Expanding Narratives

New writing is experiencing a revival and the Soho Theatre is just one of a growing number of venues where emerging writers can make themselves heard.

Soho Theatre’s latest offering is an exploration of urban isolation, told through an intriguing mixture of direct address and video technology. Blink tells the story of Sophie and Jonah, two shy individuals facing loneliness in London when Sophie sends Jonah a wifi baby monitor screen. Through the screen he observes her daily routine and slowly they build a relationship. Although it does touch on aspects of 21st century living, the technology is a minor part of this production, which focuses instead on the human connection between the characters. The director, Joe Murphy, explains how the video is used as an illustrative device but isn’t a major aspect of the overall aesthetic: “The thing that makes theatre unique and brilliant is that there is this live, real-time connection between audience and artist. I think, if technology gets in the way or removes you from that too much it can be quite negative. But it can also enhance this connection in some way, such as case with live streaming. As long as technology is used to illuminate whatever the play is and to enhance the relationship between actor and audience then it’s really exciting.”

Although the play is interesting in its style and form, the heart of the piece is about communication and the disconnectedness that comes from urban living: “We all recognise how disparate and fractured you can feel living in a city. I think what the characters are going through is very human and incredibly well observed by Phil [Porter, the writer]. What he does brilliantly is explore this in an unconventional way, which is provoking and interesting. It’s a bit like a Wes Anderson film: he comes at it from this side angle that offers a little bit more insight than the traditional view.” Porter is part of The Soho Six, a group of six writers encouraged, mentored and commissioned by Soho Theatre. The theatre’s new writing credentials are one of its crowning glories and Blink is a fantastic example of some of the thrilling work being produced as part of a number of new writing schemes that exist across the country.

Murphy is enthusiastic about the place of new writing in the British cultural landscape: “There are two strands that are quite exciting going on at the moment. One of them is a renaissance of young writers, producing fantastic plays that tackle the modern world and the digital revolution and then there’s Bryony Kimmings or Made In China, who are creating sort of performance art that looks at the process of making theatre and reimagining and reinvigorating it. There’s a real hunger in new writing for unique experiences that embrace the diversity, the complexity and the world stage of the 21st century.” He suggests that London might be the world leader for new writing at the moment and it certainly seems possible. The list of theatres with an increasing focus on new writing in the capital is heartening: in addition to the Soho there’s the Bush Theatre, the National Theatre, the Royal Court, the Donmar Warehouse and Finborough Theatre to name just a few.

The Soho Six is a collection of writers at various stages in their careers. The theatre looks for first-time playwrights who are still finding their voice as well as those on their second or third play who are already doing brilliant work. The Soho then nurtures them to the next level, exposing them to the spectrum of art forms on display at the theatre and helping them to get inspired and develop as writers. In fact, Porter’s decision to use direct address in Blink was influenced by his experiences of cabaret and performance art at Soho Theatre: “I think he enjoyed the relationship that you can have with an audience as a comic or cabaret artist and decided to utilise that in the play.” As well as finding inspiration in the other work at the theatre, the writers in The Soho Six can learn from one another over their year-long residency and so the more diverse the selection the better.

In the interests of further expanding the remit of new writing, Soho Theatre has also connected with a theatre in India, the Jagriti Theatre, and the two venues exchange personnel, artists and ideas. Blink undertakes a two week run in Jagriti from 29 November until 8 December 2013 and Murphy describes it as a great opportunity to light fuses and generate conversations. This transcontinental communication is an exciting indicator of the future of new writing, which experiments across cultures and forms. Murphy also runs his own company, Nabokov Theatre, which aims to provoke writers to create in a way they wouldn’t usually and challenges them to question their practice.

One of the projects that pushes writers in this direction is the Nabokov Arts Club: “We take over a building and pack it full of pieces of new writing, art installations, live music, dancing and all sorts of crazy things. We try to get as many different writers as we can responding and writing for an audience in a form that feels relevant to the 21st century and to what young people are looking to experience artistically right now.” Part of this is the concept of multi-disciplinary arts, art or theatre that stretches across boundaries, refusing to be confined to one definition. Murphy mentioned Bryony Kimmings, whose art does exactly that, with previous works engaging scientists (7 Day Drunk) and a current piece involving her nine-year old niece and an alter-ego set to revolutionise the teen pop market (Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model).

Nabokov facilitates conversations around these unique platforms, also hosting a night called Present:Tense where emerging writers form four teams of artists including a writer, a director and another artist, who could be anything from a magician to an illustrator. The assembled cast vote on the most urgent news story of the day and have a week to create a response and perform it live. Another project was Wiki Theatre: playwright James Graham (This House, the National Theatre) wrote the first five minutes of a play and anybody was free to upload the next section. This is a fantastic example of the internet as a collaborative tool; it’s changing the way art is made and this ties in perfectly with Nabokov’s mission to challenge writers to think about the potential for theatre. These ideas about digital communication are something Porter explores in Blink, questioning what it means to have a relationship via a screen and examining the fear of intimacy such a distance implies.

It’s an exciting time for new talent in Britain, with a vast array of outlets to discover aspiring artists. While there are still places too risk-averse to welcome new writing, Murphy insists there is something incredible about it: “Being the first person to ever see a play, I think that’s an amazing honour to have. I’ve got a real passion for writers. I love being in a room with them, hearing their ideas and seeing them write a piece for us. There’s nothing more exciting than being there with a writer as they create their work.” This isn’t just something experienced by the director either: the audience is a part of it too, this creation of new work. Who doesn’t want to be amongst the first to witness something spectacular, be it the beginning of a movement or the making of an icon?

Initiatives such as those presented by Soho Theatre and Nabokov are vital to nurturing a vibrant space for writers to experiment and develop, which in turn ensures the continued vitality of the British theatre scene. At their heart though is the simple idea of giving people a voice and helping them to be heard, something the two protagonists in Blink struggle with: “If a person has something to say, we’re interested and we want to help them articulate it better.” Like most things, it begins with this small communication, the idea that if you reach out someone might be touched: it’s a concept prevalent to Blink and it’s the only antidote to loneliness.

Blink opens at the Soho Theatre on 11 December and runs until 11 January. For more information and tickets, please visit www.sohotheatre.com or call the Box Office on +44 (0)20 7478 01000.

Bryony Byrne