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A trip on the play bus

When does a camper pray for rain? When he is staging a show on the cheap at the Edinburgh festival. Susan Young reports

Hywel Roberts and his family are camping in Edinburgh for the next three weeks... and he's hoping for rain. Quite a lot of it. "Oh, you want it to rain if you're putting on an Edinburgh show," he says cheerfully. "It drives people in off the streets."

Hywel, head of drama at Kingstone School in Barnsley, is finding inventive and cheap ways of fulfilling his ambition of taking his own play to the festival. The major cost, hiring the venue for two and a half weeks, has been met by the revival of a student loan bank account which was mostly paid off years ago.

Actors who have been recruited via a Fringe festival bulletin board are performing for free in the hope that a talent spotter will set them on the path for stardom. And accommodation, which would usually gobble up another few hundred pounds a week, is largely being covered for a fiver a night each for a couple of family-sized tents. The "producer", David Whitaker, a colleague and old friend of Hywel, is taking his camper van. And then there's the all important budget for publicity: the flyers, stunts, and hours of graft that get bums on seats.

"My friends organised a race night and raised pound;750, which is going to pay for a lot of publicity," says Hywel. "They show a DVD of races and people bet. A maths teacher sorted out all the betting. I wasn't even there my mother-in-law passed away and I was at her funeral that day. It's been difficult but people have just stepped up to the plate. It's the camaraderie of teachers and it's been brilliant."

Though Hywel and his musician wife Maria Lynch have been performing for years, their Edinburgh trip was born after he won a BBC writers' competition, the Northern Exposure initiative. The prize was a professional reading, before an audience, of his play, Boy and his Axe.

"My head kindly gave me a couple of days off with the actors while they rehearsed, which was brilliant professional development," says Hywel. "But then the play was just sitting there in a drawer. A lot of friends and colleagues had come to see it, and some of them said I should take it to Edinburgh."

So last August, Hywel and David Whitaker took themselves to the festival, sitting in on all the events they could find about staging a play at the Fringe. And then they started organising themselves, beginning with where to put it on. "It's like a courting process. You flirt with different venues, they flirt with you."

Time is measured in minutes: Hywel and David have 100 minutes a day in their 50-seat venue at the Edinburgh College of Art. This will cost them pound;1,800 for two and a half weeks. The length of the run is a careful compromise between having the show on long enough to recoup expenses through ticket sales, and the potential difficulty of living in a tent with Hywel and Maria's one-year-old son.

Not only has Hywel had "brilliant" support from his school and his colleagues, his job has provided much of the inspiration for his prize-winning play.

Boy and his Axe was inspired, but not based upon, a true story. "There was this lad who didn't come to school one day because his house had been burgled. He was sitting outside all day, with a baseball bat, in case the burglars came back for the things they couldn't carry." Additional details and characterisations came from David, whose support ranges from the purely practical (organising insurance cover for the Edinburgh expedition) to telling tales of teaching to his friend.

In the play, five teenagers break into their high school for a little light robbery, leaving one 15-year-old, Spanner, as lookout. Then the caretaker the stuff of urban myths arrives. And he's bent on revenge. "It's about growing up and youth and real life, fantasy and family and things like that," says Hywel. It's also full of authentic teen language, which is why he told his GCSE pupils that it was on for a couple of pre-festival performances in Barnsley but none of his younger pupils.

Hywel's hopes for Edinburgh involve "a couple of good reviews" which would help to fill his venue and mean he might at least break even. And after that? "Maybe if it did well it might lead to bigger things."

Boy and his Axe will be at Sweet at Edinburgh College of Art (venue 186), August 3 to 19. Hywel's website is

Hywel's tips for taking your show to Edinburgh

Flirt with the venues

Get planning as soon as you can, and make sure you've got lots of support from friends

Find a friend with a camper van

Make sure you've got some money

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