Thursday, December 12, 2013

The cuts continue

After yesterday's minor victory, it's sad to have write with bad news of further cuts affecting small scale theatre companies.

I rarely make personal appeals of this nature, but two theatre companies got in touch with me yesterday with separate sets of bad news. I've worked with both of them this year and can personally vouch for the great work they do. Sadly, as is so often the case, they are both companies making with, for and about young people, and based in areas and among communities where they really are the only provider of these services for miles around. They're also both, in their own ways, quietly innovative in what they do.

The first is Islington Community Theatre, who operate out of offices at Islington Library
and run workshops and stage plays at Hornsey's Platform youth hub. ICT is run by founder Ned Glasier, an old friend from our days working at Almeida Projects together. ICT is a unique operation - a new writing theatre for North London young people, in which its members are not considered 'students', 'young people' or 'kids' but simply 'theatremakers', and are treated as equals to the writers they work with (and they work with many of our best: Alice Birch, Innua Ellams and Phil Porter among others). ICT's theatremakers also devise and perform their own work. Unusually, they offer a genuine ladder of opportunity into the industry - two ICT alumni were recently professional cast members in Clean Break's Billy The Girl, for instance. 

My own connection with ICT is through Goldsmiths. For the past two years ICT have been the training base for Goldsmiths students on the MA Writing for Performance when they have taken my Writing for Specific Audiences module. This year, we worked with ICT's own young writer's group, Speakeasy, an important course they run when most youth theatre offerings tend to be about acting. ICT work closely with Islington schools (some of the toughest in the UK - I know, I've worked in some) to take recommendations of kids who are getting into trouble who might benefit from some extra-curricular arts activities. Funnily enough, they are good as gold when they come to ICT...

Luckily, the whole company isn't under threat - but Speakeasy is. Here's what Ned had to say about a recent adverse funding decision:

"As you might know, for the last 2 years we’ve been running a group for young playwrights aged 14-18 called Speakeasy.  They are an inspiring, extraordinary bunch of young people - from some really challenging backgrounds and with voices you rarely hear in mainstream theatre.

Yesterday we got some really bad news – our regular Speakeasy funder is, at the last minute, no longer able to support the project and we may have to close it down if we can’t find alternative funding, quickly.

I’m absolutely desperate that we keep it going and wondered if you might be able to help with a tiny donation?

If we can find 100 people to give £4 (or anything they can) every month we’ll save Speakeasy.  The kids are already pounding the streets raising money (one has already raised £200) and it would mean so much to them to save it.

Please don’t donate unless you really can, and whether you can or not, the most useful thing you can do is forward this email onto other writers and theatre people with a note about our work and why it’s worth supporting."

I've been a regualr donor of £5 a month to ICT and I've just upped that to £10. Do send something their way if you can.

The second company is Pegasus Theatre in Oxford. They don't need money (well, actually, of course they do) but in this case it is about signing a petition to protest Oxford County Council's proposal to slash their funding by 67%. 

My link with Pegasus is through writing tutor Taryn Storey, who I met through my In Battalions campaign, and who runs their young writers' group. She got me in for some sessions earlier this year and a lovelier, more imaginative group of young people you could not hope to meet. You might associate Oxford with wealth, and while the group there are very different to, say, ICT's members, they are not without their own needs. Pegasus is based in east Oxford, the most deprived part of town, and two of Taryn's group members are on the autistic spectrum - a condition she embraces when teaching them to write plays. And what plays they are! Those two group members in particular have the most fantastic imaginations, and engage with the world in their written work in ways far beyond what they are capable of in person.

Here's what Yasmin Sidhwa, Head of Creative Learning at Pegasus had to say:

"We received news last Friday of proposed cuts to our future funding from Oxfordshire County Council. Pegasus Theatre currently receives £68,266 of funding towards our core programme of work with, by and for young people in the region. The proposed cuts would not take effect until April 2015 but are: a cut of £22,755 in 2015/16 and a further cut of £22,756 in 2016/17. This represents an overall cut of two-thirds, ie. nearly 67% over a two-year period. It would have a devastating and disproportionate impact on our ability to deliver our core programme, especially our work with vulnerable and disadvantaged young people.

This is a proposal, not a final decision. The next stage of the process is that the proposal will be reviewed at a meeting of the council’s Performance Scrutiny Committee on Monday 16th December. I have asked to address this meeting and want to demonstrate there the level of support we enjoy for our work with young people. Here’s how you can help:

  • Sign the e-petition we have set up on the council’s website, asking them to consider a smaller reduction in our funding:
  • If you would like to comment personally on the proposal you can leave comments here on the council’s website.

  • Circulate this email to as many people you can!
  • Do it this week – we need as many responses as possible by the morning of Monday 16th December.
We really appreciate your support on this matter and all of us at Pegasus thank you for making your voice heard."

I hope you can take a moment to support these two fantastic companies in whatever way you can. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Possibly a result

I wasn't able to go to the Performers' Parliamentary Alliance Reception at the Commons this year. (It was at last years' one where I had the conversation with Ed Vaizey which led to In Battalions). But it was held again last night, and several people have told me that Ed Vaizey made a speech in which he specifically named that conversation, and the In Battalions report, as the reason behind the recently-announced consultation on tax breaks for new plays and regional touring announced in the Chancellor's Autumn Statement. 

A few people on Twitter had speculated about this, but it's quite a result to have it confirmed. (I'm trying to find a link with reference to Vaizey's mention of it yesterday, without any luck so far. Let me know if you spot one. The main news report about the Autumn Statement from The Stage can be read here.) 

Before we get too excited, we need to remember that it is still just a consultation, and we will need to keep the pressure up for the idea to become a reality. There is also likely to be all sorts of devil in the detail, but even so, I think we can allow ourselves a little moment....

Thank you to everyone who took part in the study, and enabled the campaign to get such a head of steam. Who said political lobbying was pointless? For all the bluster, it looks like they did listen in the end. Maybe they were listening all along? Politicians remain a bit of a mystery to me. But together we really are stronger. 

Let's hope the Delphi study - out next month - makes a similar impact. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On Over-Writing

This is a foreword to a recent booklet published for the Adopt-A-Playwright award. I sit on the panel for this award and for the last two years I have mentored and dramaturged the winner. Regular events are held throughout the year for the scheme's Angels, in which they get sneak previews of the play as it progresses, and get to hang out with the writer, cast, other Angels and, for their sins, me. There's more on the scheme, and this year's winner, Satinder Chohan, here.

Over-writing is something of a curse that can affect all writers, myself included. It is like knotweed at the heart of a play, running its tendrils over the delicate, elegant thoughts contained within it, choking theatricality to death with words, words and more words.
It is a little-noticed phenomenon, because usually it is something which takes place behind the scenes, in the early stages of a play's first or second draft. By the time the play reaches an audience, it ought to have been sorted out - though even in professional productions you can still sometimes spot the odd moment.
Over-writing can take the form of an over-stuffed plot with too many unlikely or confusing twists and turns, though I would suggest this version tends to affect screenwriting more than playwriting, particularly in TV. In theatre, over-writing is most often characterised by using too many words in a character's dialogue. The give-away is typographical - at a glance you can spot several big chunks of text on a single page. People rarely speak like this in real life; real speech is messy, quickfire and overlapping. While there is a case to be made that theatre is not real life, and can of course be a stylised presentation of reality to make an artistic or philosophical point, writing in big, verbose speeches is rarely a stylistic choice (a notable exception might be the work of Howard Barker, who uses it to send up pomposity, power structures and egotism).
Over-writing has several causes. One is a misunderstanding about what the wrighters job is, and I use that spelling advisedly. The etymology of the 'wright' part of 'playwright' is from the verb 'to wring', as in wrought iron. A shipwright wrings a ship from steel, a wheelwright wrings a wheel from wood, and a playwright wrings a play from life - or more specifically, from character actions, which make up the events in most people's lives. Productions are what we wright, not texts - the text is merely a blueprint for that production, like an architect's plans for a house, or like sheet music for a recital.
In that sense, the playwright's craft is three-dimensional. We do not write words, like a novelist or a poet. In fact, there is a school of thought that plays are not a branch of literature at all, despite how they might be presented in school. We are wrighting events in time and space, not words on a page. Our craft is theatrical, not literary. But it is easy to forget this when the over-writing imps take control.
Another cause is simply lack of experience of the rehearsal room, and what good actors and a smart director can bring to an audience's understanding of the play. Body language, actor positioning, subtext and silence are crucial to our craft. The playwright must consider tempo and pauses as critically as the composer must. In a good actor, a raised eyebrow or a well-timed pause can speak volumes, and more eloquently, comically or heartbreakingly than a speech ever could, however well-written. Cutting away the excessive words gives these moments room to breathe. Playwright David Hare has a saying: "The play is in the air". It's absolutely true. It's the key factor behind Harold Pinter's famous pauses, for example.
A third cause is a writer's lack of experience of audiences, and not trusting them to keep up. But audiences are smart - never more so than in the theatre, where they tend to be as highly attuned to the language of drama as regular concert-goers are to the grammar of orchestras. And not only that, but audiences actually like it when information is withheld from them. It makes them sit up, try to work out what is going on, and actually makes them active participants in the drama rather than passive recipients of information. I've already mentioned Harold Pinter, but many of our other most successful playwrights have understood the power of an enigma to entrance - from Caryl Churchill to Martin Crimp, Mark Ravenhill to Dawn King.
In literature, Ernest Hemingway famously proved that you could tell a story with six words: "For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." I'd say the same is true with plays, and there's an exercise I've developed called Six Word Plays. Here are a couple:

                        A          When?                         A          Leaving.                     
                        B          Soon.                            B          Good.
                        A          Really?                         A          Going.
                        B          Yes.                               B          Go.
                        A          God.                              A          Right.
                        B          Mmm.                          B          Stay.
They are arranged into couplets so that each has a beginning, middle and end. They are deliberately sparsely written to give actors and audience an active involvement. I use the exercise as a tool for writers-in-training, from teenagers to postgraduate students. (The joy is that you can write several in a few minutes. Have a go yourself if you like.)
Bodies in a space. Active objectives. Beginning, middle, end. You get the idea. I know Satinder won't mind me saying that I'm telling you all this because her own tendency to over-write has been something we have worked hard on between the first and second drafts of Mother India (though the problem is by no means unique to her, or to this play). But we have spent some time cutting away the knotweed, to leave the one essential thought or action at the heart of every moment.  In his fascinating and highly readable book The Crafty Art of Playmaking, playwright Alan Ayckbourn says that with every play he writes, he asks himself how 'elegant' he can make it - in the sense of having no extraneous parts. How economically can the story be told?
It's a critical lesson for any dramatist, and Satinder is rising well to the challenge, and picking up skills which I know will transfer to her other work - and which will also allow her to go back to previous plays armed with a new set of tools. The extract you will see tonight is the product of that process, and I hope will contain room for the play itself to breathe, and give an illustration of that golden rule in drama, 'less is more'. 

And on that note, I am going to stop here.