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The Future of Theatre Writing

From The Writers Toolkit for Writing West Midlands.  THE FUTURE OF THEATRE WRITING:  The panel included Caroline Jester, Dramaturg for The Birmingham Rep; James Grieve, Joint Artistic Director for Paines Plough; Kate Chapman, Artistic Director for the Theatre Writing Partnership and playwright David Edgar.  Chaired Jonathan Davidson, Executive Director of Writing West Midlands.

David Edgar began by introducing us to his ACE-funded report on the state of new writing in theatre, Writ Large, undertaken by the British Theatre Consortium to look at RFOs (regularly funded organizations):  how much new writing they produced and how tickets had sold.  He brought us up to speed with earlier ACE reports on new writing in theatre. A report on the years 1970 – 1990 suggested that 15 – 20% of a theatre’s repertory was new plays.  I recall this report and that an astonishing 6% of new plays produced were by Alan Ayckbourn.  “That isn’t enough,” said Edgar.  Worse for statistics was the trend in 2001 for theatres to stop differentiating between new writing and classic plays in their reports, so that all writing was viewed the same.  Of course, new writing is more expensive to stage than royalty-free Shakespeare or indeed any existing play that didn’t need to be commissioned or developed.  Without a tracking system there was no incentive or imperative to invest in new writing.  “Anyway,” said Edgar, “all theatre writing, from Sophocles onward, was on the way out.  The future was in devised work, put together by actors, site-specific.”

For Writ Large the Consortium sent out a questionnaire to 89 RFO theatres.  65 replied, 73%.  “The result was staggering,” Edgar said.  “An increase from 20 to 40% of the repertoire was now new writing.”  And these plays were doing well at the box office if compared with other straight plays, though not compared to musicals and Christmas shows.  Furthermore, “New writing had broken out of ‘studio ghetto’”, meaning less than 200 seats.  The questionnaires showed that 9 out of 10 tickets to see a new play were for a theatre over 200 seats and the new writing was spreading into areas where it hadn’t existed, like translations, adaptations and writing for children, now increasingly commissioned rather than taken off the shelf.  The only downside, Edgar joked, is that writers are “still pissed off”; the culture of literary managers and dramaturgs and the financial risk of staging new work in big spaces puts additional pressure on writers who feel they are being “told how and what to write.”

Next, Caroline Jester told us about Birmingham Rep’s upcoming period of great change while the theatre is redeveloped until 2013, during which they will be working site-specifically and in partnership with libraries and galleries.  They will also be offering writers to respond to briefs for new commissions for community plays, adaptations, multi-media, collaborations and work for youth and children, rather than creating work for the studio space as has traditionally been the case.  Birmingham Rep will continue to offer training and masterclasses, but will be looking at new areas of work, with spoken word and physical theatre artists.  “We have to look constantly at how we work with writers, because how we tell stories is constantly changing.”  Birmingham Rep also noticed a gap in theatre writing for audiences aged 10 – 14 and a new joint attachment programme will invite writers to submit ideas for writing for younger audiences, in partnership with Unicorn Theatre.  They will also be launching a digital playwriting zone, an interactive tool for writers to use and theatre to develop projects.  Lastly, with the demise of Script, they will be providing a new unsolicited process for writers to submit their work.

James Grieve said Paines Plough was “fascinated and thrilled by Writ Large report.”  Paines Plough has invested in writers’ development for the last 36 years, traditionally offering a broad range of workshops for writers in addition to producing a couple plays a year.  Then they realized that “the best way to help writers is to put their play on.”  Now, Paines Plough invests 100% of their funding to producing work, so that they can do 9 productions a year instead of 2-3.  “Still,” he said, “that’s only 9 plays.”  James took a poll of the room asking how many were actively writing plays and how many had unproduced plays that had been rejected by a number of theatres.  Mine was not the only hand in the air. “Don’t wait for a theatre to do your play,” he charged, contentiously, “do it yourself.  The spirit of entrepreneurship is going to be more and more important in this economic climate.  To get ahead, you have to disinvest the people with money of the power to make decisions.”  Producing your own work reduces the power of the “gatekeepers” of theatres who pass and produce work, he commented.

Kate Chapman said that the role of The Theatre Writing Partnership is to connect writers with producers in the East Midlands.  “We should be the niggling, nagging, lobbying force for writers to theatres, so that they are aware of them, to avoid regular patterns of commissioning,” whereby the same pool of writers are called upon for new plays because they are already being produced.  “It’s important to enable writers to be connected to a greater theatre-making community.  Writers are part of theatre-making, not separate to it.  We want to keep doors open for writers, to create a space where useful and targeted development for writers can happen, perhaps residential weeks, melting pots with writers, actors and directors working together to help new plays be created.”

At this point, discussion was opened to the audience.  I posed the first question, challenging James’ assertion that we should expect to produce our own work as playwrights.  We were not a young audience.  I suggested that playwrights had always produced their own work at the beginning of their career but that at a certain point you realize that, unless you have founded a theatre company, that you want to work in strong teams with theatres investing in your development as a writer.  Producing your own work limits your ability to see it or to improve it; producing your own work means your time is likely spent on marketing and admin.  How many writers really want to be producers?  Shouldn’t we be investing in producers’ development as well, rather than encouraging writers to take on more jobs?  James was insistent that writers could be effective producers of their work and should seek to build their own teams, perhaps through funding opportunities like Grants for the Arts, or by identifying which skills they do not have and simply asking others to help.

Birmingham Rep said that they could offer space for artists who have grants for the arts, to help their grant money go further through providing support for casting, marketing and publicity.  “There are different ways that theatres can help if you have a grant,” she suggested.  She also reminded us to invite theatres to come and see plays when we put them on, to see if they will help to move them on to other, larger space.

David Edgar had the last word on the spirit of entrepreneurship for writers by saying that we were “talking around a donut.”  Writers, he said, want their work produced in large, union houses, with proper contracts and a wage they can live on.  “They want to touch large audiences and change lives through theatre.  I’m of the view that one of the really good things you can do as a playwright is to be able to have your work seen by large audiences and by being able to live off the fee.”  British theatre is thriving because of last decade’s investment in “bricks and mortar”, but people do not, by and large, buy tickets to see buildings.  They come to see new work and, hopefully, they come to see new writing.  “The theatre won’t survive without large enough audiences,” David said.  “You can’t sustain an industry on small numbers, like live art or political theatre.”

I’m certain that those forms fell out of favour not only due to a lack of audiences but due to a lack of funding and support.  “Can do” forms like live art and specialist theatre have always relied on being untraditional and feeling a bit “improvised, and have thrived in the gaps between other venues and programming. But there is no growth where there is no development and investment, and artists move on.  And when there is development funding available, must it ask theatre writers to collaborate with other art forms to make hybrid and fusion projects?  Isn’t theatre writing, already a collaborative art form, simply enough?  But that’s just my opinion.  What do you think? To read Writ Large in full, click here:

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting post, and thank you for reporting on this.

    I’m personally not active in writing for the theatre (one short sketch a few years ago) and tend to stay with short fiction for print/e-publication, but it’s good to see what’s going on in parts of the writing world I don’t frequent very often and remember the possibilities are there.

    November 23, 2010
  2. Andy Evans #

    James Grieve attempted to provoke the writers present by challenging them to stage their own plays, which was dressed up as a clarion call to artistic liberty but no amount of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Let’s Do The Show Right Here!” is likely to earn me the respect nor the attention of the profession. The call to become entrepreneurs was deafening throughout the day, but it was, I suspect, hollow rhetoric, with little true discussion of how a mere amateur staging their own new writing can truly attract the attentions of the professional theatre. And as Peggy rightly states in her blog, we writers seek affirmation from the established professional theatre in the hope and belief that it will help us to develop our work.

    In reality, the writer who works at his craft and even sees staged productions of his work but who fails to gain the Holy Grail of an ITC contract for a commission will always only ever be the poor relative destined to be humoured and pitied for their efforts. I regularly see it happen.

    We are not actually being encouraged to become “empowered entrepreneurs” in David Cameron’s Big Society, we are not workers rising up to seize control of the means of production.

    “Amateur” means “lover of” and I write because I have so many stories in my head that I need to share. I love doing it. I will continue to write and stage my own work (because I must) but I know that until the day I receive the affirmation of the professional theatre, I will not be treated as an equal and no amount of entrepreneurial spirit on my part will change that.

    November 23, 2010
    • I wasn’t at the event but read the comments about entrepreneurship in the post. I have mixed feelings about them.

      We’ve probably tended to think that creatives should be able to do what they do best, which is create, and leave marketing to people who have a different skill set. But that’s never wholly been the case – creatives who have a talent for self-publicity have generally been more successful than those who haven’t, and in more recent times, those who have been savvy about using the internet for self-publicity have been more successful than those who haven’t. So I suspect it’s not so much a major change in the situation as a development of trends that have been going on anyway.

      My money would be on guerilla tactics – small groups of creatives with complementary skills putting together performances that they put ‘out there’ in a range of forms: blogs/websites, segments filmed and put out on Youtube and Vimeo, badgering the BBC to put their stuff on Big Screen programming in their city centres, playing the summer festivals, staging events at independent arts centres such as the network of TAO centres (http://www.theartorganisation.co.uk/) – though I’m not sure what’s happening there, the centres all seem to have local names now. A few things that have started at that level have, over time, gradually made their way into the mainstream. This isn’t going to work for things involving large casts and major props, but the ‘can do’ forms the blog discusses – the interstitial, hybrid, fusion forms put together on zero budgets and marketed inventively – will probably be where a lot of new things take off and some will go mainstream from there.

      The best parallel is probably music. Your average pop/rock band receives no funding, works hard to get noticed, and may only exist with one lineup for a couple of years before some of the people involved move on and others come in. But with luck they end up reasonably well-known and reasonably financially rewarded. It’s a completely different way of working to how many of us work at the moment, but I can see it coming. And if anyone has any other visions for how this kind of work will happen in the future, I’m all ears!

      November 24, 2010
  3. Sounds like a lively session. Where else would you get the drama but in the session on Theatre Writing?

    Some interesting comments made about the Mickey Rooney approach.

    I think there are useful comparisons to be made with the situation for writers of novels and short fiction with the use of vanity/self-publishing or putting works online.

    Self-publishing is akin to producing your own play in the sense it gives you the opportunity to get your work out to an audience. However the amount of extra work it takes and the time it takes you away from your writing is already an issue for self-publishing and that must only be ten-fold for producing your own play. Co-ops and collectives might be the way to go there.

    The one possible saving grace for producing your own work is that, unlike self-publishing, because your end product is fully consumed after the performances end. you are less likely to reduce your attractiveness to a mainstream theatre because you have already saturated your market.

    Simon x

    November 24, 2010

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