Monday, December 10, 2012

Speeches from The Gatekeepers

Last Saturday, I chaired a panel debate among literary managers at the Free Word Centre on behalf of Spread The Word. Entitled The Gatekeepers (to the irritation of some) it was a really great evening, with a packed house of emerging playwrights, all keen to get a rare insight into the minds and departmental workings of those charged with sourcing new plays for some of the biggest theatres in the business. 

It was a two hour event, with an hour's drinking and networking afterwards, so you'll forgive me if I don't reproduce a blow-by-blow account. But the whole thing was audio recorded and I hope will be up online somewhere at some point, so I will be sure to let you know about that.

In the meantime, what I do have ready to go, which might give you a flavour, are the two opening speeches. The first is from playwright and Chair of The Writers' Guild Theatre Committee, Amanda Whittington. The second is my own opening to the panel debate itself. Amanda and I agreed that they seemed to complement each other nicely, so here they are (with thanks to Amanda for her permission to reproduce it here.)

If you have any specific questions about whether anything in particular came up, then do ask in the comments box below, and I'll do my best to dredge my memory.

But for now, here are the speeches with which we kicked off the night.

Amanda Whittington opening speech

Legend has it, in days gone by, the great undiscovered playwrights of the 20th century would tap out their masterpiece on a tinny typewriter, put it in a brown envelope, send it to a great agent or producer who’d recognise their genius, put the play on, untouched and make history.

It worked for Joe Orton and Shelagh Delaney, I once thought, so why not for me?  Orton’s from Leicester and I lived in Nottingham.  Delaney was 18 years old.  So was I, more or less. That’s what I decided to do.

Twenty years ago, almost to the day, I was ready to follow their lead. I’d written a play on a portable typewriter; photocopied it at the library. Bought brown envelopes and the Writers and Artists Yearbook. I packaged it up - off it went: to Nottingham Playhouse and Leicester and Derby the Royal Court, the National, probably.

And I sat. 
And I waited. 
And nothing happened. 

Well, a few things happened.  Two-line rejections came back.  Occasional script reports too, and a rainbow of reasons why the play wouldn’t be produced. 

Once, the script was returned with a hand-written note scribbed on the back page:  “This play will be done on the fringe and disappear without trace.”  


Three years and two plays later, I realised the fairytale was just that. No theatre, producer or agent was going to wave a magic wand, turn a pumpkin to a carriage and take me to the ball. The gate was locked and bolted.  How on earth was I going to get in?

Back then, in the very early-90s I’d set up as a freelance journalist. No training, no experience, just a sheer, bloody-minded commitment to making a living from words. I wrote for the Nottingham Post and one day, I interviewed a woman who ran an pub theatre company in the city. At the end of the interview, I said, under my breath: ‘By the way, I write plays’. She asked to read one. She liked it. She said she’d put it on.  And God love her, she did.

There was no funding. We all worked for nothing. I put in £250 and that just about got the show on the road. I designed the posters, put them up around town, built the set, found the costumes and props, did a bit of directing when the director dropped out. And as I watched the play on its four night run in front of an audience - sixty people a night, big time - I started to see what worked – and what didn’t … and I knew something had opened a fraction.

From the run came a decent review.  It was only the Nottingham Post but I sent it off with the script all the same, to theatres and agents, as proof I was being produced.

And I sat.
And I waited.
And I had a letter.

Soho Theatre were building a new writing venue on Dean Street and in preparation for that, they ran workshops. ‘Writer’s workshops’. For a week, free of charge. It’s hard to believe now but I genuinely had no clue what that meant. But I turned up to find there were six of us and a workshop leader, who seemed more like a guru to me.

We did writing exercises (I’d never done those). We discussed our plays (I’d hardly done that). We had notes (What are notes? I certainly know now). We worked with actors. (Professional actors!) All of a sudden, my work seemed to matter to somebody other than me. And I started to feel like a writer.

The relationship with Soho led to what you might term my breakthrough play, Be My Baby.  Written over two years in the mid-90s; first staged for One Week Only in 1998; then again in the opening season of Dean Street. I got national reviews and an agent – and at last, the big gate was open.

And I didn’t know at the time but the birth of this play coincided with the birth of what we now call the development culture. A culture that marked a shift away from theatres simply receiving unsolicited scripts in brown envelopes or submissions from agents to a more pro-active way of working with writers, where we were given encouragement, support and opportunities, sometimes before we’d even written a play.

Backed by the Arts Council and the new National Lottery, companies like Soho took a broader view of working with writers, offering the workshop programme that I joined; seed commissions, attachments, and in my case, a 10-minute play competition where Be My Baby began.

Could I have written that play without it? Probably.
Would I have written that play without it? Probably not.

In some ways, I developed myself: finding my voice from the scribbled rejections and the pub theatre shows and simply by writing with no sense of an outcome.

But there’s no doubt my career was kick-started by the development culture. And of course, it wasn’t just mine. Over the last 15 years, in London and across the country, development schemes have set out to involve and integrate a broader range of writers in theatre – and to get more new plays onto main stages.

And it’s worked. In the late-80s, new plays made up 7% of the national repertoire. Twenty years on, it was 42%. So there’s no doubt that new writing is one of the great success stories of British theatre.

However, it’s also been said the development culture brought greater intervention and interference in the simple process of writing a play. That ideas were examined too early. That directors had too great an ownership of those ideas. That second and subsequent productions, on which writers once built their careers, fell out of favour because of the quest for the new, new, new. That writers now have to pitch their ideas and write treatments like film and TV. And all this means some writers feel disempowered under-valued and even disrespected by the process.

This debate lies at the heart of the best practice guidelines the Writers Guild has just published with The Antelopes, in consultation with theatres. Entitled The Working Playwright it consists of two booklets. Agreements and Contracts gives a plain English breakdown of TMA, TNC and ITC agreements we’re commissioned under. Engaging with Theatres  covers the many schemes to develop writers outside those agreements. Attachments, scratch nights, seed commissions, portmanteau plays, working in schools and many more.

The recommendations within are based on a shared belief, born of experience, that there’s no dramaturgical Holy Grail or ‘one size fits all’ approach to developing plays and playwrights. That development works best  for theatres and writers, when playwrights are not simply seeded, cultivated and harvested. Yes, we need sunlight and water but great writing grows in its own unique way and the very best of us are wild-flowers.

We also know, in 2012, the current economic climate is fundamentally changing those conditions for growth. Writers here in London may not realise one of Britain’s best writer development agencies, Theatre Writing Partnership in the East Midlands, launched ten years ago is no more.

TWP was held up by the Arts Council as a model of good practice for new writing.  Last year, it was deemed unworthy of funding.  In July of this year, it closed.  North West Playwrights in Manchester has gone the same way.  Add to that the closure of Script in the West Midlands, and nine counties across Britain (which, let’s face it, is most of Britain) are now without any specialist support for new writing outside of theatres, who are facing brutal cuts of their own. That’s a deadly strike at the nation’s development culture and something London, which has such remarkable new writing theatres ignores at its peril.

You see, theatre’s a unique art form, not least because, in theory, it doesn’t need new work to continue. Dead playwrights can do the job just as well as live ones - and they’re cheaper.

But of course, we know, it does need new work. It’s the life-blood of theatre; and culture itself.  You may think that’s stating the obvious – but - we’re having to argue for libraries now and for arts to remain taught in schools.

And make no mistake, the industry’s fighting. Those here tonight – and so many more - know the value of you and your work. So I hope the question is not ‘Will the gates remain open’? But how?

That’s a question for playwrights, as well. We’ll need to become more proactive. More resourceful. Create opportunities of our own. Develop ourselves. Find our own funding. Find our own voice. Make ourselves heard. Sounds familiar …

Sometimes, when I’m sat at my shiny iMac, I hear the tap-tap of a typewriter and an echo from the past … “This play will be done on the fringe and disappear without trace.”

Whoever wrote that on the back of my script was wrong, of course. It didn’t even get to the fringe.  But I did, in the end. And a little bit further. Yes, it was tough.  It is tough. It’s about to get tougher. But that struggle made me a writer.  And a writer I’ll stay.

Fin Kennedy's introduction to the panel

I was asked to chair this panel after writing an article for Exeunt magazine entitled The Start Of Something Else? It was a response to an earlier piece by the literary manager of West Yorkshire Playhouse, Alex Chisholm, entitled The End Of New Writing? (There's a question mark on the end of both those titles, which is important.) In Alex’s piece, she questioned whether ‘New Writing’, like the Well-Made Play before it, had become an ideal to which playwrights were supposed to aspire.

In my piece, I put forward three theories.

The first was that New Writing as a term has, at times, become confused with, and overshadowed by, its loudmouthed younger brother In-Yer-Face Theatre.

The second was that the widely acknowledged crucible of new writing, the Royal Court Theatre under Stephen Daldry from 1992-98, was in fact far less literary-based than we have come to think. A little known page on the Court’s website lists companies and practitioners as diverse as DV8, People Show, Candoco Dance, Neil Bartlett and Anna Deveare Smith as sharing equal billing with the new writers during that time. There is also anecdotal evidence that Daldry ran a management policy that allowed all artists working in the building to read scripts and attend programming meetings.

And finally, I suggested that the new writing development culture, comprising all the shorts nights, attachment schemes, dramaturgical meetings and writing workshops with which many in this room will be so familiar – is in fact a direct consequence of ten years of half decent arts funding under New Labour. There are now more playwrights who have undergone some kind of professional training or development than could ever hope to be produced.

This state of affairs results in pressure on theatres to make hard choices about which of the many play proposals available to them end up on their stages. It has also, arguably, left us with a set of in-built aesthetic assumptions about what a new play is, or ought to be, and a dramaturgical language in which to discuss that.

But there is also a further pressure on theatres, which is perhaps more relevant to tonight's discussion, and that is: to in some way engage with all the writers they won't necessarily produce - using their public subsidy to encourage the craft of playwriting in general. The irony of course, is that the majority of playwrights in whom these skills are nurtured, will never have a chance to put them into practice – at least, probably not with the theatre which developed them. And this is to ignore entirely the many thousands of unsolicited play submissions theatres receive simply due to the extraordinary success of new writing in recent years, and the hunger to be part of it which that has instilled in large swathes of the population.

From the outside, it’s sometimes hard not to see the complex web of processes which stand between writers and that elusive main stage production, as being there to keep writers at bay, rather than facilitate their journey towards it.

Which brings us to this issue of ‘gatekeepers’.

Wikipedia (that font of all truth) describes a gatekeeper as follows:

A gatekeeper is a person who controls access to something, for example via a city gate. In the late 20th century the term came into metaphorical use, referring to individuals who decide whether a given message will be distributed by a mass medium.

This last line seems particularly apt in our context: the mass medium (if you can call it that) being a theatrical production.

The promotional copy for tonight’s event contextualises this further:

Most unsolicited plays sent to new writing theatres arrive at the Literary Department – and the first hurdle is the theatre’s script readers.

There has been debate recently, not least among the Antelopes playwrights’ group, about the credentials of script readers. They are usually young and poorly paid (I have been one myself, and I was and it was). Yet they are also the first and often only point of contact an aspiring playwright has with a professional theatre. But they are only the first hurdle for the unsolicited play.

If the play is seen to have promise, it will then go to a senior reader, then to a literary associate, then the literary manager, possibly to an associate director and finally, if you get very lucky indeed, to the artistic director him or herself – who usually at that point will say No.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about this process, about who holds each of these positions, and the theatre’s sourcing of those individuals and investment in their skills. I know that I’m not alone in having been let down by this system in the past. My second play How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found was rejected by every theatre in London before winning a big award, and is now produced around the world. 

But the flip side of this is that theatres are utterly overwhelmed with plays and playwrights. We are beating down their doors. We have been for years. Every Shopping and Fucking or Jerusalem or Three Kingdoms spawns another tidal wave of submissions – most of them awful, awful plays – and I say that as a former script reader and great lover of the craft. How can theatres possibly sort the wheat from the chaff? Is there even enough wheat in there to make it worth their while? The Bush Theatre recently said that less than 0.1% of unsolicited plays it gets sent get produced, and has dramatically changed its submissions policy as a result. And besides, is it really the theatres’ role to nurture hope in all those mediocre drama graduates and retirees? Doesn’t this detract from their main business of producing great plays?

One other route of course, is to get an agent. It’s true that scripts sent to theatres under agency covers do jump the unsolicited queue – they have already been through some sort of quality filter after all. But isn’t this just substituting one gatekeeper for another? Who are agents and what are their credentials, work pressures and training?

There is one further way of course – to produce the play yourself. But this comes with its own set of hurdles, mostly financial. Those without private means, or with work patterns which preclude taking much time off, or who aren’t versed in the dark arts of fundraising, are at an obvious disadvantage.

But let’s try and be balanced here. What right do we as writers have to get resentful when that gate doesn’t open, or doesn’t open as often as we’d like? No-one owes us a living. And every other job has some sort of selection procedure, and assessment process. Why should playwriting be any different? My experience with How To Disappear, as distressing as it was at the time, at least showed that the good work will get through in the end. Don’t we just have to write better plays, hang in there, and get a grip? There is another name by which Gatekeepers are sometimes known, and it comes from the world of mythology and story structure: the Threshold Guardian. In The Writer's Journey by Hollywood structure guru Chris Vogler, the Threshold Guardian tests whether the hero or heroine really is ready to move onto the next phase. They are a necessary part of the hero's journey towards self-knowledge.

One final thought before we throw this open to our illustrious panel. Is the term ‘Gatekeeper’ even useful? At least one literary manager I know hates the term, and its connotations of ‘Them and Us’. She argues instead that the literary manager is in fact the writer’s best friend: raising money for them, nurturing their talents, managing their relationships with others in the theatre, advocating their plays, championing their visions and pushing for them to be produced - 'holding the gate open' as she put it to me (though note that there is still a gate.)

Here to debate this with me tonight, we have a fine selection of those very people. I’d like to introduce:

Graeme Thompson: Literary Coordinator, Theatre503
Graeme manages the unsolicited script and first time writer programmes at theatre503. He is Artistic Associate at The Jack Studio Theatre and has previously worked as a dramaturg for The West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Nadia Latif: Freelance Theatre Director
Nadia trained as a director at RADA under William Gaskill. She has worked with a diverse range of writers including Rex Obano, Abi Morgan, Ella Hickson and more. She has worked for the Bush, Royal Court, Tricycle and Almeida and she was also Associate Director of Theatre503 from 2009 to 2011. Her show But I Cd Only Whisper has just closed at the Arcola.

Will Mortimer
Will is Literary Manager at Hampstead Theatre. Prior to working at Hampstead he was Senior Reader at Theatre 503 and Writers' Centre Assistant at Soho Theatre. He began his career as a director working exclusively with new writing. In his current role he has responsibility, alongside the Artistic Director and Executive Producer, for commissioning and programming the two spaces at Hampstead Theatre.

Chris Campbell
Chris was Deputy Literary Manager of the National Theatre for six years and is currently Literary Manager of the Royal Court. He originally trained as an actor, and has worked with household-name directors from Howard Davies to Richard Eyre. He also works as a translator of plays from Europe.

Karis Halsall
Karis is literary assistant at the Bush Theatre, managing the day to day running of the Literary department and Bushgreen, the theatre’s online submissions system. She is also a playwright herself and has worked with Hampstead Theatre, The Old Red Lion, Theatre 503, Nabokov, Hightide and others.

Sarah Dickenson of Soho Theatre was originally on the bill but unfortunately can’t be with us tonight.

Please join me in welcoming them all.

So, the first question I would like to ask each of you is: Are you a Gatekeeper, and if so, is that A Bad Thing?

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