Think your Metro ride over to Fort Fringe took awhile? Alan Harris will one-up you – he’s come over from Wales for the run of his new play Marsha.
With him is Welsh actress Julia Thomas, who plays the title character: a mysterious eight-year-old girl who makes her way through her village meeting various characters, each of whom have very different reactions to her.
“For us, Marsha seems like a normal girl,” says Thomas. “When you’re working on a character, you have to normalize them. So we have to remind ourselves that some of the events in the story are surprising, shocking, unusual… People find it funny and also upsetting. We’re balancing this strange quirky sort of humor with things that catch you by surprise.”
It’s clear that Marsha strikes an unusual tone. So where does the humor come from?
“From a strangeness,” Thomas says. “A strangeness of being, a strangeness of humanity. Marsha isn’t trying to be clever – she just says exactly what she thinks. She doesn’t always know the truth, but there’s truth in what she says. People who are like that, particularly young people, can be very endearing”.
Marsha’s life, Harris explains, is complicated by her upbringing. “Some parents keep their children away from the outside world. They want to be able to influence exactly what their children are exposed to. Marsha has gone through this to the extreme. She’s not allowed outdoors. Everything is controlled. So she has her own imagination to create a world with, which is what she does.”
Harris is a new play writing tutor at Sherman Cymru, a performing arts center in Cardiff and one of the hottest hubs for Welsh theatre. The theatre has produced his plays in addition to providing him with the resources to mentor other Welsh playwrights. Since Sherman Cymru has previously come over to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and because his good friend and fellow playwright Tracy Harris (no relation) came to Capital Fringe for her show The Cloak Room in 2010, team Wales decided to send Harris and Thomas over to produce his newest play, with some assistance from the Arts Council of Wales.
The two co-direct and co-produce this one. The demands have not been insignificant. “For the past six or seven years I’ve been writing plays for specific theatres,” Harris says. “This is the first time I’ve been responsible for bringing a show to a festival, along with Julia. So the logistics, marketing… the degree of all of that was a bit surprising. And we didn’t know anybody in Washington at all.”
Fortunately, they were able to secure veteran Fringe staffer Zoia Wiseman as Stage Manager, assisted by Colin Manning. “To have local talent working on the show as well has been a massive help. Without that local knowledge and support we might have struggled.”
The form of the play, fortunately, is simple: one actor telling a story.
“Much of the work we did on this in Wales was on developing the play into a one-woman show,” he says.
I ask them about the size of the theater scene in Wales. It’s not massive, Harris suggests. “I suspect it’s like DC, in that when you go to the theatre you tend to either know somebody there, or you know somebody that a friend knows. Two degrees of separation at the most.”
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But it’s growing quickly. The National Theatre of Wales has built up a positive reputation since it was founded a mere three years ago. That company is building-less, which means doing site-specific work all over Wales in various venues. “They’re using the whole of Wales as a theatre, really,” Harris says. “And I think working with them has helped me to not be afraid of bringing theatre into different spaces. I think having a national theatre has helped Welsh artists feel like we can spread our wings a bit. Theatre in Wales has been starting to travel abroad.”
“Things are blossoming. It’s just starting up,” he adds. “I think we’re becoming more aware as a nation. More confident.”
“We’re moving away from a period of time when we were doing a lot of plays about being Welsh,” says Thomas. Our plays these days look more largely at being human, I think.”
And it’s human questions that root the drama of Marsha.
“We want to keep audiences guessing the whole time about what the different planes of truth are… what’s real and what’s only in Marsha’s mind. We want to keep people guessing. We don’t want to do the audience’s work for them. That’s the most important thing for us – to respect the audience and the experience they need to have.”
– Fringe writers Hunter Styles and Michael Kelly collaborated on this article. —
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