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An interview with Steve Marmion
Richard Bevan talks to the artistic director of Soho Theatre in London
Steve Marmion was appointed artistic director of Soho Theatre in the heart of London’s West End in 2010. The job involves discovering new talent and new work in an industry currently under siege from funding cuts.
Is there a difference between what you are doing at the Soho Theatre as a producing venue compared to other establishments?
I think so. I hope elements of my first season reflected that in the cycle of work that we find appealing here for our audiences. The crudest, simplest way of describing what kind of work we want to do is the best work that’s available to us. I know that people don’t set out to make bad plays but we do it quite a lot in the industry. I certainly want to pull away from any criteria about political agenda or nationality or anything like that and very simply look at plays next to each other and say which one is the best.
What kind of criteria comes into the equation when choosing plays?
Taste comes into play - mine and that of the team here, and also, importantly, that of our audience. We have an incredible comedy programme and audience here, brilliant new writing work and we’ve been exploring new opera, working with the likes of Sadler’s Wells on dance projects. I think where those things overlap and where you’re forced to make live work the most theatrical it can be is probably where we play to our strengths.
Why is convergence of comedy and drama so important to you at Soho?
Theatre is summed up with those two masks and has been for hundreds of years. As far as I’m aware one of those is the ‘comedy’ mask and the other side the ‘tragedy’ mask. So that to me means that those comedy plays that often get over looked or treated as a light version of the form, aren’t.
It’s also important because we have a comedy audience here and because our work on the different stages is so varied, where those things can overlap is probably where we are the most exciting. Comedy and innovation plays a major role in Soho’s remit but that does not mean traditional playwriting is becoming less important to the theatre.
Do you have a specific process to discover writers you’d like to work with?
We discover writers in the usual way - finding out what people have done before by them sending in scripts. But we don’t have an obvious system where you can say we do A, B and C. It also involves us seeing writers’ work when it’s being staged and that includes work around the fringe. Most of all we meet with writers who have written interesting scripts, have a chat, find out what their passions are and then look at the projects that we’re wanting to make and partnerships that we might want to be joining.
One thing that stands out about Soho Theatre is the eclectic range of productions it stages, not just straight dramas.
Yes, as an example there’s a writer whose work is in a very exciting cinematic style and they might be interested in exploring a piece that pushes the boundaries of digital performances. We’ve got a partnership with Watershed Productions, so that’s perfect for a hands-on collaboration with the aim of getting a piece produced.
What other avenues can writers go down to get noticed?
A massive tool for us is the new website which is an important portal for writers to keep checking because our brochure takes us five months into the future. So eyes on the website and you’ll see when a workshop drops in at the last minute. Get on our mailing list for writers and we’ll send you the details about things that are happening.
Could you explain about the Soho Six scheme?
We don’t have is a conventional scheme that engages lots of writers but can’t then produce what they create because I don’t understand why we would do that. What we have in a more formalised way is the Soho Six which is taking six writers on a six months attachment and creating an early idea that we can either take forward and develop for production, or if we don’t do that, we may have an interested partner who can take it on. I’m not doing a ‘here’s a perfectly, polished eighteenth draft of script, let’s give it a graveyard reading and then sit round a table and say it’s not quite right for us’.
And is there an organic process to developing work with writers?
One of the presentations from the Soho Six last time was a panel discussion which rather than a first draft was a discussion about women within comedy, which is what the writer in question was interested in - relating to the incredible performances of ‘one person’ shows in stand-up comedy. The writer wanted to get further into that world so we pulled together a panel of industry from the world of theatre and comedy and wrote to our writers to come along and ask questions. It was a lovely turn out and that was her first draft of a script that was performed in front of us and it was really productive from all sides. It’s about the reaction to the individual and what they need to develop as an artist
How would you define what Soho Theatre stands for?
If you imagine a diagram that says ‘comedy’, ‘cabaret’, ‘theatre’ – and put a blob in the middle, that’s where Soho’s at its best. That’s where it places its audience. I’m interested in people pushing the forms in the way that Ayckbourn and Shakespeare have pushed form in theatre, but pushing it in a way that delights audiences and not in a way that makes artists stroke their chins.
So you’re talking about work distinctively and uniquely for the stage?
Yes, for example Anthony Neilson’s plays could never be turned into radio pieces without massive overhauls. They are compelled to be theatre, compelled to be theatrical. And they’re not afraid to entertain you. ‘Entertainment’ isn’t a dirty word. And I’m not suggesting for a moment that this involves a lightening of what’s at heart of the work.
Will you be doing even more comedy?
No, we’re doing exactly the same amount of comedy and I’m keen that people don’t see what I’m doing here as heading towards ‘Light Entertainment’ and becoming ‘the comedy place’ because that really couldn’t be farther from the truth about what I’m trying to articulate. What I’m after is theatrical work, work compelled to be theatre. I’m fed up with seeing film adaptations on stage and radio plays slightly tweaked for theatre. It’s not right for theatre, it’s not right for that fourth wall. But I think comedy, unfortunately, is still slightly sniffed upon by a lot of the conventional writing fraternity and I believe we’ve got to pull those barriers down.
Any last thoughts on writers and theatre?
Great art really does come about through genuine collaboration, which isn’t just about funding; it’s really about people banging their heads together, working out what’s wrong with the world and how they’re going to suggest to fix it. Or how they want to pose that question. Those collaborations have shaped British culture over the years. That’s what’s exciting to me here. We have seven different shows on here every night. That’s seven different audiences colliding in a bar overhearing each other about what they’ve been seeing. That’s theatre. It’s what it should do.
Details of upcoming Soho Theatre shows and writing workshops: www.sohotheatre.com