SWL catches up with one of London’s brightest theatrical organisations.
The Latchmere pub on Battersea Park Road is currently undergoing a £2m redevelopment. Their bar and dining area is receiving a full make over while builders transform a former derelict back yard into a new summer beer garden.
With all the hustle and bustle taking place on the ground, it’s easy to forget upstairs in a quiet, secluded corner of Battersea, theatre staff are working feverishly ahead of a new production.
I caught up with Carla Grauls, writer of Occupied, and literary manager for Theatre 503 Steve Harper, for a coffee on a blustery Friday morning.
It’s been a three-year labour of love for Carla and Steve to get Occupied, thematically centred around immigration and Englishness from the viewpoint of two Romanians in a London public toilet, ready for the theatre’s 60-seater auditorium.
Yet Steve, whose job it is to sift through the hundreds of script drafts sent in each year, insists Occupied’s issues remain contemporary.
“Immediately I was intrigued,” he said. “Ultimately the play manages to do something different to what I was expecting. So rather than being about immigration and bringing a heavy drudge on the play, it has its fun and it’s representing all sides of these characters and these people.
“If it was just another play about immigration then it wouldn’t have grabbed me so much but it has a very fresh approach. How Carla did that I don’t know. It’s a magic there that is just unquantifiable really.”
Carla benefitted from Theatre 503’s somewhat unique style of sourcing new, innovative material. Amateur writers and actors are invited to send in scripts to Steve and his team. If the scripts pass rigorous reading stages, writers and directors are paired, offered workspace and introduced to Labfest, a three-night mini production in front of paying audiences.
She was paired with Anna Mors, director of Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners and Holloway Road, and after their week of practice to hone ideas Occupied went before Labfest, possibly the greatest indicator of a show’s potential without blowing a fortune on sets and design.
“We road tested plays that we really hoped would go to full production,” said Steve.
“Teams would put together essentially an eight-minute production of the play. In the case of Carla’s, it was almost a full production of Occupied!
“It went incredibly well, got really great audience feedback and since then it’s been about putting together the money and the funding in order for the full-length production to happen.”
The theatre maintains its open hand to new writers and also offers debut productions the somewhat daunting prospect of a Rapid Writer Response night. Here, current writers and dramatists are invited to a production and then present a counter performance, analysing, critiquing and praising what they’ve seen.
It is initiatives such as these that give Theatre 503 its reputation. So successful have they become that the company is currently running the Theatre503 Playwriting Award, an open-field contest for amateurs and budding writers looking to launch their careers in the arts.
It offers a £6,000 reward and assurance of a full production and its popularity has meant pushing the deadline back to April 7 after Steve and his team received over 1,000 applications.
“Our new model is that we are developing work with the writers, matching writers with directors, teams and companies, and then supporting the development of that work through our involvement dramaturgically. We provide space in the theatre, marketing and producing expertise,” he said.
“And then when it comes to the funding of applications, no matter where they’re going, we’ve built up quite a body of work already on a project and that really helps. So I’m hoping that this in a way is a really successful model of a way of moving forward with other projects.”
It seems rather amateur on the surface to source new material from scratch and have fellow writers do the critiquing, but in fact Theatre 503 has one of the most organised set-ups in London.
The nation’s smallest venue to win an Olivier Award, Theatre 503 benefits from a dedicated backroom team led by artistic director Paul Robinson. They have connections to theatre people across the country and that is one of the reasons Carla, originally from South Africa, approached the company with her work.
“Strangely enough I was attracted by new writing here, so it was a kind of move as well to this vibrant place of new writing. This is a place where you can meet other people and collaborate,” she said.
After spending a year as a journalist volunteer in Romania in 2007, Carla moved to the UK and noticed Britons’ common perception of Romanians is far from the truth. She approached Steve with Occupied in a hope of upturning the bad headlines splashed across most newspapers.
“I got the opportunity to learn about Romania’s history, the culture and speak to a lot of people. It was really interesting getting to know about what was the communist era, the 1989 revolution, then what happened after that and the sense of all those hopes after the revolution not coming to the fore. And also how people saw the UK as a bit of a land of opportunity.
“It was really positive. There was no idea of ‘oh, we want to go to the UK for benefits.’ Then coming back here, that was 2007, I was really struck by all the negative portrayals of Romanians ‘coming over and taking things’ and it was just such a contrast.
“I had actually read an article in a newspaper about this guy going to a public pay toilet on the street and he found two Eastern Europeans sleeping in there in sleeping bags.
“Everything came together then. Strangely enough there are reviews online where people have said if public toilets are good places to stay overnight. So it’s quite a strange thing that does exist.”
Two Romanians in a toilet sums up Occupied, which launches this week and runs to 26 April. The struggle to understand what it means to be English was something Carla confronted herself and it is only through innovations like Theatre 503’s welcoming ethos that plays of this nature make the stage.
Occupied promises to be as much a hit as previous performances on the Theatre 503 boards and of course there is always something next in the pipeline.
“After this we’re running Billy Roche’s A Handful of Stars,’ Steve said. ‘That’s going to be one heck of an eye opener! The plays just keep on coming.”
Do you see the world a little bit differently? For more information on the Theatre 503 Playwriting Award and how to submit pieces please visit www.theatre503.com
Occupied: 1-26 April @ Theatre 503, Battersea Park Road
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