Bright Sparks: Traverse's First Stages festival

This month, the Traverse will give six new writers, plucked from a pool of 400 open submissions, an opportunity to showcase their work as part of the new First Stages Festival. The Skinny speaks to three of the playwrights selected

Feature by Eliza Gearty | 04 Nov 2019
  • Traverse's First Stages festival

Natalie McGrath 

Natalie McGrath is a playwright, producer of arts and heritage projects and Co-Director of Dreadnought South West. She is based in Devon. 

Congratulations on being selected for the First Stages Festival! What is your play, Blessed, about, and what inspired it?

NM: Thank you! In the play, a war photographer and a medical doctor are hiding in a basement in a war zone, during a siege. They've been there for long enough that, for the war photographer, the trauma of their immediate situation starts bleeding into what she has just left at home: the death of her mother.

The city is never named, and that's partly because it could be so many cities in the 21st century that have been under siege. I was trying to [write about] where we come from – the bricks and mortar that make us who we are – and also a political situation that I feel incensed about, the 21st century, and how our attention is drawn in so many different directions in terms of political conflict. 

I was thinking about how worlds can collide and meet in order to locate the personal and tell a story. I've never been in a war zone – I can read everything I can, research it... but I can't make a grand statement about it. What I can do is engage with the work of people like Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy [journalists who covered the Siege of Homs in Syria], and try and find an emotional root into something, and so that's what Blessed has tried to do. 

What impact are you hoping Blessed will have on audiences?

NM: Well, I don't think you can ever predict that, and nor should you – you don't know what audiences will bring, where they come from or their particular understanding of the world. Audiences always surprise you! But one of the things [that resonated] during the two day development with the Traverse, is captured in a line from the play – "we move so fast, we forget too quickly and the world moves on." Those are very simple words, but I do feel that we have forgotten about Syria –  and I hope that the play [encourages] people to spare a thought for the people of Syria, to send a message of hope or care. We all have a place we call home, and the 21st century seems to have disrupted that enormously. 

TS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write their first play, but isn't sure where to start?

NM: Have a writing friend. I have a reader of my work who never bullshits me. For new writers, initiatives like The First Stages Festival are a vital lifeline too. Also, don't be prescriptive about what you write – write about what you want to write about, not what you think other people want. 

Blessed will be showcased on 9 Nov, 1pm

Rachael O'Connor 

Rachael O'Connor is a playwright and acupuncturist based in Edinburgh. I'm Not Here is her first play. 

Tell us a little bit about your play. 

RO'C: The play is about an elderly couple who are lost inside a building – which may or may not be the Modern Art Gallery – where they are supposed to meeting their estranged son. As they wander through the rooms, firstly trying to find him and secondly trying to find their way out, they are confronted by resentments and traumas from their shared past as well as acknowledging the joys. I wanted it to be about the disablement of old age, which will come to us all, as well as focusing in on them as individuals.

How did the idea for I'm Not Here first come about? 

RO'C: I dreamed the play one night after listening to the song How to Disappear Completely by Radiohead multiple times. I woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for the play in my head, and started to write it the next day. It was quite strange as I had actually never, ever thought of writing a play before in my life!

How has the dramaturgical support at the Traverse been helpful to you? 

RO'C: The Traverse have been brilliant – they have offered constructive criticism and guidance from the time the play was chosen to take forward but, even previously, I attended a couple of their ‘Open Booth’ Sessions which helped me by giving reassurance.  Playwriting is such a lonely business, probably a calling only attempted by introverts who are happy spending endless hours on our own so it’s invaluable to be able to check in with others.  The two development days with the Traverse taught me how to do it better next time – which questions to ask myself as I go along, or even before I start, so as to take the play to a deeper level, quicker.

I'm Not Here will be showcased on 8 Nov, 5.30pm. 

Conor O'Loughlin 

Conor O'Loughlin is an Irish playwright based in Glasgow. In 2016, he was one of Playwright Studio Scotland's mentored playwrights. 

Your play Exquisite Corpse is about a theme park attendant and her manager who 'make a grim discovery' at their workplace. Intriguing! Could you expand a little on that? 

CO'L: The premise is that a theme park attendant called Iona discovers a body on the premises of the theme park. It's inspired by various internet urban legends and rumours that within that sector there's an unofficial practice that if that happens, you're supposed to move the body off the premises before calling any authorities, to protect the family friendly reputation of the franchise. I liked the idea of digging down deeper into the moral dilemma that the premise poses: the value of human life as opposed to corporate interest. I also quite liked the idea of the play as a theme park – a place to play around with themes. 

What about the title?

CO'L: The title comes from the original name of a game where one person writes a paragraph on a piece of paper, folds it over so only a line is visible, the next person carries it on, and then at the end you all unfold the paper and read the full story. It's a device I use in the play, where every ten or 15 minutes there is a sudden turn in the story. Within the play, there is also an explanation as to why that title applies... 

What got you into playwriting? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

CO'L: I'm from Ireland originally, which has a strong history of playwriting and storytelling. I can't speak much for how it is now, but just before I left, the feeling on the ground was that there was much more of a focus on that rich tradition than there was on sustaining a new generation of writers. Scotland has a great approach to new writing – you have the Traverse, Playwrights Studio Scotland, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe – you're almost spoilt for choice. 

As much as possible, attend plays. One drawback I think people are justified in levelling at theatre is that it can be prohibitively expensive – so join a library, and get out play-texts to read too. There is a wide network out there, and it's all about persevering and getting your scripts in front of people who are in a position to support you. 

Exquisite Corpse will be showcased on 9 Nov, 1pm