Build a Rocket by Christopher York was my favourite play of 2018. It’s the heartfelt story of teenage, single mum who manages to change her and her son’s fortunes amidst great personal struggles.
This same production, produced by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, has now won an Adelaide Fringe Award – the equivalent of Edinburgh’s Fringe First – after making its Australian debut last month. In Edinburgh, as I wrote at the time, I felt York’s play got overlooked.
In contrast, Adelaide audiences are buzzing about it and the run is enjoying sell-out performances. York’s play has therefore received a valuable international platform at Adelaide’s intrepid new-writing venue Holden Street Theatres.
Despite Adelaide being the second-largest fringe festival in the world, it’s still considerably smaller than Edinburgh. This year, it hosts 1,326 shows, an increase of 8.4% on 2018. That means if a show is good, it is more likely to build awareness and audiences through strong, local word-of-mouth and reviews.
This has been shown by other UK plays that have also transferred to Adelaide from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and are enjoying similar successful runs. These include Games by Henry Naylor, Extinguished Things by Molly Taylor, and Orpheus by The Flanagan Collective and Goobledigook Theatre.
Last week, I was on a festival panel about producing new writing. When I take part in these sorts of events I am almost always asked the same question: “What do you look for when you produce a play?”. It’s an impossible question to answer because producing is instinctive.
Of course there is a checklist that anyone can reel off such as size of cast, track record of writer or length of play. These may give some works a better chance of making it. But that’s an academic assessment of the art form and has nothing to do with the actual instinct or craft of producing that begins with reading the text or watching a work that inspires you.
Producing is an art form that requires knowledge and experience
Producing is an art form that requires knowledge and experience. It is also constantly evolving, which means a balance of creativity and skill will allow a good producer to decide how big a risk to take.
In more recent years, the title of theatre producer has frequently become commoditised and devalued (in the same way as that of director or actor). Today, it’s comparatively easy for someone to call themselves a producer, often with little experience to justify it. However, in their rush to start producing, it may mean they miss out on the valuable and formative period they need to get the necessary experience and knowledge. At worst, that can lead to catastrophic producing mistakes.
Adelaide Fringe director Heather Croall and her team, led by industry liaison Andy Beecroft, have committed to building a programme of talks and events at the fringe for their artists and companies’ development. These have looked at various aspects of producing and production – both at the fringe and within a wider context – to offer greater understanding about the craft and the many skills it involves.
One of the fundamental skills for any producer interested in new writing is the ability to read a play. I am often amazed when I meet producers who tell me they “can’t read plays”, placing a greater reliance instead on play readings.
The person who taught me how to produce is Michael Codron. One of the most important things I learned from him was that being able to read plays is crucial to the art of producing, as is reading everything yourself.
At first, this can seem like a daunting prospect. However, what I do is always read the first 25 pages and from that, I can usually tell if I connect with the writing or not. If I do, then I carry on reading. Crucially, by reading everything myself, this may also mean that I discover a new writer whose play is still rough and not ready for production, but who has real potential.
In the plays I read or watch, I am most interested in the emotional theme of the play. It is what an audience invests in and empathises with.
First and foremost, you always need to produce a work for the place where it is intending to open. Do not start with the view that it’s going to tour the world – that’s a bonus and never a given. I was particularly interested to return to Build a Rocket in Adelaide to see how it was received by an Australian audience. If it works there, it will potentially work elsewhere.
York’s play offers a universal message at home and abroad
The play is set in a low-income community in Scarborough. The town is also the home of the Stephen Joseph Theatre that premiered the play before there was any idea of touring the show globally. That’s a key reason why the play succeeds – the theatre was focused on getting the premiere right for its audience and ensuring it worked. And yet, York’s play offers a universal message at home and abroad.
Many of those who see Build a Rocket in Adelaide may never have been to Scarborough, but the daily struggles the lead character faces are no different from those faced by people living in low-income suburbs everywhere. As a result, Adelaide audiences take the same emotional journey that those in Scarborough did.
This is the skill of a good writer but it also shows the skill of a good producer. The producer has ensured the play had time in development to find its emotional arc, giving it a solid foundation.
It follows an old lesson the SJT learned many years ago from its previous artistic director, prolific playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, who premiered and honed all his plays at this regional theatrical powerhouse. He got them to work for these audiences before then seeing them successfully produced around the world.
At a base level, it is why plays by writers such as Ayckbourn, Shakespeare, and the Ancient Greeks are still regularly produced and audiences still relate to them: they are written about the human condition, making them universal and timeless.
I was reminded of this point as I sat outdoors on a warm Adelaide evening watching the story of Orpheus – this time retold with the help of some Bruce Springsteen and other popular covers to bring it firmly into 2019. Under the stars Ancient Greece had successfully collided with contemporary culture. Meanwhile, its producer was trusting their instincts to produce this modern re-telling of a classic Greek myth by drawing upon their knowledge and experience to be doing it in the right place at the right time.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan