Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Power to the People

This week, my best known play, How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, opens on both sides of the Atlantic, in London and in Washington DC. Later this year you can also catch it in Greenwich, Northampton, and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Other performances have just closed in York, Warwick and Belfast. Last season you could have seen it in Bristol, Bournemouth, Dunfermline, Guildford and Edinburgh (again). No, this isn’t a set of professional tour dates. Not one of these productions will be reviewed by the national press. The truth is that I have a play that is popular with - whisper it - amateurs.

To be fair, the London production, by final year Acting students at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) is about as professional an amateur production as you’re likely to get, while the Washington DC version is actually the latest small scale professional theatre to produce the play in the States. But the fact remains that, five years on from its world premiere at Sheffield Crucible, my play seems to have entered the theatrical bloodstream both here and in the US, and is having the most extraordinary – and unexpected - afterlife.

The play first achieved some notoriety as the surprise winner of the 2006 John Whiting Award. It was the first time in the award’s history that an unproduced play had won. The irony was that the script had been doing the rounds of literary departments for over 18 months, and had been rejected by almost every theatre in London. There was a time when it seemed as if the play’s title was an ominous reference to its fate, not to mention that of my own career. (I had actually abandoned playwriting to re-train as a teacher when the script scooped the award. I used the prize money to give up the PGCE and return to writing.) How To Disappear seems to have gone from the play that no-one wanted, to one that, in the amateur sector at least, is rarely not on somewhere.

Alright, I’ll stop showing off. No-one was more surprised than me by the play’s unlikely change in fortunes. But I’m rather proud that it seems to have gone on to appeal to so many grass roots performance groups around the country. Its popularity, particularly among University drama societies, has led to regular correspondences with a whole range of people, and interviews with amateur sector media such as Amateur Stage Magazine and Stage Talk TV. It’s a sector that’s off the radar for most professional theatremakers. In fact, we have historically - and shamefully in my opinion - tended to be rather sniffy about it. But for playwrights in particular, as state funding for professional theatres contracts and commissions dry up, amateurs are an increasingly important marketplace for our work. They’re also a wonderful example of an entirely spontaneous and self-funding movement of ordinary citizens so in love with our art form that they want to get involved. We should be taking them more seriously. After all, weren't we all amateurs once?

I can’t entirely claim all the credit for How To Disappear’s amateur success.(Indeed, if I knew that secret I’d bottle it and sell it, or at the very least, do it again with another play.) But there is one great champion of this sector who spends most of her time behind the scenes, and that is Nick Hern Books’ Performing Rights Manager Tamara von Werthern. Most play publishers will have someone doing something similar to Tamara’s role, but few work so tirelessly to bring professional playwrights and the amateur theatre sector together in such a happy partnership. Tamara oversees NHB’s regularly updated Guide to Plays for Performance, downloadable free from their website, supplemented by quarterly email updates to a nationwide email list, adverts in amateur theatre magazines, and even personal advice over the phone on plays which might be suitable. Tamara was also the driving force behind NHB’s new playfinder web service, allowing the public to search the publisher’s back catalogue by genre, theme, era and specific casting requirements. She estimates that 60-70% of their published plays have at least one production in the amateur/student market. It’s also a sector that appears to be bucking the recession, with interest in plays from NHB’s list increasing year by year.

For more popular plays this can soon add up. A typical licence fee costs £69 plus VAT per performance, of which the writer sees about eighty percent. A company producing a play for a six night run can net a writer £300 – hardly beyond the means of most amateur groups, but also a fair price for a play which is already written and requires no further work by its author. Needless to say, a few of these really help in paying the rent while a writer works on other new ideas, which in turn may also become popular with these very same groups. It’s a self-sustaining, mutually-beneficial cycle, and all without an Arts Council application form in sight.

I don’t mind telling you that royalties from How To Disappear typically come to around £2,000-£3,000 per year which, depending on the sort of year I’m having, can account for around 15% of my annual income. But that’s small beer compared with some writers. Fellow NHB label mate Amanda Whittington has three plays regularly in the amateur hit parade, one of which, Be My Baby, became a GCSE/A-Level Theatre Studies set text ten years ago. Amanda estimates that amateur royalties account for around a third of her annual turnover. Much of this is down to her own unusually proactive engagement with these groups.

“If I’m invited into schools, I do my best to go,” she tells me. “It's always a pleasure to visit, as I remember how important Theatre Studies was to me as a teenager. I don't think I met a writer until I became one and it's good to show students we're not remote figures in ivory towers. I also really appreciate the fact they've chosen my play to study. The schools and amateur productions have helped sustain me as a writer and I don't take that for granted.”

But it isn’t just about the money. In an age of austerity, the justification for state investment in the arts is coming increasingly under attack. What better way to get the population on side than to encourage them to access the treasure trove of new British plays, and in the most exciting way possible, by producing them themselves? Taxpayers can be artists too.

But who are these people? Is there a typical amateur theatre enthusiast, or type of play they go for? I thought it would be interesting to hear from the other side of the fence, so I sent a few questions to Simon Meredith, a drama teacher in Dorset, and leading member of Christchurch-based amateur theatre group Arena Theatre. Simon has produced How To Disappear twice, once with his A-Level students and again for Arena.

“I look through various play catalogues, including Nick Hern”, Simon tells me, “to try and find something I haven’t seen before. I always find it hard to find just the right thing. The ‘classics’ are all very well, but I prefer new work if I can find it. The students seem to respond really well to contemporary situations, especially if they are quite uniquely structured. I read the little blurb about How To Disappear and thought it looked promising, so I decided to take a punt on it and ordered a copy.”

But isn’t the play a bit, well, challenging for students? It all takes place in a nightmarish netherworld of skewed timelines, foul language, coke-snorting and characters waking up dead.

Simon thinks that these elements are precisely the appeal to younger performers. If the writing's good, they'll rise to the challenge. "I found myself reading bits aloud as I read, which is always a good sign with me. I was also impressed with how well the alternating between reality and unreality worked. The wide variety of characters and the depth in them also appealed to the teacher in me – I knew my students could really get their teeth into it. I also liked the black humour which I think is very real. To find laughter in a bad situation is very human.”

Matt Peover, director of the forthcoming LAMDA production, seems to concur. "The play is a delight to stage because it asks for strong theatrical choices. It's a chance to 'go European' in terms of style. It's great for the students to be pushed in this way to commit to inhabiting a weird hallucinogenic universe and to push what acting can do."

Simon Meredith's student production went so well that he decided to remount it in full for Arena Theatre, a local amateur company. This surprised me - A-level students are one thing, but adult amateurs, in genteel Dorset? Simon thinks we have the wrong impression about such companies. "Yes, we are amateurs, all with full-time jobs and varying abilities, but I am lucky to have a very experienced cast with two drama teachers and an excellent ex-student among them. Amateur groups don't all want to tread the well-worn route of putting on a comedy, after a thriller, after a panto, after a whodunnit."

Arena Theatre certainly seem to buck the stereotype of retirees producing Coward and Rattigan revivals, with some bold choices in recent years.

“We have done Closer, Metamorphosis, Art and we are also doing The Pillowman this season," Simon tells me, "along with The 39 Steps and Glengarry, Glenross. [How To Disappear] is the first time I am directing outside of school, and I am absolutely relishing it. I chose the play because it fitted the ‘new or unusual’ remit of Arena.”

But Simon also admits to a personal connection to my play, one which I was quite touched by when he shared it with me.

“I don’t mind confessing that as I was directing it I was going through quite a bad spell of depression and stress. Three years ago I lost my mother in tragic circumstances. It was an incredible shock, but I picked myself up and carried on – for about six months. I then had a breakdown. The parallels between Charlie’s emotional state and mine were so resonant. It is rare that I feel such a close connection to a play. The sad thing is, is that when we see [emotional distress] in others, we tend to shy away from them, as if it’s catching. Other people just simply have no understanding of it, have never felt truly depressed. They are the ‘suck it up’ brigade and, like many of the supporting characters in the play, offer no sympathy, often being actively hostile. But many of us do push ourselves too hard, give too much to our jobs, allow ourselves to be ground down and burn out. [Doing this play] gives me the opportunity to put mental health on the agenda and ask the audience to think about their personal feelings about people with mental health problems.”

This personal link, for me, goes to the heart of our relationship with this sector. Surely, if our plays are as heartfelt, as contemporary, as humane and as true as we like to think they are, then they all have the potential to speak to people beyond those few London audiences who get to see their limited three-week world premieres?

Writ Large, the Arts Council’s 2009 report on new theatre writing, found that from 2003-2009 new plays comprised 42% of all theatre shows. In 2005-6 alone, a total of 737 new plays were commissioned by Arts Council funded theatres across the country. Statistics aren’t available for the number of these plays which go on to become regularly produced by amateurs, but it’s hard to imagine it can be more than a few percent. We seem to be churning out beautiful new artworks at an unprecedented rate, and at significant cost, only for most of them never to be seen again. Is this really the best use of taxpayer investment? Why don’t more new plays find their way into the amateur canon?

Amanda Whittington thinks it comes down to attitudes and infrastructure. “Unfortunately, there's still a degree of snobbery towards the amateur sector. There are vested interests in professional theatre who want it to remain as a hierarchical pyramid, with a handful of London companies at the top and hundreds of amateur groups at the bottom. I don't subscribe to that. My plays were written to be performed and I'll support those performances wherever they are. Making ourselves accessible to those companies is one way we can change perceptions; making visible our support for them is another.”

But what exactly might this involve? The amateur sector is something of an amorphous mass after all, without any one point of contact. But when I put this question to Tamara von Werthern at Nick Hern Books, she immediately comes back with an inspiring list of examples.

“There are many ways in which you can support the people performing your plays – some writers have set up Facebook pages, where tips can be exchanged and questions answered. Some writers even send a personal card to every group who performs their play. It helps to have a public profile of some sort, so your play is visible to groups looking for something to perform, say your own website, or [if the play] is mentioned in articles and blogs.”

Amanda Whittington pioneered the Facebook group idea with her plays Be My Baby, Ladies Day and Ladies Down Under, and inspired me to do the same for How To Disappear. (Click those links to check out the groups themselves.) As she points out “Some questions were popping up quite frequently in emails and I thought it was more interesting for schools to talk to each other rather than to me. Having said that, I'm a regular contributor to the groups and I like to answer questions on the Facebook wall rather than solely by email, as I think that benefits more students.”

It’s surely easier than ever to connect with geographically-scattered groups using social media. But what if there were a ‘one stop shop’ for groups who didn’t even know yet which play they wanted to perform? Students and colleagues of someone like Simon Meredith are lucky, in that they have someone prepared to put in the research to discover what is out there. Nick Hern Books’ playfinder is an excellent development, but they are only one of six or seven play publishers in the UK alone. Someone like Simon would have to check each of these catalogues in turn to take in all new plays published in any one year. Even professional theatremakers have their work cut out to keep on top of all the new plays opening. What hope for the busy drama teacher or amateur theatre enthusiast with a full-time job and family?

At the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain, an interesting discussion is under way among the Theatre Committee, on which Amanda and I both sit. What about founding a new website, along the lines of Nick Hern Book’s playfinder model, but which holds an interactive, searchable database of all British plays from the last thirty years, no matter where they premiered, nor who publishes them? It’s a massive undertaking, but the idea already has a name, www.findaplay.co.uk (though there isn’t anything at that web address yet.) A preliminary meeting last month hosted by Arts Council England (ACE) showed strong interest from writers, publishers, agents and web designers.

My own vision for the site is that it could go far beyond a mere listing service, by using social media technology to become fully interactive – the equivalent of a Facebook group page for every play in the country. As well as holding searchable information on cast size, role type, locations, time period, writing style, rough production budget, theme and any other factors that will help amateur performance groups draw up a shortlist of plays that might be suitable for them, a comments section under each play’s listing could encourage discussion between groups who have performed it, and a forum for them to swap production tips, ‘review‘ the play Tripadvisor-style, or even chat to the writer directly. The site could be fun to use, even for those who don’t yet know what they are looking for, for example with a clickable interactive map for plays from various regions, short sound clips of actors performing perhaps 60 seconds of the text itself, or a ‘Surprise Me’ function for a random play suggestion.

Clearly, there are a whole host of logistical, administrative and financial questions about how such a site might operate. A rough estimate from web designers at the meeting at ACE was that it would cost between £50,000-£100,000 plus running costs – expensive but not prohibitive, and a small amount compared to state funding of some of our largest theatres. But if we’re serious about opening up access to our art form, and securing a long term future for new plays among the wider population, then it should be something we at least look into. The next step will probably be to form a consortium of interested partners and apply for some R&D money. (If you’d like to be included in this conversation, please get in touch to be kept up to date about developments.) Who knows – in years to come it might even be the norm for playwrights to take commissions directly from the amateur sector itself.

As Amanda Whittington says, “Publishers do a brilliant job of promoting our existing plays but I'd like to see more opportunities for writers to write new plays for this sector. So what if it’s not reviewed in The Guardian? There's more to a writing career than that.”

It’s hard to disagree. Our work is about people. So let’s invite the people in.

How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found runs at LAMDA’s Linbury Studio from 16-22 March (0844 847 0550, boxoffice@lamda.org.uk) and at Theatre Alliance in Washington DC from 10 March-1 April (202 241 2539, or book online here)