The Finborough Theatre in Brompton, which kicks off its third Vibrant Festival of new writing today, is one of London's great theatres. Yes, some are (much) bigger, some have tabloid-friendly stars and some have famous dog-walkers for Artistic Directors but for year-on-year consistency of quality, the Finborough is hard to beat despite not having much in the way of funding; the recent (and much needed) air-conditioning installation was paid for from contributions and the theatre itself is run by a cadre of volunteers headed up by the only man on the payroll, Artistic Director Neil McPherson.
McPherson is a fierce champion of new writing with his only exception to this being revivals of obscure works which have been out of the public eye for at least a generation. We very much enjoyed the latest production Mirror Teeth which started off as a script at the maiden Vibrant Festival, the Finborough's annual festival of new writing. At the inaugural Off West End awards in March, McPherson walked away with the Best Artistic Director award and he took time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions ahead of the start of the Vibrant Festival tonight.
We love your attitude to new writing ("no sloppy seconds"). Can you tell us a bit about this year's Vibrant Festival selections? How will this year's festival differ from previous years?
There is not much difference to previous years as all our criteria remain the same, but obviously this year is back to the usual size of ten staged readings rather than the 30 we did last year to celebrate our 30th anniversary. This festival is slightly different though in that the main show and the Sunday show that plays during the run – respectively Mirror Teeth and Home Death are also part of the Vibrant festival, so its a solid month of interesting new writing.
The main show – Mirror Teeth – began life as a reading in the 2009 Vibrant festival, so it's great to be able to give it a full proper run and although the purpose of the festival is not just as a tryout for the future, it's great when we have plays that make that journey to a full production.
We are not a fan of the new writing culture of endless rehearsed readings, forcing writers to behave like a performing seal and write a play in 24 hours, or on a set topic, or write a three minute play – we like to work towards a full production which is after all why we do it, so its great to bring something back as we have not just for Mirror Teeth but also our May show – Naomi Wallace's And I And Silence – which also started life as a Vibrant reading.
We're also very happy that we have a broad base of writers from all ages and backgrounds and levels of experience – including one half in the Scots language – with Mirror Teeth the first full length play by a writer in their early 30s paired together with Home Death by a 75-year-old Olivier Award winning writer. We strongly feel that "New writers" shouldn't necessarily mean "YOUNG writers" – and so many new writing opportunities are only for those under 26 or under 30. Home Death, incidentally, has already sold out for the entire run.
What qualities do you look for in new writing? Have you consciously changed criteria since you became the Finborough's AD?
Something with guts heart and a political conscience – or at the very least, some sense of a wider world. Something that's about more than just the relationship/emotional problems of urban middle class 20 and 30 somethings. The criteria haven't changed really since I started working at the Finborough. All you can really do is do what you like and believe in, and are passionate about, and hope that other people like it too.
You've been at the Finborough since 1999. That's a fearsome amount of loyalty. What keeps you there?
I always think its a little sad that venues the size of the Finborough are simply looked upon as a stepping stone to something bigger. For me, I feel the size and CONNECTION possible in a venue like ours is – in the end – what theatre is really about. Personally, it's also the freedom to pursue an artistic policy I believe in which I would be unlikely to have in another venue.
Given legal carte blanche and a million quid, which London public space would you make into a new theatre?
I think I'd take a pre-existing theatre – somewhere with plenty of history and atmosphere – and move the Finborough's repertoire up to a wider audience. I do feel sometimes that in the quest for novelty some of the intangibles get lost in the quest for the next "exciting" space. I'm certain some of the reason why the Finborough has done well with actors and directors is a feeling of atmosphere about the venue.
We spoke a little while ago, we spoke to theatre professor and playwright Dan Rebellato about the government's double whammy on drama students (higher fees and less funding for the arts). As an ex-actor yourself, what's your take on how the government's actions will affect the next generation of actors?
Obviously, it's pretty disastrous and I fear will lead to yet more of the rich but not necessarily talented coming into the profession. I have found though that talent usually wins through in the end!
For more information on what's going on at the Finborough, please see their official website.
With grateful thanks to Sophie O'Rierdan of Oberon Books, publishers of the Mirror Teeth playtext.