Last month, Alex Chisholm, Literary Manager of West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP), wrote an article for Exeunt, somewhat provocatively entitled The End Of New Writing? The piece became quite widely circulated and discussed. It was timed to promote a season of new writing at WYP, in which I was involved as writer-in-residence. The debate continued during a fascinating week in Leeds, in particular with a panel discussion chaired by Lyn Gardner, and involving dramaturg Suzanne Bell, writer-dramaturg Kaite O’Reilly, director Dawn Walton, playwright David Eldridge, and myself.
Neither Alex’s article, nor the panel debate, was proposing that we get rid of new plays or new playwrights. Instead, both sought to take a step back from a term that has been in common usage now for two decades or more, celebrate its successes, but also to question whether it still means what it did, or best serves the artists and audiences it has come to encompass. Alex’s piece put forward the notion that:
“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.”
The ninety minute debate we had on that panel, and with the Playhouse’s audience, was fascinating – and too wide-ranging to go into here – though Kaite O’Reilly has written up her own thoughtful blog on the evening here.
For my own part, I referenced two pieces of recent historical context which I felt were important, and which I’d like to explore further here.
The first was the increased arts funding that took place under Labour from 1997-2010, and which Alex also referenced in her original article. While in broad terms it was of course terrific, one unfortunate side effect has been that there is now a critical mass of playwrights who have undergone some form of training, attachment or professional development with a theatre company than could ever hope to be produced. The result has been large amounts of them being kept in what one writer I know describes as a ‘holding pattern’ around theatres up and down the country, waiting for their ‘call’ to come in and ‘land’ with a full-length production; their big break.
This period coincided almost exactly with the period when I came of age as a writer. Sure enough, after having had my first professional production at Soho Theatre in 2003, I was shocked by how hard it was to even get a second commission, never mind sustain any kind of career.
The result was that I had to become extremely resourceful, and adept at seeking out opportunities outside of the traditional model of relying on building-based theatres to commission me. This ‘patchwork career’ has led to some interesting projects, and some broad definitions of what a writer can be and do within a play-making process – from scripting a devised, multimedia show for the Red Room, through to jointly developing a play to perform in a disused hospital for site specific specialists Hydrocracker, to founding a youth theatre for kids in the care of Hampshire social services, to a long association with Mulberry School in east London, for whom I work with their predominantly Bangladeshi Muslim students each year to develop a new play for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The driving force in my career has been a bloody-minded determination to make my living as a writer, whatever form that takes. This started as a purely pragmatic reaction to the economic forces within our sector – the palpable sense, after having had one play on, that I was no longer a priority because I was no longer ‘new’. But this early disillusionment led to a career-long unwillingness to remain passive, entirely reliant on venues and their literary departments. I’ll argue to anyone who’ll listen, and regularly do over on my own blog, or to playwriting students of mine at Goldsmiths, that writers don’t have to wait for the phone to ring, nor for theatres to confer development upon them, but can in fact ‘develop’ themselves by mastering elements of fundraising, producing, dramaturgy, project management and teaching, to assemble for themselves the necessary parts of the jigsaw for their work to happen. (In fact, I’ve argued at length elsewhere that this highly proactive, socially-engaged approach may even be the future of playwriting.)
But as formative as all these project were, they were entirely haphazard, and either came along at the right time, or were the result of many, varied smaller projects and connections between people and sectors. There are no formal structures in place to introduce writers coming through today to this sort of range of professional practice. Has there ever been?
Well, arguably, there has.