Sunday, April 05, 2009
What Makes a 'Good' Playwright?
Drumroll please .... Here it is!
Yes, after teasing you for nearly a month it's finally time to publish the long-awaited Adopt-A-Playwright Talent Scout CRITERIA!
Those of you who have been paying attention will recall my previous post explaining my involvement in this scheme, and the speech I gave at its launch. Further info can be found on Sofie's site OffWestEnd.com here. The rest of this post will be a bit out of context otherwise, so if I'm already not making much sense then go and have a look at those links now. Go on.
No, it's fine. No, really. Me and the other readers will wait for you here.
What follows is a further document I wrote at Sofie's request, in an attempt to provide the Talent Scouts for her scheme with a set of guidelines of what to look out for when they are scouring the Fringe for potential candidates.
The areas she asked me to expand upon were as follows:
1. What defines a writer 'in need'?
2. What constitutes a play of 'quality' or 'promise'?
3. What factors indicate a playwright of 'promise'?
4. What constitutes a 'different voice'?
These might seem like obvious or even stupid questions to ask. Surely we all know these things when we see them? Maybe. But like 'good acting' the exact specifications are notoriously hard to pin down. And for a scheme where people were being selected to be put forward to possibly be awarded thousands of pounds, it seemed not only fair but essential to try to draw something up.
This is my attempt. You'll see from the intro that I always wanted this list to be just a starting a point; a 'living document' to be argued over, edited, added to, rephrased and expanded. And what better place to do that than here, with all three of my loyal readers?
Talent scout criteria
What constitutes a writer in need? How do you define a ‘quality’ play? How do you spot a ‘promising’ writer? How can you assess whether they are a ‘different’ voice? Different to what? How do you know your endorsement as a talent scout isn’t tainted by your own filters of cultural background and personal taste?
These are some of the questions it is necessary to ask as part of a scheme like Adopt-A-Playwright, and with which I have been grappling for a few days, after somewhat unwisely volunteering to put this document together for Sofie Mason. The truth is that judgements of any artistic endeavour will always be largely subjective, and this document is no exception. Put together by one opinionated playwright, it is likely to be as full of contradictions and exceptions and personal opinions as my own taste in plays. Rather than a definitive guide, it is intended to be the start of a debate among the many professionals involved in this scheme. My aspiration for it is that it becomes a ‘living’ document, constantly being amended by many different people, until we have a sprawling ‘bible’ of assessment criteria, as thrillingly diverse as its contributors, and as open to interpretation as any genuine Holy Book. Because while we are unlikely, if ever, to all agree on all the points in a document of this nature, our best guarantee of getting it right most of the time will be the diversity of backgrounds and professional experience among the people conducting the search. Because a scheme like Adopt-A-Playwright will only ever be as good as its scouts and judges.
Let’s start with the easiest one, In Need. The following criteria are largely Sofie’s, I have just tweaked them slightly.
A writer in need:
• Has demonstrated some initiative in writing and/or producing own work in the past;
• Lacks sufficient funds to continue writing;
• Relies on non-arts industry income to make ends meet (or non-creative employment within the arts, eg. ushering, office admin);
• Has not received significant funding from theatre company, Arts Council, or other arts funding body for their writing (in this context ‘significant funding’ would be more than £1000 in total over the course of their career);
• Is not from a family or community who are able to support them while they write;
• At the point of giving up without some break.
Now onto the hard stuff:
Note: Scouts should be able to distinguish between a quality play text and a quality production. They should be able to see the potential of a good play given a bad production, yet not be fooled by a poor play given a slick production. They should also be able to recognise the potential of a playwright who has not yet written their best work, but who shows promise in their early plays.
I would suggest that a play of notable ‘promise’ or ‘quality’ is one which demonstrates at least two of the following:
• Some understanding of dramatic writing as being about writing stage action as well as words.
• Some understanding of dramatic structure – characters actively pursuing an objective as the ‘engine’ of dramatic storytelling.
• Some understanding of drama as being about a process of change, and of characters having gone on a journey.
• Some ability to write original, believable characters with their own voice and perspectives on the world.
• A delight in the possibilities of spoken language in all its messy complexity; dialect, slang, subcultural lexicons, puns, double meanings and misunderstandings, language as liberator of some characters and jailor of others, language as power, language as a tool with which we define the world and our place within it.
• A ‘quality of mind’: an interest in using drama to offer some original insight into the subject in hand. A feeling, having left the auditorium, that you have been in the presence of someone with something new and important to say about the world in which you live.
• An interest in the poetry of drama, physically as well as verbally, e.g an ability to create resonant and memorable stage images; an awareness of metaphor; an ability to juxtapose dramatic action with dialogue; images and action creatively arranged not just for aesthetic pleasure but in order to actively comment on one another and add meaning to the overall story.
• Using lyricism or other non-naturalistic techniques intelligently, in the service of the overall play, rather than simply because it can be done.
• A play that has an emotional impact on you and moves you in some way.
• An ability to sustain these qualities over some time (ie. 45 minutes plus). Exciting short plays are often unreliable indicators of promise as the real test is in sustaining energy, pace, wit and form over a longer drama.
A promising playwright is one who demonstrates at least two of the following:
• An interest in pushing the form of drama beyond the traditional western sensibility of the three or five act structure and/or an interest in questioning or challenging the traditional barrier between audience and actor. However, neither of these should be for the sake of meaningless experimentation, but in the context of serving an overall narrative and creating a theatrical experience in which innovation in form facilitates new and fresh understandings of the drama’s content. Form should always be appropriate to content, and born out of it in some logical way. Formal experimentation should not be about ‘showing off’ but about adding new layers of meaning.
• Innovative ideas about staging, which cannot be attributed to the director alone, e.g. a script that responds imaginatively to a specific performance space, or an interest in merging text-based script writing with non-verbal, devised, or other performance media.
• Choice of subject of some relevance and urgency to modern world; awareness of current affairs in UK and beyond and the quality of mind to make an original and meaningful contribution to those debates.
• An interest in using theatre as an organ of democracy, to debate, stimulate and provoke audiences into discussion of difficult, complex or taboo issues.
• An interest in people and experiences beyond their own; an understanding that the writer’s own love affairs and family dramas are not necessarily of equal interest to a wider audience. (Or, if these well-trodden subjects are used, to offer a new and original twist or insight.)
• An interest in presenting audiences with places, characters and communities that have not been seen before in British drama, or seen too seldom.
• An interest in analysing and providing some critique of the channels of power in any given society which seal a character’s fate.
• An interest in undertaking research as a means to sourcing new material, and opening themselves up to new experiences.
• An understanding, however faltering, of the dramatic writer as ‘wrighter’ (ie. ‘wringer’ or shaper of reality) of a stage event. In this sense the role of ‘wrighter’ goes beyond ‘writing’ words and becomes the primary creative mind shaping the audience’s experience (e.g. pre or post-show scenes which take place beyond the main performance space, viral marketing campaigns involving teasers for the show, imaginatively engineering news stories in order to gain press coverage for the show).
• An interest in analysing and debating the ideas within their work and in the work of others, including taking on board audience feedback, for example through taking part in post-show discussions, writing a blog, or organising amateur writer’s groups.
• Takes an active interest in the wider theatre industry and can talk knowledgably and enthusiastically about recent productions or industry developments.
A ‘different voice’ means in relation to the usual backgrounds of the majority of writers receiving commissions from the mainstream new writing houses in the UK, and should comprise at least one of the following:
• Not articulating the white, male, middle class twenty-to-thirtysomething experience as the central tenet of the play’s story.
• Provides an insight into worlds under-represented in current British drama. This could include, but is not restricted to: minority ethnic or religious groups, non-western, working class, non-traditional lifestyles, so-called ‘closed communities’, communities newly-arrived in the UK, communities stereotyped or demonised in the mainstream media, rural communities.
• If the writer is not personally from the same background as the characters in the play, s/he should have some valid claim to be able to write about them with a degree of insight and knowledge, e.g. a significant period of research, or contacts with those groups who have provided access over a significant period.
• Note: ‘different voice’ does not mean solely different aesthetically, e.g. non-naturalistic writing styles, performance art or devised work. The ‘difference’ refers to the background of the writer, compared to the usual backgrounds of those receiving new play commissions, or the types of characters and experiences they are trying to give voice to.
• A ‘quality of mind’: an interest in using drama to offer some original insight into the subject in hand, which other media cannot.