Features Guest Column Published 28 October 2012

The Working Playwright

Interrogating guidelines and ways of working.

Selma Dimitrijevic

Image from Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone.

This week the Writers’ Guild published two new documents under the joint title of “The Working Playwright”. These documents are guidelines to “Agreements and Contracts” and to “Engaging with Theatres”. This publication has been carefully compiled in collaboration with the Antelopes playwrights’ group and in consultation with several playwrights, literary managers and dramaturgs.

These documents are there to help me and guide me, but instead I find myself angry and disappointed by their tone and content.

As a playwright, I am proud to work in a collaborative form, which allows me to provoke and react as part of a larger and less predictable endeavor. I am also aware that I work in a particular way, which suits me, and that other people work in different ways that suit them. This is how I believe it should be.

What has made me angry about these documents is not the fact that they advocate a way of working in which the writer holds the lion’s share of power and control over the creation of work. It is that the documents offer this as the best way to work and clearly posit it as the model to which writers of all degrees and processes should aspire.

Reading this, I have a feeling that someone is aggressively and stridently attempting to execute a pre-emptive strike against an imagined cohort of directors and producers lying in wait to do unspeakable things to me and my play. To me, this does not seem like a very healthy and generous approach.

Here are some of the things I take particular issue with:

EXTRA FEES

I am advised to negotiate a research fee before I start writing the play, which would be paid in addition to the commission.  I believe research is part of my job as a writer, and at the time where funding is cut and resources are getting thinner, asking to be paid extra for it is simply rude.

I also don’t think I should be paid extra to talk to the press.

RIGHTS

I don’t think I should necessarily hold all the rights and get all the royalties if the play has been created “wholly by improvisation”.

I also don’t think that if I adapt or translate out of copyright work I should have all the rights of the original writer.

CHANGES

I do think that no one should have the right to change the lines of my play without my agreement, in the same way that the director wouldn’t change the set or costume without the designer’s agreement. However, the clause in the guidelines that scares me is “including stage directions”. I really hope this means that no one should change the stage directions for the publication of the play and not that the stage directions have to obeyed in the production.

And probably the issue that I have the most problem with:

CHOICE OF PERSONNEL

If I understand this document correctly, no TNC, TCM or ITC member theatre is allowed to commission a writer without giving them the effective power of refusal over the full creative team.

In other words, any commissioned writer, no matter how young or inexperienced, has the power to refuse as many directors, composers, designers and actors as they like until they are happy with the team, and if they are not happy with what the producer is offering then the producer has the right to not do the play.

So: the venue should pay the writer, pay many thousands of pounds to pay everyone else’s fees, put a lot of cash into the production and dedicate many months of work to make this happen, but the writer – and, I repeat, no matter how inexperienced they are – has the right to veto the creative appointments of the producer?

My mind might just explode.

Of course I know this is not how things work. Of course I know that the writers don’t sit in auditions for months saying no to everyone the director talks to, but I believe that insisting on this right makes our perception of ourselves as writers into a joke.

Are we suggesting that the writer is the only artist in the process and that everyone else is an artisan who is there to fulfill the writer’s wishes? Are we suggesting that everyone else is only allowed to do their job as long as what they do is alright with the writer? I hope not.

As an illustration of this practice, have a little experiment. Put into Google “David Harrower” and “Blackbird” and go to images. Dozens of productions all over the world, of a beautiful and brilliant play, designed by many talented, famous, experienced and award-winning designers. And they all look exactly the same. Why? Because they all build the set exactly how it’s described in the stage directions. I don’t know why that is, and whose decision it is, but does that mean that the writers have the right to decide what the design looks like? I think David is a brilliant writer, but no one can convince me that he is better at theatre design than theatre designers. A good stage direction, like a good play, is a provocation to another artist to create something wonderful, not an Ikea furniture assembly guide.

Let me be clear, I have nothing against a writer having the power to veto the artistic team or their having the play presented exactly how they imagined it, but I have a problem with this practice being presented as something we should all strive for.

I don’t strive for it and I hope none of the writers I work with do. It can be a choice, it can be an option, hopefully equal to other options where I work with other artist as equals.

These documents tell writers that “they want to feel valued and central to the process” while giving so little that permits anyone else involved in the process to be valued and central.

One of my most personal plays was staged twice in the UK and once in Russia. Both UK productions were naturalistic, gentle and followed every single stage direction. And I found them both very dull. Then a Russian director took the play, cast it completely unexpectedly, and without cutting any lines, he cut the running time by half and made it difficult for audience to actually see the actors.

That production has been running for three years now, it’s selling out, winning all sorts of awards and every time I see a clip of it, it moves me both as the proud maker of the play and the surprised viewer of another artist’s work. What the director did was take my words and create a world that is as personal to him as the words are to me. I wouldn’t call this a director “messing with my play”; I’d call it a director doing their job well.

Years ago a friend and I were deciding if we should become flat-mates or not. Aware of all the potential problems, we decided that the smart thing might be to individually write a list of “My Future Flat-Mate’s Necessary Qualities” and then compare them. I spent about half an hour on my own, scribbling things down. I mentioned the toilet seat, and late night parties, cleaning and replacing empty milk cartons. The usual.  When we met back in the kitchen I realised that, under the title, my friend wrote only one thing. The note said: “My flat-mate needs to really want to be my flat-mate”. I felt ashamed of all the things I had written, in the same way I feel ashamed now, reading these guidelines.

Selma Dimitrijevic is a playwright and director and is the co-artistic director of Greyscale Theatre Company.

Read David Edgar’s and Amanda Whittington’s response to Selma, here.

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Selma Dimitrijevic is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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