Getting over the growing pains

 

Seeds is an ambitious project pairing six new playwrights with sixwell-known directors, to nurture their work. Tomorrow, in the first of thepublic readings, the SEEDlings' work comes out of the hothouse. Christine Madden reports

ACT I, Scene 2: February 2001, a smoke-filled room at the top of an old building on South Great Georges Street. Materialising through the bluish fug, 18 people seated around a large oblong table smoke, drink oceans of coffee and engage in fervent discussion. Stacks of bound A4 paper cover the table surface. The selection process for the SEEDS project is in full swing.

The final act of SEEDS - with six public readings tomorrow, Friday and Saturday - brings to a close nearly two years of work. In 2000, Ali Curran, then director of Dublin's Fringe Festival, and Loughlin Deegan, literary director of Rough Magic Theatre Company, were germinating an idea to assist the development of new dramatic writing in Ireland. Instead of simply waiting for new talent to sprout and flourish on its own, they wanted to be able to assist its development - in hothouse conditions. . To accomplish this, they planned to select six emerging writers, pair them with six directors experienced in developing new work and sponsor their creative partnership over a year.

"We wanted to provide a forum for writers outside of our two to three productions a year," says Deegan, "and Ali Curran wanted to move into a position where the Fringe supported not just stage work but also work in progress. We spoke to Lynne [Parker, director of Rough Magic] about it, thrashed out the idea and made an application to the Arts Council. When the funding was in place, we launched a nationwide appeal for scripts from writers at an early stage of their careers."

By the beginning of 2001, some 120 scripts had been received - and now required careful reading. Through an intense selection process, in which plays were read, re-read and discussed by a sizeable panel, a shortlist finally came together. Deegan, Curran and Parker re-read the plays and interviewed the authors. In March 2001, they were ready to announce the shortlist of the six chosen SEEDS playwrights: Ioanna Anderson, Mark Doherty, Aidan Harney, Oonagh Kearney, Gerald Murphy and Raymond Scannell.

With some trepidation, the Seedlings awaited confirmation of their individual mentors. Directors familiar with developing and producing new work were considered, approached, appointed. The final list of director-mentors cemented the sense of awe and anxiety these new writers had for the task ahead: Mike Bradwell of the Bush Theatre in London; Philip Howard, artistic director of the Traverse Theatre in Scotland; independent director Wilson Milam, once associate director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Conall Morrison, associate director of the Abbey; Jim Nolan of Red Kettle; and Max Stafford-Clark, one-time artistic director of London's Royal Court, now artistic director of the British touring company, Out of Joint.

With only about a year in which to create a play from scratch, writing had to begin instantly, and continue at high speed - without sacrificing quality.

"I was terrified throughout the whole process," admits Doherty. "The commission added that certain pressure. Maybe the pressure was good, an added carrot to get the thing completed. But that first cheque - it sat on my desk, and I didn't cash it for three months. I didn't know if I could go through with it." The tight schedule meant the pressure was high, the deadlines draconian. The SEEDlings, none of whom had ever been involved in such a process, found the necessary discipline asphyxiating - but coped nevertheless.

"I called the deadlines 'positive tyranny'. But they were good, because I had to submit something. That then gave me a foundation, something to work from. It was like a professor at UCC told me: 'You're never finished writing a book, you just stop writing'."

The atmosphere of the partnerships was by no means all sunshine. Much weeding had to take place. "After I had submitted my first draft, I flew to London to meet up with Wilson to go over it," recalls Harney. "I got to his room, and in his first sentence he asked 'Can I be honest with you?' Of course, I said, and he told me to get rid of Act III and most of Act II. But I put my pencil through all of Act III. I knew it had to go."

Doherty had an even more dramatic experience. "There were some bad moments, like when I gave Conall Morrison my first draft, and he basically told me it was rubbish. I was hurt, but I knew he was right, so I chucked it and started again from scratch."

It was "essential to have an outside eye looking at the work," acknowledges Murphy. "The fact that you know someone will be reading it is a great spur. It's also a way of ensuring you will write to a certain standard." Despite the painful pruning, the writers experienced their nurturing as helpful and instructive. "It really was more like a warm bath than a cold shower," says Anderson. "Philip Howard was quite gentle; they were all gentle."

Once trust was established, the writers grew and expanded into their new responsibilities. "I became more confident about showing people my work at an early stage and not being so defensive about it." Kearney, too, felt the kindness of cruelty, and admired the ethos driving the project; the fact that it was not just about work, but about the process, the development: "At every step, both Loughlin and Max Stafford-Clark was at pains to say: 'This is our feedback, but you're the writer, you have to make up your own mind'."

Harney agrees: "I had already planned to write something else when I had been selected, so I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. And thankfully, at the end of the process, I very much wrote the play I wanted to write. I wasn't pushed in any other direction."

"At times I wondered, who am I writing it for?" says Doherty. "For myself? For Conall? I don't know, maybe it was wasted time, maybe it wasn't me at all, maybe I was trying to write like Conor MacPherson."

The readings this week present "a series of works in progress", says Deegan. "The public reading is a part of the process, a further test of the integrity of the scripts.

"I've enjoyed the process hugely: getting to know six writers, six journeys, to see six universes. And I've enjoyed working with the six directors - all of whom are very experienced. I've personally learned a lot," he says.

Looking back, Murphy says, "It was a fantastic experience. It was great to meet and discuss drafts, to workshop with actors, to hear the lines coming off the page, to have the opportunity to showcase our work. It was fantastic to have access to people who have been in this business for such a long time."

"It was a good experience, definitely," says Anderson. "They took writers who were beginning, treated them well, helped them write their plays. Only good can come out of something like that."

Readings (double-bills) from the SEEDS project take place tomorrow (7 p.m.), Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (2 p.m.) in Project Tube. Admission €5 or €10 for three days. An open discussion takes place in Space Upstairs at Project on Saturday at 5 p.m. Admission free. Booking: 01-8819613. More details: www.rough-magic.com