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Richard Jordan: Place is crucial to a new play’s success and can send it global

Cast of Flesh and Bone. Photo: Heather Pasfield Cast of Flesh and Bone at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. Photo: Heather Pasfield
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I have been in Australia and New Zealand for the past few weeks, experiencing the major festival season that runs in both countries from January until the end of March.

What interests me when I visit an international festival is the way works from around the world connect and inspire different audiences.

At first, a work on the stage may seem many miles away from the country in which it is being performed. Any work can succeed, however, if the writing creates an emotional arc that connects with an audience.

The success of this engagement in theatre is first and foremost reliant upon the writer establishing the work’s theme; this is one of the most important aspects of the craft. The theme of the work is what gives it both a structural backbone and a solid foundation.

Scene from Itsoseng. Photo: John Worboys

With that in place, the emotion of the work can develop while also providing the depth and truth of its characters. If this is done right, an audience will find a connection to a work no matter where it’s being performed.

The greatest plays and musicals are those where the audience finds themes and emotions they can relate to in their own lives. It’s a thrilling moment of cultural connection when you experience this in the theatre.

Take a play such as Itsoseng by the South African playwright Omphile Molusi, which explores the issue of displacement. I produced this play in South Africa and went on to produce it around the world.

One of its most powerful runs was at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2010. At the end of the play, in a post-show discussion, members of the audience stood up in the theatre and shouted that this play was as much the story of what was happening in their own cities and communities as it was about South Africa.

Crucial to the subsequent success of Itsoseng was that Molusi did not start out by creating a play with the deliberate intention of it touring the world. Rather, it started because he wanted to tell a story about, and for, his community. From that foundation, the play went on to find a connection with many other audiences, who could also relate to the theme and emotion of its story about a community’s hope for change, their subsequent displacement, and their lost dreams.

In theatre, the show must be created for the place in which it opens. Anywhere it goes after that is a bonus. Working this way holds the best chance for onward success and longevity.

At the Adelaide Fringe last Sunday, the best theatre award went to Elliot Warren’s terrific play Flesh and Bone. I first saw it last year at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it was one of my highlights.

Flesh and Bone review at Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh – ‘riotous, rollicking portrait’

This production premiered in Adelaide with the same cast. Again, its performers gave a masterclass in playing the truth as they told a story of the daily struggle to survive personally, and with each other, in a London sink estate.

The themes and emotions that Warren explores through his sharp writing, combined with the honesty of the performances, achieved equal resonance with audiences on the other side of the world.

Placement is crucial with any play or musical – but especially so when it’s a new piece of work being premiered. It requires real care and thought about its positioning, which affects how the first audiences who experience the work will remember it.

On the fringe, many shows don’t make it – not because they are badly written or performed – but because they were misplaced. Sometimes the artist or company is forced into making such concessions on space in desperation to get something on.

On the fringe, many shows don’t make it – not because they are badly written or performed – but because they were misplaced

But if, as a result, the work becomes compromised, nobody involved is well-served by the experience. It’s also where a set of poor reviews can harden judgement about it, from which it can be hard to come back – especially in the age of social media.

In the case of Flesh and Bone, its position at the Adelaide Fringe’s excellent Holden Street Theatres – which has become a centre for new writing – was a smart one. Placed in a larger, black-box space than where it played at Edinburgh’s Pleasance also served it well, while great care had also been taken that the challenges of increasing the capacity did not become overwhelming.

A new play always serves to illustrate the skills needed to get the right combination of theme, emotion, performance and placement. On the fringe, where a production can often be stripped down to the basics, these skills are frequently left the most exposed. But they remain among the most important to a production’s success.

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