By: Amy Freeman
March 4, 2012
“I was having the conversation with people in the theater industry, about how to get new audiences into the theater. And I thought, the trouble is, we’re all having this conversation amongst ourselves. Nobody’s having this conversation with people who don’t go to the theater.”—Emma Gibson
Over in Scotland, a new format of play has become a phenomenon. “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” gives audiences a pint of beer, a piece of pie and a short, one-act play – all during lunch. According to the Guardian, “Play, Pie, Pint” will produce more shows this season than any other theater. Each runs for a week. Tiny Dynamite’s Emma Gibson, who hails from the UK, has brought the trend to the US, and more specifically, to Philadelphia. The format’s changed slightly – we prefer a slice of pizza to a meat pie and prefer to see our theater during happy hour than during our lunch breaks. Each show runs for just two performances. The first, four-play season occurred in October and the second is about to start this week.
In the spring of 2011, Tiny Dynamite was awarded a Knight Arts Challenge grant to bring “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” to American audiences.
I recently had the chance to speak with Emma about the funding process for the project, how it differs from the UK version, and just what is so great about the one-act play.
Amy Freeman: How did getting the Knights Art challenge grant shape the project? Do you think it impacted the process?
Emma Gibson: Yes, I do. It was amazing experience getting that award because I hadn’t thought seriously doing the project until they opened the submissions. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind, you know what, I think Philadelphia needs this. This is a thing that isn’t happening here and most other things are. I really wasn’t expecting to get anywhere and then it did, so I began to structure how it would actually work.
Kittson O'Neill and Kevin Bergen in "Being Norwegian" by David Greig, the first play in the new season of A Play, a Pie, and a Pint./Photo: David O'Connor
It was $25,000 from them, and I had to match it. It was craziness. We got the notification that we got the grant in April or May and I wanted to do the first season in October, so I had basically four months to not only create this whole project but also to raise $25,000. I’d never raised any money before and that was huge. But we did it, and in a way, having that challenge meant I gave the project a much greater budget than I would normally have given it. I think I would have cut edges had I not had that money and I must say it’s been so amazing to have had that amount of money. This current season that we’re producing, one of the directors said to me, can I get union actors? And I’m like, yeah, you know what? Let’s just go for the best people we can get while we have the money because that’s all going to change after March. So I think it made a massive difference, actually. It allowed the project to get started and to get audiences interested in a great way.
Amy: I guess this is a hypothetical question. When you think about not getting the grant, how would you have seen Play, Pie, Pint? Would you have done fewer plays or hired less expensive actors?
Emma: I would probably have changed the venue. When we did the second helping at Fergie’s, I found that it was much more cost-effective and I think that’s what we’d have done, found a pub and performed it there. Society Hill, I love it there, but it’s really expensive to rent.
I wouldn’t have been able to employ union actors. I think I’d have done as many plays. Over here, one of the feedbacks I’ve been getting is people have said, you don’t need to do so many plays. But I think we do. In the UK, certainly, they’re doing way more. But I think this idea that there is such choice. It’s like a mini-season. What normal companies do in a year, we do in four weeks and there’s so much to choose from, they don’t last very long so the value is greater. So I think I would have done four.
Amy: What you were saying about venue leads into another question. So, you did it first at Society Hill, which is a theater, then you did it at Fergie’s, an actual pub. So was it different?
Emma: It was really interesting. Because when we decided to look for venues, I’d gone to Fergie’s and I thought, no, not sure about this, it’s not nice enough. I’m a real sucker for lights and sound and theaters just giving me a helping hand, so when we went first to Society Hill, Fergie was enormously supportive, came to every show. The director of “Peaches and Regalia” (the first play performed in the series) said you know, I think it would really work there [at Fergie’s]. So we tried it and it was amazing.
It almost worked better, I think. It was much more intimate. There were communal tables, so you just kind of ate and watched together. You met strangers. It had a very different feel. We served up pot pies instead of pizza, which was also much nicer, I think.
The show lost some of its nuance. On some nights, there was a lot of sound from downstairs, so the actors had to project. Artistically, it lost a little, but as far as entertainment went, the audiences loved it and we sold out every night.
Amy: Brecht would talk about how people should smoke cigars during shows, would you say it was more like that?
Emma: That’s so great. It was. At Society Hill, nobody really got up and went and got another drink. I would have been angry if they had. Whereas at Fergie’s, the first night we went on there, that’s exactly what happened. When people had finished their pint, they got up and walked in front of everybody, walked in front of the state, went and got their drink. The waitresses were milling in and out. I was getting really wound up by this. I was sitting there, thinking, ‘why aren’t they respecting the actors?’ Then I realized that it was the whole point of this. That they had this freedom and were much more relaxed. Everyone just really enjoyed that informality. I don’t know about the cigars, though.
Amy: How does this compare to the UK version?
Emma: What British pub theater actually is, compared to what we’re putting on, is miles apart. In England, I actually don’t know Scotland, I know in London, you have all these pubs. You buy your pint, and then you go downstairs to a very tiny, claustrophobic black box space and everyone drinks and watches the show. They don’t have to pay that much for rental, because they are making so much from the bar. That’s real pub theater. But I wanted to present something that people would think “oh, that’s British.” But it isn’t the same in anyway. But then again, I think it’s also very different from what they’re shown here.
Amy: Would you ever want it to go in that direction, where it was in a proper pub?
Emma: I would love it to have a home. We’re talking at the moment for two directions for it. I like the idea that it has the Society Hill initial run and then can go off to Fergie’s, then we’re going to try to get it to the Main Line. So it can travel and the shows are constantly fluid and can go anywhere. But ideally, it’d be amazing for it to have its own home, have a place with a kitchen so that we could do proper English meat pies. That would be the big dream. I just don’t see that happening at the moment.
Amy: Going off from that, you work with a couple other companies. You worked with Inis Nua, Iron Age. Do you think eventually you’d like it to be a theater community thing versus a Tiny Dynamite thing?
Emma: I think you always have to have somebody super-producing, just to organize the whole thing. The whole concept was to come into the community here in Philadelphia and say, this is for everybody. The different theater companies obviously communicate with each other and the time of day we’re doing it means that nobody’s in competition with anybody else, so it’s really just trying to create a community. People have a chance to reach out to new audiences, to try out new work, to work with new actors. It’s very low risk for them. It doesn’t cost them anything.
Amy: I read the grant online. It said that you wanted to reach a wider theater audience. Did you notice anyone for whom this was their first foray into theater?
Emma: Yeah, and I think that will grow as well. Absolutly. I truly was not expecting to sell that many seats. I’ve done two Fringe shows and honest-to-god, I knew everyone in the audience. You know, we were lucky to get 20 people. I always keep my expectations low. I care so about the project that I couldn’t bear the thought of people not seeing it.
But we did get a lot of press and that brought in people. And I knew hardly anybody in the audience. There were interesting groups. We had one group that came to Fergie’s who were a meet-up group. They were a group of women who just like going out and trying new things. They’d seen it in the Philadelphia Inquirer and thought, oh let’s try that for our next meet-up. We had a lot of people who certainly weren’t big theater buffs.
I was having the conversation with people in the theater industry, about how to get new audiences into the theater. And I thought, the trouble is, we’re all having this conversation amongst ourselves. Nobody’s having this conversation with people who don’t go to the theater.
I was on the train with my husband and we bumped into this guy who runs a pub in Malvern, really nice guy. We were telling him about the project. And he said, I’ve never been to the theater. And his friends with him all said, they’d never been to the theater. These were just normal people from my community. Then he said, “you know what, if you were serving me a beer and it didn’t take too long or be boring, then I think I might come to that.” I was like, you know what, you’re the people we should be speaking to. Do you want it shorter? We can make it shorter? Do you want a beer with that? Then fine. We’ll give you a beer with that.
Amy: What would you say, besides the briefness of it, is the joy or appeal of a one-act?
Emma: I really like the one-act. I never knew how much I liked it until I started reading them more. They’re so immediate. There’s very little exposition, they have to come straight in there. The characters have to be defined in just a few lines. Generally, there has to be only one location and they have to have a full arc, a beginning, middle and end and a moment of revelation and an “a-ha!” moment. The ones that have that are so perfect. Which one did you see?
Marcia Saunders and Maureen Torsney Weir in "Fly Me to the Moon," by Marie Jones, the third play during the first season./Photo: Emma Gibson
Amy: “Peaches and Regalia.”
Emma: “Peaches” was the simplest of them all. We had one play called “Fly Me to the Moon,” by Marie Jones, which I thought was just the most brilliantly written one-act play. It takes you places. It was slightly longer than the others and it really went in incredible directions. So much happened in the plot. I think that’s what I loved. And I love not having an intermission. I would much rather not have an intermission when I go to the theater anyway. I would much rather sit there for two hours than have it broken. I like that about the one-act: there’s no intermission.
This is a problem I came up against this time. My ear is very tuned in to the British one-act. So I can hear when it works. I found it much harder hear American one-acts. It’s a very different style.
Amy: That was another question I had. What was the difference between UK plays and US plays?
Emma: I think there’s a lot of naturalism here. It’s funny, a lot of them are therapy plays. Characters trying to work out issues – issues plays. You can’t do that in a one-act, I don’t think. Most of the plays were in restaurants or diners or bedrooms. I think season two, we have restaruant, bedroom, bedroom. And then the last one is in a taxidermy shop, so we broke the mold there.
With the British plays, I have a head start, because I get a lot of plays sent to me from Òran Mór, who have already tried and tested the plays. So I’m reading stuff that’s already been sifted through. But when I’m reading American plays, I have no idea where to turn to get playwrights, so I’m reading everything, so it becomes harder. I don’t have the ear for it yet, for the American writers.
Amy: I have written down “drink and dramaturgy.” Does the choice of play change based on knowing that people will be having a beer with it?
Emma: No. I don’t think so. I find choosing the plays is interesting. There is one group of people who think I should be more experimental with my choices. But I don’t. I feel that I just want the best writing. I want the writer to be excellent. I don’t particularly care for people playing with form in this situation. I do normally in theater, I’m all for that and and I love to see it, but I don’t think this is the place.
Amy: One last question. On the Scottish website, they have a “critic’s circle.” Audience members can write a short review of each play. Do you think that’s something you’d want to bring in?
Emma: I certainly would. Don’t they get a bottle of malt?
Emma: I should think about doing that, shouldn’t I? Maybe having a slip in the program, or they should email them. I think that’s a great idea.
Amy: I really like that. I wanted to read some of the reviews, but they didn’t have any posted.
[At the time of the interview. There are a few reviews posted at time of publication.]
Emma: That’s another way to get new audiences too.
Amy: Do you think that would be intimidating for a person who’s never seen a show before? To ask them to write 100 words and they’ll get a bottle of whisky? Do you think that’s something would appeal to people because there’s an incentive?
Emma: I think just getting a bottle of whisky may be enough for someone to do it. It could even be kind of anonymous. It’s a great idea.
© Amy Freeman (March 4, 2012)
The second season of “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” begins March 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. 8th Street, Philadelphia, PA. The plays run Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the month of March. Tickets are $15 and include a beverage and a slice of pizza (pie).