24/7 party people
For a week in July 24/7 theatre festival falls upon my hometown like a bolt from the (occasionally) blue skies, giving Manchester’s theatre scene a massive jolt with its fresh, innovative fringe performances. Taking place in both the city’s most prestigious venues and in spaces that have not previously been used for theatre, 24/7 consistently puts on a stunning bill of new plays performed by new actors.
On the brink of their 8th festival year, I blagged an interview with 24/7’s founder David Slack in their Northern Quarter HQ to get an insight into the festivals roots, and gain an understanding of the herculean effort that goes into delivering one of Manchester’s greatest cultural assets.
David, how did you start the festival?
I’d trained as an actor at Arden, between 95-99 as a mature student. After graduating, I didn’t get many opportunities to audition for the stage, although I did get a number of TV parts.
After a while, I landed some work at the Edinburgh fringe festival, and was commuting from Scotland to Manchester to do my work on Cold Feet. It was great to have regular theatre work, and, as a showcase for new work, The Fringe is amazing. It struck me that Manchester could do with something similar. We founded the festival on the 24th of July, which is where the 24/7 comes into our name.
We’ve tried to keep that fringe style, sixty-ninety minute performances, get in-get out. Because a lot of the venues we use aren’t dedicated theatre spaces, we can’t have intricate stagecraft and sound. We always say that the actors and the script have to do the work at 24/7, which is quite refreshing I think. A lot of the bigger theatres are trying to do filmic stuff, huge productions to attract an audience. We’re interested in a return to spoken word theatre, the power of suspension of disbelief, what theatre as a medium is really good at.
It took us two years to put on the first one, and we lost money on it, not that that really matters. But we’ve been given a lot of support in later year’s, sponsorship from M.E.N, the council, Manchester Airport and the Co-operative. We’ve just become a registered charity, and after seven years, had our logo trademarked.
What factors influenced your decision to show new work exclusively?
Well, from the first year we decided to only put on new plays, plays the directors won’t have seen before, the audience won’t have seen anywhere else, and things actors won’t have performed in previously. This works well because, as it’s a showcase for new acting talent, as well as new writing, it provides a level playing field. Actors won’t be able to research how previous actors played the role. They’ll have to make it their own, because it’s never been anyone else’s, if you know what I mean.
How does the selection process work for scripts?
We make the call out for work, 60 minute long plays that haven’t been performed elsewhere. This year we received around one hundred and twenty scripts. These are then read blind by a panel of 41 readers. We’re usually able to put a program together after this, but there have been times when we’ve had round table discussions to break a deadlock. Sometimes doing a script in hand read through.
We put on 21 productions last year, but since we’ve become more established, and we don’t need to make as big of splash in terms of the number of productions we put on, we’re looking to reduce that number and focus on making the plays we do put on just that little bit better.
How does the relationship work between the festival and the writers?
Well, any writer whose work is accepted to be part of 24/7 immediately becomes executive producer of the production. We supply them with access to our network of actors and directors, but the decisions ultimately are made by the writer.
We then support the productions by getting the spaces ready, providing technicians and tech support, front of house service. By empowering the creators in this way, we don’t have to worry about the art, and the artists don’t have to worry about logistics. We’ve accepted 123 productions over seven years, and not one has had to drop out.
You’ve got a bit of a reputation for using unusual spaces. Which ones stand out in your memory as working particularly well?
The basement bar at Palace theatre worked really well. The audience was moved from room to room as the play progressed. Each room had its own feel, created a different atmosphere, which was really interesting.
We’ve had venues with pool tables and bowling alleys, the function suite of the co-operative building, plays set in pubs, where one character nipping to the toilet can provide interesting possibilities for the other characters to talk behind their backs, and also splits the performance…characters from the same play, the same performance in separate spaces. Each space presents new challenges and new possibilities. Some, like the corporate suite we staged shows in last year lack the style your average theatre space has inherently. But the quality of the shows always carry us through.
Over the years, our audience has grown, so we’re on the lookout for bigger spaces at the moment.
Can you give us a scoop of any surprises 2011’s festival might have?
We’re considering a big sleep over, and also, maybe, maybe, in coming years a twenty-four hour performance. We’re also looking into collaborative work with other organisations.