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:
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.