Opening a recent event held by writer development agency Spread the Word, playwright Amanda Whittington described the new writing drives of the 1990s and 2000s as “one of the great success stories of British theatre”. It’s a statement that signals a popular narrative, one that often seems to dominate this country’s theatrical landscape. This statement also echoes the findings of Writ Large, a 2009 investigation into new writing in England for which Whittington was interviewed in her role as Theatre Chair of the Writers’ Guild. As this study revealed, the emphasis on new writing over the previous couple of decades had allowed it to grow to the largest single category of work for most English theatres and companies – a success, the numbers seem to argue, at least for playwrights. Yet the inheritance that this emphasis has left behind is one that continues to cause trouble among its antagonistic offspring.
The problematic legacy of investment in new writing has been frequently outlined, discussed and reiterated over recent months: more playwrights have subsequently been “developed” than could ever hope to be produced; the emphasis of such investment has posited a reductive and restrictive idea of the “new writing” play; thanks to the label of the “new”, an unhealthy fetishising of novelty has been encouraged; and a disingenuous, damaging binary has intensified between “new writing” and “new work”. It is a binary that Alex Chisholm, associate literary director at West Yorkshire Playhouse, provocatively called for an end to back in May last year, but its persistence and the continuing related debates that flare up around it suggest that it will not be easily dismantled.
One phrase that arose in a recent discussion around these very issues on Thompson’s Live seemed to succinctly and frustratingly capture the problem – “mutual incomprehension”. As the Royal Court’s literary manager Chris Campbell explained, writers feel threatened and undermined by collaborative making processes that seem to take the moral high ground and are perceived as more fashionable, while those making work outside the structures of new writing continue to feel marginalised and lack the protection that is institutionally built in for playwrights. For the most part, there remains an inability for either side of the argument to fully understand the other, resulting in a prolonged stand-off in which only a few bravely cross no man’s land.
One initiative which might be seen as an attempt to not only cross but potentially bridge that fraught wasteland is the Bush Theatre’s new literary policy. From this year onwards, the Bush is inviting submissions not just from playwrights through the traditional process of sending in scripts, but also from companies who create shows in ways that might not translate to the page and from writer-performers whose presence is a key part of their work. The fruits of this new policy remain to be seen – it is not without its own potential problems and has already attracted a number of sceptical responses – but if nothing else it marks a willingness to move forwards.
This context all sat uncomfortably behind the event at which Whittington spoke, an event that was aimed primarily at offering advice to playwrights but that also inevitably surveyed the landscape in which these writers find themselves producing work. Its focus was the “gatekeepers” of the industry, those literary managers or directors who seem to hold power of life or death over the careers of aspiring playwrights. One such “gatekeeper” was, appropriately, Karis Halsall of the Bush, while Chris Campbell, Will Mortimer and Graeme Thompson represented the Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre and Theatre503 respectively. The panel was completed by freelance director Nadia Latif and chaired by playwright Fin Kennedy, another contributor to the ongoing discourse that surrounds the concept of “new writing”.
One of the first protestations made by the panel was against the term “gatekeeper”, which all of the supposed gatekeepers involved promptly rejected, seeing it as creating yet another unnecessary adversarial dynamic within the industry. Instead, as Latif pointed out, it is important to remember that buildings are made up of individual people, a reminder that might helpfully apply to the whole of the theatre ecology. The message from the panel was that the door is open, but passage is inevitably impeded by lack of resources; those few individuals bravely propping open the door are often in danger of being trampled by everyone trying to get through. There was also concern that the perceived success of new writing in this country has given playwrights the impression that there is just one route in, whereas in fact there might be several. As Halsall put it, there is something worrying about the almost religious imagery that surrounds institutions such as the Royal Court, positing the restrictive ideal of the building as an ultimate aspiration for writers.
Another key problem of the “new writing” tag is the “new” part; there is a danger that newness is prized above everything else, devaluing the idea of revivals and creating a problematic obsession with the contemporary. While some members of the panel identified the contemporary – something that speaks to the now – as a major factor in what they are looking for from playwrights, others advanced caution. Halsall in particular expressed a struggle with the word “contemporary”, suggesting that it might be better understood not as being rigidly rooted to the present but as using the present as a lens through which its content is refracted, while Thompson wondered whether an emphasis on the contemporary resists timelessness in the writing that is currently finding its way onto our stages.
As much of a “success” as new writing may be in British theatre, actually finding their way into those stages remains one of the key concerns for playwrights. It was suggested by a number of the panellists that putting their work on themselves or finding creative collaborators might be a fruitful alternative route for writers. Many literary departments look out for new talent on the fringe, particularly in Edinburgh, with Halsall citing Madani Younis’ belief that a literary manager shouldn’t just be sat behind a desk, he or she should also be out in the world seeing work. Although Campbell warned that in the case of the Royal Court an existing pairing with an untried director would be off-putting, Latif advocated collaboration of all kinds for writers, be it with a director or with a designer or performer who inspires them – after all, she reasoned, “we’re all artists”.
In her opening speech, Whittington introduced the metaphor of plants, saying that “great writing grows in its own way”. While Whittington was referring to writing as traditionally understood – the output of a sole playwright, writing independently – this might well be applied to all methods of originating work. Rather than stubbornly wedging pieces of theatre into pigeon-holes labelled “new writing” or “new work”, the approach that most respects the work itself is an organic one that recognises its live and living nature.
There’s a common rhetoric among writers that equates plays to children – the cherished products of much nurturing and hard work. This same rhetoric casts directors and creative teams as the vultures ready to gobble up these sacrificial babes, forcibly wrenching them from the arms of their proud parents. Latif, however, suggested a helpful new analogy: instead of this metaphorical sacrifice and violation, the relationship between a playwright and director should be akin to agreeing to have a child together, a commitment in which both are equal partners. Rather than glaring across from opposing camps, maybe it’s time for the different parties to jump into bed with one another.