Halesworth waits for a tidal wave of new writing talent at HighTide

Peddling one of the premiere's featured in this year's HighTide Festival

Peddling one of the premiere's featured in this year's HighTide Festival - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s new writing theatre festival, HighTide, marks its eighth anniversary next week when, for ten days, Halesworth becomes one of the centres of the theatre-going world.

Steven Atkinson, artistic director of HighTide, the new theatre writing festival at Halesworth

Steven Atkinson, artistic director of HighTide, the new theatre writing festival at Halesworth - Credit: Archant

Steven Atkinson, below, HighTide’s founder and artistic director, said that the 2014 programme was a balance of previous writers returning to continue their journey up the theatre ladder and talented new faces looking to break into the business.

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc which is being directed by Michael Boyd at the HighTide Festival in Hale

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc which is being directed by Michael Boyd at the HighTide Festival in Halesworth - Credit: Archant

This year Steven and his team have had to read up to 1,000 scripts to come up with the four world premieres they will be staging this year and will be hosting rehearsed readings of a further three new works and a revue of a series of new plays submitted as part of the Escalator: East To Edinburgh project.

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc which is being directed by Michael Boyd at the HighTide Festival in Hale

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc which is being directed by Michael Boyd at the HighTide Festival in Halesworth - Credit: Archant

Steven has also appointed ten artistic associates including rising theatre-makers Blanche McIntyre, Prasanna Puwanarajah and Ella Hickson who help shift through the rising tide of scripts submitted to them looking for approval and hopefully a fully-staged production.

HighTide bar at The Cut, Halesworth

HighTide bar at The Cut, Halesworth - Credit: Archant

Being championed by HighTide does help launch careers. This year Steven is not only providing the European premiere for an off-Broadway critical smash, The Big Meal, but a HighTide world premiere, Peddling by Harry Melling, which has already secured a production slot at New York’s 59E59 theatre before an actor has set foot on stage.

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He said that they were equally thrilled by the fact that they have former RSC director Michael Boyd bringing Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal to Suffolk to have its European premiere. “Michael Boyd is one of the best theatre directors in the country, so to have him working in Halesworth is just so exciting. To have such a major director tackling such an ambitious, incredibly successful play, direct from America, it’s just breathtaking. Lots of people wanted to stage it but we got in there first, so we’re really excited by that and it reflects the quality and the standing that HighTide now has that it can compete with the best events around the country.

“Just as Snape attracts the world’s best musicians, we want to attract the world’s best theatre-makers to Suffolk.”

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Among these is playwright Nick Payne who contributed Switzerland and The Pitch to HighTide in 2008. “Since his first HighTide appearance he has gone on to conquer the world. He has a play running in New York with Jake Gyllenhaal and Constellations, a play which premiered at The Royal Court earlier this year, starring Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, is transferring to the West End. He’s still only 28 and yet he is very definitely the man of the moment. We invited him back to HighTide because it’s good to see how a writer develops. He’s a very different person now and it’s good to see how he continues to evolve as a writer, to allow us to follow his development.”

This year’s play, Incognito, delves into Albert Einstein’s brain and it combines neuroscience with theatre. It’s fun, engaging, it’s clever and ambitious and it’s terribly theatrical. It will be a good night.”

The fourth premiere of this year’s festival is The Girl’s Guide To Saving The World by first time writer Elinor Cook, who Steven believes is “one to watch”. Elinor’s play is described as a warm comedy about feminism today and how you manage the eternal battle between career and family life.

This year the festival is also sponsoring a new play award in conjunction with Northampton’s Royal & Derngate which will examine life outside of our major cities. Steven Atkinson said that they are looking to commission a new play which explores and has its roots in Britain’s rural towns and communities.

“The strength of HighTide is that the plays they champion reflect the concerns of contemporary society. They hold up a mirror to our world and not only do we see ourselves in the reflection but we also see our community there and the world at large.”

The festival will also be welcoming back Mike Daisey, who staged a critically acclaimed production of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at HighTide in 2012. He’s returning with an epic 29-part monologue cycle, All The Faces Of The Moon, which will be presented as a free play for headsets.

“We are also staging a rehearsed reading of I’m Not Here Right Now by Thomas Eccleshare, who had a huge hit with Pastoral last year, so it’s a case of getting the balance right of offering opportunities to new writers and inviting back people who have a relationship with the festival and seeing how they mature and grow as theatremakers.”

This year HighTide is very much about destroying false barriers, misconceptions and making new plays and contemporary theatre accessible for all. This focus is reflected by the fact that the dates for the 2014 festival have been brought forward by a month to allow younger audiences to attend without the event clashing with A- level and university exams.

Also appearing at this year’s HighTide are Eastern Angles who will be staging their current production Palm Wine and Stout while Pulse curators China Plate will be performing You’re Not Like Other Girls, Chrissy by Caroline Horton and will be presenting Confirmation, a work in progress, by Chris Thorpe. Among the star guests taking part in theatre panels are Michael Gambon, David Hare, Kate Mosse, Anthony Horowitz, Libby Purves and Michael Billington.

HighTide is based at the Halesworth Cut Arts Centre and runs from April 10-19.

Harry Potter actor Harry Melling, best known for playing the beastly Dudley in the film series, is making his debut as a playwright at this year’s festival. His play Peddling has already been picked up by New York’s 59E59 theatre which will be staging a production immediately after the HighTide run.

Speaking from rehearsals Harry said that seeing the play come alive is the realisation of a long-held dream. “While I was growing up we had these door-to-door salesmen – or rather boys – and they used to knock our door and try and sell us household cleaning materials and we were usually very generous to them but on one occasion my dad refused a sale.

“He said: ‘No thank you, we’re fine.’ and the lad at first was polite and started walking away but then something happened. He stopped and he just lost it. He flipped. He threw his basket on the floor, bent down, picked up some stones from the gravel path and started throwing them at the house.

“It must be the end of a very long day and we were the final straw. I was eight or so at the time and I remember being upstairs and looking down on him and thinking about who he was, where he had come from and what his life was like. And it’s pretty much stayed with me. As I’ve got older his whole character continues to fascinate me. I want to know what his dreams are and what he wants to be. So I have always wanted to find him again and ask these questions, so I have done that through the play.”

Harry has not only written Peddling he is also starring in it. He’s been directed by Steven Atkinson which he says is a huge relief because he brings an extra pair of eyes and years of experience to what has been a very personal project.

“It’s been quite a hideous journey in some respects writing a play, which you are going to be in and it’s a one-man play doesn’t give you a lot of scope to bounce off people and get someone else’s opinion so having Steven work on it has been a god-send. He can ask those awkward questions like ‘what does that mean?”

He said that Peddling was definitely a one-man play rather than just an extended monologue. “It has the structure of a play and it takes the audience on a journey into the world of another human being.”

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc is the first show to be directed by former RSC artistic director Michael Boyd. It stars Diana Quick and follows several generations of one family as they interact over a meal at a New York restaurant.

He said that it was important that the play entertained and was accessible. “I think there is a place for quite challenging and demanding work but I am not such a fan of work that doesn’t care about its audience at all.

“The Big Meal combines a bold experimentalism with a very recognisable tradition of American family drama that goes from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams to now. It’s a classic American drama while also being a Russian Constructivist masterpiece. It marries the two brilliantly.

“The characters stretch from being in their late 80s-90s down to the youngest who is three or four. Having that range of ages allows you great freedom to talk about anything. It’s great to see that onstage because that’s what our lives are like.”

He said that he was attracted to working at HighTide because of it’s love of new writing but also because when he was at the Royal Shakespeare Company he was besieged with dozens of assistant directors asking for permission to go off and direct something at HighTide. “I was interested in finding out what this festival was that so energised them and was so taken by what I found that I wanted to do something too.”

He said that part of HighTide was championing new work and renewing the pot of plays that was available to theatres but from an audience’s point of view there was still the childlike thrill of seeing a good, new play before anyone else.

“I still love it when you see a national critic raving about a new play opening in London and then you can blithely say: ‘Oh, I saw that at HighTide last year.’ That has happened on a couple of occasions because these plays are so good that they do go on elsewhere. They have a life beyond the festival in Suffolk.

“It’s really about re-discovering the enjoyment of theatre – of being the first person to step out into the snow. I have spent a decade-and-a-half working predominantly on Shakespeare and classic plays. So, being surrounded by all these plays, all this fresh

young talent, I can really relate to the excitement of a child going out into the back garden after a fresh snowfall. “The joy of a festival like HighTide is that you just do not know what’s going to happen and that’s very exciting.

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