Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bristol Experimental Theatre Company

Martine Shackerley-Bennett is Artistic Director of Bristol Experimental Theatre Company, who is waiting for Arts Council support for their Brechtian-influenced work.
Theatre Writing South West asked Martine to reflect on their most recent production and explain why exploratory and experimental work of this nature is important to the theatre landscape.
Brechtian-style theatre is based on Bertolt Brecht’s theoretical work. Our plays are issue-led, exploring themes of reality and questioning different perceptions of the world view. The plays with their constantly changing perspectives encourage the audience to question their own understanding of the issues being presented.
Using archetypal characters in self-sustaining scenes which can be staged separately, minimal sets and strong visual imagery, the plays are accessible to a wide range of audiences. Emphasis is placed on comedy, satire and absurdity, providing entertainment and thoughtful productions. The actors demonstrate roles through their physicality, creating visual pictures which allow the audience to concentrate on the issue being explored.
The writing actively encourages interaction between audience and actors in a thoughtful exploration, rather than seeking an emotional response. Although each scene stands alone they are connected by the issue. There is no particular structure of time or place, with actors playing both female and male roles as determined by the script.
In the late nineteen sixties I studied improvisation with ‘The Committee’ under the directorship of Del Close in San Francisco. Working on stage and interacting with audiences exploring issues resonated with me. Back in London I worked with different theatre groups, including one in West Hampstead under the directorship of John Elsom.
Appearing in two highly successful plays where people were talking about acting rather than the issues prompted me to work on new areas of theatre. Performing with my Improvisation Theatre Company Thin Air in festivals, clubs, pubs and streets for twelve years gave me a good insight into what worked on stage.
Feminist Theatre influenced my style of writing, with their plays incorporating scenes with no historical accuracy and changing gender to explore issues more deeply. The emerging male dance groups in the eighties that influenced physical theatre also helped me develop my own creative style. Probably the playwright who has had the most influence on me was Samuel Beckett. Having left school at fifteen with no qualifications and been barely literate, his pared down language resonated with me, as did the absurd situations he created for his characters.
No contemporary playwright unfortunately has created the same stimulation I have had in watching plays by Pinter, Arden, Adamov, Simpson, Ionesco and Dario Fo. In my experience most of the modern playwrights I encounter are not seeking to develop new art forms but to achieve popular success. It seems such a narrow objective for any artist.
My interest in Brecht had deepened over the years, especially as I was contracted to teach ‘A’ level Theatre Studies and train young actors. In 1999 I formed Bristol Experimental Theatre and my first two plays Sex Games and Matching Outfit about identity, followed by Politica Erotica concerning censorship were first performed at The Alma Tavern and later at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They were acclaimed by national papers as radical new plays which stimulated me to develop this form. The following year Tomboys and Sex Objects, exploring issues of female violence and Naked Lies and Violent Messages exploring lesbian relationships went to Edinburgh. They were criticised by some press as setting feminism back thirty years, which helped me to put my writing into perspective: my approach was not readily accessible to individuals who want plot and character development.
Over the next few years I wrote and staged twenty three plays and two satirical revues, Madhouse and Messabout. The issues have been varied but have included Paedophilia, Domestic Violence, Object Relationship, Idol Worship, Transvestism, Bureaucracy, Bisexuality, Class, Culture and Integration.
Our most recent play Twitching Curtains explores the issues of secrets. It has nine scenes with seven commentaries between them, reflecting on what each situation has explored. Each scene stands alone and is linked by certain events and names. They all could be the same person in different roles or representative of everyman/woman.
The opening scene begins with a man and woman on a train discovering that they live on the same road and both have a wife called Margaret, who is very secretive. This ambiguity of their relationship lays the foundation of the play.
Next we are introduced to MI5 with two status-seeking individuals who have a bizarre method of finding terrorists – the scene ends when they both ring up their partner Margaret. We are then introduced to Margaret in a toilet which, unknown to her, is monitored by CCTV cameras. With direct dialogue to the audience and through a conversation on her mobile to her friend Angela she feels she is being watched.
The next scene has an MI5 interrogation officer bring in a suspect who is a transgendered male called Margaret; the next few scenes explore personal and government secrets revealing how they are manipulated and used by individuals, for emotional satisfaction, power and money.
The final scene brings the male and female back to the opening scene where, this time, they reveal that both their wives have been arrested on terrorist charges, with the final realisation that they have been married to the same women for eight years which she has kept a secret from both of them. Because the play has no story line and each scene is independent from the others - but linked by the issue and key words which reoccur - the audience has to concentrate, changing their perceptions constantly to make sense of what they are watching.
The audience response has been interesting, which is the word they most often use to describe what they have witnessed. A great deal of the lively conversations post-performance have been about what the plays have stimulated in the individual, many having different perceptions of what they have seen. A few individuals who have had difficulty with the pieces were those who wanted a straight-forward plot with character development. 

I personally find modern theatre tedious, especially the resurrection of old classics and musicals. Many modern plays follow social realism which, to my mind, are barely distinguishable from soaps. With the lack of real discussion about issues in the popular media and politicians' catchy sound-bites replacing thoughtful debate, there is a vacuum which I think theatre can adequately fill. The current mind-set of those in power urgently needs to be challenged as they take us into dangerous unchartered waters. Unless we can stimulate real debate, bring thinking back on the agenda and question ourselves about what society should value and shape our own lives, then the destruction being done on our planet may be irretrievable.

Monday, February 4, 2013

There Is No 'I' in Collaborate: Open Space 12th Feb / New Writing Competition Announced

My name is Alison Farina and I am the Artistic Director and founder of the new-writing theatre company Butterfly Psyche Theatre.

Butterfly Psyche is dedicated to the production and performance of new writing for the theatre in Bath and the surrounding areas. Our aims are:

·         To promote, produce and create theatre from within the company, as well as in affiliation and collaboration with other theatre professionals or community groups

·         To encourage, enable and train new writers for the stage in a practical theatre environment

·         To create legacy with new writing, the spoken word and performance and to produce theatre that makes an emotional impact

·         Create a memorable shared experience for audiences

·         Encourage oral tradition, by creating stories that are passed from audiences to friends, family and the wider community

·         To engage our audience in subject matter and issues which are often kept behind closed doors

As the Artistic Director, my main objective is to create work of the highest standard where collaborators value each other’s talents, respect the right for everyone involved to ‘own’ the project and to remember that the audience’s appreciation of the piece is the driving force behind the project.

Butterfly Psyche Theatre was started in late 2010. It is an unfunded and very small theatre company based in Bath. I run the company on my own and take no salary. Our work is mostly with new (very green) writers where projects are (to-date) based on Profit Share arrangements.

Profit Share is a fantastic route to making work happen with no outside funding and ensures everyone involved has agreed to participate because they believe in the project. However, Profit Share is not a sustainable way of producing work and can cause complications, confusion and frustration between collaborators.

Although there are guidelines available for working in this way, I have found they do not often provide a good ‘fit’ for productions. There are also Industry Guidelines (ITC, Equity, the Writer’s Guild Working Playwright Booklets, etc…) but they (rightly-so) only protect the individuals who are covered by their discipline.

Personally, I work as an actor, writer and director and I've noticed over the last year that the recommended guidelines established by industry bodies don't often encourage or support the reality of ‘collaborative’ work between these disciplines.

A piece of theatre is produced so an audience will come and see it, engage with it, and be affected by it. It is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If collaborators work to serve their own part in the production rather than the piece as a whole, then who are we making the work for?

To discuss these and other issues, I've planned an Open Space event ‘There is no ‘I’ in Collaborate’ and invited local practitioners, writers, actors and directors (some we've worked with, some we haven't) to The Rondo Theatre in Bath.

From L-R: Anna Westlake, Shane Morgan and Hannah Drake deep in discussion...

I want us to talk openly about how we can work better together.  I want to make sure that the collaborative nature of theatre is protected and celebrated. And I want to ensure the theatre work environment is a place where quality projects are forged and collaborators respect each other’s' talents and rights.

Personally I plan to use this process to put in place a Production Agreement (informed by these discussions) for us that works effectively to protect all collaborators' artistic input, that best serves the production and that will be flexible enough to grow with the company. But I want this event to have value for the wider theatre ecology for the Southwest, not just for Butterfly Psyche.

The beauty of the Open Space format is that it allows the day’s agenda to be set by the attendees, not the organisers. So my hopes for ‘There is no ‘I’ in Collaborate’ include opening a wider dialogue on the issues I’ve mentioned,  as well as any others that participants have experienced or  any personal objectives they may have for the day.

This makes the event completely unique to the people attending, empowers everyone equally and makes it precisely relevant to the issues. This event also aims to prove we all have a common goal; to create quality, innovative and artistic work based on collaborative working.

This is a free event and has been generously supported by the Bath and North East Somerset Council’s Arts Development Department. Everyone who works in theatre is invited and as the old Open Space adage goes, “Whoever comes are the right people. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Whenever it starts is the right time. When it's over, it's over.”

The consultation event will take place from 10 - 4pm on Tuesday the 12th of February 2013 at the Rondo Theatre in Bath and will be run as an Open Space Event.

Our Twitter hash-tag is #ThereIsNoIInCollaborate and you will be encouraged to live-tweet at the event. If you’ve attended one of the Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshows this year, you will know what to expect from the event.

If you have not, maybe visit the D&DUK website to see what issues have come up around the regions as well as learning more about the Open Space format. Or maybe visit Lyn Gardner’s Guardian Theatre Blog to get keep up-to-date on what’s happening in Theatre today as well as giving you some ideas on what might affect you personally and that you want to discuss on the day.

All reports from the day will be made available online for information and (if needed) further discussion, but we hope to see as many people there in the flesh as possible.

In addition to the event, Butterfly Psyche and The Rondo Theatre have teamed up to bring a new playwriting competition to the area.

Making Trouble will explore making exciting and new drama for the stage. Its title is inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s words:

"Would the world ever have been made if its maker had been afraid of making trouble? Making life means making trouble."

Without trouble there is no drama, without drama there is no theatre and without theatre, well we don’t even want to go there…

Making Trouble is open to Southwest writers over the age of 18 who have had at least one professional production or script-in-hand performance.

Guidelines are as follows: Your submission -

·         Must not have not been previously performed professionally (although a script in hand is acceptable)

·         Must not need more than 4 actors

·         Must have at least one main role for a woman

·         Will explore the theme of Making Life Means Making Trouble.
First Prize is a full production with Butterfly Psyche Theatre with a two week run covering Bristol (at the AlmaTavern Theatre) and Bath (The Rondo Theatre). There will be two runners up and each will receive a Script-in-Hand performance with actors and a director at The Rondo Theatre.

Scripts should be submitted in an anonymous format attached to an email to and the competition is open for submission from February 5th to March 31st 2013.

Scripts will be read by a team of theatre professionals and the winners will be notified in April. All decisions are final and no correspondence will be entered into, other than to advise receipt of your documents.
If you have any questions please don't hesitate to contact 
I look forward to meeting you!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Theatre as Therapy: New Writing and Neurology

Following on from an earlier blog by the company, Sarah Paviour explores the motivation and process behind Labyrinth, one of Inkling Productions’ latest projects

Last year Inkling Productions agreed to take on a new writing project with a difference. We were asked to design a show for an audience of people with severe/degenerative and end-stage neurological diseases and injuries. We decided to tell an existing story, that of Theseus and the Minotaur in a modern way to ensure some elements were familiar with our audience.

Theseus and the Minotaur was ideal for this task as it provided many opportunities for including multiple performance elements (such as mime, puppetry and acrobatics) as well as an interesting and diverse range of props and costumes. It was an exciting tale with a strong narrative and a natural humour that made it perfect for this brief.

Research into this specific audience demographic is very limited; however there is an ever-growing evidence base regarding the success of role-play and expressive activities, such as dance, in earlier stages of neurological disease.

With the idea of theatre as therapy at its heart, the creation of Labyrinth required a different process to that which we were used to. A skeleton script was written to structure the story and this was then adapted to be as appropriate as possible for our audience base.

We used a narrator character to keep the story moving, explain some of the plot lines and describe the action for those audience members with poor eyesight or eye muscle spasticity, which prevented them from watching the action. We also used a lot of mime with dialogue to aid those with hearing difficulties. Repetition was used to benefit those with short-term memory problems.

As well as physical involvement for the audience - which was limited to a certain extent due to the nature of their conditions, including end-stage Huntington’s Disease / MS / Parkinson’s Disease, to name a few - as far as possible, the main thing we hoped to gain from this production was an improvement in psychosocial well-being.

The main reasoning behind this was to promote escapism in order to improve the mood of the residents, which in turn has been shown to improve adherence to therapy and rehabilitation. We also aimed to create a ‘distraction analgesia’ – there is a growing body of evidence showing the benefits of this approach in reducing pain in both acute and chronic conditions. Theatre provides the perfect forum to implement these two techniques and potentially also improves mood through boredom alleviation and generally by enjoying the entertainment.

Depression and mental illness are common in people with neurological disease so we introduced an element of comedy and generally kept the script light-hearted. The rhythmical quality of music and poetry and the therapeutic benefit that this has been shown to give people with neurological disease was our final addition at the script-writing phase.  Once this was constructed we cast the show.

We then entered an improvisation phase where ‘challenges’ were devised to provide barriers to Theo’s progress within the labyrinth. We aimed to keep the show quite fantastical to promote escapism for our audience and introduced some puppetry and a full ‘Minosaur’ costume. Use of colour has been shown to evoke reactions and responses, even in people with severe neurological diseases, so costumes and props were designed to be as colourful and flamboyant as possible.

We staged Labyrinth in the round to make the audience feel like part of the action. We also used any available opportunities for audience interaction – from a game-show-style vote for which potion the character ‘Theo’ should drink, to handing out multi-coloured ping pong balls for people to throw when ‘Theo’ caused a partial collapse of the Labyrinth.

We were very lucky to find a very physical, expressive and talented cast who did a huge amount of improvisation during the development phase. We feel that there is a lot of potential for ‘Theatre as Therapy’ in this area and are keen to develop this further. The show received a great response in its rehabilitation venue; from staff, residents and resident’s families and we are keen to take it to similar venues in the future.

If you’d like to get in touch with Inkling about this or other projects, please follow the link at the top of the article to the company website.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Theatre West: The A - Z of Writing

Ann Stiddard of Theatre West explains the company's approach to the latest season, supporting ambition, imagination and artistic talent in the South West.

Last December found Alison Comley and me, as co-Artistic Directors of Theatre West, luxuriating in the warm afterglow of a successful season.

Our Picture This project – where we randomly allocated photographs to writers to use as the impetus for new plays – had delivered not only five cracking productions and three script-in-hand readings, but also a really inspiring weekend where script extracts were read from plays by 40 writers from around the region.

There was only one problem – what now? As we are not a National Portfolio Organisation with regular funding, every one of our applications for Grants for the Arts has to have a new and different focus. We wanted a project that would build on the most successful elements of Picture This.

The ‘story’ of the whole project really caught people’s imaginations: from us buying the photos in Berlin to the writers pulling an image from a hat. Both writers and audience found this engaging, and its cohesion worked really well from a marketing perspective. The public readings of the short extracts also worked in not only giving the writers the opportunity to hear what was working, but also in engaging the public in the project at an early stage. Finally the social aspect - writing can be a solitary business, and our participants welcomed the opportunity to meet with other writers and to be involved in a common activity.

In addition we wanted a project that would span two years, to enable us to forward plan with funding in place. As a very small company (with precisely zero employees) the luxury of knowing that we have funding in place for two seasons cannot be underestimated. Not only does it free up time that would otherwise be spent planning budgets and filling out funding applications, but it also enables us to undertake a project in which we can work with writers who will benefit from a longer development time than we usually offer.

After a few false starts (and some genuinely awful ideas) we settled on The A-Z of Writing: a project that would use specific locations randomly allocated from the Bristol A-Z to give writers a starting point. There would be two groups: Group One working on scripts for 2012, and Group Two concentrating on plays for 2013.

In order to spread our net wide, we asked six organisations around the region to nominate writers who they thought would most benefit from this opportunity. This meant we would be working with a smaller pool of writers, but with the opportunity to develop some longer term relationships with them, improving the quality of our work.

We have worked on past projects with Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory Script Space and BBC and we were delighted to include this year Cheltenham Everyman’s Writers' Lab, the Writers’ Forum in Bristol and The Bike Shed in Exeter. In addition to those nominations, Theatre West included a number of writers who had narrowly missed being included in the last two Theatre West seasons. In total we approached 40 local writers and 29 of them took up the challenge.

A dismal May Bank Holiday Monday found most of those 29 at the Hen and Chicken in Southville, pulling ping-pong balls from three buckets to select a random square on a random page of the Bristol A-Z. They then set forth in pairs to visit their locations and make some short films to record their experience: all available to be viewed on You Tube. Our intrepid writers trudged the rain-sodden streets from Avonmouth to Withywood and from Inn’s Court to Blaize Castle, returning in various states of sogginess to a well-earned pizza.

Hungry Writers Lap Up Ideas and Pizza
At this point the writers went off to... well, write. Group One had six weeks to complete a 1500 word extract and a treatment for the play they’d like to write – and there was no leeway. On Sat 23rd June, 47 days after first visiting their locations, we were at The Brewery with a panel, a bunch of actors and an audience listening to a truly diverse group of scripts. The audience, actors and writers got to cast a vote for their favourite and a panel composed of me, Alison and representatives from some of our partner organisations had some long, hard discussions after each reading.

It was no easy feat but we eventually arrived at a shortlist of eight and these writers are now working with a range of support on their first drafts:

Timothy X Atack - Steady State
Steve Hennessey - Sleep Lane
David Lane - Rush
Joe Ledbury - Cake
Shaun McCarthy - Palm Island
Katherine Mitchell - Items of Value
Shiona Morton - AWOL
Alice Nicholas - Them & Us

After more readings in late August we will eventually choose five of these to produce and the other three will be performed as script in hand readings. The writers whose plays didn’t get through to the final eight have been offered the opportunity to submit short plays, which will be produced as curtain raisers during this year’s season.

The second group is also hard at it, each writer preparing (with some dramaturgical support) a curtain raiser to be performed during the season. Next year this group will go on to participate in a similar process as Group One – meaning another season’s work will have had its genesis with some people pulling ping-pong balls from buckets on a very rainy afternoon in Southville.

We hope that Theatre West fulfils a unique role in the region by marrying focus on the development of new writing with the opportunity to actually get work produced and put in front of a live audience with all the thrills and spills that brings. As we develop as a company, we want to continually raise the level of the work so that we contribute towards the bigger picture for new writing and really put the talent in the South West on the map.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Truth About Youth

Playwright Katherine Mitchell reports on a valuable new experience with young people at the Princes Trust

“Would you be interested in working as a writer/dramaturg on a Princes Trust project at Bristol Old Vic?”

Hell yeah.

My mouth kicked in faster than my brain. On the one hand: fantastic opportunity, encompassing several things I’d been wanting to try – working with young people, working at Bristol Old Vic, working with people who weren’t part of the traditional theatre (read “privileged”) culture, and working as a dramaturg.

On the other hand: I didn’t have any experience of working with young people, and I’d never been a dramaturg before. I immediately resolved to just deal with the inevitable Imposter Syndrome and dive right in, knowing I’d emerge at the other side stronger for having done so.

The Truth About Youth is a project funded by The Co-operative Foundation, partnered with various organizations. The aim is to take young people age 16-25 who aren’t in education, employment or training and engage them on a creative project that has at its heart the aim of challenging and improving public perceptions about young people.

With director Jesse Jones leading the group and Michael Melican (Mr Woodnote, check him out on YouTube) in charge of music, we had three weeks to put together a show with 10 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who had no professional experience of performing.

Before it started I begged David Lane for advice, knowing that he had worked on similar projects. David’s advice included:

·         Making sure to listen to everyone and value their contributions.
·         Keeping a record of all the material that gets produced.
·         The narrative might be about how we use the material to construct a journey for the audience rather than a conventional linear story.

From the start, Jesse and I were determined that the final piece should be driven by the young people; it should be their words and stories, not ours. My aim as writer was to not write, but to pull out the words from the participants, to find ways of creating a safe and experimental space for them to express themselves.

Another concern was to avoid making anyone feel awkward about a lack of basic literacy skills, but this turned out not to be a big issue. One girl preferred to dictate (and also not to read aloud), while others needed encouragement, unable to believe that their words and ideas were anything more than stupid.

It was often more appropriate for me to sit one-one-one and ask the right questions than to ask people to write on a given topic, although several members of the group wrote texts that were woven into the play. My frantic, messy handwriting kept these “interviews” informal whereas an audio/video recording might make people feel self-conscious, but this might be my personal preference; some might welcome the chance to record themselves.

When it came to writing exercises I learned that it was no good borrowing an exercise from someone else to throw into the mix unless I knew the reason why I was doing it. Sounds obvious, but duh! It’s all too easy to think “Well I’ll start off with that one as a warm up, then get them to do this, then that,” without thinking about why you’re doing it. The fact that it’s an exercise you did on a workshop once and enjoyed isn’t going to cut it in these circumstances.

The exercises that worked the best were those I’d created for the group and which fulfilled a purpose in constructing the play. Halfway through week two we realised we didn’t have any positives emerging from the group; cue Awesome, an exercise in completing sentences that all began with variations of “I’m good at…” (details here).

This led to what might be my favourite scene in the finished piece, what we called the reversed rinse-off; two groups of hoodied youths squaring up for a verbal fight, which then became a trade-off in compliments… You totally rock at facing your fears / You should be proud of how far you’ve come / You are unbelievably brilliant at flipping pancakes.

David’s advice about keeping a record of all the material that was being amassed was definitely a crucial piece of information. Pry those crumpled pieces of paper out of their sweaty paws before they leave the room, otherwise you’ll likely never see them again. Jot down what happens in the rehearsal room (as it happens), whether verbal or physical, song lyrics, suggestions; buy yourself a nice shiny new folder to put it all in because you are going to be drowning in little pieces of paper covered with various scrawled notes.

Scan the room for paper before you leave, and check the bin; someone else’s version of cleaning up might just involve dumping that messy pile of paper straight into the trash (oh yes they did). Trust me, I don’t have OCD (and the state of my house right now will attest to that) – but it will be worth it when you’re asked “Mmm…. Do you still have that lyric I wrote?” two days before the performance.

When it came to assembling the script, it was clear that the fictional scenes that had been devised were nowhere near as strong as the aspects where the young people were telling it like it is, whether through song, movement or words. I created a loose structure, following a through-line of emotion, a journey from self-doubt to burgeoning confidence.

Perhaps it sounds extravagant to suggest that this reflected their experience in the rehearsal room, but having watched them confront their fears and challenge themselves it seemed apt. I was blown away by the beauty, honesty and courage of the responses by the young people, whether verbal or written. To watch the final performance and see them all shining on stage, owning the material, made me feel like a proud mother. One young woman who had been struggling with a lack of self-confidence and panic attacks was still shining several hours later.

“You took what we said and made it into a play,” she said, and thanked me. Whatever else I achieve in the theatre, that’s a moment I’m going to hold on to.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Making Ends Meet - Payment for Playwrights

Shaun McCarthy responds to David Lockwood's Devoted and Disgruntled blog, exploring payment for playwrights, how theatres engage with them and what the future might hold.

As a working writer who is indeed a bit disgruntled, though very much enjoying the Bristol theatre scene as a punter (and the wider UK scene as an ACE Theatre Assessor, travelling to see lots of great work) my issue with the business is simple, but probably un-resolvable and certainly not intended to be freighted with blame.

The economics of new writing in this country simply doesn't allow for more than - what? - 200 - 300 playwrights nationwide to make a decent full time living from their writing. I did not attend the Devoted and Disgruntled gig because I was heading back to Europe to work (in drama education) the only place that currently employs me. I have not earned a penny from my theatre practice from any organisation in Bristol for a decade. I don't blame UK theatres for this, I know how they have to make their budgets work. 

Yet the theatre scene overall, West End and even top tier funded theatre, is in economic good health. There is money in the world of live performance, but not so much in new writing. Of course, wishing some form of trickle down subsidy for new writers who might go on make work to fill theatres is about as realistic as saying there is government money to retain housing benefit for the under 25s if we stop pouring money into an unwin-able war in Afghanistan. Funds are not instantly transferable.

To me, it appears that the theatre scene is, if not in all ways ideal, busy at most levels that I experience it. I have been to shows in Stratford, Bristol, London, Corsham (really!) and Newbury recently - all were sold out. (Did I just pick popular nights? I don't think so.) 

Bristol offers many great opportunities for writers to have new plays put on, and read, in venues that attract good audiences. Most of these chances to try out new work are unpaid. So, who can afford to spend six months writing a play for no money? People with working partners, surviving and wealthy parents, personal private incomes, the ability to exist on air or other jobs?

I have been fortunate enough in the past to have periods when I could write full time. (And I will do so again in the near future, so I am not bailing out of the new plays business just yet.) I know just how much being properly funded as a professional enhanced my creative practice, and made me a better writer for a theatre company to work with in production.

On the above point, and chiming with David (Lockwood's) comment about 'thanks but' letters from the big London new writing theatres, I was fortunate enough last year to receive G for A funding to write a play set on a building site. It was - me being an unreformed old leftie - an attack on right wing social and economic values and featured builders making casual racist and sexist remarks. (They were black characters by the way.)

Rod Dixon at Red Ladder theatre loved the play and did as much as his cash strapped company could to promote it to other theatres. Both Hampstead and the Royal Court said (of course) 'thanks but' but interestingly both picked up on the sexism and racism saying that of course people don't behave like that any more. Yes they do! Yes they do in the real world outside a funded theatre! I've worked on the buildings! I have recent experience of spending my days with a groundworks gang. (Don't ask.)

Perhaps, just perhaps, those people who can work their way up through unpaid internships to the literary departments of such big theatres don't have experience of the world of my play. Are we heading towards a theatre that, because it cannot pay all its creatives, will become the preserve of the economically cushioned middle classes? Limited, however unintentionally, to their view of the 'real world'? This anecdote is slim evidence, and I have stronger personal evidence the reverse: of companies like the Bike Shed who have made a brilliant theatre that is potentially receptive to all forms of new writing.

But just as in other areas of public life where we are retreating to an old school, class rigid system, I think this might be where large areas of theatre might drift off to if we are not careful. (I was in RADA last month – it looked and sounded like the final year of a private and expensive school. I am sure the students will all be great actors but they didn’t exactly reflect the full spectrum of socio-economic groups in the UK.)

I don't have an answer for this dilemma and should have liked to have aired it at Tobacco Factory had I not had to take my writer's hat off and get on a plane to Luxembourg. (Luxembourg is not as bad as it sounds!). I have attended events similar to Devoted and Disgruntled where urgent issues about UK theatre have been discussed.

Cynically, I usually note that those most keen to promote and participate in these events are administrators and facilitators on salaries. Writers are increasingly rare attendees - probably because we are off somewhere outside of theatre earning a wage. I know I am not the only unpaid attendee who does this type of audit.

So while I feel there is a huge amount of great theatre being made and shown in the UK, I do wonder how the role of the writer is changing in many theatre environments, and whether it is heading in a direction that I feel happy about. If you have the reputation (and talent obviously) of a Jez Butterworth or a David Greig then the future surely contains chances for you to write the plays you truly believe in and find a theatre ready to produce.

If you’re one of the rest of us then you will, I think, look forward to many more ‘thanks but’ letters from the big new writing theatres, while getting invitations to compete to be commissioned to devise a play about X alongside a director (fine) and probably one or even more creative producers. At this point, for me, much of what makes playwriting a joy becomes functional: the writer as facilitator. I see the writer’s role being ultimately devalued by this process, while understanding for theatres this is probably the way forward on constantly shrinking budgets.

It’s not of course all doom and gloom. There is a middle ground; for example, Theatre West’s invitations to writers to creatively respond to the broadest of briefs offered to provide a general overall shape to a season. But such opportunities are few and far between.

So (again!) I ask playwrights who are working for free why they are doing it: where do they think writing without financial reward is leading them and the business? Is it at essence, acquiring the status of a hobby, no more than building model railways or collecting stamps?

Please share your answers.