Theatre preview: Joyce McMillan on the Play, Pie and Pint Spring Season

Gary McNair. PIC: David Monteith-Hodge
Gary McNair. PIC: David Monteith-Hodge
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It was in the autumn of 2004 that the late David MacLennan launched A Play, A Pie And A Pint, at the new Oran Mor bar and arts venue in Glasgow. After some fierce run-ins with the Scottish Arts Council during the 1990s, over the withdrawal of funding from his radical music theatre company Wildcat, MacLennan had no intention of tangling with arts council funding bureaucracy ever again. So on a wing, a prayer and a surge of formidable goodwill from theatre professionals, Glasgow audiences and Oran Mor owner Colin Beattie, he set out to create something that could sustain itself without state subsidy.

MacLennan had a hunch that there would be a market for short, no-frills lunchtime plays that took a weekly chance on new work, but softened the risk by offering a pie and a drink as part of the ticket price; he also knew aspiring playwrights in Scotland were struggling to find opportunities for that first, vital encounter with an audience that would help their work to grow.

Yet even MacLennan could hardly have imagined just how successful his initiative would be, not only surviving but thriving, and producing more than 30 weekly new plays every year. Or how – almost 14 years on, and even after MacLennan’s untimely death in 2014 – it would have become a major part of Scotland’s new playwriting landscape, with an annual grant of £150,000 from Creative Scotland, and partnerships across Scotland and beyond. This week’s show Party Politics – a theatrical debut by journalist Lorna Martin, performed by Scotsquad star Sally Reid – can be seen next week at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen; and from 3 April, a sequence of five Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime shows will begin what is now a regular transfer to the Traverse in Edinburgh, where the pies are said to be posher, but the plays the same.

“We don’t co-produce with A Play, A Pie And A Pint,” says Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, “because our whole basis of production is too different – different contracts with writers, for example. But members of our team often have a creative involvement; and what we find is that there is a really enthusiastic audience for this work. I think people enjoy the feeling that it’s not just one show, but a series, and that if you don’t like one, you might enjoy the next. And then it has this social dimension, with the pie and pint, so that people are more inclined to chat and compare notes with other regular audience members, so it has this lovely, sociable atmosphere.”

Everyone involved with A Play, A Pie And A Pint agrees, though, that its no-frills “EasyJet” model of new work should not be regarded, in cash-strapped times, as a substitute for the full-scale productions that, back in the 1990s and 2000s, launched Scottish playwrights like David Greig, Rona Munro, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower and Gregory Burke onto the international stage. “Certainly, David MacLennan never intended A Play, A Pie And A Pint to be anything other than complementary to the work of theatres like the Traverse and the Tron,” says Play, Pie and Pint’s joint artistic director Morag Fullarton. “It was intended as a low-cost, fast-moving addition to the Scottish new writing scene, that would offer new opportunities in a low-risk setting; and although we now have some Creative Scotland support, essentially that’s still what we’re doing.”

And Sunshine On Leith writer and River City creator Stephen Greenhorn – now chair of the Scottish Society of Playwrights – agrees. “When I started out 25 years ago,” he says, “the Scottish Arts Council had a ring-fenced fund for commissioning new plays, and there were quite a few companies in the middle range who would commission new work. The difficulty lay in gaining experience before that first commission; and then, once you’d had a couple of plays done, in moving on to bigger stages.

“But now, that situation is almost reversed. We have plenty of cheap, informal, entry-level opportunities, at Play, Pie and Pint and elsewhere, and we have a generation of established playwrights who can command big stages not only in Scotland but in London and New York. But with a decade of standstill funding and cuts at the Traverse, and the loss of many touring companies who once commissioned new plays, I think we’re just a couple of bad decisions away from losing that vital middle range completely.”

Whatever the problems playwrights face when they want to move beyond the Play, Pie and Pint format though – 50 minutes, and no more than three actors – there’s no doubting the sheer pleasure audiences are likely to take in the latest 16-show season. The five plays transferring to the Traverse, for example, include work by leading Traverse playwrights Rob Drummond and Gary McNair, queen of crime Val McDermid, brilliant young actress-turned-playwright Meghan Tyler, and top television writer Ann Marie Di Mambro, author of the iconic Scots-Italian drama Tally’s Blood.

“A Play, A Pie And A Pint is a wonderful thing for playwriting in Scotland,” says Greenhorn, “and it has completely transformed the opportunities at that first level. But we have to ask ourselves what happens if playwrights can’t then take the next step, into full productions with a full commissioning fee. Where is the next generation of David Greigs and Rona Munros going to come from? And what happens to the canon of new Scottish drama that’s been emerging over the last few decades? It’s a question of whether we keep on nurturing that, through all the stages of a playwright’s development; or whether, beneath the surface of what can look like a thriving scene, we actually start to let it go.”

The Play, Pie And Pint Spring Season is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 2 June, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 3 April until 5 May, www.