Edinburgh Festival Fringe special: with Gareth Armstrong and HighTide’s Steven Atkinson

Gareth Armstrong

Gareth Armstrong

Rounding off our Edinburgh Festival Fringe special, our third and final post features writer, director, actor and Edinburgh regular Gareth Armstrong, whose newly published book So You Want To Do A Solo Show? is an essential resource for both aspiring and seasoned solo performers, especially those wanting to make it big on the Fringe. Also offering his behind-the-scenes insight is HighTide Artistic Director Steven Atkinson, whose latest production is Dusk Rings A Bell by Stephen Belber (published by NHB), opening this week at Assembly George Square.

Gareth Armstrong: There’ll be a ghost coming with me to this year’s Fringe.

A dozen years ago I was performing my one-man show Shylock at the Assembly Rooms. This year I’ll be watching my play Shylock at the Assembly Rooms, and I’m not sure which will be the more nerve-wracking experience. In between I’ve taken the play around the world several times, seen it performed in half-a-dozen languages and directed it in America. But seeing it back where the journey began will have me on the edge of my seat. That ghost will be up there on stage reminding me of one of the most rewarding months of my professional life.

The show had opened at Salisbury Playhouse where Guy Masterson saw it and added me to the bulging portfolio of plays he was taking to the festival. We played in the late-lamented Wildman Room – alarmingly intimate, unbearably hot and with an electric atmosphere of expectation. We pulled it off, Guy covered his costs, and I spent the next ten years making, for an actor, a reasonable living from that show.

So You Want To Do A Solo Show? jacket

So You Want To Do A Solo Show? by Gareth Armstrong (£10.99)

But the Fringe is a fickle mistress.  A one-man show that takes a revisionist look at a major Shakespeare character and plunders the original text for all the juiciest bits was, I thought, after my first attempt, a winning formula. After Shakespeare’s infamous Jew the magisterial Prospero seemed within my range and, two years after Shylock, working with a talented writer friend, we created a piece based on the man who many think inspired Shakespeare’s magus, Dr John Dee. Among many other things Dee was an astrologer and chose auspicious dates for momentous events. The omens were good. Ignoring Max Bialystock’s advice I used my own money to finance the project (Dr Prospero) and with high production values and high expectations we assaulted Edinburgh again. I lost £15,000.

It was no consolation to me that Dr Dee ended up broke too. He did at least hold the faith to the end of his long life. I am not made of such stern stuff and abandoned the capricious Fringe for a decade. And when I came back to it I was wearing a different and less conspicuous hat. As a director, with no financial stake, and without the burden of performing every day I could actually enjoy the festival for the first time. Once up and running the shows looked after themselves and even found some glory.

This year I’m a milliner’s dream because I will be wearing three hats. As well as being the playwright of Shylock, now performed with wonderful synchronicity and also with enormous verve by my original producer Guy Masterson, I have a production of The Rape of Lucrece playing at The Zoo space. Gerard Logan is proving once again that revisiting Shakespeare in an original way can still work. He is, as far as I know, the first actor to tackle this epic poem in a one-man performance and he proves that even in a text as obviously aimed at the reader as Lucrece, Shakespeare’s sense of theatre, his thrilling characters and his sublime language cry out for dramatisation.

My third hat makes its debut at this year’s Fringe. I’m promoting a book I have written called So You Want To Do A Solo Show? and as the title says it all, I am hoping it will speak for itself.

Dusk Rings a Bell production shot

Paul Blair and Katherine Kingsley in rehearsal for Dusk Rings a Bell

Steven Atkinson: Unlike other festivals and theatres, the Edinburgh Fringe can boast the most diverse of all audiences. It’s a premier platform to premiere a new play, thanks to the intense focus that the industry, press and audiences afford it. There’s the chance of winning a Fringe First or a Herald Angel or any of the number of awards that helps ensure the play lives on in the consciousness. There’s also the impact on audiences, and many a professional artist has been introduced to a writer at the Fringe whom they then go on to work with professionally. I saw Stephen Belber’s Tape several years ago, and comparable to Mamet, Stephen’s dialogue is unforgettable because it’s his own original voice. Dusk Rings A Bell is playing in a sizable three-hundred-seat venue at Assembly, so the show will be enjoyed by a large audience. But I hope it also inspires others to stage it and explore Stephen’s back catalogue, so that we see Belber rivals popping up on Fringes and campus scenes and, hopefully, future Edinburgh Festivals.

Gareth Armstrong has directed two solo shows for this year’s Festival Fringe, including a production of his own play Shylock (4–29 August, 3.45pm) at Assembly Hall, and The Rape of Lucrece (5–29 August, 5.15pm) at Zoo SouthsideHis new book, So You Want To Do A Solo Show? is available now. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Copies will also be on-sale at the Fringe alongside his two productions through the venues’ box office. 

Dusk Rings a Bell  jacket

Dusk Rings a Bell by Stephen Belber (£9.99)

NHB proudly publish the playscript alongside HighTide’s production of A Dusk Rings a Bell – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

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Spotlight: LONDON VIA LAGOS – a festival of vibrant new plays linking Nigeria and the UK, at Oval House Theatre

London Via Lagos festival logoThe London via Lagos festival at Oval House Theatre in Kennington, running until 10 July, celebrates contemporary British Nigerian playwriting with two exciting new plays by Arinze Kene and Lydia Adetunji. Here, exclusively for the NHB blog, the authors tell us about what inspired them, and how they went about writing their plays.

Arinze Kene: on Little Baby Jesus

I would describe Little Baby Jesus as an original narrative through the eyes of ‘young London’. It’s about three inner-city teenagers. It has three separate timelines, which all start to intertwine and come together as we discover our three main characters have a lot more in common than was originally apparent.Little Baby Jesus jacket

‘Identity’ was a big theme that kept coming up in the rehearsal room – ‘identity’ and ‘individuality’. All the characters in the play are struggling to find themselves. By the end of the play, they are very different people from when they started out on their journey.

For me, growing up was all a battle between who I was inside and who I thought I should be – in order to fit in. It went from the trainers I wore right down to the type of girls I was meant to fancy (In Little Baby Jesus, in Kehinde’s case, it’s mixed-race girls, or ‘mixed-race-girl syndrome’). I dumbed myself down a lot to fit in, and don’t believe I gave up the front until after my teens – luckily there was still enough ‘me’ left to salvage.

Here’s a line that came up in rehearsal on ‘not being yourself’: you can front all you want but eventually you’ll crash and burn’.

Akemnji Ndifernyen (Rugrat)

Akemnji Ndifernyen (Rugrat) in rehearsal for Little Baby Jesus. Photo by Robert Day

So Little Baby Jesus looks at the inciting incidents which force our characters to grow up and not shy away from being themselves.

The idea for the play first originated as a poem in 2006, before I began writing plays. It’s inspired by a school trip, a pilgrimage that I went on when I was 14. We were on a long ‘religious walk’ (a compulsory outing at my Roman Catholic secondary school) and I and my two friends got lost. I always wanted to write about it and firstly it came out as a RAP (Rhythm And Poetry) – “lost on a pilgrimage, yet attaining the virtues of a pilgrim”. Then, in 2009, I was assisting with a workshop at the Young Vic, working with youths from pupil referral units, and the consistencies of the workshop disturbed the “quicksand part of my mind” and the idea came to the surface. Every evening after the workshop, I’d walk to the South Bank and write for about three hours, then get home and scribe for another two. It literally poured out of me. I had things I was meant to be doing but I was a slave to the idea. In the summer of 2010 I went to Paris for a week to finish writing the play (I ♥ Paris). I’d sit outside a café and spend 30 minutes people watching, then 10 minutes writing – repeating this all day for a week. In the evenings, I’d go out to a hip hop club, or have drinks with friends – just so’s I could detach myself from it and come back fresh the next day with a new look. I finished writing it in Paris, but it went through some more drafts after that.

Seroca Davis (Joanne) & Fiston Barek (Kehinde) in rehearsals for Little Baby Jesus

Seroca Davis (Joanne) & Fiston Barek (Kehinde). Photo by Robert Day

Before I wrote plays I was into live music. I still am. Music is my first love and is an inspiration behind a lot of my ideas. There’s often something light playing in the background while I’m writing. I love listening to Terence Blanchard or Tania Maria when I’m writing dialogue. I feel like my writing is poetic and rhythmic because of this. I also listen to a lot of hip hop and love the wordplay. I read Langston Hughes poems over and over again. I’m also a fan of A. Van Jordan. I think this is what gives me my edge.

I would say that this is the first thing I’ve written that I really love through and through. It’s so inspired by things that I went through when I was growing up that certain parts make me feel uncomfortable and others will never stop making me laugh. I’m happy to share these ‘inside jokes’ and such.

Fixer image by Chris Hondros

'Fixer' – photo by Chris Hondros, photojournalist, 14 March 1970 – 20 April 2011.

Lydia Adetunji: on Fixer

The central character in Fixer is Chuks, a Nigerian man who works as a go-between for foreign journalists who come to the country in search of a story. At the start of the play, a militant group has attacked a new oil pipeline, and Chuks becomes entangled in the competing demands of the militants and the reporters who are there to cover the story. It’s about Chuks’ personal dilemma, but takes in themes like corruption and how far people will go to compromise their principles.

Fixer started as a short play that won the Almeida Theatre’s WRITE competition in 2006, when it was not much more than a few scenes where a couple of journalists try to buy up a fixer. That evolved into something that brought together various interests – I’d spent time in Nigeria as a child and wanted to explore the struggles of everyday life there. And having worked in journalism I was interested in the role of fixers in getting news stories. An early version of Fixer played at the HighTide theatre festival in 2008, and since then the emphasis of the play has shifted more strongly onto Chuks and his dilemma.

My years working as a journalist have definitely shaped the way I work, which tends to be quite research intensive. But it has also influenced the themes I gravitate to – those points where cultures collide in an increasingly globalised world, and why systems work the way they do. I think many of the ideas in Fixer have significance beyond Nigeria – it explores how people are buffeted by interconnected forces far outside their control. But drama and characters come first, and I do want the audience to be entertained as well as stimulated. Fixer jacket

Oval House Theatre, BEcreative and Spora Stories present London Via Lagos – a festival of new British-Nigerian plays, celebrating the work of African-heritage, UK-based, world-class playwrights. Little Baby Jesus is playing to 15 June, and Fixer from 21 June – 10 July at Oval House, south London. For 2-for-1 tickets to see Fixer between 24 – 30 June, use the promotional code JOURNALIST when booking online or by phone (Tel: 020 7582 7680) through the venue.

Nick Hern Books proudly publish the playscript for Arinze Kene’s Little Baby Jesus and Lydia Adetunji’s Fixer. To purchase your copies with free P&P (UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

And for the chance to win a pair of tickets to see one of the plays, enter our May 2011 newsletter competition by clicking here!