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Neil LaBute On … The Thrill of Short Plays

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American dramatist Neil LaBute's short play The Furies receives its British premiere in a new touring production, which brings it together with his earlier short plays - Land of the Dead and Helter Skelter, previously seen at London’s Bush Theatre in 2008 - in a thematically linked LaBute trilogy.

LaBute’s many other plays mounted in the UK include: in the West End, Some Girls, The Shape of Things and, most recently, Fat Pig, which won last year’s Whatsonstage.com Award for Best New Comedy; at the Almeida Theatre, The Mercy Seat, The Distance from Here, Bash and The Shape of Things; at the Donmar Warehouse, This Is How It Goes and In a Dark Dark House; and at the Bush, The War on Terror and last year’s Wrecks. On Broadway, his Reasons to Be Pretty premiered last year.

In addition to his stage work, LaBute is also well known for his screen writing and directing. His films include In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty, Possession, The Wicker Man and adaptations of The Shape of Things and Bash.

The new touring production of his short plays trilogy is performed by Patrick Driver, Frances Grey and Stuart Laing, directed by Patricia Benecke and produced by Dialogue in association with Mercury Theatre Colchester, the Bush and Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

Why do we even bother writing short plays these days? I’m not sure, but I keep doing it with an alarming regularity. It’s certainly not to make money or win fans or gain fame; no, I return to this form of dramatic writing in the same way climbers return to the most dangerous faces of certain mountains – because it’s there. And not just because it’s there, but because it looks so damn simple standing on the ground – it’s terrifyingly tricky once you’re up there, though.

To tell a fully rounded story within a few pages, with characters and plot and conflict, is no easy thing and this is what draws me back time and again. Like a long distance runner who is asked to fill in for a sprinter at the last minute, you find yourself using a whole different set of muscles that you didn’t know you had. Each word begins to count enormously in the whole and bits of exposition start to stand out like neon signposts when you find yourself limited to a handful of pages. But it’s great exercise and terrifically precise work that is hugely satisfying when you get it right. You can go crazy trying, but hey, that’s half the fun of it.

Do these plays represent me ‘getting it right?’ Hell if I know; I suppose that’s for you to decide. I love the form of Land of the Dead where characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. It’s the great secret weapon of the theatre, the monologue, and its ability to directly confront the viewer, and I love it. Helter Skelter is a more conventional drama from a structural standpoint, but its message is as old as the Greeks. It is a primal scream about injustice and children and lost love and in the hands of the right actors it makes even my hair stand on end (no easy thing for a man born with a curly mane).

The plays were not written as companion pieces, but because of the pregnancy theme that runs through both Land of the Dead and Helter Skelter, I recently went back to the newest play of the three, The Furies, and added a 'birth' element to connect the trilogy together more solidly and because of this I feel they work conveniently and eerily well together. Land of the Dead, in fact, was written for a benefit the year after 9/11. Helter Skelter was written to help a pregnant German actress have a vehicle that would allow her back onto the stage during her second trimester and The Furies was composed for a wonderful new programme of dinner theatre taking place in New York City called "Eating Their Words".

Vastly different reasons for their creation, then, but played together as a single event I think the three short plays work smashingly well with an audience and do the very thing that I always strive for as a writer: get people laughing, then make that laugh stick in their throats. If that doesn't work, immediately kick them in the stomach. Enjoy. Repeat.

There is a common love of language that I share with English audiences. From experience, I am now confident that there is no place too dark or too wordy for UK theatregoers to follow me to – the main, and perhaps only, criteria is that the work is good and singular, and above all, necessary. The same qualities I strive for every time I sit down with my little notepad in some corner of a room as I scribble away, watching another ‘useless’ short play spill out of my pen. So it goes.

The Neil LaBute triple bill of short plays - The Furies/Land of the Dead/Helter Skelter - launched on 22 January 2010 from the Mercury Theatre Studio in Colchester and continues to Clwyd, Coventry, Liverpool, Bath, Plymouth, Glasgow, London’s Greenwich Theatre (23-27 February), Stockton-on-Tees, Newcastle, Salisbury and Harrogate, where it concludes on 15 March.


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