When Orla O’Loughlin inaugurated the Write Here festival of new writing in early 2012, in her first act as artistic director of the Traverse Theatre, it was partly intended as a shortcut to familiarising herself with the Scottish playwriting scene.
It worked – both as a festival and as a crash course for O’Loughlin – and this year it’s back, bigger and better.
“Normally our audiences come and see a finished show,” she says, talking over lunch in the Traverse Bar Café, “but we found there was an appetite amongst them for coming on the journey and giving feedback too.”
Amidst the handful of plays performed last year was a workshopped version of The Artist Man and the Mother Woman by Morna Pearson, which would later enjoy a full Traverse production, while a low-key collaboration between the theatre’s associate director Hamish Pirie and writer Rob Drummond would lead on to their ambitious collaboration Quiz Show.
This year, says O’Loughlin, there will be roughly 51 plays performed in one format or another, including lunchtime rehearsed reading double bills (complete with free beer and stovies courtesy of sponsors Innis & Gunn), pre-recorded “headset” plays designed to be listened to in certain locations, and hidden playtexts around the building.
This year, of course, the number of writers available to the festival has increased thanks to the Traverse 50 commission, a one-off programme of writer mentoring in celebration of the theatre’s 50th birthday. Leafing through the programme, O’Loughlin mentions new writers including Sylvia Dow, who is in her seventies; sometime theatre critic Robert Dawson Scott; and Frances Poet and the actress Molly Innes, both new mothers who have written plays about motherhood to be directed by O’Loughlin, herself expecting for the second time.
Birth is also a theme of John McCann’s Spoiling, which O’Loughlin is directing. “Scotland’s gained independence and it’s the eve of the Scottish foreign minister giving her first public address,” she says. “She’s heavily pregnant and she’s decided at the last minute she doesn’t want to stick to the script. It’s a brilliant political comedy dealing with some quite inflammatory issues.”
And she notes that this is the second Traverse play to touch upon the independence question is by an Irish writer, following on from August’s I’m With the Band by the Welsh writer Tim Price.
Mentioning that the anticipated three full Traverse 50 commissions might be increased due to the sheer quality of work they’ve read, O’Loughlin makes being a director of new writing sound like an adrenaline-fuelled experience.
“It’s very stressful,” she says, “because you feel such a responsibility to get it right and you never, ever know if you have until the audience come in. With a classic you’re halfway there because you know it works, but with a new play everything is at stake. It’s like midwifery – you’re bringing something into life and you don’t quite know what it is, but all you can do is create the best conditions for it to flourish and live well.”
• Write Here is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 26 October, www.traverse.co.uk