Tag Archives: Cambridge Theatre Challenge

10 Reasons Why I Hate Lists

Daily Habits Mask Pain performed at CTC 2013
‘Daily Habits Mask Pain’ at CTC 2013. Photo: Rah Petherbridge.

Sky Blue Theatre runs the Cambridge Theatre Challenge, a writing competition for new short plays.  Shortlisted plays are performed and the audience gets to select the winning play.
The 2014 productions were staged at the Lost Theatre in London, with ten plays spread over two evenings.  I was one of the guest speakers on the Saturday night.  (In this case a guest speaker is someone whose job is to talk while the festival organisers count the audience votes.)

After the event, I was interviewed by Rah Petherbridge for their next round of publicity.  Her first question was to ask me for a list:
–        “Can you give me three tips for new writers?
Being me, I got as far as the first tip and that was that.  A five minute interview duly consumed.

This is by way of a gentle riposte…

Ten Reasons Why I Hate Lists

1.  Lists trivialise complex issues

The world cannot be reduced to ten simple points.  (It needs at least twelve.)

2.  Lists give a false sense of order

Some things can be quantified: the world’s tallest buildings.
Some things can be quantified but need careful qualification: I once reached number seven in the Southern Echo’s top ten album sales.  This was because the statistic was based on sales from the one music shop in Southampton (in the entire country, in the entire world) that was selling the album.
Some things should not be quantified.  I’ve just found a newspaper article about England’s top ten trees.  (Does anyone else hear a voice saying “Number one, the larch”?)

3. They’re subjective

Lists reflect the views and priorities of the person compiling the list.  I demand the right to set my own priorities.  This may well mean writing my own list.  (See 10.)

4. They belittle everything else

The world is full of wonderful things that don’t appear on any top ten list.

5. They’re a substitute for thinking

We read lists instead of forming our own opinions.

6. There’s usually at least one point wrong

See 9.

7. They’re used as space fillers

Lazy journalists and bloggers use the list format when they can’t think of anything else to write.

8. They’re used as click-bait

Because we like lists so much, we can’t resist clicking on a link to a list.

9. They’re not good for irony

See 1.

10. They’re addictive

We all like reading lists.
That’s why there will be more along soon…

New Isn’t Always Better – But It’s Crucial

Sky Blue Theatre - Cambridge theatre challengeI recently went to see RAODS production of When We are Married.  I went slightly grudgingly, not expecting to enjoy it, but actually I was thoroughly entertained.  The characterisation and comic timing were spot on.

To understand my apprehension, you need to know something about the play.  Time for a spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know the plot, look away now!

When We Are Married was written in 1938 and set in Yorkshire some years earlier.  Three couples, married on the same day, are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary when they discover that the clergyman who married them was not actually licensed to take weddings, so that technically they are not married.  This is a huge embarrassment to them.  How can they hold their heads up in their community?  It also leads to an examination of the couples’ relationships and to some of them wondering whether or not they want to stay married.  J.B. Priestley’s handling of the situation is textbook stuff – it’s cleverly plotted, the characters are well-differentiated and each gets a turn in the spotlight – and the opportunity to see themselves in the mirror.  The sharp writing brings out the jokes and particularly the pomposity of the self-made men at the heart of the story.

However, if you consider trying to write that as a modern play: it no longer works.  Imagine that three couples find that they’ve spent 25 years together not being married.  What are they going to do?  If they were going to split up, they’d have done it already – sad but no social stigma.  Instead they say “Brilliant!  Let’s get married properly and have a knees-up.”  And suddenly all the dramatic tension has gone.  Even the characters would no longer work – yes, plenty of people are still pompous, but they are pompous in different ways.  Staging it now, you have to play it as a period piece.

The same company put on the stage version of ’Allo, ’Allo.  Again, I probably need to say something about the show, but listen carefully; I shall say this only once.  It’s a French Farce with a set of characters who are all familiar to the audience from the television show: the way they sound, the way they look, the way they behave.  Essentially the stage show is trying to recreate something well-known to the audience.

Both those shows drew-in big audiences – because people go to see things they know they’ll like; because audiences look for the safe and the familiar.

The great thing about RAODS is that those shows are only a part of their output.  They also put on plenty of shows that are considerably less safe and much less familiar.  (From their recent output, I’d single-out The Collector and most recently Ella Hickson’s Precious Little Talent.)  Putting on shows that few in the audience have heard of is hugely important – because otherwise live theatre is reduced to museum pieces and impersonation competitions.

Theatre needs to encourage new writing, otherwise it atrophies.  But it’s difficult; putting on a show is expensive (for anyone, professional or amateur) – it’s easy to lose a lot of money.  Performing to an empty theatre is dispiriting.  Furthermore, not all new shows are good.  Not all experimental theatre will be enjoyable – that’s the nature of experimentation: a lot of experiments fail – but some will be brilliant and mould-breaking.

All of which brings me on to Sky Blue Theatre in Cambridge whose Cambridge Theatre Challenge has become an annual event.  It’s a competition – an international competition – for new writing for the stage.  (The main rules are that submissions must be in English, unpublished and with a duration of ten to thirty minutes.)  The shortlisted plays are all performed as part of the competition.  Entries for the 2014 competition close at the end of March.  See their web site for all the rest of the information you need.

Get involved!  Write something; go to see the final performances; seek out new material to perform or to watch.  The future of an art-form depends on you!