Why we produced Di and Viv and Rose
By Greg Ripley-Duggan
Hampstead Theatre’s Executive Producer
Producing new plays is an almost proverbially uncertain activity: it’s the riskiest area of theatre production because even the most experienced professionals can never really tell whether something that looks exciting on the page will stand up on stage. And Hampstead Theatre’s wonderful Main Stage is a particularly daunting space: polished and epic in character, it is completely unforgiving to material that is less polished than itself. Its demands are such that small weaknesses in a play can become immediately evident under its forensic scrutiny. Producing new work in a smaller space or a “rougher” environment – theatre in a room – is always easier because the audience is more prepared to make allowances for the work, and because the very close audience/cast relationship enables the actors and creative team make the most persuasive case for the material (hence the popularity of studio spaces in the New Writing ecology). But finding and developing work that is robust enough to address a mass audience on a Main Stage like Hampstead’s is the real challenge.
When Edward Hall started at Hampstead in 2010 he immediately set about finding a way of opening the Michael Frayn Space as a public performance space for unperformed work. His view was that the best way to find out the key facts about a new play was in performance: by putting it in front of a paying audience (and the fact they had paid and were making the effort to attend a live performance – that they were, therefore, a real audience – was essential to the equation). It took a while to figure out how to finance an additional programme of work, but we eventually found the money and the Hampstead Downstairs programme was born. It has been a great success and has enabled us to properly examine a vast range of work: to date we’ve presented twelve new plays Downstairs, two of which have already transferred: Belongings to Trafalgar 2 in the West End and And No More Shall We Part to The Traverse for the Edinburgh Festival.
Hampstead Downstairs offers a completely safe environment in which new plays can be trailed. Without a general Press Night and the associated pressure the artists are free to work on the text and the production to find the best way of articulating the play. With audience response and feedback as a significant informative factor, they can identify any flaws in the material and work out how to address them. And because the plays have not been through a formal “opening” process, their onward trajectory is not compromised by their being judged too early or by becoming “finished business”: the aim is that they should finish their run Downstairs ready to spread their wings and find their destiny in the wider world.
One of the key aims of Hampstead Downstairs is to develop work that will respond to our Main Stage. Not every play we present Downstairs will be right for this – we aim to offer a varied programme, and, alongside the aesthetic demands of the Main space set out above, any transfer has to respond to financial imperatives relating to likely attendances. But Di and Viv and Rose, which opened Downstairs in the autumn of 2011, was the biggest popular success we have had: seeing it on its feet and seeing how the audiences responded told us that it was a play with a major future. We immediately started to look for ways of presenting on the Main Stage and, whilst this was complicated by the availability of the key artists, it’s a particular joy to have made it work and we trust it is the first of many such transfers. “Transfer” probably isn’t the right word: many aspects of the original production are being reconceived to respond to Main Stage demands and it will be pretty much a completely new production. But in performance Downstairs the play proved itself to be robust and resonant, and the Director, Anna Mackmin, is a highly skilled and very experienced practitioner and she has again assembled a truly outstanding cast for us. Accordingly we feel extremely confident that the production will replicate the enormous popular success it enjoyed in its Downstairs run.
Picture from the 2012 Di and Viv and Rose currently in rehearsals starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Gina McKee and Tamzin Outhwaite.