Ten world premieres will feature in the EdFringe programme of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre this year. Ten plays which, as I write this, don’t even exist yet.
That’s ten big steps into the dark and an exciting prospect for the fringe. And top of those steps is Milk by Ross Dunsmore, which Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin is directing in Traverse One. It’s the big Traverse production so, at the press briefing prior to the official launch, I asked her to say a bit more about it.
She had already expressed the facts: it’s actor Dunsmore’s first full-length play – which he sent to the Traverse as part of its open submission window. It features three sets of couples, living in an urban environment. Old folk in their nineties, a couple in their thirties and a teenage couple. It will be created by the team behind last year’s fringe offering Swallow.
But I was curious to know just a little bit more about the play from O’Loughlin. And in the instant when she took a breath to answer, there was a look that crossed her face; a flash of humanity that wasn’t quite fear, or indecision, or joy, or triumph – but all of those things.
And as she spoke, I realised that that fleeting look on her face, expressed something which goes right to the very nature of what makes theatre wonderful. Because the bluffly naive, open question: “can you tell us a bit more about Milk?” basically asked her to speculate on the future.
She spoke a bit about the actors involved – Cliff Burnett and Anne Louise Ross as the older couple with Melody Grove and Ryan Fletcher as the younger couple. Cristian Ortega has been cast as one of the teenagers with the other yet to be cast.
She talked about the motifs of the play, the love between the older couple, the middle couple having their first child and milk becoming an issue, the food which everyone needs to nurture, and how all the couples need nurturing somehow.
She mentioned how, in the teenage couple, the boy is as concerned about his looks as the girl, how he eats chicken all day, and about how they both like each other but have a real problem understanding how that is expressed. About the conflicting signs put out by love, violence and objectification – and how they can be mistaken for each other.
But the play itself, how it will turn out, is beyond knowledge at the moment. Even though it has a reality in the black and white print of the Traverse programme.
“It’s the business we are in, in terms of being a new writing theatre,” she said when I asked her about that look, after the briefing itself.
“Every piece of work the Traverse produces is a world premiere, so the whole act of making a piece of work and putting it on for the first time is an act of faith, an act of dreaming something into life.
“It has no context in the public imagination but it lives in your brain and it lives in your heart, sometimes, and it lives in the ensemble.”
And that ensemble isn’t even completely assembled yet!
“We never know what we have got until the audience tell us,” she continues. “They are the reason we make the work, otherwise we are speaking to ourselves. And so it is only on that first preview when we go ‘Aaah!’, and we get it ourselves.
“Obviously we have hunches and intuitions and hopes and understandings of what the work is about: what it is saying, what it means. But in all honesty, not until the audience meet us and reflect that back to us, do they confirm or deny what we think it is about. And sometimes there are wonderful surprises, and quite often there are obvious things we didn’t see that were staring us in the face, all along.
“So talking about the work before is an act of faith, it is like dreaming aloud. It is also quite frightening, because we have to stand up for the work, believe in the work, hold on to the work – even though we are still not entirely sure what it is.”
And what of Milk, then, this presumably brilliant new play which the Traverse has been working on with Dunsmore on over the last year? With eight weeks to the first preview, it is still a series of figments in O’Loughlin’s imagination.
“I can direct Milk however I choose,” she says. “I’m a great one for trusting in the ensemble – in seeing what they bring and what their thoughts are – and in my creative team. For me it is about casting: if you get all of those people right, luckily I am just there to manage and make decisions, as well as add a few provocations and ideas in along the way.
“So I don’t know what it looks like, I don’t know what it feels like… I have got pictures in my head but they are very hard to articulate. It’s like trying to explain a dream is all I can get it down to. And sometimes those things are impossible to articulate.
“It is very much about a feeling I think, or a sound. I have been listening to a lot of music, because it is going to sound like this, or it is going to feel like this or it is this kind of colour, or I want people to feel this or understand this…
“But of course these are abstract concept. So it is all about the liveness – it is a live art form.”
And in the fertile imaginations of the team creating that live artform, the next eight weeks will allow an idea of words to grow into a fully formed play. And for us, the audience, that anticipation is half the fun.
The Traverse, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Previews Friday 5, SAturday 6 August 2016.
Opens Sun 7 Aug. Run endsSun 28 Aug. Daily, not Mons. Various times.
Details on the Traverse website: http://www.traverse.co.uk/