Little Pieces of Gold is back for 2018, eight new plays in one evening at Southwark Playhouse. Daniel Perks catches up with artistic director Suzette Coon to hear about the festival’s ninth year:

It’s been running since 2010 and Suzette Coon has no intention of stopping now. If anything, she seems to be gathering energy and momentum – new writing festival, Little Pieces of Gold, recently announced the programme for its next showcase at Southwark Playhouse on 4 February 2018. Eight plays by nine emerging writers, directed by eight upcoming directors – an opportunity for everyone to learn from each other and hone their craft.

Suzette: As a writer myself, I know how difficult it is to get work on and how solitary writing can be. Little Pieces Of Gold addresses both those things – an opportunity for writers to get their plays in front of an audience and a network of directors & performers with whom they could continue to collaborate with.

Little Pieces Of Gold Suzette Coon

Suzette Coon

There are a number of new writing festivals that occur across fringe venues throughout London, and indeed the whole country. Is this a bad thing, a saturated marketplace? Not at all in my opinion; if anything, it encourages innovation and continuous creation at a time when opportunity for funded work is scarce.

Without Little Pieces Of Gold – as well as some other fantastic new writing opportunities out there – it would be virtually impossible for most emerging writers to get their work staged. They could put on their own work, but the advantage of Little Pieces Of Gold is that we have built up a solid track record for discovering talented playwrights from around the UK, whose writing then receives a production of the highest quality.

There are worrying issues around who can afford to mount their own shows

The selection process for events such as Little Pieces of Gold is very different from theatres which commission, or theatres which programme work from theatre companies/ writers. There needs to be more transparency around this – writers are often sending their work to these theatres in the belief that they might be commissioned, but actually the writer needs propose her play/ production and then fund it themselves. Here, there are worrying issues around who can afford to mount their own shows – only those who can afford to will. That’s a problem in terms of diversity of voices.

Little Pieces Of Gold Suzette Coon

Little Pieces of Gold – June 2017

Suzette’s point around transparency is important, especially for individuals new to the industry – it’s crucial that there are no misconceptions where money is concerned. In light of transparency, Suzette walks me through the full process for picking and putting on the chosen plays:

For this show we received over 500 submissions. Both myself and a team of readers read every single play. From those we made a shortlist of 16. It’s difficult to specifically pin point what makes us shortlist a play – maybe we’ve never seen a particular topic tackled that way before and we want to expose audiences to that.

After the shortlist is made, directors choose their favourites and voila! we have a programme. Directors will then meet with the playwrights to discuss their plays and will keep them involved e.g. playwrights attending rehearsals. Directors are fully responsible for casting and rehearsing their pieces and will then liaise with myself and our tech manager to discuss what is possible in terms of lighting and sound.

Writers often ask what makes us choose a play. I’d say write about what really bothers you. Be authentic to your concerns and needs.

The emphasis here is really on the writer-director collaboration, as it should be. It’s refreshing to see a festival where Suzette takes a more hands-off approach, to such an extent that she leaves it to the directors to pick the play they connect with most. Any of the 16 shortlisted could easily be in the final festival and that’s what adds such energy and excitement to Little Pieces of Gold. There are so many different combinations of work that could be shown, each tackling the different topics of the day.

Little Pieces Of Gold Suzette Coon

Sheila Atim & Gabby Wong in Darrel Draper’s The Test

Since we started Little Pieces Of Gold, around a quarter of our shows are themed. Sometimes there’s a hot topic in the air, such as Brexit or an election, or we tap into a trend of concern, such as the effect of social media on personal relationships. With themes, people are writing to a brief and so generally we receive fewer submissions. With an open theme [such as in this case] people can obviously send work that they may have written at an earlier time.

Were there any clear topics that jumped out at you from this set of open submissions?

Oh definitely for this one! The Harvey Weinstein scandal had clearly galvanised many people to put pen to paper – we received a lot of plays about sexual harassment and issues around consent.  One of the most interesting and deftly constructed plays we received on this subject is called The Petal & The Orchid, written by Clare Langford and Gabrielle Curtis.

Little Pieces Of Gold Suzette Coon

Eleri Jones & Faaiz Mbelizi in NSR Khan’s BFVEVA Much

Speaking of key themes and topics from 2017, the theatre industry finally seems to have recognised, if not yet sufficiently acted upon, the observation that there are far too few women and BAME individuals who are writing, directing and generally making work. This is not a new problem, rather one that may require a systemic upheaval of the whole industry (not a moment too soon, in my opinion). But whose responsibility is it to change this – that of the industry, or that of us individually to continue to effect such a monumental shake-up?

The industry does have a responsibility. It needs to be vigilant about any unconscious bias it has towards and against certain types of work and writers. We all have a duty to check ourselves, to seriously look at why we might not automatically be drawn to a particular work.

And then how do we define ‘good’?

Is it by what’s gone before, i.e. the canon? The industry – all of us involved in creating opportunities – need to expose ourselves to a broader range of work. Then we need to be proactive about widening access to our opportunities from all backgrounds because we can’t assume that these opportunities will be found, or that everyone will feel empowered to apply.

Little Pieces Of Gold Suzette Coon

Sabrina Richmond & Chiedza Rwodzi in Dipo Baruwa Etti’s A Prince

For instance, I am producing a festival of women’s work at The Canal Café Theatre in March and for that I am asking for plays about love & relationships from BAME writers. However, within the wording of my call-out I didn’t specifically ask for plays about non-hetero relationships because I assumed that people would send them. An actor, Sadie Leyla pulled me up on that, and rightly so. She reminded me that we’re still living in a world where non-hetero relationships are still not accepted as legitimate, so we need to actively show that our programming welcomes every type of relationship. 

We need to take leadership over ourselves too. We can’t wait. We can’t depend on others giving us opportunities.

We must ensure that we are making work that speaks to ourselves, that isn’t conforming and created to ‘please’. Then we must look at what we might be doing to hold ourselves back and address that.

Little Pieces Of Gold Suzette Coon

Mike Corsale & Jess Murphy in Jaki McCarrick’s Tussy

The reputation for a new writing festival is often built on the successes of its alumni. Little Pieces of Gold gave opportunity to a number of now successful playwrights when they were first starting out – Vinay Patel, Sam Steiner and Sarah Kosar immediately spring to mind:

The first play we produced by James Fritz was We Really Must Do Something in 2012 at Southwark Playhouse. He had sent plays previously, but they hadn’t made the cut, so he kept honing his writing and continuing to submit. We produced his second short play A Big Fridge in 2013 at Park Theatre.

Interestingly, we produced short plays by both Milly Thomas and Fiona Doyle for the same show in November 2013. Milly has flourished as a successful playwright and gone on to write for TV, whilst Fiona’s plays have shown at The Bunker and Hampstead.

Sarah Hehir’s first short play that we produced was the beginning of a really fruitful working relationship – we then produced her highly acclaimed, first full-length playCHILD Z – and Sarah went on to be selected for the 2016 BBC TV Drama Writers’ Programme.

 

To read more about Little Pieces of Gold, which plays at Southwark Playhouse on 4 February 2018, follow Suzette on Twitter (@SuzetteCoon) or visit the company’s website – www.littlepiecesofgold.co.uk