Interview: Daniel Brennan

Set against critic-led awards showering praise on established players in UK theatre, the Off Cut Festival – on at London’s Riverside Studios from 25 September to 12 October – is refreshingly different. Now in its fourth year, Off Cut places audiences at its heart.

Across three weeks, audience votes will see 28 short plays by new and undiscovered talent whittled down to a single winner of the coveted Off Cut Festival Audience Award. On the final night, a panel of industry professionals will give individual awards for writing, directing and acting.

Off Cut was launched in 2009 by ‘In Company’, comprising artistic directors Daniel Brennan and Trudi Boatwright, with Nick Kneller as executive director. The idea for the festival stemmed from Brennan’s love of the energy audiences brought to the shows he produced at Actorworks, the Wapping-based drama school he established in 2006. His belief in “no fourth wall” resulted in the first Off Cut festival, held at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington.

Since then, Off Cut has gone from being a gamble to a great success, necessitating a move into the bigger space of Riverside Studios last year. The festival’s aim to “nurture emerging creative talent” attracts an ever-greater number of entries from throughout the UK. This year, as previously, a reading panel chose 32 plays, of which 24 have been split into four groups according to writing style, genre, tone and casting. The remaining eight are presented in a rehearsed reading to a panel of theatre bloggers. Their favourite four join the original 24, one in each group.

A week before the launch of the festival, I spoke with Brennan about providing opportunities for new talent, the importance of blogging to Off Cut and the changing relationship between audiences and theatre.

Were you seeking to fill a gap in the market when you devised Off Cut?

There’s a joy in live theatre and Off Cut had been a springboard for so many new working relationships and career advances, which has been just a joy for us. That’s why we do it, for the love of it rather than because of a gap in the market; it’s literally altruistic at the moment, because no one gets paid for it. And it’s done so well. Come the end of the second year, we realised we had to spread our wings a little bit. Riverside has been very supportive and very keen.

Why do you think the festival has been so successful?

Clinically, I could say that there’s always an enthusiasm for new writing, and because it’s a desperately glutted market, the acting profession, there are always actors available. But there’s a level of enthusiasm specific to Off Cut. The audience is genuinely thrilled by the process. To be in the auditorium when they’re voting at the end of each night is utterly brilliant – it’s wonderful to see how much they invest in the choices they make.

Are there any other factors?

My more flowery answer is that it’s just a great lark. The camaraderie is wonderful. We push gently but firmly the idea of true collaboration; there’s no pussy footing around, we just want everyone to get in there and have a good time. We want people who will inspire others and who are in turn inspired by their company. When you have a group that works in those terms, the audience can feel it, beyond intellectually. Everyone is having a great time, sharing space with each other.

You have industry-judged awards on the last night, but the onus is very much on the audience vote. Why is that?

The audience award is the one everyone wants because it’s given by the people, the bums on seats, who have gone through the experience with them. That said, we recognise that, professionally, the people taking part want some input from the people responsible for their careers from the nuts-and-bolts end, so we’ve always had a six to ten-strong panel filled with people from different areas of the business. They will offer an award for writing, one for direction and one to the best company of actors.

Why did you decide to involve theatre bloggers in the process?

This was an idea I came up with last year because me and technology don’t get on, I don’t mind telling you. What we found we were lacking, when we realised that we needed to spread our wings, was a relationship with this very 21st-century thing, social media. Nowadays, audiences have changed: everything they need is quite literally in the palm of their hand, on their phone. We were missing that immediacy. So as well as choosing the four plays that will join the final groups, our bloggers will be writing on and videoing the festival – hopefully, their readers will want to get involved as they learn more about it. We’ll have online and YouTube blogs, which should be a treat.

What do you think of the ongoing bloggers v critics debate?

Personally, because I’m a big advocate of relaxing a bit and getting on with things, I think there’s room for bloggers and for critics. But they don’t need labels – audiences who have a particular interest either way, will make up their own minds. Why should reading a blogger’s preview and forming an opinion be any less valid than doing so based on something written for a bigger platform and after more champagne at a press party?

Do you think Off Cut’s success reflects a wider democratisation of theatre?

I think there’s something zeitgeisty about it, yes. Because of the immediacy of the internet, people have a much closer relationship, real or imagined, with the world. When they find things they are passionate about, like art, science or religion, they tend to have stronger opinions because they can do so without showing their face. But with Off Cut, I think the key thing is that the audience feels embraced by the festival. There’s a real warmth that comes from being made to feel part of something.

Is feeling included important to you, as someone who works in theatre?

Yes, although this is the sort of area I tend to shy away from, because I try not to get politically involved. There are certain schools of thought in certain establishments and institutions that seem to promote exclusivity and elitism. On a grand scale, I think it’s about tribalism, about people trying to get a sense of belonging. But I think it’s a shame that it exists. Don’t get me wrong – I love avant-garde theatre. But when people get precious about what theatre should be, they’re excluding many. To sit quietly in a darkened room and share the experience of what’s on stage with a thousand other people is a beautiful thing. I fear that going to the theatre is a social skill we’re losing. Also, I’m quite militantly middle-of-the-road. There may be stuff in Off Cut that you won’t like, but wait 15 minutes and something else will come along. I love that.

Would you say that the range and shortness of the plays contribute to Off Cut’s appeal?

I do think their brevity is important. There’s no getting away from the fact that people’s attention spans are altering, because they have everything they want at their fingertips. Some people are going to balk at sitting through three hours of Shakespeare, Ibsen or Caryl Churchill. We want to embrace regular theatregoers, but also those who have never been before. I would suggest that seeing theatre with such a breadth of styles and genres is its own kind of thrill. It means a lot of people are getting their work seen and audiences are getting used to short-form theatre as a perfectly valid night out.

Was that always the intention with Off Cut?

When we started, we thought each entry could be an extract from a larger play, where the winner would have the full work staged. But the writers began to comment that they thought we were saying that long-form theatre was better, which was the last thing we wanted to. So, this year, we are supporting the short form on its own terms, which I think has galvanised the whole festival.

How did you come up with the name ‘Off Cut’?

Seven of us went to a ropey pub in Holborn and thrashed it out for hours. We came up with lots of ideas, the central of which was always that it should be about smallness and, originally, snippets. It has since moved on from referring to a small part of something bigger to meaning seven plays that make one night of theatre. We’ve moved beyond the notion of offshoots and examples.

Why did you make the move to Riverside Studios?

After Off Cut’s second year we knew we had to leave the Old Red Lion, not least because we were turning people away. In one way, that was a good thing – it meant we were popular – but by another, terrible: we didn’t want people to miss out. We spoke to a number of theatres and there was either a lack of interest or a lack of backstage space, which was more often the problem. In contrast, Riverside was so enthusiastic, and it was that enthusiasm that got the ball rolling. They were so helpful and understanding of the nature of the festival. That calmness was great. It was terrifying moving into a bigger auditorium, but it was a huge success. We’ve loved being there and are delighted that we’ve moved into the main space this year – which is also terrifying, but we’re looking forward to it.

And how are preparations for this year’s festival going?

There’s a fabulous buzz, because most of the groups are rehearsing at my school’s building in Wapping. Having them around is a constant thrill and source of excitement – people wandering past and all kinds of strange noises coming from various rooms. There are 129 creatives involved this year, and getting all of them to the same level of enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. We’re close to fever pitch.

The Off Cut Festival will be at Riverside Studios from 25 September to 12 October. For more information, and tickets, see:

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