Stewart Pringle: 'To get by in theatre you have to wear a lot of hats'

Ahead of the premiere of his debut play, the Bush Theatre dramaturg reflects on the necessity to juggle roles in theatre

Gary Lilburn (Harry) & Connie Walker (Denise)
Gary Lilburn (Harry) & Connie Walker (Denise) in rehearsals for Trestle
© George Turvey

I was on an assessment panel the other day, choosing between applicants for a brilliant writing programme. There were lots of very impressive CVs, and lots of writers who had written lots of brilliant and acclaimed things. We were looking for demonstrable 'passion for writing', and they had that in spades, but they had other things too. They were producing plays, directing plays, editing review websites, marketing other peoples’ projects. They were, almost all of them, wearing a hell of a lot of different hats.

Outside of opportunities like Papatango, commissions are scarce, and in intensely high demand

Of course they were. How could they not be? How, it’s often seemed to me, can anyone not be? Because the writing hat, whether that’s your passion-hat or not (you’ll have to just go with me on the hat metaphor), it just doesn’t pay very much. Not many coins fall in that hat, not for most writers, not for most of us. Outside of opportunities like Papatango, which is incredibly generous in its pay and support, commissions are scarce, and in intensely high demand.

Multi-hattedness has defined my time in theatre more than anything else. I’ve worked as a theatre critic, an artistic director, a novelty bear for the ENO, a drama teacher, a horror festival producer, and now, currently, a dramaturg. I’ve built my hat collection because I love a lot of different things about theatre. I’ve built my hat collection to pay the rent.

But I get asked, quite a few times every year, why I’ve owned quite as many hats, and what it’s like to have spent the last nigh-on ten years swapping between them.

I’ve developed a bit of a stock response, that goes something like: 'There’s a lot of common ground between writing about theatre, writing for theatre, and curating or developing the work of other writers.' They share the common endeavours of championing or exploring the ideas that theatre should be presenting and investigating, they share the objective not to bore or to patronise; to speak to the present moment and theatre’s place within it.

Making a piece of theatre is a nerve-shreddingly exposing process that no amount of critical reflection can quite prepare you for

Stewart Pringle
Stewart Pringle

I still believe that, more or less, but as the opening night of Trestle approaches, and I watch our brilliant team wrestle with problems I have given them, and spend hours tussling with lines which are entirely my fault, and source, build and perfect a world that I, at some point, decided should exist inside our own, it strikes me that quite a lot of that is rubbish. That making a piece of theatre, and offering it to the world, to the audiences and the critics, to friends and family who have offered support and random punters who have taken a punt, is a nerve-shreddingly exposing process that no amount of critical reflection or dramaturgical intervening can quite match or prepare you for.

I’m sh••ting it, basically, and however this mad, brilliant journey that the Papatango Prize has sent me on works out, I’ll leave with one hat, my actual woolly hat, held as high as it will go, for every writer and creative I have encountered, criticised, or collaborated with over the past decade.

Trestle runs at Southwark Playhouse from 1 to 25 November.