Monday, October 30, 2006

good new playwrights? -- Guardian Opines

Guardian Unlimited: Arts Blog - theatre
Where are all the good new playwrights?
Lyn Gardner
October 30, 2006 04:46 PM

A decade ago this week British theatre was enjoying its greatest flowering of new\ writing since the Jacobeans. Mark Ravenhill had just opened at the Royal Court Upstairs at the Ambassadors, just one of an abundance of new plays written by emerging talents.... A decade on, all those writers are going strong, but where are the emerging talents of today? My guess is that they are clogged up somewhere in
Britain's burgeoning playwrighting schemes unable to find their way out. Over the last few years many theatres have put in place extensive play development programmes,yet despite these schemes there has been a tailing off in good new plays by great new writers since the heady days of the mid-90s.
While many new writing theatres and companies have seen an upturn in the number of plays they receive and generate through such schemes -in some cases more than 3,000 scripts a year - from where I'm sitting it often doesn't feel as if there has been a similar upturn in quality. Perhaps - perish the thought - all that play development schemes do is to encourage not particularly talented people to write more and more plays. The danger here is that genuine talent will be missed because with so many plays in development it gets increasingly hard to see the wood for the trees.
Theatres have always worked closely with writers. Very few plays - whether by new or established writers - pop through the letterbox in perfect shape. The relationship between writer and literary manager has historically been a crucial one. But in the past the plays that were developed were being developed to a purpose: the staging of that play. The meetings, the drafts, the workshop and the rehearsed reading were all part of a process that was leading towards production, not an end in themselves.
Over the last 10 years a new play development culture - based on American models - has taken root in British theatres and it is now so firmly embedded that it has become an industry in itself. These schemes are not always hungry for new talent and there is little evidence that they are producing better plays. Those who have jobs in this growing industry have a vested interest in the schemes continued growth, as do the theatres who have squeezed money from public or private sources to fund such schemes often in the name of access. But, if playwrighting schemes worked, every new play you saw would be outstanding. They are not.
Theatres are understandably keen to broaden their pool of writers. Most theatres still see a 30/70 ratio of women to male writers, and black and Asian writers are woefully under-represented. Access is important, but what's the point of providing access to schemes to develop plays but not to the stages themselves? It's like teaching people to swim but then denying them access to swimming pools. There is something cockeyed about a theatre culture that has put so many structures in place to develop plays and so few to stage them. The opportunities to get work staged--and it is only when a play is in front of an audience that a playwright really learns how their play works - are simply not keeping pace as the pool of writers.
Theatres know this, and yet still they hang onto plays trying to keep their options open. Play development should be about enabling writers, not tying up their talent in a queue of unproduced plays. It is often a mirage, a substitute for real action and commitment by a theatre to a writer and his or her play. It provides the theatres with an opportunity to tick all the right funding boxes while offering playwrights very little at all - except misplaced hope......
If playwrighting development programmes really worked wouldn't we be seeing
more emerging talent than we did a decade ago when such schemes were rare?

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