Saturday, April 25, 2009

You might be interested to hear that Alfred Hickling on Guardian theatre blogs has posted a critical (and in my opinion, misrepresentative and cynically written) article about Adopt-A-Playwright, the scheme described below.

You can read his post, and some of the daft comments following it, here.

You can read my response below:

Oh dear. I can hardly let this sorry excuse for an arts blog go down in the Guardian archive unchallenged can I?

Alfred, you seem to have wilfully misrepresented and misreported this innovative and necessary scheme in order to laugh at it. Only you can tell us why you would want to do this (and I hope that you will, for it feels rather like you’re punching holes in the boat we’re all floating in.) But for now let’s take your points one by one...
The winner receives a free 10 grand ‘on spec’: Not quite. The winner is sourced via a process of nomination taking place over the best part of a year. They are then invited to apply for the scheme by submitting a previous full-length play, an lengthy proposal for a new play, a CV and assessment of where they are at in their writing career and how they would spend the money (it’s not just for time to write, they can spend some of it on workshops, readings, and hiring actors, directors and dramaturgs to develop the piece, if they wish.) Their applications are then assessed by a panel of established theatre professionals and a shortlist drawn up who are invited for interview. The panel’s assessment takes place over the best part of a week of meetings.

During this whole process, potential recipients are expected to demonstrate not only an innate playwriting talent, but also initiative in having produced their own work up to that point, genuine financial need, lack of any other funding from ACE or one of their clients, as well as meeting the criteria that either they or the subject matter they want to write about (or preferably both) represent the voice of a community from whom we hear all too seldom on British stages – anything from minority ethnic or religious groups, through to traveller communities, rural communities, or any number of subcultures, professions or other human experiences which don’t normally get a look-in as subject matter for your average stage play. The winner then gets the money in several instalments over the course of the year, and enters into a contract agreeing to deliver regular drafts. This agreement can be terminated at any time should its terms not be met.

You complain that the selection process lacks transparency. Your evidence for this appears to be the website’s use of punctuation. Let me reassure you that the ‘talent scouts’ are made up of staff from a variety of professional and fringe theatres, regular fringe theatregoers such as the reviewers for Resonance FM’s On The Fringe team, as well as the supporters and members of OffWestEnd.com’s various groups and schemes – including arts patrons and even (brace yourself) enthusiastic members of the public. The panel of ‘experts’ making the final decision in previous year’s has included: artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East Kerry Michael, playwrights Diane Samuels and Hassan Abdulrazzak, film producer Clive Brill, BBC producer Alison Hindell, Geoff Colman of Central School of Speech and Drama, major arts patron Joachim Fleury of Clifford Chance and myself. I’d like to think that between us we could spot a decent writer.

You also seem to be rather sniffy about patrons getting to meet the writers and socialise with them. I see no reason to sneer at this. The scheme is inspired by one of the most ancient forms of arts patronage, that of ancient Rome, where private patrons would gather round an artist they believe in and support their work with direct contributions. Sure, the patrons get something out of this - the satisfaction of engendering a new play (and hopefully launching a career) as well as the thrill of seeing the creative process close up in a way that traditional ‘angels’ schemes do not allow. The main difference with our scheme is that the patrons are strictly prevented from having any creative input, and one step removed from the selection process by trusting their panel of industry experts to make the right choice.

You acknowledge my original point that the existing system favours the wealthy, but you seem to see no problem with this. One of the commenters above also displays a rather cosseted ignorance in exclaiming that ‘Money to live on can usually be found.’ How great that there are some people for whom that is the case. This scheme is for the other 90% for whom money to live on usually can’t be found. When I was starting out I subsidised my own first play by giving up a full-time job and living on my credit card for three months. I racked up £3,500 worth of debt which it took me the best part of two years to pay off with more full-time work, during which i was unable to write anything further. I was lucky enough to get AHRC funding to do the MA Playwriting at Goldsmiths, and jammy again to get a Pearson bursary to be Soho Theatre’s writer-in-residence for a year. But after that it all dried up and I had to go and re-train as a teacher in order to make ends meet, before being plucked from obscurity once more by winning the John Whiting Award. I’ve worked ever since in inner city communities, teaching playwriting, writing plays for and about, and giving careers advice to (among others) east London Bengali teenagers, kids in care, teenage Mums and members of various youth theatres. I do this not out of a sense of worthiness but because I find these people interesting and want to get their voices and experiences on our stages. The commissioning system at present actively works to exclude them, along with all manner of other people. I don’t want to be part of a theatre industry, either as a writer or audience, where large chunks of the population are excluded from being able to tell their stories and have a stake in the nation’s cultural output. This is bad for art.

These are real issues which materially affect the face of our nation’s theatre professionals, and indeed the future of our industry. It was in explaining these problems to Sofie Mason of OffWestEnd.com that the idea for this scheme came to her. I admire her tenacity in trying to plug this gap. It’s in its infancy, but since the scheme’s inception and the British economy’s apparent implosion it seems that we are more in need than ever of innovative new ways to fund our art. Guardian blogs have recently been very supportive of London Bubble’s scheme Fan Made Theatre, and rightly so. I see no reason why they should be commissioning cynical articles like this that laugh at a similar and (arguably) even more ambitious scheme, with potentially far greater impact.

Finally, you suggest that a better use of the money would be to fund 10 writers for a month. But there are already plenty of short courses and schemes of this kind, and theatre companies often bung writers £500 or a grand as ‘seed’ money. I can tell you there’s a limit to how far you can develop a decent full-length play in a month, especially if you want to write about subjects more ambitious that your own love affairs. Investing a large sum in one writer is what theatres aren’t doing enough of, but is precisely what is needed if amateur writers are going to make the leap from occasional scribbling whenever they get a few weeks off, to full-blown immersive playwrighting where they can properly engage with their subject and craft, with access to a network of professional supporters and advisors should they need it.

A commenter above similarly notes that playwrights need venues and productions, and ‘a person in place who will produce their play’. Whilst this is of course true, it’s the second stage in the process. Surely writing the play in the first place needs to come first! Or else what is there to stage? Theatres don’t commission beginner writers on a concept, they want to see a full draft, and this is where wealthy writers have the advantage, and where the system is inherently unfair.

I note from your Guardian profile, Alfred, that you are based in York and regularly review plays in the north-east. It can’t have escaped your notice that writers from this region and the communities they represent very seldom make it onto higher profile stages, either as artists or subjects. This scheme aims to directly address this imbalance. Indeed, I also note that you yourself are a sometime writer (and director). You may well be eligible to apply for this scheme, and put all this Guardian blogging to one side for a year while you hone your craft. I’d encourage you to do so. It could be the start of a whole new career.

Readers who’d like to know more about this debate, and to read my full speech from which Alfred selectively quotes, should check the articles on my own blog here:

http://finkennedy.blogspot.com/2009/03/this-is-first-of-two-part-enrty-ive.html

http://finkennedy.blogspot.com/2009/04/what-makes-good-playwright-drumroll.html

5 comments:

joanneleahartley said...

bravo.

feel like thanking you for 'sticking up' for me in a fight at school or something...

Dave said...

This has to be one of the most pompous things I've ever read. I work in theatre and it's exactly people like you that make it such a painful experience. You act like you're a scientist unearthing cures for some terrible disease. You're not. You're trying to justify you and your mates getting money to write on the fact that some rich kids from the Home Counties do from their parents. That's a rubbish, deeply rubbish argument. And the idea that all the big theatres aren't bending over backwards to be inclusive is rubbish as well. From my own experience, there are people in theatre who seek after genuine talent and there are people who likes what's in vogue (and are idiots for doing so). Theatre is like anywhere else: a combination of good and bad. Stop blaming everyone else for your own problems. And stop being so self-important. Please.

Fin said...

Hi Dave,

I've published your comment in the interests of transparency, and because I'm all up for hearing some voices of dissent. But in terms of moving this argument forward, i'd invite you to expand on your criticisms of the arguments contained in the blog on which you're commenting, rather than hiding behind a rather perplexing torrent of rage.

I can assure you that my reasons for taking the position I have aren't to do with selfishness, but from years of working in the community and education sectors where I've seen talented writers from poor backgrounds genuinely struggle. I don't stand to benefit personally from this scheme in any way.

I'd be happy to engage with you about these issues if you can take some of the points i make and set up counter arguments, and back them up with the sort of reasoning and research contained in my original argument - as well as sharing any personal experience you may have in this field which can strengthen your position.

I won't engage with you, or publish your comments, if you continue with personal abuse.

It would also be interesting to hear your full identity and what line of work you're in.

Here's hoping we can cross swords amicably,

Fin

Anonymous said...

Cool. Fair enough I was being a bit childish in the way I phrased that. But I think I recognized a tone you use a lot, which very much suggests you think the theatre world owes you a living. You come across very pompously in that sense. More broadly I know theatre isnt as inclusive as it could be but I really don t think the commissioning process is actively working against any groups. I think the majority of theatre are bending over backwards to get minorities more involved, as demonstrated by the range of bursaries and groups targetted at them. Often this results in tokenism but it does also improve things. Though, having said that, I do agree that many people get on because of a combination of class, nepotism and old money. So, in summary, I was a little over the mark but I don't think you help yourself with the way you put things across.

Fin said...

Hi Anonymous/Dave,

Thanks for toning down the rhetoric. I’m sorry to hear you don’t enjoy reading my blog, though I’m afraid I don’t find your reasoning very compelling, and I’m none the wiser about why my musings should have aroused such fury in you. The sentiments in this particular post mostly garnered support when they appeared on Guardian blogs, particularly from other writers.

As for your more personal remarks, I don’t think anyone who knows me in person or has worked with me would recognise your accusations. Their poisonous tone suggests you have some other grievance or agenda. Perhaps you’d be brave enough to reveal your identity and stand by these comments, in order to shed some light on this?

As for your other criticisms, remember that the post on which you’re commenting was conceived as a specific defence to Alfred Hickling’s criticisms, and was never meant as a wholesale analysis of our sector. I’m not denying the good work that has been done and continues to be done towards greater inclusivity in theatre. My point is simply that, as you yourself acknowledge, it is often somewhat piecemeal, and (as you again acknowledge) more needs to be done to assist those writers without the advantages of “class, nepotism and old money” - as you put it. None of the existing initiatives come anywhere close to offering the level of financial investment, and support structure, of Adopt-A-Playwright, which is why I think the scheme is necessary. My involvement in it is unpaid, and is motivated by the same reasons as my work over the years with east London teenagers, kids in care, and teenage parents – I love theatre with a passion, and want it to excite and involve everyone. I also want to keep playwriting in particular healthy as an art form by encouraging newcomers into it with previously unheard perspectives. I would have thought this was a fairly uncontroversial cause!

But again, your opinion on these issues, and your specific work within the theatre industry that has informed them, would carry a lot more weight if you let us know who you are.

Yours in hope,
Fin