creative-writing teacher at the University of Chichester whose play, “On the Third Day,” reveals what happens when an unhappy woman meets a government worker named Mike who believes he’s the Messiah. On Thursday, after more than its share of dismaying setbacks, both personal and technical, the play opened at the New Ambassadors Theater in the West End.

The word “opening” is almost a misnomer, since it marks the end of a long, fraught process as much as the beginning of a new phase, in the way “commencement” means both a start and a finish at a graduation.

A lot of people, it seems, dream of writing plays for a living. When the competition began in the spring of 2005, there were more than 2,000 submissions. They came from train drivers, hospital porters, scientists, nightclub bouncers, teachers, plumbers, supermarket workers and call-center employees. For whatever reason, 70 percent of the entrants were men.

The plays at that point they were merely synopses and sample scenes had titles like “Dog’s Pies,” “Silent Running,” “Frocktherapy,” and “Revenge of the Biker Rabbits.” Subjects included families at war, Jesus, drug-addicted prostitutes and yes, rabbits on motorcycles. Among the characters were inner-city Glaswegian youths, terrorists and, in 335 cases, people who visit either a gym or a weight-loss center.

Mr. Pearson was struck by how bad many of the entries were. “It’s no surprise that we found no genius, since geniuses by nature are rare,” he said in an interview. “But it was rather odd seeing how many people wanted to write for the theater who had apparently never been to the theater.”

Many submissions, he said, were more suited to television-style half-hour segments than anything remotely stageable. “There were rather soapy subjects abortions, love triangles, whatever and also a number of scripts that echoed and sometimes slavishly copied sitcoms. You could actually see from the submissions what people like to watch on TV.

” ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Father Ted’ were particularly well represented,” he added, referring to two popular British shows: a soap opera about working-class London and a sitcom about three priests in Ireland.

By nine months ago the judging panel Mr. Pearson, Ms. Friedman, and the literary agent Mel Kenyon narrowed the applicants to 30. The 30 became 10 and then 3. The entire process was filmed and edited down to the four-part Channel 4 series “The Play’s the Thing,” which had its premiere on June 12 and wrapped up Saturday night.

The series depicted, for instance, several early contestants’ attempts to articulate for the judges what exactly their plays were about. “It’s about a man looking for his dog,” one said. Another made a quick sketch and then said, “That’s a rubbish picture of a knife, which is important to the play.”

A woman said that her play featured four characters and then, struck silly by nerves, promptly forgot three of them.

But from there the project diverged from programs like “Pop Idol,” the granddaddy of televised humiliate-the-contestants talent competitions. In “The Play’s the Thing,” the judges are tough and honest, but not bitchy; they don’t set out to ridicule anyone for a cheap thrill. The point is not to laugh at the losers but to illustrate in excruciating detail how much work, help and luck is required of an aspiring playwright hoping to go all the way.

“I got a lot of positive feedback,” said Steve Gardner, a 39-year-old resident of Manchester whose submission, “Father’s Day,” made it to the final three before being rejected. When he entered the contest, Mr. Gardner, who left school at 17, was stacking shelves at a branch of Asda, a British supermarket chain. He wrote the play, about a young boy and his racist grandfather, in a quiet corner of his local pub.

“It wasn’t intimidating, because you were treated as a writer,” he said of the program. “You were taken seriously. Your background, your education none of that mattered. They reacted to you on the basis of your script, and they were interested in your play and your opinion.”

THE show demonstrates what happens when the final 10 playwrights are given eight weeks “to turn their sample scenes into masterpieces,” Ms. Friedman tells them on camera. “The good times are over. Now it’s really hard work.”

They are sent to a country house with the playwright Stephen Jeffreys (“The Libertine”), who has been assigned to discuss rudiments of playwriting, like how structure is made up of story, time and place.

The 10 plays seem quite promising, the contestants intriguing. One man, in low spirits after being fired from his call-center job, says that the process of working on “Rose Colored,” his play about four elderly people who kidnap a young hooligan and find common ground with him, has helped to lift his depression. A woman whose play, “Ramases Has Disappeared,” is based on her experiences working with troubled youths, is shown struggling to explain the play’s premise when Mr. Jeffreys asks the obvious: What actually happens to Ramases?

“He has lost his phone,” she replies.

“That’s not enough,” Mr. Jeffreys says.

A cast of actors is hired to read scenes from the 10 plays to help the judges make their selections. And then there are three: Ms. Betts’s, Mr. Gardner’s, and “Reykjavik,” by Iain Weatherby, an advertising copywriter who calls the work “a comedy about air travel and terrorism.”

“If you had to die,” he asks, “wouldn’t you rather be in business class?”

Meanwhile opening day looms. Ms. Friedman is fretting, and her anxieties are spilling out onto the fledgling playwrights. Ms. Betts is discouraged, for instance, by Ms. Friedman’s assessment that her main character, the government-worker-cum-Jesus, is “fundamentally dry and boring,” and that the play has no tension and no ending. At the same time Mr. Weatherby is forced to rip his play up and start from scratch, relying on actors’ improvisations to get his mind moving in the right direction.

IN the end, after a great deal of arguing, the panel chose Ms. Betts. (The decision was made in early March, so there would be sufficient time for rehearsals, but the results were embargoed.) But if the contest’s resolution gave a focus for Ms. Friedman’s worry and attention, Ms. Betts’s troubles had barely begun. Mounting a play by an established writer is hard enough; the process of lifting “On the Third Day” the only new play in the West End into shape verged on the nightmarish.

As of the first preview, a week before opening night, Ms. Betts, who lives in a small cottage in Sussex with her husband, three children and elderly mother, was still making last-minute changes to the script. And the production was beset by problems so severe they would have daunted even a seen-it-all theatrical veteran.

Two weeks into the five-week rehearsal period, Steven Pimlott, the play’s director, became seriously ill; his emergency replacement, Robert Delamere, had a completely different concept of the work and took the cast almost back to Square 1. A seven-hour power failure across the West End forced the cancellation of the first technical rehearsal, 10 days before opening night. Several previews were also canceled because the production simply wasn’t ready.

Then there were worries that Ms. Betts, without the seasoning experience in, say, fringe and regional theaters, would not be able to handle the pressure. Ms. Friedman was gambling on Ms. Betts “We had to go with someone with the mental and emotional stamina to cope” and even though her bet seems to have paid off, the process has been unusually difficult.

“We are working at an unbelievable pace,” she said. “We’re having to give the winner unbelievable amounts of support.” But as she prepared for opening night, Ms. Betts was feeling pretty good, considering.

“I’m not quite sure what a West End audience is, but I do hope that as well as being entertained, they’ll have something to think about,” she said in an interview. “I hope they will actually enjoy themselves. There’s a lot of spectacle, a lot of special effects, a lot of humor as well as strong emotions in the play.”

Mr. Pearson said that the process had been so encouraging in nurturing unplumbed talent that it did not much matter whether “On the Third Day,” which is scheduled to run through Sept. 2, turned out to be a success.

Singling out Mr. Gardner’s play as “a beautiful piece of work” that would be well suited to a small theater, he said the panel had discovered “possibly four, possibly five writers who are good enough to have an expectation of having their work produced, if not in the West End, than in a London studio.”

As of a week before opening night Ms. Friedman was carefully lowering expectations, at least publicly. “I’m not looking to make history here,” she said. “I’m not after people saying, ‘You’re created a masterpiece, you’ve discovered the new Beckett, the new Stoppard.’ All I looking for is to be able to produce a credible, enjoyable play.” She found some vindication after the first preview. “For me the best compliment we got came from several people who said to me, ‘We’ve seen a heck of a lot worse in the West End by very established writers,’ ” she said. “At this stage that’s all I’m after.”

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