“The catalyst was basically, I’ve got these pieces that I would love to try out, but nowhere to do it, let’s work together.” That, according to playwright Mhairi Quinn, was the spark that led to the creation of Tandem Writing Collective, who create bold and eclectic short plays and are about to make their first appearance at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow later this month. The collective, which she formed in 2016 with fellow playwrights Jennifer Adam and Amy Hawes, writes and stages new work at Edinburgh’s The Canons' Gait pub and DRAM! in Glasgow, and was set up to perform short “taster pieces” of theatre written by the three playwrights.
The pieces are performed script in hand by local actors and emerging directors, as part of their so-called scratch nights, which also feature live music. “I always think it’s like a wee multipack of crisps,” Quinn continues. “If you don’t like one thing, there’s always something that you can enjoy!”
This theatrical night of treat-size new writing came about from a sense of frustration; as emerging playwrights, Quinn, Amy Hawes and Jennifer Adam wanted to get their work on stage and seen by people in the industry. So, they did what other emerging playwrights in Scotland would do – write plays and apply for funding, prizes and schemes. However, because everyone else was doing it, getting noticed was difficult.
“It’s like having control over your own destiny,” begins Hawes. “For emerging writers you can sometimes feel like you’re scribbling into the void, and it can feel completely soul destroying.”
Tandem is designed to be a welcoming and informal evening, where the audience can head to the pub to watch a night of new writing for no charge. Because there is no funding in the collective, everyone involved in the evening does it for no fee, and as they aren’t taking money at the door, the pubs they work with allow them to rent the space for free.
Because there’s no funding in the collective, the three playwrights – as well as the actors and directors they work with – are doing it for the love of theatre. But it’s also a reciprocal arrangement: the playwrights get their work staged in a safe space; the actors get to work with a director, who in turn, gets to direct a new play. As Quinn explains: “It’s giving actors [the chance] to be seen by directors, so it’s a wee bit of a showcase if you like.”
The preparation for this showcase always takes place over one day where they workshop the script with the director, and the collective have very few rehearsals so that everyone can be involved in their spare time.
“It’s quite by the seat of your pants," says Hawes, "it is really fast. It’s usually about an hour to prepare for on the day; it’s quite bold, and our audiences know that and they respond well to it.”
This 'by the seat of your pants' approach has won them support, not just from audiences but also from actors such as Stephen Greenhorn. Crucially, it gave them the confidence to, as Quinn puts it, “chance their arm” by approaching Andy Arnold at The Tron about staging an event at the venue. He agreed, giving them one evening in February, before having to add an extra date after the first one sold out.
The collective hope to be able to grow in the future, but for now they’re concentrating on continuing to build a community, and hope to make Scottish theatre more accessible to new and emerging artists. “It’s what theatre should be,” says Quinn of the collective. “It’s theatre for everybody.”
The Tron Theatre’s Victorian Room is one of the warmest and most intimate performance spaces in Glasgow. Over the years SWH! has been there for Warren McIntyre’s Seven Song Clubs, the launch of the anthology Out There, and various poetry and spoken word events. A recent, and most welcome, addition to its regular visitors are the Tandem Writing Collective who put on nights showcasing and developing new theatre. We were lucky enough to be at their most recent night where a sold-out audience had a rare old time. There were laughs, tears, tension and tunes as everyone in the room shared a rather special experience.
Tandem is the brainchild of three playwrights – Jennifer Adam, Amy Hawes and Mhairi Quinn – who have been putting on these nights in Glasgow and Edinburgh with the aim of making audiences think as they are entertained. The running order was six short pieces, two each from the writers, with a musical interlude in-between (more of which below). Their impressive cast (see bottom of page for details) have only a short rehearsal time before taking part in these “script in hand” performances. This is as fresh as theatre gets, with risks being taken from all involved, and it creates a thrilling tension in the room that you rarely get with other art forms.
The first half began with ‘Please Charge Your Glasses’ (Amy Hawes) where a wedding reception goes spectacularly wrong, and the dangers of a live mic have never been as clear. Any wedding where the spectre of pampas grass rears its head is never going to end well (and if you don’t know the reference, Google it – just not at work unless you want to be the talk of the steamie).
This was followed by ‘The Lodger’ (Mhairi Quinn), a two-hander which looked at mental health and anxiety, how it us regarded and treated, and the pressures applied by the modern world. With the psychoanalyst from hell and a patient who fears just about everything it was a wonderful example of what two fine actors, with a tight and insightful script, can do as roles become reversed. Then came Jennifer Adams’ ‘Whispers’, which all too clearly outlined how rumours and hearsay can turn quickly into something sinister, and that it’s important to remember that even when mobs rule they are still made from individuals who bring their own fears and prejudices.
The musical interlude was just perfect as sister and brother Marianne and Aaron McGregor were joined by David Munn to sing and play some clearly personal songs of love, loss, and cults. A beautiful voice, and some glorious harmonies, backed simply with great playing. It may sound simple but when it’s done this well then you don’t need anything else.
The second half kicked off with ‘Knowing Me’ (Jennifer Adam) another terrific two-hander where what begins as comedy becomes pitch black as technology turns, like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror meets Westworld. You would never use Alexa or Siri again! Then came Amy Hawes’ ‘Bathgate Murder Mystery Team-Building Weekend’ where all the cast were involved in a riotous comedy/mystery, which had salient points to make about the media, and which (knowing some people involved in such events) was pretty much spot on.
The night ended with Mahiri Quinn’s ‘Politics Of The White Stuff’, a very moving and thought provoking piece on how the current reporting of, and attitudes to, bad weather reflect class prejudice and inequality – not only of expectations but of thought, or lack of it. It was the perfect end to a night where every emotion was brought to the fore.
My advice is not to miss out on the Tandem Writing Collective if you can help it as these are exactly the sort of nights Scottish theatre needs, bringing it out of the big and expensive venues to spaces which are not just affordable, but which make for the sort of visceral experience that you just can’t get elsewhere.
Six plays in sixty minutes, anyone? The novel idea sees three emerging playwrights showcase their work in 10-minute vignettes in the basement of Edinburgh’s Canon’s Gait bar – the fourth event of its kind put on by the Tandem Writing Collective – which proves to be a compact, convivial backdrop for the evening. Though the concept might sound a little breathless, it plays out like a relaxed taster menu of intriguing theatre, perhaps aided by the 20-minute interval and the traditional Scottish music from Boorach which fills it, and certainly by the talented writing of the girls in question.
First up is Stuck, a study in “appropriate” responses to heightened tensions, as a hitchhiker and her driver become involved in a car crash and learn more about each other than they’d bargained for. The mundanity of this anthropological analysis is juxtaposed jarringly with Preparing for the Afterlife, a snapshot of two women hiding away from the world for reasons unknown. The undercurrent of menace is dominant throughout, punctuated only now and again by soundbites of funny dialogue which work to puncture but not completely deflate the eerie tension. Closing the first part is The Thing About Cats, a short monologue that serves almost as an inverse to the play which preceded it; while the work is funny more than anything else, it reveals a sinister underbelly at its climax.
Perks of the Job picks up the comic theme where it left off before the break, channelling classic Scottish works like The Steamie as it charts the progress of two cleaning ladies who break into the Balmoral Hotel swimming pool to enjoy an illicit dip. Partridge is a more sombre affair, exploring the universal subtleties and mixed emotions of a faltering relationship in its final stages. Meanwhile, closing play At Home with Bella is the silliest, most caricatured piece of the evening which parodies the self-importance of celebrity chefs (and TV darlings in general).
Each of the writers present two different works, one of which is markedly more humorous than the other. While the range of topics and styles demonstrate their versatility, the most effective scenes are the ones in which comedy is brought to the fore – most notably, in the two which bookend the interval. This may also be in part thanks to the standout performance of Debbie Whyte, whose bolshie brazenness in both of the roles recalls something of the quirk of Green Wing’s Sue White (albeit with the nuttiness dialled significantly down).
While Whyte produces the most memorable performances, Debbie Cannon provides ample support (especially as the wet cloth to Whyte’s livewire in Perks of the Job) and Alannah Beaton and Philip Kingscott show perhaps the greatest depth of the night with their intimately painful breakup in Partridge. The final play sees all of the cast gather for some good, old-fashioned fun-poking at the not-as-rich-and-famous-as-they’d-like-to-be, with Cameron McGarva’s grinning smugness a particular highlight. Indeed, all of the actors acquit themselves admirably – all the more impressive since they only had an hour to rehearse on the day of the performance (though it’s unclear why this self-imposed stinginess with rehearsal time came about) – and Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir’s direction ties everything neatly together.
Though each of the plays work well as a standalone, short snippet of theatre, it’s difficult to see how any of them could be fleshed out into a longer work (with perhaps the possible exception of Preparing for the Afterlife, if only for the curiosity it engenders). However, as a vehicle for developing their playwriting abilities, the night is certainly a successful one – not to mention a thoroughly entertaining diversion for all of the audience. Here’s looking forward to the Tandem’s next venture!