Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award

Time Out discovers that with great awards comes great responsibility

  • Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award

    Searching for electricity: Vanessa-Faye Stanley in 'The Terrific Electric' (image © Linda Kerr Scott)

  • It’s not in the same category as ‘Brewster’s Millions’, but there’s something very appealing about having £35,000 to give away each year to young and talented theatre makers. That’s been the task of the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award since 2003 when a large capital sum was invested in order to support those producing experimental work that is ‘bold, innovative and challenging’. The similarity with ‘Brewster’s Millions’ is that the panel has not found the task easy. Who to give the money to is the question. Unlike literary prizes, there is no finished article to examine. Rather applicants, who submit a proposal and in some cases a script, have up until now, been judged by their ability to explain their intentions. But those who talk the talk don’t always walk so well. And the challenge to be innovative has sent many of the winners, some unused to having more than £500 to spend on a production, down the path of technology towards a dead end labelled style rather than substance.

    It might be better if less emphasis was laid on experiment. Do the most interesting artists primarily set out to be innovative or avant-garde, or do they set out to explore a theme within the context of contemporary culture? It’s not that all the winning productions have been disastrous, but they have been disappointing and so far have not led to the discovery of a major new company. And yet, as the Arts Council discovers that its funds for up-and-coming companies are being siphoned off in the direction of the 2012 Olympics, the money the OSBTT can offer becomes more and more crucial. Last year’s ‘Project E: An Explosion’ at BAC was especially disappointing and led to calls for the whole process of selection to be given an overhaul. ‘I would say,’ says Romilly Walton Masters, the administrator of the award, ‘that some of the productions have been all right, and some absolutely dreadful. But that’s part and parcel of the process. I don’t think you are going to find a Robert Lepage every year, that would be unrealistic.’

    Walton Masters was sufficiently concerned to approach the Barbican’s head of theatre, Louise Jeffreys, to suggest that the Barbican might like to get involved. Jeffreys was interested: ‘We don’t usually work with emerging practitioners and I thought that it would be good to complete the circle of work that we do, that once a year we’re helping someone right at the beginning of their career.’ The Barbican has also topped up the award and provided a whole week before opening to work in The Pit as well as offering administrative and production support. ‘It seemed,’ says Jeffreys, ‘that the two of us working together could really provide an environment that would help the company to create a show that they wouldn’t normally be able to do.’

    So when this year’s winner, Boileroom, opens with ‘The Terrific Electric’, it will be in a better position than its predecessors. Co-directors
    Sophie Hunter and Vanessa-Faye Stanley acknowledge that there was a pressure to be experimental. ‘I can definitely relate to that as a trap,’ says Hunter. ‘In any case,’ says Stanley, ‘all theatre involves taking a risk. It’s risky to get up on stage and present a straight play. We were thinking more about pushing ourselves. Our project is about electricity and inventions. We want to create a parallel sense of discovery and energy and imagination and crazy invention.’

    One way in which the award has always helped is in providing a mentor to come along periodically to rehearsals. Mark Ravenhill began mentoring Boileroom before he went up to Edinburgh and then was replaced by Graham Whybrow. ‘The best thing a mentor can do,’ says Stanley, ‘is ask the right questions.’ Crucially, the company benefited even before applying to OSBTT from a Playground Studio grant which allowed them to rehearse for free for a month on Equity rates without any pressure to produce a finished show. It meant that members of the trust had something concrete to see when Boileroom made its application. In another innovation, they were then given a further research and development grant by OSBTT before starting rehearsals. In 2008, several companies will be given such grants from which one will be chosen to receive the final award and to play in The Pit.

    The Pit is a big attraction and when I spoke to Jeffreys, 700 tickets had already been sold. Hunter and Stanley are hoping to use the prestige of such a venue to attract potential bookers from both Britain and abroad to give the project a further life. ‘I’d be lying,’ says Hunter, ‘if I didn’t say that doing a show at the Barbican can affect one’s courage. But I’m hoping that if we fail, we fail gloriously. It would be terrible if it was a polite piece of theatre.’

    The Terrific Electric’ is playing at the Barbican Theatre,The Pit.

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