How eight new works crossed the Atlantic for “Brits Off Broadway.”

'The Hired Man'

'The Hired Man'

Scottish actor Richard Colvin calls New York City – where he appears this summer in the British musical The Hired Man at Off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters – “the Graceland of musical theatre.” He says that bringing a small musical about rural, turn-of-the-century English coal miners to a theatre not far from the bombast of Broadway is intimidating, but also “the most exciting thing I’ve done in my career so far.”

The Hired Man is one of the eight offerings in the fifth annual Brits Off Broadway festival, which runs through June 29. The festival was created by Elysabeth Kleinhans and Peter Tear, the artistic director and executive producer of 59E59 Theaters, and it’s what the name implies: shows from England, Scotland, and Wales invited to make their U.S. premieres. When 59E59 opened five years ago, the first Brits Off Broadway festival served as its unofficial christening. It is now, says Kleinhans, part of the venue’s core identity.

Searching for works for this year’s festival, Kleinhans saw more than 50 shows at the 2007 Edinburgh International Festival and Festival Fringe, and she selected two of them, Yellow Moon and Damascus, both by David Grieg. A third show, Torben Betts’ The Unconquered, was chosen for last year’s Brits Off Broadway, but scheduling conflicts intervened. Other interested theatre companies were encouraged to send Kleinhans scripts and reviews for consideration, and the festival’s lineup was finalized earlier this year.

Yellow Moon, a fast-paced Bonnie and Clyde-style tale of two Scottish teenagers on the run, was written for Glasgow’s TAG Theatre Company (part of the Citizens’ Theatre) to be performed by teenagers. As part of Brits Off Broadway, teenagers from the five boroughs have been seeing it, much to Grieg’s delight. “That’s really thrilling to me,” he says, “to think that something I wrote for Scottish teenagers could travel and speak to teenagers in New York.”

'Yellow Moon'

'Yellow Moon'

Of course, bringing eight shows over from the U.K. couldn’t happen without complications. While six of the shows had no customs or immigration problems, there were enough last-minute setbacks for two to create some behind-the-scenes drama, says Kleinhans. But, she adds, “none of these shows would come to New York under any other circumstances. Some of these companies are very small companies, and part of what we’re here for is just that. But frequently it comes down to the wire.”

Consider the cast and crew of The Unconquered, presented by Edinburgh’s Stellar Quines Theatre Company, who have been looking forward to their New York trip since last year and who had their passports delivered to them at the airport just in time to catch their flight. In addition, says director Muriel Romanes, “We’ve been having some problems with the set: It’s not here yet. Not all of it. We got the people here – that’s the amazing thing.” So two days before opening, set designer Keith McIntyre was busy painting giant cardboard flats to re-create the parts of the set still stuck in customs limbo.

Meanwhile, one of the leads in Damascus, Khalid Laith, isn’t a British citizen – he was born in Saudi Arabia and holds a passport from Bahrain. Although he is a member of British Equity and has been approved by it and its American counterpart to perform in New York, his immigration approval was still pending just days before the show’s opening. The paperwork was finally approved, but opening night had to be postponed.

When an event such as the Edinburgh International Festival hosts work from all over the world, it means many shows get lost in the crowd. Not only does Brits Off Broadway give small companies another chance to be seen, but it exposes American audiences to a playwright or theatre group they’ve probably never heard of. One production in this year’s festival, Blink, a ripped-from-the-headlines drama by Ian Rowlands about child abuse at a Welsh-language school, is the first-ever production by Wales’ new F.A.B. Theatre.

The Hired Man, from Nottingham’s New Perspectives Theatre Company – Brits Off Broadway’s first musical – previously toured areas of the northern English countryside that rarely, if ever, see professional theatre. “In one of the little village halls,” Colvin remembers, “we walked on stage and started performing, and among all these old northern ladies there was a man sitting in a fantastic suit and shades, right in the middle of the auditorium.” That turned out to be Tear. Still, Colvin says he was surprised The Hired Man was selected, because “you look at the huge breadth of fantastic drama that goes on in this country, and I just assumed the competition was going to be greater than our little production.”

“The point of this, I suppose,” says Yellow Moon director Guy Hollands, “is to bring something that’s representative of the culture now” in the U.K. Adds Alexandra Mathie, one of the actors in The Unconquered, “One of the joys of coming here and doing this is that you are bringing work that wouldn’t necessarily be seen by Americans, either by the general public or people in the profession, because they’re small nonprofit companies that were invited to have an artistic exchange across the water. I can’t think of an equivalent in Britain, but that’s a shame.”

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