Timely themes and a minimalist aesthetic are key to attracting international producers, the playwright and performer tells Nick Awde
When searching for contemporary UK work produced overseas this year and next, the name Henry Naylor pops up rather a lot. In fact, it seems as though the writer’s zeitgeisty plays are out on a major world tour.
“It’s just a bizarre coincidence,” says Naylor, who is also a director, producer and performer. “There’s an unusual concentration of different productions of my shows this autumn in particular.” In October and November, five of his plays are being produced in seven different countries: Belgium, Greece, Italy, Norway, Netherlands, Spain and the USA.
“None of the productions is related, yet taken together, they look like a large tour. But I can assure you, that’s not the case. Typically, the producers have picked up the work and had it translated into their home languages.”
So far, Naylor’s works have been translated into 11 different languages, which he finds a “bizarre and exciting experience”. He adds that the staging often surprises too, such as the recent French-language version of Borders at Brussels’ Théâtre Le Public, which flooded the stage for the final scene, in which one of the actors was up to her neck in water.
Naylor’s plays deal with geopolitical themes and issues – Borders links a war photographer, Osama Bin Laden and a pregnant Syrian refugee on a sinking boat, while Games observes two Jewish-German athletes at the Nazi-hosted Olympics of 1936 – so they tend to have a global relevance.
“The refugee crisis, political and religious extremism; violence against women, the response to terrorism – these are big issues that all countries are grappling with,” he says.
Normally, Naylor tours his own productions on the international fringe circuit for a year in the hope that they’ll get picked up. His agent United is also very proactive in selling the works to foreign producers.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is where it all starts. “I’ll premiere the work at the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh. If the show creates a buzz, critically or by word of mouth, international buyers will come and see it. After the fringe run, I’ll have a good sense of what’s ‘working’ in the show – then I’ll give it a polish, and take it on tour.”
Naylor usually takes the rewritten shows to the Holden Street Theatres at the Adelaide Fringe the following February/March. The festival invites promoters from all over the world to its Honey Pot Arts Market. “It’s where I met Darren Lee Cole, who picked up Games and is currently staging it at New York’s SoHo Playhouse.”
The plays are attractive to producers as a result of Naylor’s minimalist style. “I now deliberately write plays that require few props, no set and a small cast, otherwise it just becomes too expensive to transport, fly and accommodate the show.”
The finances can still be tricky. “The whole experience of chasing arts funding is too laborious,” says Naylor. “The amount of paperwork artists are expected to fill in is crushing. And because my shows are political, I don’t want to chase government funding. I want to keep my voice free from influence, so I often self-finance. But it’s a risky strategy: the shows have to make a profit, or I’m stuffed – which makes me work harder and better.”
Games runs at New York’s SoHo Playhouse until November 24