Over the past seven years, The Pensive Federation has developed a reputation for innovation with their annual new writing event, The Significant Other Festival, which returns in April this year. Artistic director Neil J Byden recounts the company’s history and development into the current format – producing ten new 10-minute plays in just 10 days – and now one woven together in one grand, immersive piece set on a single day in a single place…
The Significant Other Festival began as an idea to see two characters on stage talking to each other, no tricks, no flashy gimmicks, just talking about their feelings, their hopes and dreams. While you might not think the people look or sound like you, you could relate to what they said and how they felt, because you may have said something similar and felt the same way. We wanted to make that connection to highlight that, underneath it all, we’re not so different. Out of this idea grew an ethos, an ethos that became our mission statement and still informs everything we do today.
That first Significant Other was seven duologues, where we gave both the writer and then the actors and directors seven days each to work on their contribution. It still all began with what we now call our Inspiration Session, a high-energy few hours where we bombard the writers, actors and directors with as much as we can, sending them away with their heads buzzing.
“Significant Other began as an idea to see two characters on stage talking to each other, no tricks, no flashy gimmicks, just talking”
I remember so vividly, on the Sunday of our third performance, having to make my entrance from the side walkway next to the audience and struggling to get to my start position because there was a crowd of people standing to watch our show. It was an auspicious beginning for us, on that show we met so many of most treasured PenFedders.
It was also how we first met Serena Haywood, who would go on to be our literary director. Our company stage manager Davie Byden-Oakes also gained his first experience of working on a show, and from that, he has embraced the theatre – he went on to study at LAMDA and, most recently, has been working on Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic. We had seven props that year, and what started as a practical consideration – we didn’t want to spend a week searching for random props – became a wonderful linking tool between the pieces and was one of the elements we carried forward.
Significant Other – Genres was the second iteration of the Festival and that’s when we made the change to the now familiar ’10, 10-minute plays in 10 days’ format. We kept the idea of the same props, and they got upgraded to 10. One prop became the stuff of legend, and illustrated to us just how, if you give writers enough variety, they will find the most multifarious uses for one single prop. That prop – a head of lettuce – inspired one of my favourite exchanges ever from writer Will Howells:
Allie: Do you have any smaller lettuces?
Allie: Yeah. They’re all about this size and I’m never going to use it all. I’m not really a salad person.
Phil That’s the problem with the iceberg lettuce.
Phil: Ninety percent of it is below the surface.
Allie: Wow. You really just did that.
And speaking of Will Howells, he would go on to write our first full-length play, Square, which earned us our first five-star reviews. The first musical also appeared to great success that year and now every year’s festival features a 10-minute musical. We also met the one and only Kim Burnett in our second year, and in many ways, she hasn’t left us yet – even if she’s not acting we find some way to incorporate the spirit of Burnett.
Then came Significant Other – Undercover. We were starting to be known as the festival of two chairs, so we mixed it up and gave our teams the inspiration of having a bed. It was interesting how everyone avoided using the bed, apart from the wonderful Michael Shon, whose vigour resulted in us having to construct an elaborate support system beneath the mattress. It also memorably gave us the death of a puppet dinosaur Suzy (in the musical, of course). And this was the year when we met our first associate artist, Jared Rogers, who played the charming younger man in Silk. Every team was given a covering that also became the title of their play, another element that we now carry forward every year.
For Significant’s fourth outing, Object of Affection, we returned to the Tristan Bates Theatre, which would be our home for the next few years. Every team was provided with a specific object around which they created their play. This resulted in some brilliant pieces, and gave us our next associates, the wonderful Anthony Cozens and Jayne Edwards. The last piece, Life-size Cardboard Cut-out, made quite an impression on us, even as 2D Han Solo, the introduction of a third character created a completely new dynamic. So often over the years, the ‘Significant Other’ character had been an unseen, offstage character. This brought it onstage and gave us an idea.
For our fifth year as a company, we wanted to go bigger, and Significant Other – Plus One made that a possibility. Having a cast of three brought more conflict, and having that Significant Other onstage, gave them a voice. This addition was one of our favourite reveals in the Inspiration session. On the day, we’d got the teams all settled and then announced the plus ones, to an astonished reaction. This year served up one of our most memorable musicals, starring our brilliant associate Antonia, to whom I had the joy of giving the direction, ‘channel your inner Liza’.
“Last year we took another leap of faith. We graduated from the 80-seat Tristan Bates to the 150-seat Vaults Theatre”
Now, having three actors has become the standard. It’s also become part of our modus operandi to bring back a few brilliant people from previous years – if nothing else, this adds a level of reassurance to everyone that the seemingly impossible can be done. It was also in this fifth year that we ventured up north to the Oldham Coliseum and worked with local artists on Significant Other – Relationship Status. This experience provided further confirmation for us that the format really worked.
Last year we took another leap of faith. We graduated from the 80-seat Tristan Bates to the 150-seat Vaults Theatre under Waterloo Station. Again, we wanted to be bigger, but we also wanted to try and connect the plays even more than before, to really give the audience a sense of a cohesive evening of theatre rather than just a disjointed night of shorts.
The idea of the outside came fairly early and the weather-related titles soon after that. As the plays started to come in, we could see the connections made during the reading and dramaturgy that takes place in the first five days, and Serena and I became excited as the themes emerged. We began to imagine all the plays taking place in the same universe, and subtly we tweaked a few character names and helped the writers lay Easter eggs for our audience. Then, in a burst of inspiration, we staged an opening where, one by one, the characters all appear, giving us a glimpse of what’s to come.
That opening montage stayed with me and led to another new idea. What if we set all the plays in a specific time and place? A place where lots of different people mix and meet? What if we set in a time when our Prime Minister told us ‘there is no such thing as society’?
So that brings us to 2018 and Significant Other, Inc. This year we tell 10 stories all set in the fictional factory of Reseal9 on one day in 1988. We’ve never attempted anything like it before. But if Significant Other is all about connections, it’s about time it was all connected.
We hope you’ll come and see it – hey, you might even want to be in it!