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Jo Caird: Opportunities for Playwrights

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This time last week I attended a panel discussion at Wilton’s Music Hall called What Makes a Great Play?, where playwrights David Eldridge, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Roy Williams, along with Bush Theatre artistic director, Josie Rourke, talked to Libby Purves about playwriting. The discussion was presented in association with the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2011, and the aim was to offer emerging playwrights practical advice on writing for the theatre.

The event was a fascinating glance into these artists’ working methods, but it also served as an introduction to some of the issues around playwriting in the current climate.

The Bush, of course, is one of our most important small venues for new writing, and Josie Rourke underlined the theatre’s policy of reading around 3,000 new plays a year (up from 1,500 under her predecessor) in an effort to find and nurture the most promising new work. Rourke is proud of this figure but spoke of her regret at being able to offer feedback only to those playwrights whose work the theatre was interested in taking forwards. The unfortunate truth, she pointed out to a man in the audience who was clearly very disappointed not to have received any feedback on his play, is that the Bush’s resources are limited and she had made the decision to prioritise putting plays on over telling everyone who sent in scripts why they are unsuitable.

For several years in the 2000s, following the period in the 1990s of in-yer-face theatre characterised by the likes of Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane and Patrick Marber, new writing was a funding priority for the Arts Council. Playwriting flourished during this period, with workshops taking place up and down the country and playwrights feeling nurtured and supported. It’s important to avoid looking back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, but it’s true to say that more money was sloshing around new writing at that point and it showed.

More recently, however, ACE’s focus has shifted away from playwriting onto different types of projects, and we’ve seen an accompanying fall in the opportunities for new writers. That initial investment was hugely valuable but isn’t enough to sustain new writing now that the money is no longer there, says Chris Campbell, literary manager at the Royal Court. A great many successful careers were launched during that period, but today’s emerging playwrights are arguably no better off than before the Noughties funding boom.

Our top new writing venues are still committed to nurturing talent, of course, but literary departments have been slimmed down and resources are stretched. Something that worries Paul Robinson, co-artistic director at Theatre503, which had its NPO application turned down last month, is that playwrights willing or able to write for nothing (who mostly happen to be white, middle-class young men) are still dominating new writing at the expense of a more diverse and representative theatre culture.

The literary departments at new writing theatres are not the only route for emerging playwrights to have their work read, discussed and produced, of course. During the conversation at Wilton’s, Rebecca Lenkiewicz mentioned the fact that her play Her Naked Skin was rejected by the National Theatre’s script reading team, only to be eventually produced at the theatre after she sent it directly to director Howard Davies.

Chris Campbell, perhaps surprisingly, has limited patience with aspects of the play reading system that is so central to the way new writing venues work, calling it a “teetering structure of dishonesty”. It would be a huge waste of time – and impossible given the resources available in subsidised theatre – for literary departments to fully read the thousands of often truly mediocre plays they are sent, Campbell argues. The reality is that only the first few pages of most scripts are read before they are rejected, and even then the process is “unproductive in lots of ways”. It's something that he and others are looking to improve on. Despite Campbell’s reservations, however, about the bugs in the system, he still believes that playwrights should send their work to the new writing theatres, organisations which he says, are “voracious” for new material.

There are plenty of other opportunities available to playwrights, including awards and prizes like the Bruntwood, Soho Theatre’s Verity Bargate Award and the Meyer-Whitworth Award. But in addition to these rather glamorous-seeming ways of getting one's play noticed, there are the organisations working at grass roots level on the day-to-day business of supporting playwrights: providing advice on local writers’ groups, applying for competitions and bursaries, and organising small-scale readings of their work. Unfortunately, funding cuts are affecting these organisations in the same way that they are affecting new writing venues. North West Playwrights and Theatre Writing Partnership (based in Nottingham) for example, will both be losing all their ACE funding from 2012, something that will undoubtedly have a massive knock-on effect on the development of emerging playwrights in the regions where NWP and TWP work.

One of the resounding messages from the discussion at Wilton’s last week was how crucial encouragement is for playwrights at the early stages of their careers. Roy Williams and David Eldridge described how they each wrote their first plays for the sake of writing them, without any thought of having them produced. It was timely encouragement from a university tutor in Williams’s case and friends in Eldridge’s that led both young men to send their work to the new writing theatres that ultimately produced them. The question now is, are emerging voices, particularly those from disadvantaged or non-academic backgrounds, getting the support and guidance they need? If the answer is no, but we are not ready to accept a theatre that reflects only the experiences of a privileged few, it’s time to start making some noise.


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