Behind this year’s New Writing Festival

There’s been some serious hype around the OUDS New Writing Festival this year, and it all comes to a head in 7th week – the work of four of Oxford’s hottest new writers, battling it out in the BT for the coveted Best Play award. Speaking to the writers themselves and the directors who brought their work to the stage, it wasn’t difficult to see what the fuss was all about. With a line-up as diverse, dedicated, and downright talented as this year’s crop, there was never any question that it’s going to be a zinger. The heterogeneity in terms of experience, approach, and style is remarkable, showcasing talent from the full range of Oxford’s extensive pool. Sami Ibrahim of St Peter’s, throwing his hat into the ring with writing debut The Man Who Loses, concedes that “I haven’t written much before – a few sketches with a comedy troupe. I guess I started writing because I thought it would be a challenge: I wasn’t sure if I could actually write something, so I thought I’d give it a go”. Not so with James Biondi, writer of Lover’s Suicide. Connecticut native, he is in Oxford completing a Masters in English and American Studies. Having managed to produce “six complete plays (including Lover’s Suicide), a novel, and a whole bunch of other kernel-y things”, he told me how his play was written “a couple of years ago, while I was an undergrad under the guidance of Amy Herzog, an American playwright who was a visiting professor at Yale”. What is clear across the board is the value of OUDS Drama Cuppers as a means of incubating theatrical bright sparks – Ibrahim directed in it last year before trying his hand at writing; Lamorna Ash, architect of Christchurch’s five nominations for The Twin Paradox in 2013 Cuppers, returns to the fray with Love Plus; Daniel de Lisle credits “everyone who was a part of Hugh’s 2013 Cuppers” as a key influence. Whether the works have been two months or two years in the making, it’s not just the writers who are putting in the legwork – the directors, hand-picked by NWF producer Isabella Anderson, have been working feverishly to polish their productions. Daniel de Lisle, directing Howard Coates’s Polly, indignantly asserted that he’d “suffered for this production. I’ve taken rehearsals ill, and as my friends will attest (and mock me for), I haven’t been on a night out since we started rehearsals”. The directors all share that dedication, but the delicate writer-director balance is struck differently for each. De Lisle “worked closely with Howard in auditioning the cast and discussing how we would approach the text”, but in the words of Coates himself, “I’ve since let Dan get on with bringing the thing to life”. Olivia Dunlop, directing Ibrahim’s The Man Who Loses, recalls “a number of Pret-based luncheons and heated discussions. On one occasion, we drew in a neighbouring member of the public as to how best to solve a plot point spatially, reenacted using cryptic drawings and available detritus”. Ibrahim, though, “took a back seat”. Having directed new writing last year, she “always felt a bit awkward with the writer there, as I felt I might be ruining his work with every decision I made! So, when the tables were turned, I decided it was best to let the director do whatever she wanted with the play, once it got to the rehearsal stage”. Biondi is taking a less orthodox approach: “I take in the scenes with my eyes closed to avoid obsessing over the actual staging of it”.

The smooth running of the relationship is certainly aided by the pack’s interdisciplinary talents. There isn’t one of them who doesn’t have some experience of another facet of theatre – acting, directing, writing, producing – as Biondi puts it, “theatre, from speaking words onstage to writing words on paper to hammering nails into the wood that people will stand on, has been a huge part of my life for about half of it”. Olivia Dunlop, too, “dabbled in acting in the past, which greatly informed my writing. I think directing arose out of a dissatisfaction in my own acting ability to portray what I imagined, so now I harass others for ‘truth’ instead”.

Clearly, competition is going to be fierce. But whoever wins the day, the heart of what makes the New Writing Festival so exciting is in the name – new, fresh, exciting and searingly bright theatre from playwrights who may well go on to do great things – as Olivia Dunlop puts it: “Oh, I suffer for my art, terribly and endlessly. But I am saving the ordeals for material for that next play”.