Sheer Drop Theatre will open a new play at the Tristan Bates Theatre tomorrow, which will run for four weeks. And two days later we’ll do it all over again with another play. As an emerging company producing our first major fringe productions in London, have we bitten off more than we can chew?
Certainly not. Producing two fantastic new plays side by side in one space has its own unique challenges and joys, and we are doing it because it cuts right to the heart of what we want to achieve. We love new plays. We love new writers. And we don’t want to be just ‘another new writing company’. We dedicate 50% of our work to writers who have never had a play fully produced before, and the other 50% is to support and produce the work of writers who may find they fall between the two stools of “emerging” and “established”.
These two aims have led us to pair the work of Jon Cooper (author of A Lady of Substance) and Charlotte Coates (author of The Death of Norman Tortilla). Jon has had work staged at the Tristan Bates before, supported by the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, and has worked with the Manchester 24:7 Festival, Matthew Dunster, Old Vic New Voices and Theatre503. But he admits that while such opportunities have proved incredibly useful, having a full-length play produced is quite a different experience to turning out short plays or workshopping for development: “It’s taught me an unbelievable amount about craft and working professionally. Sheer Drop are the first company I’ve worked with who have enabled me to focus on being just a writer, usually something only large institutions can facilitate. I’ve been allowed a rare opportunity to have that space to work, to make mistakes or try new approaches and to know I have complete support at every step. Freedom is something rare in this industry and you can be stifled without it. It’s helped me feel confident in my abilities and take risks into a show I feel will be truly exciting to watch.”
For Charlotte, having her first play produced has been revelatory. “I’m at the beginning of my career as a playwright, and I see The Death of Norman Tortilla as my statement of intent about the kind of characters I want to explore and the stories I want to tell. It is virtually impossible for an emerging writer to get their first full length play on in London. The process of redrafting and refining has led the play down rich new avenues I never imagined in the first draft – it has taught me to look with a keener eye at what I am trying to do, and to work with my heart as well as my head.”
I saw in both writers a humility towards their work, towards others, and a deep desire to learn and improve. When Sheer Drop is deciding which writers to back, the right attitude is as important as what they put down on paper. “Jon has given me an insight into the landscape of the new writing world”, says Charlotte. Jon says that, although he’s technically the more experienced writer, he’ll be learning as much as Charlotte from the experience of being produced by Sheer Drop: “A playwright’s learning is only really complete when he can see how an audience reacts to his work. It’s those lessons taught to you by the public in the dark, about how they respond to a line or a character’s turn of fate. There’s nothing that drives and informs you like that. I’m very excited for us both to get that opportunity.”