Is new technology driving young writers away from theatre?
Holly Williams reflects on Gabriel Bisset-Smith's London Writers' Week talk
In 2017, few writers are particularly 'pure' in their allegiance to one medium. For all that theatre, film and TV each have their own unique grammar and formal expectations, when it comes to talent they're overlapping more than ever. London Writers' Week – currently taking place at the Tabernacle in West London – held a session looking at writing across different platforms in the digital era, with playwright and screenwriter Gabriel Bisset-Smith.
We're certainly seeing a young(ish) generation of playwrights moving into TV. Occasionally, it's an adaptation of a hit stage show – think King Charles III, Chewing Gum Dreams or Fleabag; genuinely exciting commissions that kept the stage techniques of blank verse and direct address, respectively, intact.
But there's also an increasing number of writers sticking their fingers in all the pies: James Graham writing Coalition and X Y, Jack Thorne writing National Treasure and Glue, Bartlett again with Doctor Foster. It's just as common among American playwrights; Annie Baker has just been working on Amazon's I Love Dick, while writers for mega-hits such as House of Cards (Beau Willimon) and The Affair (Sarah Treem) began as playwrights.
There are obvious reasons why successful playwrights would get lured into TV and film – money being the most obvious of all. But skills from one can have serious advantages in the other. Bisset-Smith credits writing for the theatre with helping him hone his dialogue, and thinks it's "more a place you can explore relationships and ideas in more detail." TV, meanwhile, demands higher stakes and more plot – something that plays might benefit from too, of course. "We can get lazy in television and we can get precious in theatre," Sarah Treem has commented, telling Slate that it was the going back-and-forth between the two mediums that helps her avoid either pitfall.
It's often stated that we're in a Golden Age for TV, with the move to digital services allowing greater experimentation, and with box set culture producing long-line narratives that are subtle and complex. Treem has chalked this up partly to playwrights being pulled into TV writers rooms. But it's surely circular: the better TV gets the more attractive it is, and there's no stigma attached to TV anymore. Comparing a HBO series to a 90-minute studio play, you can see why ambition finds itself leaping across mediums.
But how easy is it really to do it all? Bisset-Smith discussed the benefits and limitations of trying to launch a cross-platform career as a young writer – rather than concentrating on one form then moving to the other. "The biggest struggle I've had in my career is because I write across so many forms. I love it right now – but it might take you longer to get where you want to be."
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic, Bissett-Smith suggests new technology is really helping emerging artists get noticed. It's just that the old route – start in fringe theatre, get commissioned by bigger theatres, get poached by TV and film studios – may actually be flipping on its head.
Digital is driving young writers towards filmed content, rather than the stage. Bisset-Smith points out that, while there is still many amazing playwriting competitions, getting unsolicited scripts read by theatres is harder these days. Meanwhile, funding cuts bite, and producing costs increase: just throwing on your own fringe show is no longer possible for many emerging artists. What used to be a plucky move that allowed you to take risks now likely costs a risk-inhibiting sum in the tens of thousands.
By contrast, the technology for making TV and film is getting cheaper all the time. It might be a cliché to say "just shoot it on your phone", Bisset-Smith acknowledges, but it's a true one. The aesthetic for online web series, short films or comedy sketches is usually intentionally lo-fi, lowering the barrier of entry. Get a few mates together and if your ideas and writing are good, you're away. Online content may find its own audience – and even if it doesn't, it can be a useful calling card. He sends links to short films as well as scripts when pitching for work.
The BBC and other channels with big online presences – like Comedy Central – are hungry for short-form content, and savvy, smart young writers can find work they already made cheaply off their own backs being picked up wholesale, as well as being commissioned to provide new material.
And the internet is, after all, a shop front that's much more accessible, and permanent, than a fringe theatre. "Online used to be a bit of a dirty word; now, it's a free for all," says Bisset-Smith. "The need for online content is a real opportunity. If your writing is good, you can get interest." It might not have that smell-of-the-greasepaint allure of putting on a show right here, right now – but it can be a hell of a lot cheaper.
London Writers' Week is at the Tabernacle until 8 July.