Alex Chisholm is Associate Literary Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Before you come at me with the brickbats and rotten tomatoes, let me first explain what I am not talking about.
I am not talking about getting rid of writers, or plays, putting on plays by first time writers or young writers or not quite as young as they once were writers. I am still as passionate as I ever was about putting on plays written by all kinds of people.
What I am talking about is re-thinking and re-fashioning of the processes, assumptions and aesthetics that make up the sub-genre of British theatre known as New Writing, and most particularly an end to the, in my opinion, unnecessary opposition between New Writing and New Work.
But first a tribute to all the brilliant things that New Writing has done over the last 20 years. After the mid-90s, ‘New Writing’ was sexy. ‘New Writing’ meant the production of unproduced plays often by ‘new’ i.e. unknown, unproduced or young writers. It also increasingly referred to the activity that went on to work with ‘new writers’: courses, workshops, competitions, young writers schemes, attachments, development grants, workshops, readings, scratch nights and showcases. After the Boyden Report into theatre in 1997 and the arrival of the apparently ‘art-friendly’ New Labour, there was an uplift of funding into theatres with ‘New Writing’ as a specifically named priority. I am a direct beneficiary of this change in mood myself. I arrived at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2001, part of a wave of new literary appointments around the country, which has seen the numbers of us literary folk, the managers, associates, directors and dramaturgs, swell from a mere handful to hundreds. And with the appointment of ‘new writing’ people there was money to spend, from the Arts Council and from lovely, generous funders such as BBC Writersroom. And this has meant more writers, more plays, more opportunities and, until recently, more productions. And all of this is undoubtedly A Good Thing.
So what is the down side? Well, with all the ‘New Writing’ activity, I believe a kind of ‘New Writing’ play has evolved, best articulated in Aleks Sierz’s recent book Rewriting the Nation: “‘New Writing Pure’ [as opposed to ‘New Writing Lite’] is work which is often difficult, sometimes intractable, but it usually has something urgent to say about Britain today.” Whether you agree with it or not, the ‘New Writing’ play, like the ‘Well Made Play’ before it, exists as some sort of ideal to which new writers are supposed to aspire. This sense of what makes a good play has crept into the way workshops are run, courses are structured, feedback is given and, most damaging, into the very heart of the relationship between producers and artists. In teaching narrative, characterisation and structure, we are teaching a very particular set of aesthetic values predicated on creating a very particular kind of play. I have more than once seen development processes squeeze the very life out of a play, reducing it to what works on the page. And because most development happens in the abstract, working on a text, or at best in a bare bones rehearsed reading, everything is made explicit in the text. The rhetoric of New Writing is all about ‘serving the text’ and ‘serving the writer’ but can result in under funded, under rehearsed and unimaginative productions where little is gained from seeing the performance that you would not have had from reading the play. Michael Billington recently lamented the death of imaginative, theatrical writers but I would contend that the writers are big, it is the theatres that got small.
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