New order

Dominic Dromgoole has a mission: to put new writing centre stage. At the Bush he challenged the orthodoxy of what a new play in a small space could be. Now he's doing it again - big time at the Old Vic
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The Independent Culture
Next March, London sees the launch of the capital's first new repertory company in decades when Sir Peter Hall takes over the Old Vic for the start of an inaugural 40-week season. And last week Sir Peter formally unveiled his plans: a starry ensemble - led by such famous names as Felicity Kendal, Ben Kingsley and Geraldine McEwan - presenting a dozen plays in up to 10 performances a week (Sundays included), and all for a top price of only pounds 19. Not since Ed Mirvish pulled the plug on Jonathan Miller's artistic directorship back in 1988 has the Old Vic offered anything so bold. What makes Hall's pitch even bolder - given his need to sell 65 per cent of the theatre's 1,000 seats to break even - is that, of the 12 plays in his first year's rep, only half are classic revivals, while the other six are new works by the younger generation of playwrights. Even the term "classic revivals" is a bit stretched, encompassing as it does for Hall's purposes both Samuel Beckett's revolutionary Waiting for Godot and Caryl Churchill's 17-year- old feminist fantasy, Cloud Nine.

"You can't do the classics unless you're switched into new writing," insists Hall, who, as a radical Young Turk himself, once directed the English-language premiere of Godot at London's Arts Theatre. But that was 40-odd years ago, and, at 66, even a former boss of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre can lose touch with what's new. "So I asked myself, who is the most clued up in this area?"

The answer to Hall's question was Dominic Dromgoole. When the now 32- year-old Dromgoole first became director of the Bush in West London six years ago, he was perceived, he admits, as "sickeningly young, very uncouth, a bit of a hooligan". That, combined with his passionate commitment to new writing, made him a formidable force. There is no sign of hooliganism in the fresh-faced and friendly man whom Hall has now put in charge of providing new plays for the Old Vic company, but the passionate commitment is still evident.

"I think Peter wanted someone who wasn't too smooth or safe," he surmises. "Someone who'd take a few chances, which is what I like doing." Over his six years at the Bush, Dromgoole developed the theatre's long-established new-writing tradition by commissioning works from such writers as Jonathan Harvey, Billy Roche, Philip Ridley, Roy McGregor and Declan Hughes. He also altered the concept of the sort of plays that could be done in a small 100-seat space.

"When I took over," he recalls, "new writing was in the most appalling ghetto. Now it's very buoyant and bouncy. It's moved from the edge of our culture to being bang in the centre. It was people like Max Stafford Clark at the Royal Court and Jenny Topper at Hampstead who kept the faith in the Eighties.

"Then there was a turnaround period, with a tremendous number of talented writers who only wanted access and support, which I was able to give them. We were also able to change the definition of what a new play in a small space could be, which at the time was a very small, naturalistic event with rather depressed, miserable, defeatist material about how awful it was to be in England now. We had this tremendous gang of writers pouring through who wanted to write about God and sex and history and philosophy and imagination, and write very rich, full, adventurous, big stories, but the orthodoxy was you couldn't do those in a small room. We encouraged them to challenge that orthodoxy."

The challenge now, as Dromgoole sees it, is whether this big-scale writing for a small space can fill a large theatre like the Old Vic. The plays in the first season are largely by writers with whom he has already worked: a new play from Roy McGregor, whose debut Our Own Kind was Dromgoole's first ever Bush production, and another from Sebastian Barry, writer of Steward of Christendom for the Royal Court last year. There is the English premiere of Shining Souls by Chris Hannan, another Bush discovery, while Samuel Adamson, whose Clocks and Whistles did well in the Bush's "London Fragments" season this year, contributes his second play, Grace Note, with Geraldine McEwan in the lead.

The bigger scale of the Old Vic creates other new opportunities, as with April de Angelis's Playhouse Creatures, a work about the first English actresses in 1669. Dromgoole saw it in an earlier version at the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith. "I loved it, but it was always a sketch for a bigger play. It's a terrifically big theme and a wonderfully rich and funny play, which felt as if it had been squeezed into something small by the straitened circumstances of the company who first put it on. So now I've been able to say to April, why don't you put four or five more characters in, open it out and make it the really big play which you can tell it always wanted to be."

The first new play in the season will be David Rabe's Hurlyburly, which is set in the battlefield of Hollywood and was put on by Mike Nichols in New York with Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken. "There was always a lot of wonderful American work that we wanted to do at the Bush. Hurlyburly was one piece I was desperate to do, but there wasn't the space because we felt at that time our specific task was to prioritise and reinvigorate British writing."

Each of the new plays will get a run of eight to 10 performances on Sunday and Monday nights. That's more impressive than it sounds when you consider the potential audience. "Eight nights at the Old Vic is a potential audience of over 8,500. That's bigger than a successful run at the Pit or Hampstead and the equivalent of six months at the Theatre Upstairs, four months at the Bush or a four-week sell-out at the old Royal Court."

Another of Dromgoole's achievements at the Bush was developing links between his new writers and the world of the screen. Vanguard, an offshoot of the Disney studios, entered into a "first look" deal with the theatre. Harvey's Beautiful Thing transferred to the cinema screen earlier this year through Film Four; Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy was televised by the BBC; John Malkovich has taken up Tracy Letts's Killer Joe for a possible Broadway production or film; and when Dromgoole decided last year that he would be leaving the Bush, he bought the rights himself to several plays which he is now developing as films, among them Clocks and Whistles, which he will direct himself next year, and Conner McPherson's The Lime Tree Bower, to be directed by the writer.

Dromgoole's background is an unusual mixture of the theatrical world and that of the Somerset dairy farm where he and his siblings were raised. His father, Patrick, directed for West End theatre in the 1960s before moving to the West Country as HTV's chief executive; his mother was an actress turned teacher. Interestingly, all three of their children share a passion for encouraging new writers - Dromgoole's brother in the world of film, his sister in that of theatre. "I'd say that we see ourselves as enablers and franchisers, not as auteurs. We all like stories and we all respect and adore talent."

Many of the successes at the Bush emerged from the "slush pile" - the 500 or so unsolicited scripts that come in each year. And while the first season at the Old Vic is devoted to writers who are, to some extent, tried and trusted, the door is still open for theatrical newcomers.

"These are the best six plays I could imagine putting on - wonderful writing - but we're very keen that people keep sending us stuff at the Old Vic for 1998 or 1999. What I loved about the Bush was that we had a very high strike rate of about three or four first plays a year by unknown writers. That's what the fun is - discovering a completely new sensibility and a completely new take on the world and putting it on stage"