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Brief Encounter With ... Zeitgeist Theatre's Zia Trench

By • Off-West End
Is your lunchtime sandwich turning a little stale? Your sushi tray no longer satisfying your cravings? For those who work on Islington’s Upper Street there is another option, and it doesn’t come in the form of a Cajun chicken wrap. Zeitgeist Theatre’s World at One is a bi-monthly lunch hour series at the King’s Head, staging three 20-minute plays on one set contemporary theme. Aiming to showcase London's new writing talent, it’s the brainchild of Zia Trench, a writer, film-maker and award-winning political journalist for BBC, ITN and Sky. Trench co-founded Zeitgeist with her partner Phil Zwiegers to produce issue-driven theatre and last year, her own play The State We’re In, about anti-war protestor Brian Haw, had a rehearsed reading at the Trafalgar Studios with Samuel West and Raquel Cassidy. We spoke to Trench ahead of this week’s World at One (24-28 June, 1pm), which takes ‘Sellebrity’ as its theme.

Why did you start up World at One?
I’ve always loved theatre. Even when I was a full-time journalist, reporting and presenting politics programmes, it was my hobby to go every week. But I felt there weren’t enough new writers writing about the times we were living in. I was dying to see what people thought about now and World at One came out of that – new writers reacting to modern times.

And the title?
I happened to be freelancing at the Radio 4 show World at One at the time. And it seemed a good comment on what we were trying to do.

How do you pick the plays you put on?
I choose a theme that I think is challenging and current – for example, Facebook or the credit crunch – and I approach four or five writers to submit an idea. Of those five, I select four to be written into a first draft, and of those drafts, three to produce. A 20-minute play equates to about 15 pages, so you don’t feel too abusive of people’s time.

Where do you find your writers?
I don’t use the same writers twice. Someone will contact me, or they will come recommended, perhaps by a director who I’ve got on board. I go to the fringe and check out people I’ve heard about. At least 50 per cent of the time, I'm approaching writers whose work I’ve seen and liked.

It’s the kind of commissioning model you’d expect at a higher level.
What surprises me is just how high our standard is. The difference is that it’s not getting any funding. It’s funny to me is that there are venues like the Royal Court and the Soho Theatre who’ve got lots of money to do similar things, but we’re doing it really well without. We’ve had half a dozen people writing for us who are now pretty mainstream: Clare Bayley, who writes for the National; Zoe Lewis whose Sadie Frost play Touched went to the Trafalgar Studios. If I were a funding person, I’d be checking us out all the time.

This month’s theme is ‘Sellebrity’, something we’re more used to seeing in magazines or on TV.
Yes, but celebrity is totally theatrical! Take Jordan, marrying in the way she did and selling everything she does. These people are just acting out their lives. There is a hilarious, entertaining side to it, but there’s a black side, too: the people who are holding the strings; the people making money off absolute misery; the naive blonde with the big tits, and the shadowy man behind her. Someone like Jade Goody - people build them up and then annihilate them. It’s very dark.

What can you say in a play that you can’t in a news broadcast?
Obviously, you can’t cram in the facts as I could if I were reporting for The Politics Show in that nice objective BBC way. But you can make an emotional response to an intellectual issue and that is so much more powerful that any report or any article I could write. Getting people really thinking about the times we live in – that is why I do this, and why I’ve got such a love of theatre.

So what next for Zeitgeist?
Obviously, I would love World at One to become an evening thing. It does weirdly well at lunchtime, but there’s only so many people we can get in. As for the company, we’re taking The State We’re In up to Edinburgh to this summer. Guy Masterson is producing and we’ve got Michael Byrne playing Brian Haw, who’s this unbelievable veteran Hollywood actor. So I’m very excited.


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