When I first moved to London in 1999 I briefly worked at the Royal Court part-time, as a crew member backstage, attracted by everything I had heard and eager to get a foot in the door however I could. I heard anecdotes that the policy under Daldry had been that anyone working with the company could read scripts they were considering and even attend programming meetings. I heard it said that Daldry’s policy had been to stage new plays in fast turnarounds, for short runs, with limited decor if necessary – the point was simply to get the work up there, on its feet, in full productions but at low cost to the theatre, living or dying on its own terms in front of its audience. The explosion of plays speaks for itself, as does the writers it first introduced who are now fixtures in the new writing landscape.
Perhaps I’m romanticising this period – I don’t know, I wasn’t there – and perhaps someone who was might put me right. But I do love the idea of Anna Deavere Smith, DV8 and Ché Walker all sitting round a programming table together, helping the theatre to decide what to put on. And I remain convinced that writers can learn more from being produced than from any comparable (and probably just as costly) programme of non-production based development.
It’s hard to think of a theatre running an equivalent to Daldry’s policy today. Even shorts nights and script-in-hand readings don’t really cut it; it’s relatively easy to hold an audience for a 10-15 minute piece (and virtually impossible to do so for longer with the actors sat down). There’s no substitute for sitting in the audience of a full production of your own play, night after night, and being part of that mass group of recipients of your fusion of ideas and stagecraft – hearing, seeing and feeling how every moment lands, not to mention overhearing their candid assessment of your success or otherwise when they discuss your play in the bar or theatre toilets.
And let’s not forget that, when you’re starting out, all of the above is merely about mastering ‘vanilla’ playwriting – straightforward linear naturalism, or a version of it. It’s another skill entirely to successfully explore fantastical interior worlds, non-linear storytelling, breaking the fourth wall, or constructing a narrative based on metaphor or abstracted ideas rather than ‘real’ people in recognisable situations. How can any dramaturg or development programme hope to provide a grounding in all of this? It is the hard-earned stuff of a sustained career – and exposure to multiple influences. It also requires the confidence of those around you to give you the time and resources to experiment.
So why has the focus narrowed to the rather piecemeal development of plays with a broadly similar aesthetic that we see so much of today? As Alex Chisholm puts it:
“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.”
I think there are several reasons.
One is partly money, of course. Time and resources equal funding – though it is notable that Daldry did what he did in the dying days of the last Tory government, prior to the 1997 New Labour arts funding uplift.
I think another is the historical dominance of the in-yer-face genre as the loud and cocky delinquent younger brother of new writing, which ended up getting all the attention. Understandably so; those searing images of anal rape or eyeballs being sucked out have an emotional power that is hard to forget. As David Eldridge once wrote:
“This generation had had its youthful optimism pickled by new horrors that visited their imaginations.”
But there is also a structural point here. In an article I like to provoke playwriting students with today, Lyn Gardner has accused linear ‘Aristotlean’ dramatic structure of being ‘phallic’, even of mimicking the male orgasm with its emphasis on ‘climax, release and post-coital conclusion’. Whether you agree with this or not, the ‘in-yer-face’ aesthetic suggests dramatic peaks which are shocking or surprising in some way – moments which have to be ‘earned’ within the narrative by being built up to, which in turn implies a linear arrangement of events.