I’m a writer. I write plays, mainly. I live in the south-west of England and am very lucky to do so – I moved here from London, specifically to create the space to write, and fell smack-bang into an incredibly energetic and passionate playwriting region.
I’m a living playwright – not a dead one. The things I write are … new. Many theatres and individuals here are (or have been) excellent at encouraging writers who haven’t yet died. There’s a roll of honour, and some links, below.
You never hear of publishers complaining there’s “too much new writing”, do you? Film moguls? The West End? No? Simon Cowell, perhaps? HBO? Sky Arts? Channel 4 or BBC Drama Departments? So why is there a whisper (in more than one place) that you can have too much “new writing” in theatre?
As any fule kno, you can’t run a theatre without bums on seats. And as any box office manager will tell you, getting the glutes on the velour/bench/cushion (depending on your theatrical taste) is harder if you’re selling an unknown quantity. Unless you’re revered for new writing, like the Royal Court, you have to balance the crowd-pleasers with the risks and “buy” the chances to show riskier work (and risk isn’t just about unknown writers, of course).
But there are theatres that make this work: The Soho, Bush, Hampstead, 503 and Royal Court in London, Edinburgh’s Traverse, Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Hull Truck, Liverpool’s Everyman, Live Theatre in Newcastle, Exeter’s Bike Shed, Bolton’s Octagon and Sherman Cymru in Cardiff, to name a few, plus the excellent, buildingless Paines Plough and High Tide. In each place you find individuals giving writers support, challenging them and waving a proud flag for work that’s fresh and about today’s world. It’s not easy, of course. But they have all declared a commitment to discovery – to championing theatre work from exciting new writers.
Perhaps that’s “enough”? To be fair, if you’re not receiving tax-payer subsidy or other grants that call for you to support writers that live, you can do what you want. But theatre faces a challenge. It’s competing against those guys I mentioned earlier (Cowell, HBO, the West End, film) for audiences. And it shouldn’t just be competing for attention, but for audience LOVE. For that “I can’t get enough” thang. “New” shouldn’t be a dirty word, a “brand” or fad that passes its sell-by date. It shouldn’t be a synonym for “worthy” or “inaccessible”. If theatres commission exciting work, it will excite. (Then it’s over to the PR and marketing lot to do the selling – any good product was “new” once upon a time – and that’s usually a selling point).
So, like a tree falling outside a matchstick factory, I’ll creak here at the bookers and commissioners who whisper “maybe there’s too much new writing”: if you’re scared of “new”, are you in the right business? Can’t you change it?
To wit, within my own ambit, here’s a roll of honour. There are loads more I haven’t worked with and I haven’t named any writers’ groups, directors or producers, who tend to be dependent, like lone writers, on these bigger guys for support.
Bristol Old Vic through Sharon Clark’s Writer’s Room and initiatives like Ferment and the 24-hour plays;
ScriptSpace (created by Sharon Clark, then run by Sophie Lomax & Oliver Millingham) at the Tobacco Factory;
Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio under Andrew Smaje (now at Hull Truck) and their current Engage programme and projects like the 24-Hour Plays;
Bath’s Rondo Theatre;
The Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter;
Bristol Folk House’s Saturday Shorts;
Theatre West at the Alma Tavern in Bristol
And enabling networks like Theatre Bristol.
ALL of these guys make new work come to life. Without them, it’s the dead and the already-known.