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Guest Blog: Stephen Unwin on What's Next for the Dramatist

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Stephen Unwin is the artistic director of the Rose Theatre Kingston. In his new book The Well Read Play he deepens our appreciation and enjoyment of drama, providing guidance that helps readers understand the workings of a play, spot clues that the playwright has planted, imagine how it can be staged and decided whether it will stand the test of time.

In his chapter "What Next?" he explores the future of conditions under which modern playwrights are working, what opportunities exist for young dramatists and what’s next for this most ancient of artistic activities?

The role of the classics

In Britain, at least, the mainstream theatre is dominated by revivals of the classics. There are many reasons for this, above all a wide- spread recognition of the power and quality of the best drama from the past. But there are financial considerations too: most commercial producers regard plays with an established track record as safer bets than new ones. And many critics and theatre people argue that only the classical playwright can feed our appetite for drama of ambition and scope. They criticise the modern playwright for a failure of imagination and a lack of self-confidence.

Of course, it’s not an either/or. Modern playwrights can learn from their predecessors, and the presentation of great old plays is an important part of the service that the theatre can offer culture as a whole. but it’s also true that the dominance of classical drama can be detrimental to the cause of making the theatre a living forum for the discussion of contemporary life.

A moratorium on Shakespeare?

No playwright is more dominant than Shakespeare and the director Matthew Warchus has provocatively suggested that the British theatre should impose a ten-year moratorium on the revival of his plays. This would encourage us to explore the rest of the repertoire with a more open mind and would open up a space that could be taken by the new and the different. The suggestion alone could help us look at Shakespeare’s dominance with greater scepticism.

The important thing is to try to answer that hardest of questions: What is it about Shakespeare that is so good and why does he still matter? If we can’t come up with a satisfactory answer to these questions then we should perhaps take a step back and leave his work alone for a while.

The dominance of Europe and the United States

One of the most important developments in recent years has been the number of black writers, mostly from America, but also Europe and Africa, who have had their work produced. but this hasn’t been the case with playwrights from Asia, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the newly globalised world – and the many challenges that come in its wake – will provoke work that can filter through into the mainstream repertoire.

The challenge of modernity

There is a potent argument that the bewildering complexities of modern life cannot be adequately expressed with the modest means available in the theatre.

The objection is an obvious one: 9/11 was such a cataclysmic event, played out live on television screens across the world, that the theatre – or any art form – could never adequately describe it; indeed that the great events of the modern world cannot be represented on the stage.

Are certain aspects of modern experience so bizarre that, to quote Fabian in Twelfth Night, "if this were played upon a stage now I could condemn it as an improbable fiction"? If so, we may need to bow to film and television in our desire to create a kind of drama that reflects our very peculiar time.

New forms for a new world?

Let’s lower the bar for a moment, however, and ask whether the modern theatre succeeds in representing other, less dramatic, but no less modern experiences successfully: the bewildering impact of rapid travel, mass tourism, information technology and so on. The impact of modern communication technology on everyday life has not – as far as I’m aware – been adequately dramatised.

Climate change presents the playwright with an even bigger challenge. There is a growing tendency among many of the most innovative theatre makers to use modern technology to tackle this kind of material and audio-visual equipment, projectors, complex sound effects, high-tech scenery all play their part. This certainly creates a compelling illusion of modernity and, when allied to credible characterisation and dramatic action, can catch a peculiarly modern sense of alienation and individuality.

But there’s the rub: good plays require conflict and interaction if they’re to do more than provide a series of static images. drama at its best explores and expresses the individual’s relationship with his society.

One of the most notable features of Brecht’s work is the way that he pillaged and changed existing theatrical structures and forms to fit the new content that he was eager to dramatise. The important lesson for modern writers is to let formal innovation follow new content and not the other way around.

Verbatim theatre

Recent years have seen a flowering of documentary drama, particularly ‘verbatim theatre’ where the drama consists of actors impersonating real figures and using the words originally spoken in the real-life situation. This is partly a response to a culture of secrecy surrounding high profile cases, but it’s also a way of creating political drama with authority and credibility.

Verbatim theatre isn’t new. Peter Weiss’ The Investigation (1965) consists of chilling transcripts of the trials of 22 Auschwitz guards and SS officials in Frankfurt. And the flowering of British political theatre in the 1970s and 1980s often used real material.

Audiences have mixed responses: some are mesmerised, while others wonder whether they’ve been given anything that cannot be gathered by a careful reading of the newspapers.

Devised plays

Devised theatre is not a recent development. The commedia dell’arte placed improvisation at its heart and it’s impossible to know the nature and extent of the collaboration between the Elizabethan dramatists and their actors. Shakespeare’s fellow actors are given pride of place in the First Folio, acknowledging, at the very least, their contribution to the playwright’s own success.

In 1945 Joan Littlewood and her husband Ewan MacColl founded Theatre Workshop, an ensemble company dedicated to a theatre that involved cast and audience. In 1953, they secured a lease on the crumbling Theatre Royal Stratford East, where they produced their greatest hit, Oh! What A Lovely War! (1963), a richly theatrical devised play about the First World War.

In 1974 a group of directors and writers set up the Joint stock Theatre Group. They developed a unique way of working: the directors would gather a group of actors and a playwright, and 'workshop’ an idea for several weeks.

What they lack in literary quality they make up for in theatrical confidence, politi- cal rigour and sharp dialogue: all direct results of the workshop process.

Performance art

Twentieth-century theatre had three main strands: premieres of new plays, revivals of classics, and productions that don’t have a playwright attached. Such performance art has the power to move and provoke like the most radical of plays.

Performance art has its roots in the theatrical experiments of Vsevolod Meyerhold in Revolutionary Russia. His productions saw ‘text’ as only one part of a much wider theatrical project. He had an enormous influence on the radical directors of post-war European theatre. Several companies devoted to performance art have emerged in Britain in recent years.

Performance art is difficult, however, and requires all the intellectual and artistic discipline of the twentieth century avant-garde. Modern audiences are sometimes offered a shallow imitation of what in its heyday was a strikingly powerful theatrical form.

Discovering new playwrights and new voices

The modern theatre has a responsibility for the development of the next generation of playwrights. One of the striking features of the British theatre is the range and strength of its young writers. At its best, the British theatre embraces the emerging writer and is unfazed that he lacks the philosophical and intellectual depth of the classical dramatists.

George Devine saw the Royal Court as a writer’s theatre and established a commitment and way of working that has held good for fifty years. One of the most astonishing young writers to have emerged from the Court was Andrea dunbar. A poorly educated working class girl from a housing estate near Leeds, who died tragically young of a brain haemorrhage, Dunbar wrote her first play, The Arbor (1977), at the age of 15. One test for any theatre interested in presenting new writing today might be this: would it discover and champion the teenage Andrea Dunbar if the handwritten manuscript of The Arbor arrived one day in a tatty brown envelope in the post?

Dramaturgs and workshops

Every German theatre has its own in-house dramaturg (sometimes several) and if a director decides to revive a classical play, he examines the various translations available, provides an academic and historical context, writes the programme notes and helps the director articulate his interpretations.

The British tradition is very different. In recent years, however, the British theatre has embraced dramaturgs. This is not just a matter of semantics: the dramaturg does a very different job. Whereas the literary manager is content to read plays (both old and new) and recommend them for production, the dramaturg provides novel interpretation and adaptation of old works, and happily involves himself in the rewriting, restructuring and wide-scale alteration that he believes is necessary. With the new interest in conceptualisation and interpretation, his role is increasingly important.

Invaluable as such workshops can be, theatres need to be careful not to treat them as a substitute for performance. More importantly, they should resist the temptation for their new plays to be written by committee. A good play, like any work of art, is the product of an individual vision, and artistic directors must ensure that well-meaning contributions don’t diffuse the writer’s voice and obscure his original vision.

The dramatist under threat?

We live in changing times. We’re told that an image says more than a thousand words, and that it’s time to create a new form of theatre for the modern world. We’re also reminded that modern audiences are blessed with visual literacy but cursed with a short attention span, and that old plays are the product of an alien world and need to be reinterpreted if they’re to have any currency in the modern world.

This questioning of the primacy of the written word is increasingly played out in the way that the theatre is put together. There is a growing desire to do without a playwright, or at best relegate him to a minor role. In some theatres, the director has become the key figure and his work, along with the designer’s, is at the heart of the experience. The result is a new kind of theatre: an event that communicates through a whole range of means, of which the spoken word is sometimes the least important.

Playwrights aren’t just responsible for some of the greatest works of art of the past: they’re the key to the long-term survival of the theatre in the future. If we turn our backs on them, the theatre and our culture as a whole will wither on the vine. Playwrights tell us the stories that make sense of our lives. They show us how other people live and open our minds to new ways of thinking. They are creating the shapes of the future. We would be crazy to ignore them.

The above is extracted from The Well Read Play by Stephen Unwin which is published by Oberon Books.

Stephen will be speaking about his book The Well Read Play at Kingston Readers' Festival on 23 May 2011 at 1pm.

Price: £14.99, ISBN: 9781840027709,
Available from: Marston Book Services on tel: 01235 465 577 or email: [email protected] Also available from www.amazon.co.uk and all good bookshops.


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