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.


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  2. Loving this, Shaun! There's a big question about the authenticity of voice and cultural tone within theatre, particularly when "outreach" programmes don't necessarily reach all that far. If all you're used to is a white (and often male) middle/upper class voice, then how do you recognize anything that is potentially "other." It goes two ways - either a theatre fails to recognize the value of something that is authentically "other," or they start pigeonholing writers in order to cater for that niche, so if you're a writer and black then there's an expectation that you must write about urban street crime for example. Being told that "people don't behave like that any more" by someone who has evidently never met a builder in their life is stunningly frustrating and goes to prove that there's an increasing lack of awareness of how life is on the other side of the fence. Ah, what am I talking about - the lack of awareness has always been there, it's just depressing that it isn't getting better over the years.

    I don't know how we get around the working for free dilemma. Artists seem to always start out by working for free, doing things on spec, whether you're Van Gogh or a would-be emerging playwright. But yes, how to support people who want to be in the industry but need to make rent at the same time. Perhaps it's more prevalent in writing as you inevitably squeeze it into your spare time, you just make it work around your other commitments. If you're a would-be director that's not so easy. I've started out by working for free - and I think most writers would back me up in saying that when you're starting out you feel bloody lucky to get anything on anywhere. You're just grateful for the chance. The hope is that you can work your way up the ladder to a point where you're getting paid. But yes, I've got a partner with a proper job, so I'm able to do that. If I was having to pay the rent single-handedly, it would be a lot harder (if not impossible) and I'd have to rely on having a full-time job whilst writing on the side, on top of the hellish quest for childcare. And of course, the full-time job makes it harder to find time to write and limits the opportunities you can take up (eg short term full-time projects in theatre.)
    Having just been part of a Princes Trust project at BOV, it's tough to see the young people dreaming of becoming performers, because I just can't see how they'd do it. How do they get the training they need? They don't have the money, and they're caught in the benefits trap. BOV offers some bursaries for the young company, which is a start. I guess one thing I'd like to see is some of the profits from successful shows (especially if we're talking West End) being ring-fenced for similar bursaries and the development of new artists (and not just "young" artists either...) BUT there's a further point to be made, beyond money; how does someone who has been let down by the education system manage to get onto any kind of development scheme when they haven't been taught how to present themselves/fill in an application in a way that will impress the middle/upper class person who'll be making the decision? Can you become a writer if you have poor literacy skills? There's a widening skills gap that is making it impossible for people from poorer backgrounds to get a foot on any kind of career ladder, whether in theatre or elsewhere. Which in turn makes it easier for those from more privileged backgrounds to get the gig and enforce the status quo; so where's the impetus for change going to come from?

  3. Great blog Shaun,
    I wrote a reply a while ago but it disappeared when I posted it...

    I think there's no point at all in sending work to 'the big London new writing theatres' now - and it always surprises me how small they are actually! - no point for either of us and we write completely differently. - No point for anyone, unless you like posting things into the void - or if it does get plucked out are willing to sacrifice its originality through the process of getting it on. Those theatres and competitions get way too many submissions than they can deal with properly. Way more submissions than opportunities outside of 'new writing' receive.

    I think the only way of making a living is by setting up your own projects and sourcing the funding yourself (and paying yourself of course). That combined with the odd commission and bit of teaching...I'm not exactly earning much but I am making a living from my work at the moment...and I'm not writing for free...doing a lot of admin though...a lot...

    I'm not sure Theatre West is really the middle ground - they are lovely and what they do is great, but I was invited to take part in their recent A-Z project, and I couldn't as I couldn't afford the trips to Bristol that it required (and that first phase was unpaid, so it would have been another gamble).

    I guess the thing is that everyone in the arts is just fighting to survive at the moment....and playwrights have got to fight one's going to fight for us...and by that I mean we need to plan our careers, think strategically, source funding, learn how to manage projects, get a good team together....and care so deeply about our work that there is no other option- we have to make it happen.