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Chris Grady: Scratching it better - the five phases of show development

My blog focus today is a subject that Heather Doole, an independent producer, and I explored in our recent Surgery - the path of a new work from commission to acclaim through all its possible stages of development.

I think there are five very distinct stages for a new piece to be fit-for-purpose and it is fun for WhatsOnStage readers to think, as they see a show, whether they agree with my segmentation, and whether a particular show has gone through some or all of the phases. I'm specifically thinking about new writing or combined arts.

Can I in passing recommend everyone to visit The Shed at the National Theatre and see The Table - a wonderful smorgasbord of ideas exploring many generations of family and relationships, phenomenally performed, and for me very emotionally powerful. Another recommendation is Theatr Temoin's Nineveh at Riverside Studios, which has been powerfully gathered through two years of collaboration. Both are passionately offered after going through phases of development.

So here are my five phases:
First, after the initial writing team has prepared a first draft, comes the table reading. A time for the writer to hear their work off the page for the first time, these are typically done in private with only the closest friends present (no backers, no possible producers, no public, no family and friends).

Around the table the play is read, then the writer sits with the actors and explores the piece. Writers are often amazed at the perception of any actor of their own character - it's all the actor cares about so they have immense focus. The author needs to be strong to receive comments like "my character wouldn't do that", "why am I not aware of what x or y is doing?" etc.

The writer then heads back to the keyboard (or the pen and ink) and explores the play further. This leads slowly to the next stage - the workshop. Here the writer steps away and hands the piece to a director and actors for a few days of play. The actors and directors can despair about the work if they wish, and then come up with ways to help it move forward.

The writer comes in after a few days to see what has happened - some moments may inspire, some moments may horrify, but at the end the writer can take away anything and everything and ignore or use what they have heard. This also works for musicals when the composer should not be at the piano, indeed should not be in the room.

Along the way between workshop and showcase many creators enter part of the work into a scratch night. There are many variations, and inventive names to match, but essentially it’s a chance for a “knowing” audience of theatre folk and friends to watch several different pieces in one evening and then feed back comments to the creatives in the bar afterwards or in formal discussions. It’s a chance for the writers to see what a random audience might think of the idea, and test out elements of the creativity.

Usually a press-free event, these can be immensely supportive and are also great fun to go to – so check out your local theatre to see when they are scratching the surface of new work. And if they don’t have a date in their programme why not suggest it to them – there is so much new work out there that deserves to be seen, and maybe you could help create a scratch night.

Next comes the showcase - too often muddled with the workshop. This is a sales event, a chance to take the best bits and show them off to producers, money people, theatres, tour bookers, the star you want to excite, and your most supportive colleagues. The cast and creatives that gather to present a showcase should know their material, be confident that they are presenting the best work, and be on the same page as the writer.

It doesn’t need to be the whole show – I’ve seen fantastic showcases of first halves where a character walks down at the end and simply says “if you want to know what happens next you’ll need to back a full production… see you in the bar”. I’ve seen hit songs and wonderfully narrated set pieces, all designed to whet my appetite (or more usually unlock a chequebook) to help get the piece seen.

And finally, if there is no rush to book the show and take it into a major production, then a skeletal production can help. Bare bones, little set, simple costumes, first class cast (often on profit share or low rates), and presented with highest professional creativity in a space that is going to attract the right people to be sitting in the audience. A new musical for a week at the Landor will get the Landor musical theatre audiences coming to check it out. A special new play at the Finborough on a series of Sunday/Monday nights will get the Finborough audience to explore the new work.

Each house has its specialism and will reach its mailing list and online audience followers quickly and easily. They’ll take a chance on a new work and see what happens. Then you have a few weeks to get the piece seen and excite producers; maybe with a run in Edinburgh or at the Oxford or Buxton Fringe Festivals, maybe a small tour you create yourself.

So that’s my five phases of development. There are many variations – but when you, dear WhatsOnStage reader, decide to go out of the West End to see a new work, check the programme, talk to the creatives in the bar, and understand the process that has gone into creating the work you see. It's often a labour of love, and your enjoyment (and maybe even your contacts) could help the piece move further.

Happy theatregoing,


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