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Gareth Morgan interviews Laurie Sansom, Artistic Director of Royal & Derngate

Regional new writing is currently taking centre stage at Royal & Derngate with their ‘celebration of Northampton’, the HOMETOWN festival, showcasing the best artistic talent the town has to offer. Northampton audiences will be treated to 10 vibrant and exciting shows, each rooted in local issues, being performed over the project’s two month run. The theatre’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom is rightly very proud of the project which has grown from its initial premise to become one of the biggest new writing projects in the East Midlands and, certainly, the largest concerning issues directly relevant to those living in the region.

Laurie and I discuss the festival, those involved and how new writing will be encouraged after HOMETOWN comes to an end. Laurie, who is instantly engaging and enthusiastic, is quick to acknowledge the input of the writers involved in the project, especially returning local favourite D C Moore who wrote the festival’s centrepiece Town. The play, originally conceived to address Northampton’s unenviable moniker of The Binge Drinking Capital of England, soon became the spine of the festival which has widened its scope now to look at what modern Northampton is and who Northamptoners are. Around this central core in the program, Laurie and his team have managed to craft an admirable festival rich with local talent in all its aspects and chock full of new work from regional writers or those with long standing relationships with the Royal & Derngate.

Phil Porter’s From Out of This World considers an alien invasion of the town; then Northampton can either be squashed to become a two-dimensional play-world in Daniel Jameson’s Flathampton or transported into the comfort of your own living room, literally, in Chris Goode’s Henry and Elizabeth, a play delivered direct to your door. There is also Jo Blake, the theatre’s resident storyteller, giving a guided walking tour of the town and, most importantly to Laurie in terms of new writing development, New Town.

New Town is a platform event allowing new local playwrights still learning their craft to have their work performed by the theatre’s youth company of which many of the writers are graduates. Other pieces have been brought in from elsewhere but have that feel of an authentic local voice talking about contemporary issues. The award winning Scots company Grid Iron perform their Decky Does a Bronco in a local park whilst Theatre IS bring Epiphany to the festival which looks at how local urban culture like MC-ing, street dance and graffiti art can translate into a theatre space. With the popularity of groups such as Britain’s Got Talent’s Diversity, Epiphany is both a piece of theatre well aware of the current climate in performance and a prudent bit of programming, added to which the company have been running a series of successful workshops with young people within the town.

This interest in urban arts is something which Royal & Derngate are going to be continuing with their new venue, The Theatre at Corby Cube. Working on a remit of making participatory and locally orientated live arts, the Corby venture will be an embarkation into new territory for the area with the venue being, according to Laurie, the first fully focused artistic performance project for the community bringing together music, visual arts and urban culture.

Corby is not the Royal & Derngate’s only new creative venture in the near future. Laurie is always on the lookout for new writers and very keen to continue working with both D C Moore, he is secretive about the project but hopes there will be a new play for the 2011-12 season, and the writers with work involved in the New Town event. He cites New Town and the work which TWP is doing local writers in Northampton, such as Subika Anwar – currently on TWP’s Young Writers programme – who has an extract in New Town, as key to the development on talent in region. For Laurie TWP’s projects which have a focused outcome like Momentum provide grassroots support, drive and a goal for young and new writers to work toward which may not be available in their local, regional theatres. He also discusses Tommy Murphy. Although not local, Murphy hailing from New South Wales, Australia, he is an exciting new playwright whose work fits into what Royal & Derngate are looking to do next. Laurie goes into this further stating that core to the theatre’s ideas of working with developing theatre makers, including writers whilst also talking more broadly, is finding an artist with whom a collaboration with Royal & Derngate would, beneficially for both parties, create interesting work. This is often a slow-burning partnership but will rarely give poor returns and is some thing Laurie himself has been on the flip-side of. His recent success in the staging of two lesser-known plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, respectively Spring Storm and Beyond the Horizon, has been a project he had been trying to get off the ground for over 10 years. With other examples of these long developing projects becoming seemingly more common, Tom Morris’ Juliet and her Romeo springs instantly to mind, I ask Laurie about how these things can come about. He shoots me a characteristic smile, ‘you have to be a Katie Mitchell,’ he replies with his smile widening ‘or become the Artistic Director of your own theatre.’

HOMETOWN continues throughout July with Flathampton, Henry and Elizabeth, and youth theatre productions of Our Town by Thornton Wilder and Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. The New Town platforms continue also with performances on 8th and 15th July at 19:30.

For more details see www.royalandderngate.co.uk

Images courtesy of Robert Day and Royal & Derngate Theatre.

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