I've written a letter to the Arts Council, and sent them a little present. Here's the letter. (For the present, you'll have to follow the link and buy a copy for yourself. Sorry.)
Mr Neil Darlison
London Director, Theatre
Arts Council England
14 Great Peter Street
London SW1P 3NQ
Dear Mr Darlison,
New theatre writing in schools and the ACE National Portfolio
I’m writing to send you a copy of my play volume The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping and other plays, a set of stories from one of London’s least represented inner city communities, which I hope you will enjoy reading. The play volume itself has an interesting story behind it.
It began in 2003, when Soho Theatre decided to produce my first play. That year I was also appointed as their playwright-in-residence under the Pearson bursary scheme. This meant I had to take an active part in the life of the company, and Soho soon put me to work teaching playwriting to their 14-18 year old young writer’s group. It was a bit of a baptism of fire, but I had a great time and learnt some valuable skills. Quite how valuable I was about to find out.
When my second play, How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, lost its way among London’s new writing theatres, I was forced to fall back on my own resources. Someone I had met on Soho’s script reading panel had just been appointed Director of Almeida Projects, the Almeida Theatre’s education and community wing. She offered me some hours as a workshop leader in Islington’s schools. Although I had taught playwriting in the comfort of Soho Theatre, I had never gone into the ‘lion pit’ of an actual London classroom. But the Almeida trained me up from scratch, and supported me fully in honing my skills in some of the toughest schools in the city.
I worked for Almeida Projects from 2003-6, on a variety of schools projects across the Borough, culminating in a schools tour of a full production of a version of Moliere's Hypochondriac for 11 year olds. This experience led on to a number of subsequent schools projects in other Boroughs, for other organisations, the most valuable of which has been a long association with Mulberry School in Tower Hamlets, where I have worked as writer-in-residence since 2007, and for whom the plays in the enclosed volume were written.
Mulberry is a pioneering place. Due to its catchment area, its student population is made up of 94% Muslim students of Bangladeshi heritage - not a group you hear from all that often in British theatre. I not only teach playwriting to students and staff, but write a new play each year for the students to take to the Edinburgh Festival. In 2009 we won a Fringe First award for The Unravelling, the first time a school has ever received one, while in 2010 we held our own festival, Silkworks, at Southwark Playhouse in London, the event for which Nick Hern Books published all our plays in this volume. We have just sold our first amateur licence, to a school in Canada, generating an income for both me and the school, while 2011 will also see the first of our students applying for professional acting training.
The work continues to evolve. This year, Mulberry Theatre Company has teamed up with Tamasha Theatre Company, where I am currently Associate Artist, to recruit eight playwrights to come and train under me at Mulberry. In June we are holding a scratch night at Soho Theatre, in the room next door to where I started in 2003. Mulberry students will be performing the short plays alongside professional actors. Two of the writers we recruited for this inaugural scheme, both 10 years younger than me, are currently working as workshop leaders for Almeida Projects, while yet others have had readings and workshops at Soho Theatre. These experiences were among the reasons we took them on.
You’ll be aware, of course, that I am writing in relation to these particular companies because both face a large cut to their ACE funding as a result of the NPO review. I know that this has been a tough funding round, and that overall ACE has done a good job under very difficult circumstances. But I do worry that the sort of work which I describe above is not visible to state funders when making decisions of the kind that ACE had to make last week.
The reason I have gone into so much detail is because in new writing in particular, there is a delicate ecology of ‘behind-the-scenes’ work in schools and communities which doesn't show up on the main stages, but which is no less valuable in terms of developing writers and audiences. This model can embed artists and theatre companies within communities, making them catalysts in raising aspirations among those communities and giving them a voice – all the more important during tough times when social problems are on the rise.
Moreover, this work is crucial in training playwrights as independent creative professionals, both as workshop leaders and project managers. This in turn allows them to generate writing-related work between commissions which excites and stimulates young people about the arts and provides an earned income for the writers. Ultimately, this makes playwrights more entrepreneurial and therefore less dependent on state investment.
Unfortunately, with 100% cuts to the National Association of Writers in Education, National Association of Literature Development, Writers in Prisons, North West Playwrights and Theatre Writing Partnership, the landscape for writers’ development is looking particularly bleak. It feels as if almost all the channels into the industry that existed when I first started out are being closed down. Increasingly, the mantle of responsibility for training playwrights, particularly in socially-aware work within communities, will fall to the in-house education teams of theatre companies. Yet it is this work which is some of the first to be threatened when theatre companies have to contract during tough times.
I am now in the fortunate position of being a mid-career writer with years of schools experience, to the point where I am now able to pitch project ideas and train other writers. But none of this would have been possible without the extraordinary experience I gained at Soho and the Almeida during those formative years early in my career. Large cuts to organisations like Soho and the Almeida endanger this work, and threaten to disenfranchise both inner city communities and young arts professionals.
If there is any way you could reconsider the decisions in relation to these companies then I would urge you to do so.
Finally, as a matter of courtesy I ought to let you know that I will be publishing this letter on my blog, www.finkennedy.blogspot.com. If you will allow me, I would also like to publish your response – though if you’d rather I didn’t I will of course respect that.
If you would like to talk more about any of this, please do get in touch.
Ps. Also enclosed is a feature length article on this subject which I wrote for the Guardian earlier this year.