Amidst all the clamour for greater representation across the industry, playwright James Graham and Director Thomas Hescott are about to genuinely change the lives of eight undiscovered writers with their collaborative new show James Graham’s Sketching, using Charles Dickens’ anthology-approach to storytelling in Sketches by Boz as its inspiration. The yet to be written show will portray 24-hours of London life, offering each contributor a 15-25 minute slot to tell a story about our twenty-first-century capital city.
Launched today at Wilton’s Music Hall, this will be the first show in living memory written especially for the venue, and presents an invaluable opportunity for eight talented writers drawn specifically from working class and regional backgrounds who beat 800 hopefuls to win the chance to work alongside Graham and Hescott in devising and presenting a new kind of show in a unique venue. Speaking at the launch, Graham explained that the history of Wilton’s represents a particularly welcoming and inclusive form of populist theatre, and with his own focus on bringing political stories to non-political audiences, Graham will work closely with each of the writers to help them develop their stories and share them with a wider audience.
It is this focus on “the invisible people” of London, the ones that keep everything ticking over, that drew Hescott to the project when he and Graham first developed the idea two years ago. After a couple of workshops, it was clear, Hescott explained, that no single voice could effectively capture London’s “brilliance and inequality”, and with a particular desire to support emerging artists, a nationwide competition was launched earlier this year to find eight new voices, each of whom submitted an idea and a sample page of dialogue.
The competition winners met for the first time at the press launch, representing a diverse pool of new talent with an interest in telling a wide-range of stories. From Edinburgh to Stockport, Bermondsey to Birmingham, there is a notable geographical range as well as an attempt to promote under-represented groups, who, from a shortlist of 25-30, will present tales that will work well together.
Encouraged by Graham to think big, taking Dickens’ scale both in terms of narrative and character, some of the writers admitted to having specific story ideas, while others have general themes that they want to develop during the workshop sessions. Aaron Douglas from Birmingham has a story about secret societies and financial inequality in London, while Chloe Mi Lin Ewart from Leeds wants to focus on death and destiny – although Graham insisted they are writing a comedy.
From Castle Douglas, Alan Gordon, an experienced writer for Fringe and Youth Theatre in Scotland, looks forward to creating something that draws people and stories together. Hackney-born Sumerah Srivastav will offer a truly London perspective on the nature of migration and vulnerability in the East End, and fellow Londoner Naomi Westerman’s interest in the polarising effect of the arts will explore the collision between rich and poor in a changing city environment.
With a huge political discrepancy in the Brexit vote between the capital and the rest of the country, Adam Hughes will draw on his Ukrainian heritage to transform representations of Eastern European cultures, while Himanshu Oja from the West Midlands and Ella Langley are excited to learn from their fellow writers while contributing to a diverse but inclusive diorama of modern London.
The group will spend the next three days working intensively at Wilton’s to develop their ideas and challenge each other, while established dramatists and writers will meet with them to talk about the writing process and launching a career. Throughout the summer, the eight playwrights will combine lone working with more “Writer’s Room” gatherings overseen by Graham – who has to deliver the ninth narrative – with first drafts expected in a few weeks’ time.
When asked about meeting the approaching September deadline and with tickets already on sale, Graham and Hescott were confident that the show will be ready on time, and that the nature of Sketching will make it fresh and responsive to changing events; tight deadlines will “focus the mind” which, later, several of the writers agreed would help them while sensible of the enormous opportunity before them.
The show opens on 26 September at Wilton’s Music Hall, but this is far from the end of the story, and Graham and Hescott will continue to mentor the group, introduce them to literary agents and help them to navigate their next steps in the industry. Graham spoke passionately about similar support he received and is keen to do the same for the new writers. Intervention is vital, he says, with little funding for drama and state education veering further away from the arts, the problem of under-representation in the theatre “won’t correct itself.” While there has been plenty of focus on the lack of opportunity to recruit and train working-class actors, Graham wants to do the same for writers, and Sketching could be a model that others can replicate, providing a vital stepping-stone for the next generation of writers to tell their stories.
James Graham’s Sketching opens at Wilton’s Music Hall on 26 September
Maryam Philpott | Image: Liam Harrison