Friday, July 26, 2013

Preparing the next generation

I've been appointed a '50th Anniversary Master' on the new MA Dramatic Writing degree at the Drama Centre, part of Central St Martin's. There are six of us, all industry professionals, and I'm pleased to say I am in very esteemed company! The others are dramaturg Caroline Jester, playwright Stephen Jeffreys, BBC Writersroom's Kate Rowland, Steve Winter of Old Vic New Voices and John Yorke of Eastenders. It's the 50th anniversay of Drama Centre this year and the industry links seek to celebrate that. We're kind of like Visiting Tutors with a steering group function, able to suggest ideas. I was recruited largely due to my long-term collaboration with Mulberry School.

Anyway, last night was the launch and I wrote a speech for it which I thought I would reproduce here.

I’ve spoken at length in the past about my theory of supply and demand in British playwriting training. I’ll give you the potted version.

I believe that ten years of half-decent arts funding under the last Labour government caused us to put more resources into playwright training than we perhaps should have. The raft of newcomers was exciting, but there simply weren’t enough production slots to go around. But the money was there and theatres had to spend it on something – plus they were expected to meet various inclusion and professional development criteria set down by the Arts Council.

Now the money isn’t there, and we look back on those days slightly wistfully. But what we’ve been left with is a critical mass of playwrights who have gone through some sort of professional development – far more than could ever hope to be produced.

This is a generation of writers who, like me, trained over the past ten years when they were in their twenties (either attached to theatres or in the parallel marketplace of higher education) and while some have had some success, most have scratched a living with the odd commission, some fringe shows, entering endless shorts night and competitions – all the while holding down a day job in something (hopefully) related like teaching or journalism.

Large amounts of them are kept in what one writer I know describes as a ‘holding pattern’ around theatres up and down the country, waiting for their ‘call’ to come in and ‘land’ with a full-length production; their big break.

Almost all report the attendant symptoms of any marketplace in which there is an over-supply of labour – low or no pay, poor treatment, and exclusion from the means of production. This is a generation now entering their thirties and looking for some security; marriage, kids, mortgage, pension. They are an under-used resource but, harnessed in the right way, could be a powerful force – such as one-to-one mentors to students on this course, for example.

But the good news is that those who have survived have done so by becoming entrepreneurs. Many of this generation of playwrights have started their own companies, often blurring the boundaries of acting, playwriting and directing. Many don’t wait for the phone to ring, but produce their own work, raise their own funds and broker their own professional connections – effectively becoming their own producers. Jennifer Tuckett’s own Alligators’ Club in Manchester is a fine example.

I set up something similar at Mulberry School for Girls in East London. When the opportunity arose to work as the school’s playwright-in-residence, it was initially for one term. But I saw an opportunity – and was lucky to have found a school with a similar appetite to be at the cutting edge.

Six years later I am still there. Together, we have founded a theatre company, produced five plays in Edinburgh and London, received national press coverage, had all our work commercially published in a volume by Nick Hern Books, and to this day we’re still the only British state school ever to have won a Scotsman Fringe First award. Along the way, we’ve touched the lives of hundreds of East London teenagers. Of all the plays I’ve written, those for Mulberry are undoubtedly the ones I’m most proud of.

But it doesn’t end there. Such was the profile of the work which Mulberry and I were able to achieve together, that fundraising became possible to build the school’s own, on site, 150-seat studio theatre. A new play of mine, The Dream Collector, a 16-hander developed across two schools, will officially open the building this autumn. In addition, I have personally spent two years raising some funds of my own for the new theatre to become a hub of playwright-in-education training. The scheme, Schoolwrights, aims to become an annual rolling programme, and will tap into that critical mass of professionally-trained but under-utilised playwrights. From September I am returning to the school to take up a part-time position of External Projects Producer, brokering new partnerships between the school and the theatre industry.

I tell you all this not to show off – though I am proud of it – but because I think that actually, this is the future of theatre.

My In Battalions report, widely circulated, showed conclusively that there is not only less money now for training and development, but a climate of fear taking hold in the arts. But that is an opportunity as well as a challenge. We are going to have to be more imaginative about how we develop ourselves as artists, and as Jennifer and I have found, that can be immensely empowering. And if we end up doing it in community settings, we kill two birds with one stone – simultaneously taking our skills back to the taxpayers who initially funded them, and securing their support for future investment in our sector.

I would like to see this model more fully embedded in playwright training, and this is one of the things I hope to be able to bring to Central St Martin’s new MA. Upheavals to the arts funding system – such as the recent rule change that regularly-funded Arts Council companies can no longer apply to Grants for the Arts – means that this lottery-funded pot will become more led by individual artists than ever before. And as politicians like Ed Vaizey like to remind us, this is one of the few pots of arts funding which is actually going up – though not by much and, being the Lottery, it’s a bit of a gamble to rely on it for long. What politicians like Vaizey also don’t mention is that the parallel strand, the Arts Council’s grant-in-aid budget, Government money which sustains the infrastructure of theatre buildings and touring companies, is being repeatedly slashed.

But whatever the politics of the situation, the reality is that the balance of power appears to be shifting. Producing infrastructure, the bricks-and-mortar of theatre, is on its knees – caught in a risk-averse storm of Arts Council and local council cuts, audiences with less to spend and ferocious competition for what philanthropy remains.

But artist-led, light-on-their-feet, individual projects appear to be in the ascendancy. One senior practitioner even speculated to me that we might be seeing a return to the 1970s model of artist-led touring companies such as Joint Stock, as the place where the radical, cutting edge of theatre takes place.

Perhaps that’s fanciful. But if you think about it, doesn’t part of you agree that the idea of theatre as having to take place in an expensive building, at 7.30pm, with a whole mechanical infrastructure behind it seems just a little bit ... well ... 20th century?

We need to educate the next generation of writers not just in how to take advantage of that, but how to take the lead. I don’t want them to have the same ad hoc, sink-or-swim experiences that my generation did. As In Battalions again proved, they will be entering the profession under some of the toughest economic conditions in living memory.

So I hope to bring three things to this course:

I want to try to embed in playwright training the model of looking beyond the traditional means of production – and towards schools, hospitals, socials services departments and others, as the potential nurseries for developing our craft.

I will be running workshops in workshop leading, including passing on a whole raft of imaginative exercises for developing plays with young people, so that graduates can deliver on this promise and generate their own income along the way.

And finally, funding permitting, I hope to hold a one-day conference on the findings of my Delphi study – a spin-off from In Battalions – about new, low-cost ways in which we can continue to protect risk-taking in theatre.

I look forward to working with you.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In Battalions at the Edinburgh Fringe

Exciting news - my ongoing In Battalions campaign and the Delphi study it has evolved into will be making a late notice appearance at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 

We will also be exclusively revealing the ideas submitted for the Delphi study longlist, and launching the voting process in which there is an open invitation for all theatre professionals to get involved. Press are welcome to attend.

The talk will take place as part of a scheduled Writers' Guild event on Monday 19 August, 3pm at Fringe Central. In Battalions is closely affiliated to the Writers' Guild, who have supported the campaign throughout. Both I and my researcher Helen Campbell Pickford have been invited to speak at their EdFringe event. We're particularly grateful to Julie Ann Thomason, the Guild's Scottish Rep, for helping make this a reality.

Tickets are free but you do need to book. Here's the listing on the EdFringe site. The event will be preceded by the Fringe Fair, at which the Guild will have a stall, which I will also be helping man from 11am-3pm if you want to come and find me for a chat (or to assassinate me, if you work for the DCMS).

The Writers' Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) is the TUC-affiliated union for writers negotiating minimum contract terms with the BBC, ITV, PACT, TMA, ITC and others; lobbying for writers in Westminster, Edinburgh and Brussels; advising and representing members over work issues and informing and communicating with the writing community. The Guild punches well above its weight in terms of national profile and negotiating achievements, and all with a core staff of about five people. I'm a relatively new member, but I've been hugely impressed with them as an organisation, and the benefits of joining. At the Fringe Fair you can find out more – and sign up.

The In Battalions talk straight afterwards at 3pm will be an overview of the sort of campaign which Guild membership can bring about, and which the Guild will support proactive members in initiating. In my case, it was through attending one of the regular Guild events in Parliament which led to my meeting Ed Vaizey in the first place. The Guild then supported me by paying for the costs of the postal mailout of surveys to theatres, and in disseminating and promoting the report on their website, in their weekly email bulleting and in the Guild magazine, all of which go out to their thousands of members.

Our talk at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe will give an overview of the campaign so far. We will also be launching the voting process for the Delphi study, the campaign's next stage - and for which there is an open invitation for all theatre professionals to get involved. Helen and I will be revealing the 36 (36!) ideas we have had submitted for the study's longlist, and explaining how to get involved in voting on them. This is with a view to collating the results in the September and publishing a new report, containing the full findings of this new consultation process on how to protect risk-taking on new work, despite the dire economic circumstances. 

Please help us disseminate news of this important event. The more people take part in the Delphi voting process, the more credibility the study will have.

And if you make it along on 19th August, do come and say hello!

Monday, July 08, 2013

Long Days

I've recently been doing some work for Digital Theatre Plus, the education wing of Digital Theatre, which is sort of the Netflix for theatre, offering pay-per-view downloads of professional productions. Digital Theatre Plus commissions playwrights to deconstruct other playwrights' work, and produce in-class resources for schools, colleges and Universities studying the plays on their site.

My first one is now available online. They gave me Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, which turned out to be quite a big job! (40,000 words, in fact). Here's a blog I wrote for them on how I found the process, and what I discovered about the play along the way....
Laurie Metcalf and David Suchet in the 2012 production
Taking on an education pack commission, to deconstruct Eugene O’Neill’s classic play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, was a bigger job than I anticipated. It was also far more rewarding.

Fiona Lindsay
, Director of Digital Theatre Plus, had said, with deceptive simplicity, that they wanted a playwright to take apart another playwright’s work, to “look at the architecture, and what makes the play tick”.

The truth, as I was to find out, was that the ‘architecture’ of Long Day’s Journey Into Night was the entire life one complicated, unhappy man; its foundations alone stretched back to a time before he was born. As for what made it ‘tick’, this was rather like taking apart an antique pocket watch, constructed with intricate detail by a master craftsman.

Like all great plays, a simple exterior turns out to house some fiendishly complex mechanics.

It is a play in which nothing is as it seems. Set at the height of summer, yet we never leave the house (and out the window there is nothing but cold, wet fog). Set amid a family, yet this is not a play about security nor love, but guilt, recriminations, paranoia and hatred. Set over barely one day, yet in its four lead characters it encompasses several lifetimes. As day becomes night, and as the past becomes the present, it is almost as if time is running backwards.
Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O’Neill captures with cruel precision each one of ‘the four haunted Tyrones’ and with them, of course, his own unhappy family. In taking us back to his youth, he also reveals the seeds of many of his other plays. In the two mismatched brothers we can clearly see Beyond The Horizon. In his brother Jamie’s alcoholism is revealed A Moon For The Misbegotten. In Edmund’s tales of the sea we get a glimpse of Anna Christie. In the offstage bars and whorehouses we hear the chink of The Iceman Cometh. While in everything the play is not, is written its mirror-image companion piece Ah, Wilderness! It is a play which could only be written at the end of a life.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
is also a paean to some of O’Neill’s greatest influences. We can see Strindberg in its psychological depth, Ibsen in its moral uncertainty and Chekhov in its refusal to offer us a neat or comforting conclusion.  More obviously, during a drunken battle of wits between father and youngest son, we get direct quotes from Nietzsche, Wilde, Dowson, Baudelaire, Kipling, Shakespeare and the Bible. Literature overshadows both the play and the life from which it sprang; the source of O’Neills father’s wealth – and also his unhappiness – was a stage adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

This complexity makes the play rich to analyse, and a perfect choice for students of the craft. Studying the play myself, it sometimes felt as if I’d spent all day drinking whisky in that living room with that crazy, unhappy family. But that is testament to the extraordinary, detailed reality which O’Neill manages to create.

Staggering down the stairs at the end of the day, I sometimes thought of Eugene O’Neill exiting his own study at the end of a day’s writing – often in tears, as his wife’s memoirs testify. I’m glad to say it never quite got to that stage for me. But it is sad to think that O’Neill never really escaped that cycle of unhappiness depicted in his plays. But his loss is our gain. It is hard to think of a body of work written with more rawness, tenderness or truth than his.

Fin Kennedy’s education pack on Eugene O’Neill’s
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is now live on Digital Theatre Plus. (Note that this is a truncated version; for full access, a full license to the site must be purchased).