The lights dim and there are actors on stage. There are actors on stage and this time they’re saying things I’ve written. And, God, I really wasn’t prepared for how exhilarating and terrifying an experience this would be. I really wasn’t prepared for the emotional wallop that would come with this, the sense of complete and total exposure. I mean, of course I appreciated how this process would work on an intellectual level, but, no, I wasn’t prepared for how it would feel. And I find that I am hyper-aware of the audience’s every rustle and mutter, that I am wincing and grinning at the same time…
When my short play, Restoration, was staged earlier this year – beautifully brought to life by Tom Durant-Pritchard and Lucy Fyffe and directed by Rafaella Marcus – it was as part of The Miniaturists, the showcase for short plays which turns 10 years old this weekend, with a big birthday bash at the Arcola on Sunday.
It’s an event I’ve attended many times over the years and always enjoyed it, because they take the short play seriously as a form. These are not snippets of bigger things, not extracts, but whole complete pieces. There’s artistry to the telling of stories in this way, their writing requires the flexing of a different set of creative muscles.
The Miniaturists was set up by playwright Stephen Sharkey in 2005. The first night took place in November of that year at Southwark Playhouse, though the event has since made its home in the Arcola in Dalston (though it’s been known to roam, to Liverpool and Latitude). Flavia Fraser-Cannon produced it until 2013 and it is now curated by writers Declan Feenan and Will Bourdillon. Crucially these are not rehearsed readings or works-in-progress. And though some of the plays have been known to grow into fully staged productions, costumed and lit, here they are performed on the set of whatever happens to be playing the Arcola at the time. “The Miniaturists is a night that offers something important to writers,” says Bourdillion, “the chance to try something out, to see an idea realised on stage quickly, but completely. I think that’s why it’s had the impact it has, because this is something brilliantly valuable to writers at all stages of their careers.”
Every show contains five new pieces, both from emerging and established writers – this mix being another key part of the Minis appeal – and none of them lasts longer than 20 minutes. There are always two performances, at 5pm and 8pm, and there’s a really supportive, energising vibe about the whole event, the bar full of writers getting animated about writing. So when I decided to try my hand at playwriting, to scratch that itch, it was the team at the Miniaturists I approached because I knew it to be an environment in which it was possible to fail safely, if that was to be how things turned out. Having had such positive experiences at the event over the years, it was a brilliant – if nerve-shredding – thing to experience from the other side of the fence.
The format encourages experimentation, with form, with ideas. Not all the pieces hit all the right notes, but that’s part of the appeal too: it’s a space in which writers can test themselves, stretch themselves. The list of writers who’ve had work staged here over the years is impressive by any standards: Alice Birch, David Eldridge, Samantha Ellis – whose short Postfeminism remains one of my favourite Miniaturists to date – Joel Horwood, Anna Jordan, Duncan Macmillan, Tom Morton-Smith, Nick Payne and Tom Wells, among them. Writers for this Sunday’s anniversary event include Poppy Corbett, Owen McCafferty, John O’Donovan, Stephen Jeffreys and James Fritz (whose full length play, Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, opened this week at Trafalgar Studios). “I’m chuffed to be writing for the Miniaturists’ 10th anniversary,” says Corbett, “and I’ve challenged myself to write a short play with a larger cast (seven actors). What sets the Minis apart from the other nights is the freedom the producers give to work with who you want and write whatever you desire. It’s rare for writers to have that choice for a short play night.”
I can’t make it along to the birthday celebrations but I’ll definitely be returning to the Miniaturists in future – in one way or another.