Richard Bevan (below) on how aspiring playwrights should approach tough economic times
These are tough times. Arts cuts, corporate money down the pan and theatres that nurture writers increasingly having to tighten their belts - and in some cases cease funding work altogether. Having recently had a play, Cockeyed, cancelled due to the theatre company’s coffers running dry, I can fully empathise with any budding writer who believes their chosen vocation is akin to wading through raw meat in Vivienne Westwood heels.
But despite the gloom and doom there are lifelines out there and opportunities which even though won’t necessarily pay the mortgage, can at least help to keep creative juices flowing and prevent morale sagging to terminal levels.
In June this year a gathering of some of the north’s most vibrant and innovative theatre companies at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse, encompassing the likes of Freedom Studios, Hull Truck and Northern Bullits, demonstrated that outside of the West End and regional city theatre programming, there is still a healthy hub of activity taking place in fringe theatre.
At a national level, if you browse the BBC Writersroom website it is encouraging to see that even in these lean times schemes and competitions still abound for both experienced and the not so experienced playwright, even if this doesn’t mean receiving piles of cash. Recently, I was shortlisted for the Off West End Awards Adopt a Playwright scheme. Sadly for me I didn’t win the cherished prize but the nomination was a psychological boost.
The BBC Writersroom is often associated with television scriptwriting but its devotion to theatre has been significant from the department’s inception and continues to be so.
A briefing from the Writers' Guild written for the Performers' Alliance Parliamentary lobby earlier this week.
The creative professions are regarded by some as passions that we are privileged to follow. But those who produce and exploit our work know that acting, music, and writing are crafts, without which they would have no product.
Too often writers, the most invisible participants, are expected to work for not just low pay, but no pay. The Writers’ Guild wants to highlight that this affects not only the young, starting out in their careers, but established writers in their 40s and 50s. Would MPs, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and police officers work for free because they believe passionately in their job? No? Then Let’s Get Paid!
What is happening?
The Writers’ Guild negotiates collective minimum agreements with theatre producers, television and radio broadcasters and independent production companies. However, these only cover writers under contract, who have received a formal commission. In recent years, we have seen a growing trend towards writers being asked to contribute substantial amounts of unpaid work – detailed pitches, treatments, storylines, sketches, research material, even full-length scripts – merely to compete for the chance of a commission or place on an exclusive “training” scheme for an established TV programme.
Writers expect to undertake speculative work on their own projects, which they may sell on the open market. But work done to the brief of others, which can involve months of thought and labour, is a job, which should be justly remunerated.
Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer were given the Writers' Guild prize at the British Comedy Awards in London last night. The writing and performing duo have created a number of memorable TV shows, including Vic Reeves Big Night Out, The Smell Of Reeves and Mortimer, Catterick, and Shooting Stars.
Other winners at the Comedy Awards were:
- Male TV comic - Lee Mack
- Female TV comic - Jo Brand
- TV comedy actor - Peter Capaldi
- TV comedy actress - Rebecca Front
- Comedy Entertainment Personality - Charlie Brooker
- Comedy Entertainment Programme - Harry Hill's TV BurpS
- itcom - Hunderby
- New comedy programme - Hunderby
- Comedy Breakthrough Artist - Morgana Robinson
An interview with Jan Woolf
Jan Woolf, member of the Writers' Guild Books Committee, originator of the Guild's Off the Shelf at Blacks events and recipient of the first Harold Pinter writers’ residency at the Hackney Empire in 2010, considers herself a late starter. However, her earlier working life: teaching, activism, events production and a brief stint as a film classifier gave her plenty of material. She talks to author and screenwriter Brendan Foley about finding a life in writing and her recent collection Fugues On A Funny Bone.
Brendan Foley: Your writing has been described as ‘quirky’ and ‘eclectic’. If you had to use your own adjectives, what would they be?
Jan Woolf: I’d be happy with pithy or sharp. Also wabi-sabi – a Japanese term for art that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete – a bit wonky, like this answer. But I don’t mean anything goes. I liked Lisa Goldman’s piece in the last issue of UK Writer about breaking the rules and pushing at the edge – but not for its own sake; that’s arrogant. There are no right answers and I think you find your voice when you become present to the writing, the point at which it keeps you company. That’s when you find a style that suits your personality and you become own authority yet listen intelligently to what others say. I think it’s about cultivating a kind of writer’s wisdom, knowing what writing form should carry which idea. My piece about two film censors fancying each other but having to watch porn together found its way into a play – Porn Crackers for the Hackney Empire. My stories about kids in a Pupil Referral Unit needed to be linked – so they were fugues.
Andy Walsh's speech at the Performers' Alliance Parliamentary lobby
Yesterday the WGGB, as part of the Performers’ Alliance Parliamentary Group (including Equity and the Musicians’ Union) lobbied Westminster. Issues ranged from arts cuts to not only low pay, but no pay, for writers, actors and musicians.
The lobby was well attended by members of both Houses, including Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and Shadow Culture Secretary, Dan Jarvis. All listened to what we had to say and the Guild, as ever, will continue the conversation.
Andrew Walsh, our Treasurer, spoke eloquently on behalf of the WGGB. Here’s his speech.
Good afternoon, my Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, and it is quite nice to be able to use that greeting in a place where it’s actually applicable. Coming from the games industry I have to say that the Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen here today aren’t as well armoured, or armed and, despite what the tabloids say, as disreputably behaved as the ones I normally spend my days with.
So, a games writer? A bit of an odd choice to send to stand before you today? Games to some people are this strange peripheral thing, a novel industry. To some writers we are still something set on the side, the junior medium. Even though we’ve been around for 40 years. There are those in the games industry who don’t understand the role of writing in games, despite the fact there are games out there with two million or more words in them. And yet. . .and yet. . .
The latest Call Of Duty, the first game to earn more than $1 billion, and it’s only been out a couple of weeks so it will earn more. This game has chosen to put the story, the writing, at the heart of its latest advertising campaign. And why? Because they understand that writing helps to build a brand; it sells.
The next one-day residence in the Guild's literary afternoons features poets Leo Aylen (pictured) and Alan Brownjohn on 17 December. Please book with Jan Woolf for a day of coffee, poetry and lunch in the beautiful rooms of Black’s club Soho.
Leo Aylen is an author, film director and prize-winning poet. He will read from his ninth collection The Day The Grass Came, which Melvyn Bragg describes as 'a triumph', Geoffrey Heptonstall as a 'very real achievement', and Simon Callow as 'virile, vital, virtuosic'.
Alan Brownjohn published his first poetry collection, The Railings, in 1961, and has been a major figure on the British poetry scene, chairing the Poetry Society between 1982 and 1988 and serving as poetry critic for the New Statesman. He has also sat on the Arts Council literature panel and has written four novels, two books for children and a critical study of Philip Larkin. His Collected Poemswas published by Enitharmon in 2006.