Maurice Perl (left) is a retired company directory from Bristol, who used to have a successful career in the business of road transport. He is an unlikely champion of new writing in theatre, but that is exactly what he has become. Over the past year he has taken on the mantle of de factor executive producer on Walking The Chains, a not-for-profit, community theatrical production which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is an ambitious show, featuring high-wire circus acts and music, being performed at Brunel's Passenger Shed, Bristol Temple Meads Station, 13-25 January 2015.
His work on the project, entirely voluntary, has garnered Maurice one of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s Olwen Wymark Theatre Encouragement Awards 2014. The brainchild of playwright Mark Ravenhill, they were set up to give Guild members the opportunity to publicly thank those who provided them with a positive experience in new writing over the previous year.
“When he retired, I had just accepted a commission from the trustees of Clifton Suspension Bridge to write Walking The Chains,” explains Guild member Anthony Smith, who nominated Maurice for the award.
“It had to be independently produced, and I needed someone with a business head. Maurice joined up initially to oversee the financing, but his work has effectively grown into that of executive producer. He knows his limitations, without experience in theatre, but has formed six of us into a steering group that covers all the bases. He gees up the meetings, timetables work for the rest of us, does the budgeting, fixed the venue, spends his days sweet-talking sponsors and donors (raising £40k so far), prepared our successful Arts Council application, and has set up a team of teachers to organise in-school workshops and free school matinées. For the Arts Council budget he had to write in a fee for himself, but in the income column he is refunding it to the production, so he is working 24/7, for months, for the love of it. Without him, I don’t believe we could have got the show on.”
The awards, now into their 10th year, have been renamed in honour of playwright Olwen Wymark, lifelong supporter of the Guild and former Chair of the Theatre Committee, who died in 2013 aged 81. Her work includes, among many other productions, Find Me, Loved and Best Friends, and throughout her life she was an enthusiastic advocate of new writing.
“The awards have become one of the most rewarding events in our calendar,” says Nick Wood, current Chair of the Writers’ Guild Theatre Committee. “A time when we can say thank you to those remarkable people from all over the UK who never stop working to help us make theatre, and at a point when theatres and companies are not only fighting to make new work, but in some cases for survival in the face of the most stringent cuts the arts have seen. We need these dedicated individuals and their spirit and determination more than ever.”
The other three winners of the Olwen Wymark Theatre Encouragement Awards 2014 are also testament to that spirit:
Martin Witts, Artistic Director of Leicester Square Theatre, London, was nominated by Guild member Richard Pinner, for his support of the Playwrights’ Progress script-development project (a joint initiative between the Writers’ Guild, Leicester Square Theatre and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama).
“Martin has been a great enthusiast for Playwrights’ Progress, looking to broaden his theatre operation, embrace new writing and more innovative stage work,” explains Richard Pinner. “He offered the use of his theatre, staff and marketing team for free, and at the highly successful showcase event, staged at his theatre in May this year, was the warmest host, offering free drinks to the participants and footing the lunch bill for guests. As a result of Martin's support, the Writers’ Guild Theatre Committee is now planning significant developments for the future. Although Leicester Square Theatre is a purely commercial venture, with a reputation (second to none in the UK) for stand-up and alternative comedy – and it has never received a penny from the Arts Council – Martin has demonstrated the kind of extraordinary largesse to the cause of new writing that would grace any ACE revenue client.”
Joanna Read, Principal of London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), was nominated by Guild member Lisa Evans, who was commissioned by Joanna to adapt Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood (being performed at London’s Pleasance Theatre in spring 2015).
“LAMDA stands to make little money for public performances of plays, yet Joanna Read continues to commission new work, often with women performers in mind,” says Lisa Evans. “She also regularly commissions LAMDA’s ‘Long Project’, which enables writers to create plays with large casts – something we all know is otherwise impossible unless under commission by the Royal National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. It also gives young actors the opportunity to experience working on new writing over a period of time and to understand something of the writer’s creative process, both before and during rehearsals. Joanna is tenacious, honest and loyal and has a talent for bringing together creatives to inspire and provoke innovative theatre, despite very small budgets.”
Adam Pownall, Programme Co-ordinator at Derby Theatre, was nominated by Guild member Nick Wood, for Adam’s support of his play A Girl With A Book, in his previous role as Theatre Co-ordinator at Create Theatre, Mansfield.
“Create Theatre is part of West Notts College. West Notts College is on the outskirts of Mansfield. When Adam Pownall arrived it was little more than an idea,” recalls Nick Wood. “He turned it into a vital part of the East Midlands theatre scene. He encouraged new companies, he encouraged new writing, he found ways to offer support. When I began touring my one-man play A Girl With A Book last year his was the first name I called. By the end of the phone call I had a booking and a workshop set up. In a short while he has made something exciting and challenging out of nothing.”
The four winners received their awards at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 28 November 2014.
Olwen Wymark Theatre Encouragement Awards 2014: winners, nominees and guests, at the Royal Court Theatre, London
The space interactive characters inhabit is very different from that found in film, television or books, so how does the process of creating them differ?
In this annual Guild panel event, a group of experienced games writers will examine a variety of techniques used in videogames character creation and explore how they have used them in their own projects. The panel includes: Martin Korda (Need for Speed), Maurice Suckling (Borderlands), Tom Jubert (FTL), James Swallow (Deus Ex) and Chair of the Guild’s Videogames Committee Andrew Walsh (Fable Legends).
Character Crafting: Creating Characters for an Interactive World is being run in association with London South Bank University and the International Game Developers Association, 7pm, 4 December 2014 (Keyworth Theatre A, Keyworth Centre, Keyworth Street, London South Bank University, London SE1 6NG). Entry is free.
Come and join the Writers’ Guild at The Writers’ Toolkit annual networking conference for emerging and established writers, in Birmingham on Saturday 29 November. Run by Writing West Midlands, the region’s literature development agency, the conference offers attendees the pick of 16 sessions with industry professionals. It is also an opportunity for writers to meet, share ideas and make new contacts.
Speakers include agents, editors, publishers, writers, broadcasters, producers, academics and other industry professionals. Writers’ Guild Chair of the West Midlands region, William Gallagher, will be one of the many speakers.
“The Writers’ Toolkit is a longstanding annual event about the practicalities of being a working writer across all media in the Midlands,” said William Gallagher. “It is an event where rubbing shoulders with people is as important as the official sessions, which range from the nuts and bolts of surviving as a freelancer, to more heady discussions about where our industry is going.”
William urges all writers living and working in the region, at whatever stage of their career, to join the Writers’ Guild. "This year the West Midlands region has had a great time producing events with the Birmingham Rep, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Television Society and the BBC,” he said.
“The biggest one of the year though was with Writing West Midlands, at the Birmingham Literature Festival, where the Guild’s Deputy Chair Tim Stimpson interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. It was a public event, a sell-out public event, and seeing a queue to hear a writer talk snaking out across the library – and back again! – was frankly uplifting."
Full details and bookings for the Writers’ Toolkit event can be found on the Writing West Midlands website.
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Helen Goodman MP, have written to ITV Chief Executive Adam Crozier urging the broadcaster to bring an end to a four-year contract dispute in the United States.
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s sister union, the Writers Guild of America (WGAE), has been trying to negotiate an agreement with ITV Studios America since 2010.
The dispute took a new turn last week (3 November 2014) when WGAE warned that the planned American remake of Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, starring upcoming Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris, would be affected if an agreement was not made.
Members of WGAE can only work on shows covered by Guild agreements, and WGAE warned that it would take industrial action. Lowell Peterson, WGAE Executive Director, took to Twitter, declaring, “Time for ITV to sign”.
Bernie Corbett, General Secretary of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, has responded by writing to ITV Chief Executive Adam Crozier stressing that the Guild is “growing increasingly concerned” about the dispute.
“We cannot understand why ITV in New York has adopted such a hawkish, anti-union position,” he said.
“It is completely at odds with the way the industry works in the United States, it is damaging to the reputation of ITV, not only in the US but increasingly in the UK as well, and it looks as though it may damage the ambitions of ITV to become a major player in the US.”
He added that there were fears the “reverberations” could affect Writers’ Guild members in the UK.
Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Helen Goodman MP, has also written to Adam Crozier.
“I am sure you agree that workers should be afforded at least basic rights and protections, therefore I hope you will encourage your colleagues in America to work with the WGAE,” she wrote.
“I am concerned that for a long time ITV failed to engage with the guild and that more recent talks to form a contract have been unsuccessful. It is therefore in everyone’s interests that negotiations are resumed and a satisfactory resolution reached as soon as possible.”
We talked to internationally renowned playwright and former Guild President David Edgar about his Iron Curtain Trilogy, which is being performed together for the first time to mark 25 years since the Wall came down
It has been reported that you sat down at your computer to start writing the first play in the trilogy, The Shape of the Table, the day after the Berlin Wall came down. Is that true, and how affected were you by that event?
It’s not completely true that I started the day after the Wall fell, though of course Eastern European communism had been crumbling for many weeks before the actual fall of the Wall. I was in Poland during the summer election campaign, which led to Solidarity taking over from the Communist Government, and was conscious of the sense that history was being made. The actual Polish election was on the same day as the suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square (4 June 1989) and people feared that that was what would happen to the growing protests in Eastern Europe. But it turned out that the Polish election was the future, and the Tiananmen massacre the past.
The Shape of the Table is an interesting title. How did it come about?
During the Paris peace talks (in the late 1960s) between the Americans, the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF; Viet Cong), the delegates spent nine months arguing about how the delegations would be seated. The South Vietnamese Government refused to recognise the NLF as a distinct party, claiming that their sole enemy was the North Vietnamese. The conflict was eventually resolved by a circular table at which the two national governments sat, surrounded by smaller tables for the other combatants. It seemed a good metaphor for the seemingly petty issues which actually have a huge importance in negotiations. In both The Shape of the Table and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2001) breakthroughs are achieved by a tiny change in vocabulary.
There are three plays in your trilogy: The Shape of the Table (1990); Pentecost (1994); and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2001). They were all conceived and written separately, over a decade, and focus on Eastern Europe during the post-Communist era. Is there one broader theme you explored in all of them?
I’m not sure there’s a single theme, but the three plays add up to a narrative: the first celebrating the victory of a mass movement over an authoritarian government, but suggesting that something important might have been lost; the second showing how the optimism of a newly unified Europe open to all was undermined by ethnic divisions, Western exploitation and fear of outsiders; and the third showing how those factors led to bloody wars breaking out across the region.
Did your opinion on the historical impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall change over the course of writing the three plays, and how was that reflected in your writing?
No, in the sense that it seemed like the greatest event of my lifetime, and it still feels like that (despite 9/11, which happened when the third play was in performance). What did change was how I felt about its aftermath. Like anyone human, I found the uprisings hugely exciting and inspiring (very much as those of the Arab Spring, which resembled them). As someone on the left, I felt that an important experiment had failed, and that that had impoverished humanity. Over the following years I became increasingly pessimistic about the ethnic and religious differences which emerged in Eastern Europe and beyond, which is reflected in the second act of The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Do you think events of the past few years have given lie to the view at the time that the fall of the Berlin Wall represented the triumph of liberal democracy? And how, as a writer interested in politics, have you been reflecting the current challenges we face?
As I say, I think the overthrow of the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe made the world a better place, not least because illiberal and undemocratic regimes gave way to more liberal and certainly democratic ones. That’s the upside, and it’s a big one. The downside is that the ‘shock therapy’ economics imposed on the former Communist countries impoverished large swaths of the population, disparities of wealth became enormous, there were losses in terms of welfare and (in some countries) women’s rights, and there are now extreme right-wing movements in some of the former Bloc countries. I think you can trace both the move to the right in Hungary and the crisis in Ukraine back to the economic policies those countries were required to pursue by the West. My next play may well be about this.
It has been said that you enjoy challenging your audiences, particularly with long stories and polarising themes. Is this fair, and if so, why do you do this?
Well, my most successful show commercially (my adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company) was eight and half hours long, and it continues to appeal to audiences in revivals in America and elsewhere. I don’t set out to polarise my audiences, but if you write on political themes, then that’s going to happen.
You have had more than 40 years’ experience writing for theatre, written more than 50 plays and been described as one of the most prolific modern playwrights. What keeps you motivated, and writing?
I’m a lot less prolific than I was: the spectacular numbers have to include many short plays I wrote at the beginning of my career. I now write fewer than one a play a year. But because I’ve been at it for so long, that adds up to quite a number. There’s a theory that playwriting is a young person’s game: I don’t agree with that, and I’m keen to disprove it by keeping going. I don’t plan retiring yet.
You founded the University of Birmingham’s MRes Playwriting Studies course in 1989 and were course director for a decade. What was the founding philosophy behind the course?
The playwriting course arose out of a number of self-help organisations set up by playwrights in the 1970s and 1980s to develop their craft. I wanted to try and codify those insights through dialogue with younger playwrights. The founding principle was that the course would be taught by practising playwrights (as it was and still is), and thus became a forum between emergent and more established playwrights to develop a language to describe what we do. My book How Plays Work (Nick Hern Books, 2009) is the result of these conversations, and the wisdom both of fellow playwrights who came and talked to the students, and the students themselves, three of whom have gone on to direct the course.
You were President of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain from 2007 to 2013. What did you take from that experience, and why do you think trade unions have an important role to play today?
I am very proud to have been involved with the initial negotiation of two of the Guild’s three theatre agreements. We are currently involved in renegotiations of all three (too many to do at once). Without these agreements, playwrights would not be guaranteed upfront fees; they would pay a proportion of their future earnings to theatres that did their work from the first pound; they would have no right to attend rehearsals or to be paid for so doing; or to be consulted over casting or text changes. Improving and policing these agreements is vital for playwrights and the health of the theatre. This also applies to other areas where the Guild has agreements, including television and radio. Any playwright who works under a Guild agreement should join the union.
The Iron Curtain Trilogy, by the Burning Coal Theatre Company, will transfer from North Carolina to London’s Cockpit theatre (13-30 November 2014). Further details and bookings can be found on the theatre’s website. A trailer of the trilogy follows: