Features Essays Published 12 December 2018

An Open(ness) Letter on Transparency

For every play that makes it to the stage, there are many more languishing under commission. Duncan Gates makes a case for more transparency in new writing for theatre.
Duncan Gates

This photo may well depict a formally-experimental playtext under commission. Photo: Niabot, via Wikimedia Commons

Hello. I’d like to talk to you today about supply chain transparency in the arts.

For those of you who haven’t immediately freaked out and run away, this concept can be summarised as ‘Showing your customers there’s nothing funky going on’ (as is now required by law for large retailers) and there’s not as much of this in the arts as there should be. You’ll likely be aware of standard workplace mechanics, like ‘don’t be a twat’, ‘pay people’, or ‘don’t be a twat about how much you pay people’ which are actually in the news now because the arts industry is dragging itself into the 1970s. 

There’s another layer to this, though, and it’s all about where the raw material actually comes from. Judging by the conversation around new work, it might seem like scripts are all created by mercurial bards-in-garretts, just doing things on-spec and waiting to see whether they get enough money to live.

So when Nick Hytner unveiled the Bridge Theatre’s ‘slate’ in April last year, it was refreshing to have an idea of ‘stuff that is going to happen’ as opposed to simply ‘what you can buy tickets for right now’. But 18 months on, what’s happening with the likes of Lucy Prebble’s Carmen Havana, or Nina Raine’s new play about JS Bach? Are they still going on? If so, when? If not, why? Are they happening anywhere else instead? Did they even exist? How did I get here? Where is that large automobile?

Some might ask whether this is really a problem. If so, I’d suggest that they’re relatively well-connected in the arts industry, and it’s therefore obvious to them that there’s no intricate, Illuminati-like machinery behind the scenes. And that’s (most likely) true. But from the outside, the commissioning process can look like a monolith that exists to intimidate, and reinforce the idea of how inscrutable it is.

So that everyone’s up to speed, here is my quick writers-eye overview of the commissioning process:

ORGANISATION: Hello. We have seen or read or otherwise experienced your work and would like to pay you to do an Art for us.

ARTIST: ah cool, that is the dream

O: We will give you a year to create it and probably another to develop it. Then we can think about programming it. This assumes the process goes brilliantly. It may take longer.

A: a long time

O: Sorry yes, but we do a lot of these. There is a queue.

A: so it is a bit like being stuck in a house-buying chain, only even more middle-class and boring

O: Haha that is witty. You are indeed a fine artist.

A: haha yes how will i be rewarded for this

O: You will receive exposure and the chance for valuable feedback ahem, no, we will pay you an amount of money commensurate to your perceived ability and/or innate prestige

A: righto

O: You are a relatively new and/or unknown artist, so you are not high on either scale.

A: that’s a shame

O: However there is a solution.

A: what is that

O: Have this same conversation multiple times with other organisations.

A: oh

O: And if our relationship goes really well, you get to have this conversation with us again!

A: i cannot wait

O: P.S. nobody has any money.

This is a system that makes writers (indeed, all artists) suffer. It’s not the worst suffering in the world right now (here’s a thing you can do to help fight worse), but it can, and therefore should, be mitigated by a little more transparency. And one thing arts organisations could do to help this is to publish lists of who and what is currently under commission, alongside the regular updates on ‘What’s On’.

As the above shows, it’s perfectly normal for artists to be commissioned by different organisations at the same time, so I can’t see how ‘commercial confidentiality’ would be a thing. And not to get too Taxpayers Alliance on y’all, but it also seems reasonable for any body which receives public funding to illustrate how money is being invested in the medium-to-long-term, including who it is commissioning and what for.

I once knew a writer whose commissioned play had been pushed back by years and years, and (because commission) wasn’t able to show it to anyone else, which seems the ultimate in a system designed to give certainty actually making uncertainty even worse. There are any number of reasons this might happen, from changes in artistic leadership to NPO status, or artist themselves missing deadlines, but I suggest greater transparency would lead to more accountability on all sides here too. Maybe I’m hopelessly naive, but I’d also like to think that commissioner and commissionee could usually come to mutual agreement over why a piece of work has been delayed and/or shelved altogether.

It would also help us build a clearer picture on representation. There are magnificent pieces of research being done on this, such as Victoria Sadler’s regular audits on gender, but mainly in the context of when programmes are announced. This doesn’t negate the value of them, but it’s not like a whole season can be meaningfully changed once announced. Commissions, to me, are a far better indicator of a theatre’s artistic and representational trajectory than the shows it already has in production, and therefore of whether change is actually being enacted. It would also work to mitigate situations like the below, which I will also illustrate through dialogue:

TEN ARTS ORGANISATIONS: We have each commissioned a Woman. #woke

A GENIUS: you have all commissioned the same very established and marketable woman to do ten different Arts

…because while huge numbers of playwrights struggle to get commissions, over-commissioning is also a Thing, and giving all the opportunities to one person sets the living of an individual artist against the representational health of the industry as a whole. If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that integrity and hegemony don’t really work together.

The only argument I can really see against ‘transparency in commissioning’ is that it takes away the excitement of new show announcements. But again, the insider’s excitement is the outsider’s underlying uncertainty, and the arts industry doesn’t have the most responsible track record when it comes to keeping secrets.

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Duncan Gates

Duncan trained on the Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and under Stephen Jeffreys at RADA. He's been longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize (2013), the Verity Bargate Award (2013), Channel 4/Touchpaper TV's Coming Up scheme (2014) and the Old Vic New Voices TS Eliot Commissions (2014). He's had plays on all over the shop. In an ideal world he'd be an anthropomorphic bird who solves supernatural crimes.

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