By playwright and Writers' Guild President, David Edgar
(Photo of John Arden courtesy of Casarotto Ramsay & Associates Ltd)
It was saddening to hear, just before Easter, of the death of writer John Arden, at the age of 81. One of the great playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s at the Royal Court and the National Theatre, John Arden was also a committed trade unionist. His great falling-out with the British theatre, over David Jones's 1972 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) of Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy's Island Of The Mighty (at the Aldwych) was in fact a union dispute over what they saw as a misinterpretation of their play. Arden and D'Arcy were members of the Society of Irish Playwrights, affiliated to Irish Equity, and refused to undertake textual revisions as a form of strike action, picketing the theatre.
The dispute ended unhappily: the show went on in an edited form, and the Arden and D'Arcy never saw it. It was also Arden's last premiere on the London stage. But the principles at issue – the rights of playwrights not just to preserve their texts but to participate in the production process – were a crucial part of the mid-70s campaign for playwrights' contracts. Arden played a vital role in the early years of the Theatre Writers' Union, which won these rights in collaboration with the Writers' Guild, with which it amalgamated in 1997. Arden remained a Guild member.
I met him when his and D'Arcy's The Ballygombeen Bequest – a play about the Northern Ireland troubles – was being toured by the 7:84 company, which also produced a contemporary version of Arden's greatest play, Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, which emptied the Royal Court in 1959 but went on to win the 1960 Evening Standard best play award, and to enter the post-war dramatic canon. I got to know him and Margaretta (his wife as well as his collaborator) as the Theatre Writers' Group reformed itself into a union and then (with the Guild) negotiated agreements with Britain's theatre managements in the late 1970s and early 1980s. John and Margaretta were always committed, sometimes challenging supporters of the cause of playwrights' unionisation. Our agreements might have been achieved quicker without them, but they might not have been so good for playwrights as a result.
I was (just) too young to see the original productions of his Royal Court plays (including Musgrave) but I did see the two epic plays presented by the National Theatre at Chichester in the 1960s: The Workhouse Donkey (set around an engagingly corrupt northern local council) and Armstrong's Last Goodnight (about a 16th battle between rebellion and authority in the lawless Scottish borders). Arden's great 1978 radio play Pearl (produced by Alfred Bradley) is a reminder of a time when Radio 4 did serious plays at two hours' length. His novels, short stories and essays on the theatre will also survive. In particular, the last essay in his 1977 compilation To Pretend The Pretence, defends playwriting as a craft against either directors or companies who regard the playwright as redundant, and suggests that this task should be the central job of a writers' union. It's certainly worth re-reading now.
Three important European bodies have come together to demand legislation for equitable rights payments for European film and television directors and screenwriters. They are calling for unwaivable enforceable rights, fair contracts and stronger resistance to arguments put out by the pirate lobby.
The Society of Audiovisual Authors (SAA) which represents authors throughout Europe who are members of collecting societies; the Federation of European Film Directors (FERA) which represents European film and television directors; and the Federation of Screenwriters Europe (FSE) which represents European screenwriters, are united in their commitment to facilitating production and distribution of our members’ work based on legal clarity and fair remuneration.
The Writers' Guild of Great Britain, which is a member of the FSE, fully supports the statement.
Joint statement from SAA, FERA and FSE: An end to buyouts in Europe
We are committed to internet culture, we are determined to play our part in its development, and we want our work to be seen on as many European screens as possible. It is the creative talent of our members which will appeal to audiences online and across borders and create the demand that will fuel business innovation, employment creation and the many benefits which flow from an active cultural environment. This talent deserves fair reward.
Above all, we are seeking an end to the buyout contracts that deprive our members of so much legitimate income. Buyout contracts force authors to accept payments that take little or no account of subsequent use. They divorce the creator from the success of the work. The recent European Court of Justice ruling1 against ‘Cessio Legis’ is an important step forward, but it is only a start. We are appealing for EU legislation to make buyouts illegal, initially for online use and eventually for all means of distribution. The moral argument is the same in both: authors should be allowed to share in the success of their work. This will allow them to survive and do more work: in effect, it’s a virtuous circle.
Our online ‘Making Available’ right, taken in buyout contracts and exploited for a decade, in many cases without payment, should now be made enforceable, allowing negotiation of rates for online use.
Where this exclusive right is transferred to the producer, we ask for the enactment of an unwaivable Right to Equitable Remuneration payable to authors, for online use at first, and in due course for all means of distribution. This would be collectively negotiated, and depending on territory would function either as a benchmark rate underpinning local contractual negotiations, or as an actual rights payment collected and distributed by collecting societies. Our members have experience of both systems.
Flexibility will be essential, to reflect our differing legal cultures; but not the kind of ‘flexibility’ that merely allows producers and financiers to impose one sided contracts on individual authors with impunity. Most authors’ contracts are currently signed under considerable pressure. It is time to redress the balance of power.
It is also essential that the Commission reverses the current undermining of free negotiation by some competition authorities, for instance in Ireland and the Netherlands. In a free society, the representatives of creators must be permitted to bargain collectively and agree appropriate rates and conditions.
We welcome the imminent publication of an EU Directive on the governance of collecting societies and are determined to remain in the vanguard of efforts for greater transparency, efficiency and democracy in collective management. However, delays on resolving governance issues should not be an excuse for policy makers to shy away from strong, urgent and immediate support for solutions to the problem of fair payment.
Our associations emphatically reject the insinuations of the pirate lobby (and some powerful internet operators) that simply to require payment for use constitutes some kind of attack on free speech. This sophistry needs to be resisted by all, the Commission and Parliament in particular. Bullying is not less immoral for being practised by large movements.
European audiovisual authors will not stand idly by and see their industry destroyed. We speak out for democracy, and for the principle of fair trade. ‘Free access – but not for free!’
Zoë Fairbairns on writing a ‘Teach Yourself’ guide for short story authors
I was about nine when they first caught my eye: a row of compact little hardbacks, shelved neatly together in the public library, with distinctive blue and yellow jackets, and commanding titles: Teach Yourself French. Teach Yourself Science. Teach Yourself Art. Teach Yourself History.
The optimism of the titles made me wonder why I had to go to school — if you could teach yourself, who needed teachers? Surely if I just borrowed the books one by one and read them at home, I would soon know everything.
My parents were not convinced, and my education continued along conventional lines. But when, several decades later, Hodder Education asked me to write a Teach Yourself book on short story writing, I remembered the early impression that I had formed of the Teach Yourself series: these were books that aim to make themselves unnecessary, because by the time the reader has got to the end, s/he will have taught her/himself.
This is true of many approaches to teaching, and is the answer to those who question whether creative writing can be taught. As professional writers, we have all learned from others — formally or informally — and we have all taught ourselves. The teacher of writing has skills to share but, more importantly, sets out to create an environment in which the student who wants to be a published writer, and has the right combination of talent, determination and good luck, will develop the confidence that this may be possible. That confidence will energise the student to teach her/himself
This environment can be created in a classroom, or — as I have set out to do — on the pages of a book.
Teach Yourself books have a fixed format which includes, at the start of every chapter, a list of learning outcomes (‘In this chapter you will learn…’) and, at the end ‘10 things to keep in mind,’ a point-by-point summary of what has gone before. In between, interspersed with text, you are expected to include bullet points, text boxes, flashes of insight, lists, quotations and writing exercises.
This isn’t my usual writing style, but I found it quite exhilarating. It reminded me of what I had learned on a teacher-training course about varying your teaching methods: don’t just sit and talk until your students nod off, or you do — instead, get up, walk around, move your students around, write things on the flipchart or the whiteboard or Post-it notes. On the pages of Write Short Stories And Get Them Published - Teach Yourself (the word order in the titles in the series is now reversed), I eschew long blocks of unbroken text in favour of typographical distractions and changes of pace, in the hope that this will keep readers on their toes. Writing that way certainly kept me on mine, reminding me to teach, rather than just sound off.
I was less comfortable with another aspect of the Teach Yourself format: the requirement to begin the book with a short introductory section called ‘Only Got A Minute?’ The person who has ‘only got a minute’ to learn to write short stories and get them published is surely a close relative of the one who ‘could write a book if only I had the time’. It’s an attitude with which I, like most professional writers, have very little patience. But impatience is not a helpful quality in a teacher, or the author of a Teach Yourself book. So I used my one-minute introduction to try to convince those aspiring short story writers who reckon they’ve only got a minute that they had better get cracking.
By setting a writing task right at the beginning (on page 3, to be exact) and making gentle fun of the many excuses I guessed some readers would make for not doing it (‘Weren’t you supposed to be polishing the soup spoons today, filling in your tax return, changing the batteries in your toothbrush, painting the bathroom, defragmenting your hard disk or phoning the builder?… It‘s amazing how domesticated some of us become, when the alternative is writing’) I hoped to convince readers to adopt the Nike approach: just do it.
Another thing they need to ‘just do’ is read short stories. My book does not claim to offer a definitive guide to the genre, or to identify a canon; instead, it urges the aspiring writer of short stories to read widely, even randomly, for pleasure, asking themselves such questions as, which eight short stories would you take with you to your desert island? Which ones embody V.S. Pritchett’s wise words: ‘The novel tends to tell us everything; the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely’? Which ones have brought you up short by targeting, with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, something private and intense within yourself, something that you have never told anybody but which this author seems to know about? Which published short stories display writing skills that you would like to make your own? Which ones tell you what to avoid?
Richard Crane and Faynia Williams on a memorable trip to Los Angeles
(Tim Robbins working for the Actors' Gang at the prison at Norco in Los Angeles - photo by Steven Cuevas)
We’re waiting for our driver at the Ivy Substation in Culver City. Encircled by traffic, this little island of calm with its 1907 building set in a small leafy park was once a power house for transforming AC into DC for the pioneering Los Angeles Pacific Railway. Now, after a period of disuse, it’s a power house again, pioneering and transforming the theatre scene in Los Angeles, as the home since 2006 of the Actors’ Gang, run by its founder Tim Robbins.
The Lexus pulls up. Silver-haired, six foot five, the Oscar-winning star of Shawshank Redemption, and director of Dead Man Walking, gets out, buys take-aways from Starbucks – his is a black Americano with extra shots of espresso – and we’re off. He is taking us to prison.
As we bomb along the highway, he is talking about the Gang, about Satan’s Ball and about Sabra Williams. The Gang was founded in 1981, when he was fresh out of college. It grew up alongside his film career, initially as a kind of resistance movement against the mighty hand of Hollywood. Helen Hunt, John C Reilly, John Cusack and Jack Black have all been Gang members over the years, along with Tim’s sister Adele and brother David (the Gang’s Musical Director). It’s a family of renegade theatre artists, who leave their egos at the door, train together, question, argue, provoke and create ‘bold, original works for the stage and daring reinterpretations of the classics’.
Originally in Theater Row on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Actors’ Gang is now at the Ivy Substation, with its jumble of dressing-rooms, offices, wardrobe store, a bare-brick auditorium, and a foyer bar flowing out into the cool of the park. They create shows either from scratch or from a known text, pooling skills, ideas, political passions and research, then feeding in the Gang ‘style’, which shapes, assembles and fires up the show.
The ‘style’ is all. Unique to the Gang, it springs from commedia, and the dynamic of the ensemble. Emotions are worn like masks, indicating the ‘state’ to be conveyed – HAPPY, ANGRY, AFRAID or SAD – and instantly engaging the audience as in pantomime or circus. It can seem like a strait-jacket on a less experienced actor, but once learnt and practised, it becomes an instinctive theatre language, bonding the actors into an elastic, interdependent troupe, delivering raucous entertainment and at the same, in James Baldwin’s words: ‘laying bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers’.
The Lexus glides into the forecourt of a roadside restaurant and we take a pit-stop for an early lunch. ‘We’ are Sabra Williams, actor and director of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, Richard Crane and Faynia Williams, author and director of Satan’s Ball which had a reading at the Gang yesterday.
We have been here four days, seen the final performance of their epic production of Red Noses by Peter Barnes, attended a fundraising event for Get Lit, an education programme where kids at risk from gangs perform poetry alongside Helen Mirren and Tim Robbins. We have taken part in the first exploratory workshop for a new show on the American Revolution, where each actor brings research into a particular character, then becomes that character, gets costumed, made up, is interrogated, and has to argue and interact with other characters until scenes emerge.
And we have had a Gang reading of Satan’s Ball. That is the main reason we are here. Based on The Master and Margarita, Satan’s Ball is a passion play/political satire/rock musical about demonic rout in Moscow and political turmoil in Jerusalem. Provocative, disturbing, moving and hilarious, the play calls up all the ‘states’ and exactly fits the ethos of the Gang. The actors, some new to the ‘style’, some with years of experience, tapped straight into the play’s magic, Robbins himself playing three parts. ‘The next step is to try and schedule in the full production,’ says Tim.
Available as a podcast on iTunes, or via the Writers' Guild app for iPhone and iPad.
Good news for playwrights
The Writers’ Guild has agreed significant increases in minimum fees and other payments for writers working for the flagship national companies and many local and touring theatres.
An increase of just under 8% takes the benchmark fee for a play at the Royal National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company or Royal Court Theatre to £11,500. Attendance fees rise to £291 per week. These fees were last increased in April 2010, but the new deal more than compensates for the rise in the cost of living since then.
Under the Guild’s agreement with the Independent Theatre Council, which mainly covers smaller theatres and touring companies, a 3% increase has been agreed, bringing the minimum for a full-length play to £7,880 and attendance fees to £57.50 per day. These fees were last increased a year ago.
Discussions are continuing about revisions and updates to other sections of both agreements.
Writers’ Guild General Secretary Bernie Corbett said: 'We are pleased that these important theatre organisations have readily recognised the central role of the writer and agreed higher minimum fees reflecting recent rises in the cost of living. This is welcome at a time when theatres are having to cope with cuts in Arts Council and local authority support.'
The Guild is also seeking comparable increases in writers’ minimum fees in its other main theatre agreement, with the Theatrical Management Association, mainly representing larger regional and repertory theatres, whose fees were last increased in December 2010.
The full texts and rate cards of the Writers’ Guild’s theatre agreements can be found in the Rates and Agreements section of this website.