The 24 Hour Plays

The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices is theatre for the brave. It is a project run by Old Vic New Voices (the Education, Community and Talent arm of The Old Vic Theatre) in collaboration with The 24 Hour Play Company and IdeasTap. A company of emerging actors, writers, producers and directors comes together to create and perform six brand new plays in just 24 hours, staging them on The Old Vic’s legendary 193-year-old stage. That’s a frightening prospect – for both the artists and the audience.

They do say that fortune favours the brave, though, and that certainly seems to be true in the case of The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices. Previous participants have gone on to secure agents, contracts and commissions, and include the Olivier Award winning playwright Nick Payne (Constellations at The Royal Court) and actor Vanessa Kirby (The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman and the BBC’s Great Expectations). To be part of The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices ensemble is a coveted position but this year just 20 actors, six producers, six writers and six directors have been selected.

These chosen few will work together to create the shows from scratch in one day. The high pressure of this environment means that there is little time for self-criticism and doubt; inevitably working in such a concentrated and intense atmosphere only helps to foster raw creativity and allow it to flourish. New stories emerge and fresh voices are brought to light through the process; something that is at the heart of The Old Vic. The theatre is committed to new theatre and young theatre-makers, and Steve Winter was brought over from The Tricycle Theatre to become Director of Old Vic New Voices, a programme specifically aimed at encouraging new involvement in theatre-making. He explains: “It’s what we’re all about. When Kevin Spacey first came to The Old Vic he was completely clear about wanting to develop talent and that’s exactly what we’ve done. We believe wholeheartedly in the new even though we’re ‘old’.”

In fact, age seems to bear increasingly less relevance to the concept of “new voices” as more and more people seem to be making the move to a career in theatre at a later stage. The reasons for this are manifold and can only be estimated. There’s the increase in tuition fees at universities, which means many have had to save to study or perhaps felt obliged to spend a few years paying off debts; there’s also less job loyalty, with people more able to change careers or to start out on their own. The recession has had a part to play as well: with less job security, or perhaps no jobs at all, there’s been no solid reason for people not to pursue a path that might otherwise be seen as a risk.

The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices has embraced this new wave of theatremakers and this year extended the upper age limit for the project from 25 to 30 years: “It will make for a fun dynamic with 18 year olds working with 30 year olds because that is quite a large age gap and life experiences are somewhat different.” If anything it is likely to bring a richer vein to the proceedings, but if age isn’t that important in creating new work, then what is? Winter suggests that the main requirements from participants are “talent, fearlessness, strong work ethic and the ability to get on with people.”

He also states that there has to be “a degree of selflessness”. There is no telling what could happen in the thick of the moment and it might be that a supporting role is needed rather than a leading one. This is vital and, for Winter: “It epitomises what the industry should be about, which is the awareness of one another and how we all contribute. Collaboration is the lifeblood of British theatre.” The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices encourages and accelerates the process of sharing and this often leads to fantastic alliances, many of which have continued after the event. Winter agrees: “It characterises our approach because it is extreme creativity in which you learn about yourself and the process as well as making creative partnerships that will last a lifetime.”

It seems that the bravery involved in committing to such an intense process pays off; not only do the participants meet others amongst their group to work with in the future but the audience also often includes industry professionals such as theatre programmers, filmmakers, casting directors and literary managers. For the audience there is an element of fear involved as well. Live theatre always carries that edge of uncertainty but when the work on display was just made that afternoon, this is amplified. Of course, this is also the appeal behind a production such as The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices: “You’re not sure what you’re going to get so it can swing wildly from super funny to something quite cerebral. But it’s also appealing because people are putting themselves on the line in front of an audience of 1000 people, so there’s a mixture of ‘Come on, impress us’ and ‘My God I admire them for trying.’ ”

For the artists, throwing themselves into the project allows them to grow in confidence and learn important lessons about creativity. Having to put together a production in such a short space of time means that fears and criticisms have to be put aside and collaborators have to run with ideas that may seem mad, stupid or just plain bad. The goal is reduced to the idea of producing something simply in order that the curtains don’t open on an empty stage. So often people will hesitate to create out of the fear that their creation does not live up to expectations and, in the end, that is the beauty of The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices: six plays will be produced in 24 hours and the actors will get on stage and survive.

Saying that, it is assumed that the plays will be very good but it seems impossible that they wouldn’t be if the artists have embraced the concept fully. Even if elements have to be improvised in the moment or the storyline falls apart, that is part of the performance so, as long as the performers don’t simply stop, the productions can still be enjoyable. The audience knows the premise behind the works so that, in itself, becomes part of the “theatre.” Not only are they watching the story told through the play the artists have created but also the story of these artists putting together a work in an intensely short period of time. If mistakes occur or difficulties arise then these simply become aspects of the latter plotline.

Winter talks about one occasion in rehearsals when the actors turned up with props to inspire the writers, and many of them sang and danced as well: “On the Saturday night when everyone turned up with a prop and story, it was like something from Glee. That meet and greet was like a performance in itself. Jason Isaacs was hosting for us that year, and was kind enough to attend the Saturday night. He was just blown away.”

The presence of actor Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter) is not unusual. Many celebrities are involved with The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices, and The Old Vic even runs a 24 Hour Plays Celebrity Gala. Previous participants and hosts have included Gael García Bernal, Jim Broadbent, Rob Brydon, Saffron Burrows, John Cleese, Lily Cole and Richard Curtis among many, many more. The project offers so much growth and fun that even those already successful in their chosen theatrical field can find things to learn from it. In December this year, The Old Vic will host The 24 Hour Musicals Celebrity Gala for the first time.

Daring and surprising, The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices captures the best of live theatre and this year promises another startling show. The 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices will be performed at The Old Vic on the weekend of 27 and 28 October. For more information, details and tickets please visit

Bryony Byrne