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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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