Monday, October 14, 2013

What Do Playwrights Need?

Yesterday, I attended an interesting conference at the Lakeside Theatre, University of Essex, at which I had been asked to deliver the keynote speech. A few people asked if I could publish my speech online, so here it is.

The first part is a summary of In Battalions which will be familiar to many of you, but the second half is all new. There's also a sneak preview halfway down of the top five highest-scoring proposals from the Delphi study

What Do Playwrights Need? 

Symposium keynote, Lakeside Theatre, University of Essex, 13th October 2013

I’m a playwright, producer and dramaturg, but at the start of this year I found myself thrust to the forefront of the arts funding debate after a chance meeting with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. I was in Parliament on behalf of the Writers’ Guild, on whose Theatre Committee I sit. I attended an annual event the Guild holds in the Commons each year, the Performers’ Parliamentary Alliance Reception – basically tea and cakes in the Terrace Restaurant – but also an informal opportunity to nobble MPs, Ministers and even the odd Lord about whatever issues you like. The event is co-hosted by Equity, who ensure a good turn out by laying on some famous faces. That year there were several actors who had been in The Thick Of It, which in the Parliamentary context made things a bit confusing.


I was actually there to follow up on some lobbying I had done at the previous year’s event around the EnglishBaccalaureate. I sought out Ed Vaizey to give him a press release I had written on behalf of the Guild, and I ended up getting into conversation with him alongside my Guild colleague Andy Walsh.  Apropos of nothing, Vaizey said to us “Arts Council cuts are having no effect”.

Andy and I were stunned. It was shocking enough that the Culture Minister responsible for the biggest cut to the Arts Council in a generation might say this. What was even more worrying was that he might actually believe it. But it didn’t stop there. “Look around you,” he said. “Theatre’s thriving. Look at Soho Theatre, look at the Bush”. It’s true that both these theatres have new or expanded buildings and are currently offering packed programmes of new work.

At this point something became clear to me: this wasn’t a problem confined to Ed Vaizey. Any lay-person might look around them and say the same. Because what the general public are rarely aware of are the long, deep roots into the past which any new play has. Jez Butterworth, writer of international smash hit Jerusalem, is on record as saying that it was 7 years in the making. This is not unusual.  Laura Wade’s Posh, currently being made into a film after a successful West End run took 5 years, while the National Theatre’s current cash cow War Horse was born out of an experimental collaboration in the NT Studio, 3 years prior to its eventual premiere in the Olivier (with the book it is based on originally written in 1982).  

Successful writing of all kinds takes time, effort, sustained investment and a willingness to take risks. Unfortunately, it gives off the very powerful illusion of having just appeared overnight. But it hasn’t. Whatever is currently on stage is a bit like looking at the stars: it is a vision of the past. Today’s hit shows could arguably be said to be the final fruits of a pre-credit crunch era of arts funding. 

Andy and I made these sorts of arguments in response to Ed Vaizey’s remarks, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. I tried another tack, pointing out that in times of financial crisis, theatres contract around their main stages to protect their core work – and cut a whole host of behind-the-scenes Research and Development such as writers’ groups, schools work, community engagement and other creative projects which nurture the next generation. Hampstead Theatre’s decision to cut its entire Education department, along with its hugely successful and much-loved Heat & Light youth theatre was one example which I remember offering. But what happens when you get into arguments like this is that you very quickly end up drawing on personal anecdotes. The cuts we are talking about are simply too recent for there to be any real data to draw on.

Eventually, and I expect it was just to get rid of us, Ed Vaizey said “Alright, alright, I’ll look over any evidence to the contrary you can send me”.

We wandered off, and Andy turned to me and said: “I’m a bit busy at the moment, can you do it?”

I agreed, thinking I’d just ring up a couple of friendly Artistic Directors and get a couple of quotes. I wrote all this up into an article about my strange encounter with the UK Culture Minister, and put it on my blog.

Before I knew it, the piece had gone viral, it was all over Facebook and Twitter and clocked up thousands of hits within 24 hours. I was swamped with offers of help from theatres and theatre-makers across the country, all wanting to send Ed Vaizey their evidence on how the cuts were affecting them. Such was the amount of information coming my way that I felt I needed to be more methodical in processing it. As luck would have it, I was put in touch with a lady called Helen Campbell Pickford, a PhD Research student at Oxford University. Helen kindly offered to help me structure a questionnaire to send out to theatres. It was structured in such a way as to be able to generate statistics.

For example, it included sections asking theatres to state their level of Arts Council investment across three financial years 10-11, 11-2 and 12-13 (projected), along with their corresponding levels of investment in R and D for new work – to see if that had also proportionately decreased. It included sections asking if theatres had had to cancel shows for funding reasons, or take other measures such as curtail writer attachment schemes, schools work or insist on smaller cast sizes. There were tick box sections and other sections where comments could be written to expand on their answers.

The Writers’ Guild kindly covered the costs of postage to 70 theatres. We had about a 50% response rate, which I’m told is not bad. Alongside this, over 40 individual freelance writers, directors, youth theatre leaders, dramaturgs and others such as play publishers also made written statements describing how the cuts had affected them. These included luminaries such as West End producer Sonia Freidman, playwrights Laura Wade, Nick Payne and Steve Waters, directors Nick Hytner, Max Stafford Clark, James Grieve and Steven Atkinson, publishers Nick Hern Books and even the head of BBC Radio Drama. Among theatre companies who completed a survey were large city playhouses, small scale touring companies, devising companies, young people’s companies, mid-scale regional venues, and a selection of those with specific ethnic or social remits. While the numbers were not large, they were representative of a wide range of theatre companies and artists currently working in England.

The results were quite shocking
  • Two-thirds of theatre companies completing a questionnaire said they had had to cancel one or more show since April 2012 for funding reasons 
  • Half said they were programming fewer new plays overall 
  • Half said they had experienced multiple funding cuts from Arts Council, local council, trusts and foundations, dwindling philanthropy and audiences with less to spend. 
  • Two-fifths had cut down on R and D, including measures such as putting new plays on for shorter runs, cutting back playwriting residencies and developmental readings, cancelling open access workshops for beginners, or curtailing education work or unsolicited play reading.
  • Regional theatres, writer development agencies, theatre for young people, and small scale touring was being disproportionately badly hit.
Theatres were surprisingly candid about the drastic measures they were having to take:

  • Royal and Derngate said it can only programme work by writers whose names the public will know; 
  • Bolton Octagon described abandoning an entire studio programme of new plays; 
  • Theatre Centre said it had had to indefinitely mothball one whole national tour;  
  • While companies such as Out of Joint and Action Transport are returning to their back catalogue rather than risking new plays.

One thing which became clear was the interconnectedness of the sector. Paines Plough got in touch to ask to take part – a company who on paper at least had had a modest increase to their Arts Council grant. But they told me their overall income had gone down, due to reduced touring fees they were able to command from regional touring partners, who were much worse off than in previous seasons. Completely independently, English Touring Theatre (so far in good financial health themselves) said to me that they relied on smaller touring companies like Paines Plough to lay the ground building up audiences outside of London.

The full report ran to 22,000 words. At the suggestion of an astute actress friend we entitled it ‘In Battalions’ after Hamlet: ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’

Helen and I launched it at the ITC AGM at Soho Theatre in February, having sent it to the DCMS a week in advance. I waited a further two months, and didn’t even get an acknowledgement of receipt, despite a number of fruitless calls to civil servants. However, a drip-drip of quotes from Vaizey was steadily reaching us, including an email to one young playwright in which he repeated that there was ‘no evidence’ of a problem, and an oblique reference he made in a speech that to say otherwise was ‘rubbish’ and ‘scaremongering’.

Eventually, I called a campaign meeting in a room above a pub in London. Over 100 people attended. A lot of ideas were discussed, including some fiery young theatre-makers wanting to do pop-up theatre and flash mobs on Ed Vaizey’s front lawn in his Oxfordshire constituency. But the general consensus was that we needed to put some pressure on him to respond.

So I wrote an open letter to Ed Vaizey and, with the help of some much bigger fish than me (notably David Edgar, then-President of the Writers’ Guild) I got it signed by over 70 of theatre’s biggest names – including Helen Mirren, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Michael Frayn and Mike Lea.

It worked – within 72 hours Vaizey responded. Unfortunately, it was a mealy-mouthed three pages dismissing the report’s findings in their entirety and instead parroting various amounts of Arts Council funding which hadn’t yet been cut.

I wrote back, taking his arguments apart one by one yet again, and again asking that Vaizey meet with a delegation of playwrights to hear our concerns. But this was back in June and I still haven’t received a reply.

But in a way it doesn’t matter, because the campaign has already evolved beyond merely being an argument with the intransigent Mr Vaizey. The report itself has had a reach far beyond anything I ever expected. It has been downloaded over 20,000 times, featured in various broadsheet newspapers, and even had questions tabled in Parliament (shadow Culture Minister Dan Jarvis challenged Ed Vaizey about it in the debate in the Commons). The net effect has been that, throughout 2013, everyone in the theatre industry seems to have been talking about how we can protect risk-taking on new work in an age of austerity.

It was then that my researcher Helen had another brilliant idea – and that was to capitalise on all this interest and debate by launching British theatre’s first ever Delphi study, a form of expert consultation process.

As we are in a University, some of you will know what this is, but for those who don’t I will be as brief as I can: A Delphi study involves two stages. First, you go to a group of experts – in this context professional theatre-makers – with a research question to which you solicit answers.

Ours was:

“In what ways can theatres, theatre-makers and the Arts Council work together to protect risk-taking on new talent and new work, without creating significant extra expense?”

We chose our words carefully. ‘Theatre-makers’ rather than ‘playwrights’, ‘new work’ rather than ‘new plays’. As In Battalions showed, theatre is a broad church and we are all affected by this problem: among the respondents to the first report’s survey were devising or ‘non text based’ companies such as Coney, Third Angel and Ridiculusmus, and we wanted to continue this wide ranging conversation. The issue is about risk and the new, not just plays, playwrights and text.

We received 36 workable proposals in response to our question. These ranged from:

  • a branded curtain raiser programme to showcase new talent to audiences in larger auditoria, to 
  • local councils commissioning playwrights directly to create site specific work in areas they want to regenerate, to 
  • lobbying exam boards and the Dept for Education to get more new plays on the national curriculum, to 
  • a database of new and early career theatre-makers prepared to work for reduced fees, to 
  • extra tax breaks for private donors contributing funds to a world premiere.

In the second phase, you anonymise these proposals and go back to the sector for a voting phase in which you get ten points per proposal to ‘spend’ (ie. allocate) around the different proposals as you see fit. You can give all 360 to one idea if you think it is genius and the others worthless, or you can give large amounts to a few ideas or lots of small amounts to many. The idea is that a high-scoring shortlist of proposals will naturally emerge, sourced from and voted for by experts in their field. There are also comments boxes in which comments for or against each idea can be expressed.

The deadline for taking part has just passed and I’m pleased to be able to report that we had 70 theatre professionals take part, from a similarly wide range of backgrounds as in the original report.

Helen and I are still collating this large amount of data, and we hope to have a follow-up report ready some time before Christmas – though bear with us, this is all unpaid so it has to fit around other commitments.

But I can give you a sneak preview. Here are five top scoring proposals, sourced from the theatre industry itself, on ways to protect risk-taking. (They’re in order of score, highest first):


1.   Ask theatres to make under-utilised space available for rehearsal and performance of new work, scratch nights etc on a free basis. These spaces would be listed on a national register, arranged by region, of support and resources available for creative Research and Development. The register would give room dimensions and a check list of amenities. It could also list if the company was prepared to donate other support, such as staff time, or advice on fundraising, or if they would be prepared to negotiate other arrangements such as a box office split. The register would include contact details for a nominated room booker. Only free space to be included, no rentals. Arts Council England could administer this as a page on their website.

2.  Ask the Arts Council to ring-fence some Lottery money (in the way they did to encourage digital arts in 2011 or the Catalyst fund in 2012) to support Community Residencies, e.g. playwrights, actors, puppeteers, spoken word artists etc to work part-time in a school, hospital, social services dept, community centre etc. This work already goes on but it is ad hoc. A dedicated funding pot would get more artists doing it, foregrounding the social role we play, and building up public support for our work through direct engagement. The artists would apply directly, to raise their own fee.

3.  ACE to create a national network of Associate Playwrights in the regional reps, who are not only commissioned to write a play but are physically based in the theatre and proactively involved in the artistic life of the company. Creating more Associate Playwrights would raise the profile and status of contemporary writers and writing; it would demonstrate the industry's strong commitment to new work and to professional opportunities for writers; and it could enable working playwrights to have a strategic voice in artistic programming.

4.   Theatres work with drama schools to jointly commission new work, especially large cast plays. There would be a potential professional training opportunity if theatres could negotiate with Equity a joint approach to producing. This would enable playwrights 'to write the plays they want to write' and receive a professional commission. This approach would save the theatre money (commissioning and some actor fees) and would open up a new approach to the training of actors. (This was in fact almost joint third with the Associate Playwright idea above.)

5.  A scheme twinning larger organisations with smaller ones. This would involve the larger organisations agreeing to a package of resources with that smaller organisation specifically tied to support for new, risky, emerging artists/work. This might be an offer of equipment, space, marketing and commissioning funds. This could be paid for by all National Portfolio Organisations funded over £500,000 ring-fencing 1% of their budgets for these mutually beneficial support-programmes.

So to summarise, it would appear that we have a need for space; a strong appetite to consolidate and extend our community engagement; a need to establish playwrights as regular, salaried members of theatre companies (especially in the regions); a real interest in reaching out to drama schools, and a demand for our larger, better funded organisations to take more responsibility for looking after those further down the arts funding food chain.

Has this perhaps answered the question in this Conference’s title before it has even begun? Maybe we can all go home.

Sadly the situation is more complex than that. I’m often asked what playwrights need. The answer is simple. In fact it is one word: productions. We are not novelists. We are not poets. The text is not the finished product. It is a map for a performance, like sheet music, or an architect’s blueprint. We are arrangers of events in time and space. Productions are what we write, not plays. An unproduced play does not, technically, exist. They are like the ghosts of unborn children. (Like most playwrights, I have several.)

But neither does this sufficiently answer the question, in fact it merely raises more. It is like saying what do human beings need and replying food, warmth, shelter, love, work, meaning. The problems arise when we then have to ask: Where do these things come from, who pays for them, and how are they sustainably sourced?

The real question here is one about how we fairly apportion risk in the play-making process. Traditionally, it has for the most part been theatre companies who are charged with developing new plays, deploying the expertise of salaried staff to spot and nurture new talent, often investing in more than they can produce along the way, an unfortunate but inevitable wastage (though it only takes one Constellations or War Horse to pay off the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers’ programme or the NT Studio many times over. The question is how long they can go without finding one, and whether it is fair for the public to subsidise this search).

Often, the risk is placed back onto writers, especially at the start of their careers, who in effect invest their own time and resources (which could be generating paid employment) in writing new plays for no money, outside of any formal commission – in the hope it will perhaps win the Bruntwood, or be picked up by Soho, Hampstead or one of the other big London producing houses. To some extent that is those writers’ free choice, but I have argued elsewhere that this system places an economic filter on who gets to become a playwright at all – with issues for diversity and representation.

Ironically, it is commercial theatre producers who generally take the least risk, either picking up hit shows with a proven track record in the subsidised sector, and producing them further afield, or developing low-risk branded products with which audiences are familiar, such as known adaptations or ‘jukebox musicals’.

But as In Battalions showed, the problem with times of recession is that the constituency we most need to be taking risks, the theatre-going public, become the most risk averse of all, with an inevitable impact on every other part of the process.

Sadly, there is a further issue in all this which impacts very negatively on writers. It’s an issue of supply and demand.

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 – so they spent it on training us all up.

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 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.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. I’ve long argued that the traditional commissioning model renders playwrights almost wholly passive. You wait to (somehow) come to a literary manager’s attention, you hope to get a commission, when one comes along you are given notes about what the play you are writing is or ought to be, and do your best to meet those expectations, all the while the subtext being that “if you don’t get this right, we won’t produce your play” (which they usually don’t). The whole process is horrible – and wasteful of artists’ time, resources and talent.

So what is to be done with this over-qualified, under-utilised army of theatre-makers?

Personally, I’ve done my best work as a playwright in a school in East London. I’ve founded a theatre company there, written six plays, taken three to Edinburgh, and won a Scotsman Fringe First for one of them – the first time it has ever been awarded to a school. In 2010, the plays were all commercially published, and now other schools produce them around the UK and even internationally. Those plays have caught their young participants at a formative time, given them a national platform, defined education choices and career paths, turned shyness into courage, reticence into articulacy and given voice to an inner city community from whom we hear all too seldom in the arts. In short, I can confidently say that those plays have changed lives. And all without a professional theatre at any stage of the process.

So what, you might say. A few worthy community plays does not a career make. But it did make my career. That experience turned me into an Artist-Producer. And those skills allowed me to apply for my first Artistic Director job – and stand a realistic chance of success. From next month I start work as co-Artistic Director of Tamasha.

What do playwrights need? Well, for a start we need to be careful of asking questions like that – of sounding demanding or even bratty, to a public who are suffering in the depths of a recession. I’d add two words to the question: What do playwrights need to do?

They need to be bold. They need to love the world they are writing about so much that they immerse themselves in it. They need to give of themselves, genuinely, expansively, and in a reciprocal spirit, nurturing the creativity of the communities which host them. They need to leave their comfort zone, and be artists in the truest sense – the means by which the universe reflects on itself.

Yes it involves hard work, seeking out partners, fundraising, producing, managing budgets, putting up with all the tedium and irritation and failure which that work sometimes entails. But the rewards are nothing less than making ourselves essential to our society once again.

Because perhaps in the golden years, we did over-indulge. Perhaps we did create some bloated, unwieldy plays costing more than they could ever recoup.

A great friend and mentor of mine , the former convenor of the Goldsmiths Masters degree in Playwriting, John Ginman, does a session with new students which asks: why does any play need more than two characters? There’s your dialectic right there. It’s conflicting objectives, bodies in a space, spit and sawdust.  One silver lining of the age of austerity might be to reconnect us with theatre’s essence.

Yes, we all love spectacle. But we are leaving the age of spectacle behind. In any case, we have long been thrashed at it by film, TV and computer games. We are entering an age in which theatre must re-learn how to survive. The public are not on our side. The reason politicians like Ed Vaizey treat us with such contempt is that they’ve seen the opinion polls. The overwhelming majority of voters do not believe in public funding of the arts.

The arts funding landscape in ten years’ time is likely to look a lot more like America’s. Unless something changes, in thirty or forty years’ hence we might be looking a model of travelling minstrels, taking what we get on the door and nothing more. This may not be as bad as it sounds. It would force us to ask profound questions around what our communities want from us, which are the stories they cannot live without – and even perhaps to anticipate these things before they are aware of them themselves.

If only it was as easy as that. The fact is that with any creative endeavour, nobody knows in advance which idea or project is going to fly, let alone those which are going to take up their place as a national favourite, part of our common culture. We are still left with this issue of risk. Who pays for the ideas which might not work?

The beginnings of an answer lie, perhaps, in looking at who can benefit from joining us in that creative process, who will get something out of it even if the resulting end product is not a commercial success. Who will invite us in to research and develop ideas, and cover our costs, because they themselves will benefit merely from hosting an artist? Who, in short, values process? Community partners do. School students will learn from seeing how an artist works up close; they can replicate it in their own work. In health, studies show that artistic activity can slow the onset of dementia, speed recovery in trauma wards, alleviate depression in cancer patients and even reduce the need for pain relief. In universities, the civil service and the corporate sectors, creativity and creative approaches to work are valued as ways of improving communication, building teams and solving problems. These are all paid jobs – sometimes quite well-paid. But at the same time, the artist gets access to institutions, people and stimuli they would never otherwise encounter. Being paid to help meet the priorities of a people-centred institution has considerable overlap with new play R and D.

What do playwrights need? We need to examine ourselves, examine our society, define with absolute clarity why they value us, and then do nothing less than re-imagine how we practice our craft for the 21st century.

The pay off will be that we once again learn how to make ourselves essential.

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