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Edinburgh Blog: Producer Ellie Keel on the 'rare alchemy' of new plays

What makes a good Fringe play?

Artwork for Sap
© Rebecca Pitt

As a theatre producer, one of the questions I'm asked most frequently is 'how do you choose the plays you work on?'. Since I founded The Women's Prize for Playwriting in 2019, I've had to be selective about my freelance work, and commit myself only to really special projects. Most recently, working on Rafaella Marcus's debut play Sap, directed by Jessica Lazar, has helped clarify what 'special' means to me.

It's that rare alchemy of a compelling plot (a stage-turner, if you will), juicy dialogue, and powerful emotional resonance. Sap is technically an adaptation – it's a loose reworking of Ovid's myth Daphne and Apollo, which gives it a satisfyingly literary feel – but it also has all the hallmarks of the new work I most love to produce.

I haven't always taken new plays to Edinburgh. I lost my 'fringinity' in 2013 with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, which I co-directed and produced with two friends. To this day, I have no idea why I thought this play was a good choice for the Fringe. I'm sure – or I think I'm sure – it was powerful when it was first performed in 1956, but it now feels stilted and preachy. We didn't know anything about lighting design so we just put the lights up for the start of a scene and brought them down at the end.

The following year I took Lucy Kirkwood's NSFW with the same team and, although it wasn't a brand-new play, it had premiered at the Royal Court only 18 months previously and hadn't had an amateur production before. It gave me a taste of how exciting it is to present fresh work at the Fringe and the voracious appetite that audiences there have for it.

Since 2014 I've taken several new plays to the Fringe, including Hal Coase's hugely popular Callisto: a queer epic, and Margaret Perry's Collapsible starring the incredible Breffni Holahan, which won The Stage Edinburgh Award and transferred to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Bush Theatre in London. A recent conversation with theatre director Lyndsey Turner has helped me pin down what these successful plays and Sap have in common. They're all plot-driven, and secondary to that they have a political point, or points, to make.

Above all, though, they strive to be entertaining in the simplest sense of the word: to hold an audience's attention, to thrill them, to make them laugh. Now more than ever, I think it's the role of those making theatre to ensure that their work does these things, and not forget the most important component of the theatrical experience: the audience.

Sap is at Roundabout @ Summerhall, from 3 to 28 August 2022

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