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Guest Blog: HighTide & the next wave of new writing

By • West End
The 2012 HighTide Festival of new writing continues in Halesworth in Suffolk until Sunday (13 May). Here, artistic director Steven Atkinson discusses this year's programme and the new wave of writing talent it represents.


If like me you want your plays to be about something, now is a good time for new writing.

As a reader of new plays I've been aware of a trend for some time now. Playwrights are getting political again. In particular, new playwrights are. At HighTide Festival Theatre we specialise in new playwrights, but this movement is not confined to us. There are our writers who have continued their agenda elsewhere - Nick Payne, Sam Holcroft, Ella Hickson, Tom Basden, Beth Steel, Adam Brace. And others, including Mike Barlett and Lucy Prebble, who form part of this next wave.

The last consolidated new wave of playwrights who seemed to write informed by society were the in-yer-face generation who emerged nearly two decades ago. These writers wrote work characterised by their violence and desire for feeling. Their ranks included Anthony Neilson, Sarah Kane, Nick Grosso, Jez Butterworth, and Mark Ravenhill. These British writers emerged pre-Tony Blair in a British society shaped by years of conservative rule, a shrinking public sector, and 'there's no such thing as society'.

The past two decades have contained arguably unprecedented social change in the UK and internationally. New technologies have changed our day-to-day lives in profound ways and many of today's leading new playwrights were in education in the first Blair-term. This was perhaps the most acute recent time for social change when a new government, which believed in investing in the public sector and education, coincided with a social revolution fuelled by the internet and a desire for freedoms, individuality and change.

But this acute rise of opportunity had a sharp fall. The last decade in the UK and abroad has been defined by a global economic crisis, austerity, a shrinking public sector, multiple crisis-of-beliefs in institutions from the press, to banks, to governments, and organised religions.

This new generation of playwright, therefore, is one who benefited from growing up in the mid-90s and the ensuing changes and perceived injustices of recent times are fuelling a well-spring of passionate and singular contemporary plays.

To take this year's HighTide Festival as an example of this new wave; Mudlarks is Essex-born Vickie Donoghue's first play. She's writing about young working class boys who feel trapped by the society they find themselves in, and aspiration is a pipe dream. Clockwork, Laura Poliakoff's first play, imagines the future where there's an unbearably large ageing populace and suggests that euthanasia is more socially responsible than trapping sharp minds in decrepit bodies. Ella Hickson's Boys looks at the bottleneck of an ambitious university generation with no jobs waiting for them, and the ruthless culture this predicament breeds. And finally, Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs looks at the hidden economics and politics of one of the most significant businesses in the world for the past two decades, Apple, and he doesn't approve of what he discovered.

Since starting HighTide in 2007, many of the writers we launched have gone on to write for all the major national companies, and their work has been commissioned and produced internationally. So it seems safe to say that this new wave are not a flash-in-the-pan. That their writing and their plays often get better which each successive play suggests that this context is a rich and furtive one to be a writer in.

Whether these specific writers and their contemporaries make the impact that the in-yer-face generation did, time will tell. As will whether or not these writers go on to become established writers, as Jez Butterworth, Joe Penhall, and Anthony Neilson have. It may seem early to all it, but I think that they will. And provided that artistic leaders and new producers continue to invest in finding new talent, the generation educated under Cameron's leadership promise fascinating new plays with a world view unrecognisable to those who were young in the mid 90s.

Youth in Revolt strikes me as a fitting name for this new wave. Their plays display the same concerns that fuelled the UK riots last summer. In time we can hope to understand the roots of this social unrest. Thankfully these playwrights are canonising a fascinating moment in our history.


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