Applications for the third annual Festival of New Writing have been closed and the shortlist can now be revealedISAAC JORDAN

“I’d love people to leave this year going, ‘Wow! I’d never even heard of such and such before’, or ‘I haven’t seen writing quite like that before’”. Downing College’s A Festival of New Writing is back for its third year, and Downing Dramatic Society vice-president, Isaac Jordan, is certainly excited.

As Jordan proudly reflects, the original festival was only supposed to be six plays being performed over the course of two nights, but “in first year alone they had something like double the amount of submissions they were expecting so it was extended by an extra night in order to facilitate nine plays instead of six.” This is a trend that has continued into the 2017 incarnation, and this year the committee have even squeezed in a tenth play: “there was one particularly short play, which I really couldn’t resist putting on as well” admits Jordan.

Thanks to the huge quantity of entries this year – which in itself may be due to the fact that Cambridge, as Jordan notes, still “isn’t perhaps always as good at fully encouraging new writing from script to stage as it should be” – the standard of pieces this year is very high. Once the scripts are selected (by a rigorous student panel), DDS helps writers to produce and develop their scripts as pieces of staged theatre: sometimes providing them with professional guidance along the way, assisting with set, choosing directors and helping with casting. This culminates in a final performance in front of an audience and a judging panel of creative professionals who can help suggest where they should head next with their writing.

At the time of writing, judges include Alex Lass (Freelance director: RSC; Chichester Festival Theatre; recently finished working on Sean Mathias’s critically acclaimed No Man's Land, starring Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart), David McDermott (screenwriter for Hat Trick, BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, nominated at the British Soap Awards for his work on Emmerdale) and Edward ‘Chips’ Hardy (screen writer; his most recent work has been his collaboration on the BBC drama Taboo with his son, Academy Award nominee Tom Hardy).

“You don’t get many opportunities to play so liberally with a script once you leave university” says Jordan. “I firmly believe that developing new writing should be at the heart of student theatre.” This year’s cohort of new writers have now been chosen, and Jordan – though a self-confessed “white male playwright” – is “particularly excited” by the gender make-up of the final ten, with “all but two of the writers” being women. “Playwriting is, rather like everything else, somewhat dominated by men, and it’s fantastic to have so much really gritty student writing by women”.

The grittiness to which Jordan refers is something of a trend this year. A common theme among the writing is, perhaps unsurprisingly for a student festival, mental health. “A lot of people were writing about depression and anxiety, with characters onstage who seemed unsure about themselves as people or had come to some sort of crossroads” Jordan explains. “It probably says a lot about Cambridge, that being a really persistent theme”. Elsewhere, age and youth was a “slightly more off the wall but also surprisingly widespread” focus. 

What really unites the scripts, however, is the commonality of skill. “What was nice about a lot of the plays overall this year, was the dexterity with which more lighthearted moments were interwoven into a play which dealt with quite weighty themes and ideas.” But, keen not to give the game away, Jordan emphasises the originality of every submitted script: “there was also plenty of other writing which was just completely different from anything else, and I guess people will have to come to the festival it in order to find out what that was!”

Vulture can now reveal the scripts selected for Downing's A Festival of New Writing 2017:

1. Thy Neighbour - Charlotte Cromie

‘What if your town voted on everything? Your marriage, divorce, education, job… if your neighbours’ rights meant you had none?’ Thy Neighbour is a full-length work in progress about ‘democracy gone mad’, turning the traditional idea of dystopian civilisation through government control on its head, and imagining all power being given to the people. Though Cromie has written a number of plays, this one, she says ‘is my most political, and probably my most controversial’.

2. Candy Hymns - Amelia Lasker

Candy Hymns follows the story of Nannerl, a musical prodigy named after the real-life older sister of Mozart, who keenly feels the same gendered pressure not to shine as her historical namesake. “I love the idea that this entire play exists within a very musical child’s imagination” says Lasker. “The piano playing is strange, because we can’t play real piano music, since no real music could be quite as good as Nannerl is in her imagination. Figuring out how else to portray that will be the fun part”.

3. FRANK AND THE BABY - Johannes Black

According to Black, FRANK AND THE BABY “was the result of a long and cold winter”. This dark authorial backdrop makes sense, given the nature of the plot: a six-month baby envisages a plan to kill its mother – exploiting her father’s madness and the mysterious figure of Frank. “The concept of an articulately spoken six-month baby – one who could listen, learn and exploit its elders, whilst challenging the cultivated tradition of a ‘childhood innocence’ – formed the bedrock of my initial impression” says Black. This has been Black’s first foray into writing for the stage, and the process has been “exceptionally difficult” but rewarding. “There was never a complete or true ending to the play, rather a cloud of ambiguity that, I hope, the audience will interpret and enjoy as they will.”

4. Waiting - Isla Cowan

This monologue was born from a desire “to portray a woman who was highly sexual and callous and, yet, still somehow sympathetic.” Through the strong voice of ‘Kelly’ the audience is at first won over by her “chatty charm, but we become gradually aware of her less attractive qualities as the play goes on and soon she becomes quite repulsive”. Cowan explains that whilst “she is nasty and heartless, she is also extremely vulnerable, and a victim of the current pressures put on women of a certain age to have it all: being successful business women, perfect wives, and loving mothers.”

5. Greater Love Hath No Man Than This - Isaac Jordan

‘Westminster. 1968. One December evening, the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe called several of his closest colleagues to his office, in order to discuss a new policy, murder…’ Though the blurb is undeniably dramatic, what drew Jordan to this subject matter was actually “that so much of it is true”. The play, he says, “tries to think about the treatment of (legal) homosexuality in the 60’s and 70’s; flawed justice and the impact that class has upon it and asks whether it is possible to rationalise a murder.”

6. Curriculum Vitae - Jenny O’Sullivan

The basis of the script came into place when O’Sullivan was forced to write a CV over the holidays. “Two A4 pages to represent your whole life, in a format downloaded from an insincere corporate website. No matter how many times I changed the font, it was a little depressing”, she muses. “It felt like a gateway into that foreign world where ‘synergy’ is a real word, and ‘proficient in Microsoft Office’ is a fun fact. You only have to lose concentration for a few minutes to find yourself in a hypothetical loveless marriage surrounded by undesired children in a house that’s detached on both sides, and denouncing all the beliefs of your youth in increasingly imaginative ways.”

7. Abba, Mamma - Eloise Poulton

Poulton’s script deals with the “at once elusive and tangible intricacies and difficulties of the relationship” between mother and daughter, drawing on her own personal experience. The “lullaby”-like script is “something I have felt the need to write for a while, though at first I couldn’t pinpoint what was preoccupying me”. The title comes from “a line in a hymn I sung at school, called ‘Abba, Father’: “you are the potter, we are the clay”. Everyone has a mum, however that person figures in their life, and I wanted to take this fact on a journey beyond its origin. Both mother and child are potter and clay.”

8. OEDIPUS REX - Beatriz Santos

Santos’ script is a classical reimagining: ‘Oedipus arrives outside Thebes to find three cannibalistic maidens who pose him a riddle. Holding a battered copy of Sophocles’ original, Oedipus is carefully acting out his part – as does everyone else - until desire takes hold and blinds.’  The inspiration for the piece came after Santos saw Kristin Scott Thomas play Electra at the Old Vic, and “was was mesmerised by the purity of Sophoclean tragedy. Her presence on stage seemed a distillation of grief. What was clearly a performance was also hard as iron; a leopard tensed its muscles in the dark among the audience.”

9. Ava - Maya Yousif

Though the inspiration for this piece came from multiple sources, Yousif points decidedly towards a fascination with “questions concerning the nature and ethics of virtual reality”. The actual writing process was more a case of “urgency, (and often anger)“, in reaction to current affairs: “with ‘Ava’, I wrote from an emotional impulse. This allowed me to explore and play with the dynamics of the narrative and characters in a way I’d never done before. I found this process of discovery to be both extremely messy, and somewhat wonderfully cathartic.”

 10. The Stone Cold Loser - Edith Franklin

The Stone Cold Loser is, according to its blurb, “a mini-tragedy about sincerity and loss. The winner will take it all, as ABBA tearfully sang.” Throughout her writing, one of Franklin’s self-professed themes is “always loss – which is ironic considering the staging of this play counts as one of my greatest wins”. This is a reluctantly  Trump-inspired piece, though an audience might not know it: “I don’t assume my audience are geniuses; in my opinion humanity cannot be paid the compliment of assuming anyone is a genius anymore. We have all fallen in our estimations. I suppose this play is about what might be retrieved among the garbage”. 

A Festival of New Writing takes place at Downing College from the 9th - 11th March 2017

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