Chris Neville-Smith’s 2014 awards

Move over Oscar, step aside Tony, who needs some silly ceremony where someone opens an envelope when who could be getting the prestigious honour of reading about your play on a post? Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s that time of year again, when I decide on the best plays I’ve seen all year. And, damn, once again I’m going to have to get choosy, because I’ve seen a lot of good plays that I’d be happy to see in this list, but there’s only twelve categories (eleven if you exclude the booby prize).

A reminder of the rules: this is based on my opinion and my opinion only. No bonus points for five-star reviews elsewhere. The only way that other people’s endorsements might help you is if it persuaded me to see your play in the first place (because, in order for you to be eligible, I will need to have seen your play). Productions I have seen in previous years generally aren’t eligible, so that small companies and new productions stand a fair chance against successful long-running shows.

So, if you can kindly imagine some glamorous Hollywood starlet in an unnecessarily skimpy dress opening an envelope, let us begin.

Best new writing:

Scene from BlinkBlink, by Phil Porter, produced by Nabokov, toured to Live in February. My God, I loved that play. For most of the year, this was the runaway leader. Alan Ayckbourn put a pretty good late challenge with Roundelay, but one play out of the set of five was weak, allowing Blink to win by a significant margin. I must admit Phil Porter was at a bit of an unfair advantage because I caught this play five days after been dumped. The day before Valentine’s Day. By text message. (It barely qualified as something you can be dumped from, but I was nonetheless a tad emotional at the time.) But it’s now ten months on, I’m back to my usual emotionless self, and I still think it’s wonderful.

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Flying into Daylight: rehash or revitalising?

Publicity image of Flying into Daylight: Margo and Viginia dancing

Flying Into Daylight is described by many as Dirty Dancing for tango. In actual fact, this play is at its strongest when it when it deviates from that formula.

Okay, how’s about this for a story? There’s a young woman who doesn’t know what to do with her life, until the day she discovers tango dancing. It gives her a new purpose to her life, and yet friends and family don’t understand how much this means to her. She meets a free-spirited dance instructor who takes her under his wing. The chemistry between them is clear. Soon they’ll be more than just dance partners … Sounds familiar? Yup, this is pretty much the plot of Dirty Dancing, once you remove the word “tango” from that synopsis. And, classic though this 1980s movie may be, it suffers the curse of many classic movies: a formula so popular it gets imitated to death. I know that re-hashing film plots is a pretty effective way of selling lots of tickets without needing to be that creative, so I will admit I was somewhat sceptical about Live Theatre’s final play of 2014.

Well, hold on a second. There’s more to Flying into Daylight than a copycat of a popular film. This was originally a story by Victoria Fisher, which was adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson, who directed the play along with Live artistic director Max Roberts. The story is done as a two-hander, with Summer Strallen as Virginia, and Jos Vantyler as love interest Marco and everyone else. Also featuring on-stage musician-composer Julian Rowlands and on-stage tango choreographed by Amir Giles. It’s been described by some enthusiasts as the Dirty Dancing of tango – and I don’t think that’s a good description. Because this play, I think, is at its weakest when it’s similar to the plot of the film, and at its strongest when it goes its own way.

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The Fringe alone: what I’ve learned

Right, with my third of three consecutive plays finally finally finally out of the way, I can now look back at the first one. And although it may seem like a distant memory now, earlier this year I did the Buxton Fringe again. I’ve already written about my experiences last year at the Buxton Fringe, but, hey, what the hell, let’s do another post along these lines. And this year, it may not have been my first year taking part in a fringe environment, but it was the first year I went on my own.

Now, when I talk about doing the Fringe alone, I’m not talking about plays where you are bringing along an actor to do a solo play for you. That’s what I did last year (okay, it was a solo play plus one non-speaking and one cameo, but you get the idea), but I learnt this year the experience of producing a solo play is a very different to one where you’re also the actor. You might be doing someone else’s play, you might have a director back home refining your performance, but you’re the one dealing with the venue, publicising the play, and travelling to the fringe on your own.

I’ll start as frank as I mean to go on. Doing a solo performance at a fringe without support is a big challenge. The personal stakes are high: the play’s success or failure will be entirely attributed to you. Such are the challenges of a solo fringe that I would urge anyone considering doing this to think very carefully about whether you really want to do it, especially if your main reason for doing it is because you think it’s easier than a bigger play. But it can be done – provided you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

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BBC Three to survive – sort of

Logos of BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Four, with a gap between Two and Four. Text: TV makes no sense without us.

Apologies for anyone who want a theatre blog to stick to theatre, but I’m going to carry on digressing to non-theatre arts a little longer for an update over the fate of BBC Three. As you all should know by now, there’s been a controversial proposal, backed by BBC management, to drop BBC Three from broadcast and just keep it as an online brand. There’s been a campaign to stop this, which I’ve broadly supported. You can read my reasons there, but the short version is that BBC Three, along with BBC Four, are great assets to the BBC because they can take risks. They might bomb half the time, but when they work out – and they often do – they can go on to great things on BBC One and BBC Two. Anyway, today there is news of the final proposal that BBC management is submitting to the BBC Trust. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the actual proposal, only the BBC news story about it, so I can’t check the fine print. This is the best I can do.)

It’s not an outright victory for #savebbc3 just yet. The bad news is that it’s still planned to pull it from channel 7 in Freeview. But the proposal is not nearly as bad as I originally feared it would be. BBC executives will probably swiftly deny there was ever any plan to completely close the channel – after all, their original proposal had a title promising an exciting new future as an online brand. But TV executives are notorious for bullshitting and they spin this sort of positive light on anything. A programme that is haemorrhaging viewers and being shunted away to off-peak spot where it can die on its arse would probably be spun as “an exciting opportunity to connect with a new audience” or something. Cut the crap, what’s in the details? Well, I’ve had a look, and it’s not too bad. Here’s the important points I picked up, as I understand them:

  1. BBC Three will remain as a live channel and not just a “brand”. The original proposal implied that BBC Three would only really exist as a label for programmes put straight on iPlayer. Instead, it will continue to behave as a broadcast channel, such that if you’re watching live online (this way) it will look exactly the same. In fact, its broadcast time is switching from 9 hours or so after 7 p.m. to a full 24-hour service. Make no mistake – this is vital concession. Had BBC Three been reduced to a label on catchup TV, it would almost certainly have been followed by a whittling down of the remaining budget, and eventually removing the BBC Three label from the remaining iPlayer programme. It will still have a broadcast schedule to fill, and schedules need programmes. Continue reading

No, it’s not okay just because “it provokes debate”

Picture of butt-plug tree (inflated)
LOOK at the butt-plug tree! LOOK at the butt-plug tree! We spent a lot of your money on this, because it’s ART that PROVOKES DEBATE, so you’d better LOOK at this ART and DEBATE it you ungrateful philistines!

COMMENT: Contemporary art, no matter how pretentious, is fine in places where people have the choice to see it. But it’s wrong to impose it in public places if it’s clearly not wanted.

You think aspiring writers have a tough time? It could be worse. You could be an aspiring fine artist. When unpublished/unperformed writers look at their more successful peers, at least there’s usually some evidence they’ve earned their success: ticket sales, book sales or even work you that enjoy. Sure, there’s the odd piece out there which is pretentious twaddle, but it’s thankfully a minority. Not so in the fine arts. Christ, if you’re a fine artist who actually knows how to paint, it must be so depressing to see the stuff that dominates the Turner Prize and Tate Modern (and, to a large extent, the Baltic and Mima up here in the north-east). Especially when critic after critic fawns over this guff. As far as I can tell, there are broadly three reasons used for this sycophancy for these “works” of “art”:

  1. Arts critics are far better qualified than the rest of us to appreciate the meaning of contemporary art, and if you don’t like it, it’s your fault for being closed-minded and not understanding the work deeply enough.
  2. Yes, anyone could have created a spot painting (or whatever we’re gushing over this week), but the point is you didn’t. (Actually, I’m sure other people must have created coloured circles prior to Damien Hirst – it’s just that most of us don’t have an army of critics ready to acclaim it as genius.)
  3. It provokes debate about what is art, and that is a Good Thing™.

For reasons I’m about to explain, it’s the last one that’s the most dangerous. But we all get too angry over people like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, I will make a point in their defence: at the end of the day, most contemporary artists are quite harmless. Sure, it might be seen as a waste of money, but there’s far worse wastes of public funds out there. Yes, they take up limelight that could go to someone seeking their first break, but so do shows like The X Factor. Apart from that, what harm does Tracy Emin’s unmade bed actually do? If you think something like that is a load of crap, you don’t have look at it … That is, unless you’re unlucky enough to live somewhere where they inflict “public art” on you, and there can be no worse offender than pretentious piss-weasel Paul McCarthy. This year he has struck again, in Paris. Continue reading

13 questions to ask yourself before you enter a playwriting competition

This is going to sound ungrateful of me, seeing that I was a finalist of 2012’s People’s Play (and frequently mention this fact to make myself look good), but I’m not terribly enthusiastic about playwriting competitions. I’ve got a number of gripes over them (read on to see what), but the main thing is that I’m not really interested in seeking someone else’s approval for my script. I want to take responsibility for what I show an audience and let them be the judge. I just don’t have much patience with the hoops you have to jump through in reading departments.

Nevertheless, for the majority of aspiring writers, the fact remains that script submissions such as playwriting competitions are your only chance of getting your work out there. And, of course, if you can produce your own plays, it’s not an either/or choice – you can produce your own work and enter competitions at the same time. The odds of winning are bound to be low, but it’s not a bad deal if you prevail: typically you can expect a four-figure cash prize, a performance of your work, and a leg up with your career now that you call sell yourself as “winner of the X prize/competition”.

Approaches to competitions vary. Some people set their mind on going for one particular competition, whilst others are happy to go for a scattergun approach and submit to as many competitions as possible. Either approach can work and has worked. But based on my occasional foray into these kinds of competitions – and my habit of reading the fine print first – I think it’s a good idea to use some discretion over where you send your work. There is more at stake than a few postage stamps here.

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