James Dacre: American words, British production

This was a cocktail shaken by Katori on one side of the Atlantic and stirred by her on the other

Tuesday 23 March 2010 01:00 GMT

Four years ago a young actress and I worked together on an unpaid workshop production in New York. She had just graduated from Harvard; I was studying at Columbia University on a Fulbright Scholarship, and we were both getting to know the Big Apple. We'd meet late in the evening once she'd finished work and rehearse – in a cupboard, a corridor, even outdoors – until the early hours. Afterwards over drinks she'd talk about writing a play. Was this unusual? No. Thousands of young theatre makers across the city were doing the same – the only difference was that Katori Hall actually wrote her play.

On Sunday that play – The Mountaintop – won Best New Play at the Olivier Awards for its world premiere in London. It was developed and produced under exactly the same circumstances – and with exactly the same spirit – as our first project together. Great reckonings do indeed come in small rooms.

The Mountaintop was developed in New York but – despite trekking the script around numerous theatres – wasn't able to find a home there. Nobody wanted to risk producing a play about one of America's most revered heroes by an unknown writer born 14 years after he was assassinated. The journey of the play – from Memphis to London, and now on to Broadway – speaks volumes about the culture of new writing in America: a land rich in incentives to create and develop work but lacking in opportunities to have it produced.

The quality of new writing in America is extremely high at the moment. In particular, there is a trend towards theatrically expressive work that engages and ignites an actor's imagination. Yet many of America's most promising playwrights are having their work produced abroad. American theatre has great respect for it's young playwrights, but not enough confidence in them. The irony is that since there is so much energy and so little financial stability on the fringe I discovered enormous enthusiasm amongst New York's downtown theatre community for making things happen on their own terms.

And there are surprising advantages to the American system. American writers who grow up in a climate of play readings and workshops, and have to wait years until their work is actually produced, learn to treat the rehearsal room as a laboratory – a space open to experiment and risk – rather than somewhere to "get things done" in time for opening night.

I returned to London last year inspired by this attitude and determined to make The Mountaintop work. In Theatre503 I found a company enterprising enough to take a chance on the play and all the uncertainty that came with it. Luck also played its part. On his way home from our first meeting, David Harewood decided to take the role when he saw on the Tube floor – as a sign from the angels – an empty pack of Pall Mall cigarettes: the very same that Martin Luther King smoked.

Theatre503 understood that developing a play is one thing but that doing it is quite another. With the input of an exceptional design team, the very supportive Theatre503 and two uniquely creative actors (Lorraine Burroughs playing the role of Camae), the script and vision of the show evolved in rehearsals. The result was a cocktail shaken by Katori on one side of the Atlantic and stirred by her on the other.

Thankfully we live in a time where there's a lot of theatrical exchange between the US and UK. There's a hunger and enthusiasm for cross-cultural perspectives in both countries' theatre industries. May that flourish still further.

James Dacre directed 'The Mountaintop'

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