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Thespian spirit of Coward lives on

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The indelible popular image of Noël Coward as a showman, bon vivant and epigram-dropping wit too often overshadows his remarkable skills as a dramatist.

The one-time Bermuda resident was one of the most enduring and successful playwrights of his era — a period which extended from the 1920s right through the early 1960s.

Coward's staying power could, in large measure, be put down to his respect for the dramatic form and his solid craftsmanship.

Hugely versatile in terms of subject matter, his plays ranged from musicals and light comedies as bubbly as newly uncorked champagne bottles to poignant dramas touching on everything from frustrated love to drug abuse.

But no matter how varied the material, his plays always adhered to a precise format. Whether the setting was a Riviera hotel suite or the coffee shop at a suburban English railway station, he started with familiar characters in familiar settings — and then gently prodded the narrative in entirely unexpected directions.

These abrupt departures from the norm invariably led to plots which developed organically from the characters' personalities, circumstances and environments.

Today the reverence Coward demonstrated for the rules of dramatic construction clearly lives on in his former adopted island home.

In fact the disorganised, free-associative approach to writing plays favoured by some contemporary dramatists is conspicuous by its complete absence from the line-up of the 2016 Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society's Famous For 15 Minutes festival.

Expressly intended to encourage and promote Bermuda writers, Famous For 15 Minutes has been staged annually at the BMDS Daylesford Theatre since 2002. The six one-act plays chosen for production this year, The Underlying Truth, The Deep End, Home Visits, Pecking Order, Thank You For Riding and Fool's Mate, were selected from dozens submitted for consideration. And they are all models of economic storytelling, underpinned by clarity, intelligence and immediacy.

Prospective playwrights must write within certain parameters set by BMDS. Among them: the scripts can feature no more than four actors, must have minimal sets, scene changes and special effects and can be no more than 15 minutes in length — hence the festival's name.

Within these limitations has emerged an annual programme which tends to be as rich in imagination as it is overflowing with individuality. This year is no exception.

Precisely structured and executed, the plays by the team of Justine Foster & Julia Pitt, Adam Gauntlett, W.M. Greig, Owain Johnston, Liz Jones and Susanne Notman are widely diverse in terms of style, theme and content.

They boast settings ranging from the claustrophobic interior of a bathysphere suspended hundreds of feet beneath the sea off the coast of 1920s Bermuda to a chessboard.

Characters run the gamut from a robotic trial lawyer with unsuspected hidden depths to a woman who steps back in time, coming to know her mother for the first time. And subjects encompass everything from the power and idiosyncrasies of mother love to the equally complex field of romantic love.

The winner of Famous For 15 Minutes' Golden Inkwell Award is chosen based entirely on the merits of the writing and will be announced on the closing night of this year's festival, Saturday, August 20.

Sponsorship by Washington Properties allows for the net proceeds of ticket sales from Famous 15 Minutes to be donated to the BMDS Charitable Trust.

The Trust awards bursaries to Bermuda university students pursuing degrees in the performing arts and related fields, to the Bermuda School of Music bursary programme, contributions back to BMDS for equipment and workshops and other gifts designed to promote theatre in Bermuda. Since being established in 2001, the Trust has awarded more than $300,000 in endowments.

In closing it's worth noting Noël Coward also maintained that no matter how earnest or serious the subject, a playwright could never forget his primary role was to entertain — not lecture — an audience.

“If by any chance a playwright wishes to express a political opinion or a moral opinion or a philosophy, he must be a good enough craftsman to do it with so much spice of entertainment in it that the public get the message without being aware of it,” he once advised.

And he was, once again, right. Messages, morals and meanings should be communicated to audiences almost subliminally: they need not be billboarded. If you write convincingly enough, this will usually happen in an unobtrusive, matter-of-course way.

This is another rule the Famous For 15 Minutes playwrights have rigorously stuck to.

While this year's programme is made up of some unusually thoughtful and thought-provoking works, the spice of entertainment is used deftly throughout to give flavour and zest to what, in some instances, could have been the most sober subject matter.

Famous For 15 Minutes opened at the BMDS Daylesford Theatre on August 11. It continues this week from Wednesday, August 17 to Saturday, August 20. To book tickets, please go to Premier Tickets at www.ptix.bm

Emily Ross and Charles Doyle acting in Thank You For Riding by W.M. Greig
Back row, Alan Brooks and Nicola Flood, and, front, Gabriel Frith and Chinyere Nwasike acting in Fool's Mate by Adam Gauntlett
Patricka Ferguson, nurse, Christina Frith and Claudia Hall in Home Visits by Liz Jones
Eveylyn MacGregor, Izabella Arnold and Deborah Pharoah-Williams in Pecking Order

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Published August 15, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 15, 2016 at 2:09 am)

Thespian spirit of Coward lives on

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