Friday, October 25, 2013

The Dream Collector

East London schools seem to be in my life a lot at the moment. They often are, of course, but after a bit of time away from them in the past 18 months, at the moment several projects seem to be converging to make it feel like my schools work is back with a bang.

Not only is there Schoolwrights, the UK’s first playwrights-in-schools training scheme which I launched this month, but I’m also at the early stages of planning a new Mulberry show for 2014’s Edinburgh Fringe, for which I’ve just had the budget approved. 2014 will be Mulberry’s 50th anniversary, and they want to go back to Edinburgh to celebrate, the first time we will have been since 2009 and The Unravelling, which won us a Scotsman Fringe First.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve got a new schools show about to open, which will be the inaugural show in Mulberry’s new theatre, which I helped to found and which has just been built. It’s not only East London’s newest performing arts space – available for hire - which we’ll be showing off, but a new way of working too.

The Dream Collector
is a 16-hander for a cast of teenagers which I developed across two schools last year, Mulberry and St Paul’s Way Trust School in Bow. Each year, Mulberry and I have sought to evolve the way we work in some way, and this year, for the first time, we decided to try to develop a play across two schools simultaneously. This is part of a broader push to build on Mulberry’s expertise in developing new writing with and for East London’s young people, by bringing in new partners and sharing some of their practice.

However, it quickly became clear in the planning stages of The Dream Collector that ferrying two groups of young actors back and forth each week, to attend developmental sessions with me, was going to prove far too costly and time-consuming.

Then I had an idea. It was far easier for the ideas, rather than the people, to move back and forth. So, I came up with a plan whereby I would hold two after-school sessions per week, one in Mulberry and one in St Paul’s Way. Each week, one group would develop part of the story, then send the ideas, through me, back to the other school, who would develop the next part, then send them back again – and so on. It became a sort of long-distance version of the game Consequences. The two groups of participants never actually met – the first time was at the first draft read through.

The idea I came up with was a while coming into focus, but bears the hallmarks of both groups, and is a true collaboration.

One week in Mulberry, we were doing a session on possible locations for the play, and the girls came up with two unrelated ideas – one a spooky old country house, and the other, a trip to the cinema. In the session at St Paul’s Way, we put these two together, and came up with the idea of a spooky country house, which is discovered to have a disused cinema in the basement. The cast are a group of East London teenagers on a Media Studies school trip; the house belonged to an early black-and-white movie pioneer. Having slipped away from their teachers in the night, the young friends discover the art deco screening room, complete with old-style projector and cans of films. They kick back for a night at the movies... But what do they see on the screen?

For a while, I had absolutely no idea what they would see on the screen. The suggestions

from both groups struggled to get past teen horror movie territory. But then in one session, as so often happens, an informal chat took place after the session itself has finished, in which the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place.

Completely unprompted, the students started telling me about their dreams. They were unlike dreams I had had myself for years – dark, dystopian and shot through with mysterious symbols and cryptic imagery. I remembered having vivid dreams during adolescence, though I had forgotten quite how potent and disturbing they could be. Perhaps it is something to do with the way the brain is developing at this age? But it was extraordinarily rich material for the play. What they would see projected onto that movie screen were their own dreams. The house became that of Charles Somna, and the ‘movie projector’ his legendary invention, the mysterious Somnagraph...

Writing a play for two schools was a particular challenge. Clearly, it required a large cast. But at this time we were also intending to have a mixed cast, drawn from both schools. The logistics of organising this were still challenging, and I realised I would have to structure the play in such a way as to allow considerable chunks of it to be rehearsed separately by the two groups. So, I came up with a core cast of 8 named characters, who exist in the ‘real world’ of the play – modern East London. Each of them also had a shadow double, a group called The Neverborn, who exist only in the dream world, trapped and restless, like ghosts. After circling each other for the first half of the play, these two eventually converge in the dusty old basement cinema...

However, eventually even this proved impractical. How would two teacher-directors work together simultaneously, and how would two groups share the same set? So eventually, it was decided to rehearse up two entirely separate shows. The happy outcome of this was that, at a stroke, twice the amount of young people could be involved (32 in total – and that’s just the onstage cast) effectively halving the cost-per-head of the project for each school.  It also meant that the two teacher-directors could bring their own visions and creativity to bear in full, and that each group could watch one another’s shows, and potentially even write about the two interpretations for their GCSE coursework. It was a happy outcome all round.


In fact, in this model of shared development, though something of an accident at the time, we inadvertently hit upon a new way to R and D new plays at reduced cost. Two schools share the costs of the play commission and workshop time, and both get a large cast play out of it. There are two full productions, two directors, two technical teams, double the parts, double the design possibilities – the whole thing becomes hugely more cost effective. I even began to wonder whether a third school could have been involved...The only down side is that school productions being what they are – time-consuming for both teachers and students – they can only be put on for short runs. Mulberry’s version of The Dream Collector will only have two public performances: on Friday 15 November and Saturday 16 November, both at 6.30pm. Tickets are only £5 each and are available to buy here. I’d love it if you could come along.

But if you can’t - there will be another chance to see St Paul’s Way Trust School’s version of the same play in December. So there are double the chances to catch it too.

There is a page with more about the play on my main website here. I had a sneak preview of a section of the production over the summer, and it’s a real stunner. It’s the same designer, Barbara Fuchs, who we had on The Unravelling and our director Shona Davidson was assistant on that show too – so it is pretty much the same award-winning team, and the same glowingly imaginative aesthetic. It’s undoubtedly the most technically challenging show I’ve ever written for Mulberry, but they have risen to the challenge in an astonishing way.

Any school which can stage dreams gets my vote. I hope you can come along to see what they’ve achieved.

The Dream Collector
plays at the new Mulberry and Bigland Green Centre, Bigland Street, London E1 2ND (nearest tube: Shadwell DLR/mainline) on Friday 15 Nov and Saturday 16 Nov 2013, 6.30pm. Running time 70 mins approx. Tickets are £5/£3 concessions, available here.


----------------------------------------------------------------------

UPDATE 20 NOVEMBER:

The dates for the second production of The Dream Collector, by St Paul's Way Trust School in Bow, have now been announced. They are:

Wednesday 4 Dec, 4.30pm
Thursday 5 Dec, 6.30pm
Friday 6 Dec, 5pm

Running time 1 hour.

Performances take place in the school theatre on the main school site:

Willoughby Theatre
St Paul's Way Trust School
125 St Paul's Way
Bow
London
E3 4FT

Nearest station: Devons Road DLR

Tickets are £3 each (£1 children) and can be reserved to pay for on the door by calling 020 7987 1883.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Schoolwrights: A new playwrights-in-schools training scheme


 

This is a piece I have been meaning to write for some time, but after my exciting Tamasha news, and publishing last week’s keynote speech, I thought I would wait a while so that it gets a bit of its own space.

The first public mention of Schoolwrights was actually in the Tamasha press release about my appointment, but regular readers may recall that it is a scheme I have been working out how to run (and how to pay for) for some time. The background is the long association I have with Mulberry School in East London, stretching back almost ten years now, and taking in seven plays, three Edinburgh premieres, a Fringe First Award, our own London fringe festival and a published play volume.

Each year Mulberry and I have sought to evolve this work in some way, to produce bigger, more ambitious projects, to offer new opportunities to students, and to find new ways for theatre artists to work with them. In 2010, the Specialist Schools and Academies scheme, under which much of this work was financed, was scrapped by the incoming coalition government. So, in 2011, I applied to Tamasha to work as their Associate Artist, in order to continue this work in a new form, and share the costs with a new partner.

The pilot playwrights-in-schools training scheme which we set up together attempted to test out a new model. It went phenomenally well. Even though the scheme was barely able to offer much more than expenses, we had over 60 writers apply for 8 places, proof of the strong demand among playwrights for some sort of managed training around working in schools.  The 8 writers we ended up working with, who included Sabrina Mahfouz, Tim Cowbury, Neela Dolezalova and Amman Brar, each wote touching, funny, quirky and heartbreaking 15-minute plays which Mulberry’s students presented at Soho Theatre in June 2011.

To their immense credit, Tamasha really put their money where their mouth is. After the project was finished, they commissioned me to conduct a feasability study into how the scheme might be extended across the school year and be rolled out to more than one school, and even how it might become an annual programme of managed training with different cohorts of writers each year. I spoke to schools, colleges, new writing companies and playwrights across London, and put together several draft budgets for how the scheme might operate at different scales.

I’ve been very lucky in the partners this idea has inspired. My friend and longtime collaborator Sofie Mason, who runs campaigning listings site www.OffWestEnd.com entirely from private donations, and with whom I set up the Adopt-A-Playwright scheme, offered to back Schoolwrights and help me with fundraising.

Sofie once worked in opera so knows a lot of wealthy people. She specilaises in getting private individuals to donate to the arts. (Adopt-A-Playwright, for example, is run along a Roman or medieval patronage model in which private donors rally round one emerging playwright per year and donate funds to a pot to buy them out of their day job so they can write a first draft).

Sofie introduced me to a former hedge fund manager, Paul Wedge, and took me round to his house to talk more about my idea. This is what I think of as ‘proper’ fundraising! Not an Arts Council form in sight, just you, your idea, and a potential donor sat across the table. It was scary. But I must have done something right because at the end of the evening he pledged £6,000.

That first chunk was absolutely key. With an amount like that in the bank, we were able to go to further trusts and foundations and show that the scheme had some chance of becoming a reailty. Sofie marshalled a few of her contacts and between us we were able to raise further funds from The Writers’ Guild Foundation, the Herbert Smith Trust, and the Mackintosh Foundation. Tamasha also continued to support the scheme by pledging £1,500 of their own.

But towards the start of this year we were still £9,500 short, so I bit the bullet and put in a couple of weeks applying to ACE’s Grants for the Arts. It was the right time to do so – at that point we could show that the majority of the funding had been raised elsewhere but that we could not run the scheme without a top-up. We were successful – I’m proud to say at a time when only 39% of GFA applications are. It’s heartening that ACE are prioritising this sort of socially-proactive theatre-making at a time when R and D for new writing is being cut back in theatre industry. In total, Sofie and I raised £26,000 in two years – a longer wait than we would have liked, but it was worth it.

So what is Schoolwrights? 

Schoolwrights is a professional training scheme which sends playwrights into inner city schools, focusing initially on schools in East London. Playwrights are recruited from within the theatre industry and embark on a managed period of training to equip them with the skills to become writers-in-residence in an urban state school. They will have regular, direct contact with the school’s students, working with them to generate creative ideas for stories, and write a short play (15 minutes) in response. This first phase takes place at Mulberry, which is well-placed to offer itself as a training base for this sort of work. It’s a lovely, supportive school full of friendly, well-behaved kids, in which to cut your teeth if you’re doing this for the first time.

From now until Christmas is Phase One; a discrete term of work at Mulberry which doubles up as a training phase. I train the writers and pass on a whole host of creative exercises I’ve developed over the years, and support them developing creative session plans to generate the ideas they need to write the play for their group.

In January 2014, the writers will start a new residency in a second, nearby school, this time with more autonomy. They will work in pairs to support one another, though each will write their own short play with their own group of students. In total we have six writers who will work across three further schools. Each will deliver a further 15 minute play at the end of this second residency.

After Easter break, we will hopefully have twelve short plays developed across the four schools, each of which has those students’ voices at its heart. Each school will take responsibility for rehearsing these up with their students, in polished productions directed by their teachers. There is money in the budget for a masterclass for teachers with a high profile theatre director, as well as follow-up sessions where the director will observe rehearsals and give the teachers some notes. All the productions will be off-book and there is a small budget for set, costume and props.

The twelve short plays will then embark on a mini-tour in June 2014. Clearly, twelve 15-minute plays is too much for one evening, so we will present them in different combinations; once in each school’s own theatre, then at Rich Mix in Whitechapel who have generously donated their entire upper floor for one whole Saturday so that we can make something of a festival out of presenting all twelve across the day. And finally Soho Theatre have also offered to continue to support us, this time (we hope) on their main stage. (Dates for your diaries: Saturday 21 June 2014 for the Rich Mix performances and Sunday 22 June for Soho).

One of the key principles of Schoolwrights is parity of esteem between the venues and professionals involved. The same plays are presented in East London school theatres, at local professional venue Rich Mix, and at leading new writing theatre Soho. And for the professionals involved, everyone can learn from everyone else: playwrights from experienced Drama teachers, and the teachers from a professional writer and their process. Asking the teachers to direct the productions, rather than bringing in someone external, provides a professional development opportunity which many teachers are eager for, but all too rarely receive due to the pressures of delivering the curriculum. 

I’m thrilled with the calibre of writers we have managed to attract. Since they are all now contracted and confirmed, and have started their sessions at Mulberry, I can exclusively reveal that they are:
  • Alia Bano, acclaimed writers of Shades and winner of the 2011 Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright award.  
  • Rachel Delahay, whose play Routes has just sold out the Royal Court upstairs.
  •  Rex Obano, 2010 Alfred Fagon award shortlisted.  
  • Jane Wainwright, Royal Court Supergroup and BBC Writers Academy member.
  •  Morna Regan, 2012 Irish Times Best Play award winner.  
  • Abi Zakarian, 2009 Soho Theatre attachment scheme, 2012 RSC Writers' Group.
I admit that this year I made personal approaches rather than solicit open applications, just due to the workload that generates. But in years to come I hope to be able to open the scheme up to unsolicited applicants.

I’m also due to have a conversation with my publisher Nick Hern Books around digital publishing. With the twelve plays next year, plus the eight from the pilot scheme, we will potentially have twenty 15-minute plays written with, for and about London’s young people. I have a theory (backed up by every teacher I speak to) that there is a gap in the market for good quality, well-structured plays which can be read from beginning to end within one school lesson – with time to spare to then discuss and analyse them. And schools which might not be able to afford to commission them from scratch may well be able to stretch to a few pounds to download them as a professionally-typeset digital collection. This could potentially be a really happy marriage – quality plays for schools, available nationwide, structured to support teaching and learning, plus a steady trickle of income for writers.

Schoolwrights is a new way of working. It is a manifestation of one possible solution to the problems surrounding new play Research and Development identified in my In Battalions report. One silver lining amidst the gloom is that fewer resouces to go around means we will need to work together more, in particular with community partners. If we can find ways to stretch and develop our artists, which simultaneously benefit members of the community organisations which host them, then we might be onto a winning formula. And what’s more, we’ll make some great theatre together along the way.

Sofie Mason, Tamasha and I have every intention of making Schoolwrights an annual programme; the UK’s first centrally-managed, quality-controlled playwrights-in-schools training. We will need to be very on the ball around fundraising, but I hope that after this first year it will be easier to showcase what we have achieved, and inspire donors accordingly. (If you would like donate to next year’s programme, please get in touch!)

And at some stage, we will need an audience too. I hope to see you among them next June.

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.