What Do Playwrights Need?

Ask not what theatre can do for you…

Last Sunday I attended a symposium at the University of Essex’s Lakeside Theatre that attempted to answer the question, “What Do Playwrights Need?”

My fear of attending a symposium – elegant word, imposing concept – was dissolved both by the presence of my fellow Escalator writers on the train there and crayons at the registration desk. The day was filled with discussions, provocations and play readings (including extracts from our Escalator pieces), punctuated by addresses from Steve Waters and Fin Kennedy. Personally, it was great to see parts of True Brits performed in front of a majority non-London audience. One of my main aims for my time on the Escalator programme was a chance to develop and try out work in the Eastern region, away from my hometown.

Reading an extract from Kenneth Emson's "Capital"
Reading the opening scene from Kenny Emson’s “Capital”

The event wasn’t a five hour back patting session as one might envisage it being. If anything the banner cry of the day was “get off your arse”. Not so much an admonishment of lazy scribes, more a call to recognise that the process of how plays come to be staged has changed and writers need to work at making relationships with theatres and other theatremakers rather than expecting people and opportunities to come to them from the submission of a script alone.

Partially, this is a result of an excess of supply without increased demand. It might annoy some to talk about art in the lingo of economics, but I was heartened to see the attendees at least consider it. The consensus seemed to be that the golden, well funded years of the last decade created a critical mass of playwrights but without a matching increase in production slots. More writers with more plays competing for the same prize. It reminds me of a talk I went to last year where a BBC producer told us that she once had to beg people to write for Eastenders – now she needs an oar to beat them away with. It doesn’t serve anyone to ignore this. This doesn’t mean that a playwright should start pedalling towards what they think a theatre wants or should stop focusing on Making Good Art or throw themselves off the QE2 Bridge in despair – more that they should keep themselves open to opportunities beyond the desk-type-manuscript-mailbox cycle. Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder and all that.

Tom "David Lynch Ate My Haircut" Clancy putting the theatrical world to rights
Tom “David Lynch Ate My Haircut” Clancy putting the theatrical world to rights

Steve Water’s final point in his speech was that playwrights need other playwrights – someone to sympathise with errant casting, someone to be a bit jealous of in a way that challenges you to do better, someone to help foster new and exotic vices. Whilst my year as an HighTide Escalator writer has certainly improved my professionalism and career prospects, the relationships I’ve formed with the other writers has been the most affecting part of the whole experience.

What do I think playwrights need? Tough love, an idea about where they want to go (even if it’s not where they end up) and a reminder that we’re all not long for the grave. Basically, they need to take a car journey with Kenny Emson.

Some of Steve Water’s thoughts can be found in this Ideastap interview and a transcript of Fin Kennedy’s keynote speech is available on his blog.

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