My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings is published by Nick Hern Books to celebrate 25 years of theatre publishing.
All royalties from the sale of the book are donated to the Theatre Section of the Writers' Guild. To buy a copy with a 25% discount off the cover price of £9.99, go to www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/my-first-play (discount valid until 31 December 2013).
The extracts below are reprinted with kind permission of the authors and Nick Hern Books.
Introduction by Nick Hern
In 2013, the year I’m writing this, the publishing firm I set up in 1988 celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. As a publisher I naturally wanted to publish something special to mark the occasion. Rejecting the idea of a ‘Reader’ consisting of bleeding chunks of plays and books by the various authors on the Nick Hern Books list, I hit instead on the idea of asking pretty well everyone whose plays or books had been regularly published by NHB to write a little piece on ‘My First Play’.
I explained to them that this could be ‘the first play you ever saw, the first play you wrote/acted in/directed, the first one that blew your socks off, the play that made you want to go into the theatre etc., etc.’ And I attached a piece I had just written on the subject by way of proving to myself it could be done – and that it could be fun.
The result was instantaneous. Pieces started coming in that very evening. The first was by Caryl Churchill with a note that read: ‘This is the sort of thing that if I don’t do it at once the time will rush by and I won’t do it at all.’ Then a piece by Ella Hickson, full of the joy of a fascinating discovery. Then Larry Kramer, Stephen Jeffreys and Alexi Kaye Campbell all came through within a day or two. After the trickle came a gratifying flood, the results of which fill this book.
People who were absurdly busy were often the most punctilious – Bruce Norris and Dominic Cooke both sent pieces while opening The Low Road at the Royal Court, Richard Eyre from Chichester where he was opening The Pajama Game, Howard Brenton from Hampstead where he was arresting Ai Weiwei, Joanna Murray-Smith from the opening of her new play at the Sydney Theatre Company, Oliver Ford Davies from the exhaustion of an extended tour of Goodnight Mister Tom, and Polly Teale from mid-rehearsals for Alexi’s Bracken Moor. Tanya Ronder struggled out from under the Table at the National to deliver her piece, while Conor McPherson managed his while attending to the revival of one play, The Weir, and the premiere of another, The Night Alive, both at the Donmar. It wasn’t all theatre, though: Elaine Murphy, six months pregnant, overcame ‘baby brain’ to write a piece, while Chloë Moss delivered hers soon after giving birth. And these are just the stories I heard about. Everyone whose pieces appear here generously put aside pressing obligations to make their contributions, for which I’m humbly grateful.
And what heart-warming, revelatory, hilarious and touching pieces they are – all in all a marvellous birthday present to NHB. I read many of them with eyes misting over at the joyous – yet complex – innocence on display. And it occurred to me that each of them in their way is the story of a love affair…
A response from the Writers' Guild on pay and scheduling
The Writers’ Guild is resisting BBC proposals that would cut many children’s writers’ upfront pay by 20% - just as the BBC Trust praises children’s output but calls for both higher productivity and fewer programmes.
The pay issue has its roots in the decision a year ago to take all children's programming off BBC1 and BBC2 and concentrate it on the daytime channels Cbeebies and CBBC. Until now writers of drama and scripted comedy shows for children (over 15 minutes) have been paid their fee plus a subsequent use advance of 100%, recognising that most such programmes would be broadcast on both the network and the specialist channels. This is in line with the principle that 'primary' channels pay the advance while 'secondary' channels don’t.
Although Cbeebies and CBBC are now the BBC’s only television services for children, the corporation still regards them as 'secondary' and wants to cut the advance from 100% to 60% - equivalent to a cut of 20% in the upfront payment. To sweeten the pill, the BBC has offered to keep the advance at 100% for current writers for three years – at which point the cut would be imposed. New writers would go straight on to the 60% advance.
The Guild and the Personal Managers’ Association (representing writers’ agents) have rejected the proposals and have called instead for Cbeebies and CBBC to be re-categorised as primary channels, to recognise the importance of children’s programming as one of the basic pillars of the BBC. Negotiations are continuing.
Meanwhile the BBC Trust, red-faced after the row over executive pay-offs, this week issued a comprehensive review of BBC children’s services, described by Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett as 'baffling, confusing, and pointing in all directions at once'.
Having recently left his development producer role at BBC Writersroom, Paul Ashton has joined Creative England as Senior Film Executive – Talent Development. Richard Bevan talks to him about working with writers and his book The Calling Card Script (2011) exploring the challenges writers must overcome.
Richard Bevan: What led you to write The Calling Card Script?
Paul Ashton: What the publisher really liked about my idea was that it was cross-media, it wasn’t about how to write a film or a play, it was about what the universal characteristics might be across different kinds of writing, where the similarities are and where the differences break in. The unique thing about the book I think is that it takes in theatre, radio, television and film in one go and don’t separate them out. This is partly because of a consequence that I’ve been working across for many years.
Was there one particular thing that you were particularly keen for the book to say to writers?
Yes, I had a strong feeling that in the current climate writers should not close off opportunities. Some of the best writers are moving between different mediums, forms and formats and graduating from one and then going back. Some of my favourite writers like Dennis Kelly and Jack Thorne are theatre writers, they’re radio writers and they’re TV and film writers. They do all of them differently at different times but don’t have an artificial distinction between them.
A Writers' Guild event at Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham as part of the Birmingham Literature Festival
8 October 2013, 4.30pm, £8/£6
To celebrate the opening of the Library of Birmingham and the theatre it shares with the Birmingham REP, a panel of distinguished playwrights discuss their experience of bringing books to the stage. How did they overcome the inherent difficulties? What liberties did they allow themselves to take? And why did they believe the book needed to be adapted in the first place?
Birmingham-based playwright, David Edgar won an Olivier Award for his RSC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. Having transferred to New York it went on to win a Tony Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.
Theresa Heskins is the Artistic Director of North Staffordshire’s New Vic Theatre. The novels she’s dramatised include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Bleak House. She has also adapted works for BBC Radio 4.
Michael Fry is the Deputy Director of the East 15 Acting School. His adaptations include Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Emma and The Great Gatsby. His book on adaptation, Playing the Novel, is due to be published next year.
The panel will be chaired by author Helen Cross, whose first novel My Summer of Love was made into a BAFTA award winning film.
Booking details: www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org/event/adapting-for-stage
Paul Bassett Davies on his new sitcom Reception, and the ongoing appeal of radio
Morwenna Banks, Adrian Scarborough and Amit Shah - stars of Reception, written by Paul Bassett Davies
People who say they don't listen to radio are like people who claim they never pay attention to advertising. They're probably absorbing more than they think, and you'd have to live in a hut on a remote island to avoid hearing any radio at all. But the hut would need to be sturdy enough to never require the attention of builders.
What those people mean, of course, is that they don't make a point of listening to radio. Maybe, like the man who once read a book and didn't like it, they once heard a radio play they didn't think much of. Which can happen. Hundreds of plays a year are broadcast on BBC radio, and if all of them were to your taste it would probably mean you didn’t have any. But if earnest dramas about social issues aren't your cup of artisanal tea, it's quite possible that the following day you could hear a sci-fi thriller that exploits the medium's extraordinary imaginative potential to mind-bending effect. You never know.
I've written several radio dramas, and now I've written a radio sitcom called Reception, which is currently being broadcast on Mondays at 11.30am on BBC Radio 4. It's my second foray into radio sitcom: over twenty years ago I co-wrote a sitcom with Jeremy Hardy, which I also performed in. The first series was called Unnatural Acts, then the name was changed to At Home With The Hardys. The show was both a sitcom and a pastiche of a sitcom, in the same way that The Young Ones was, on television. Listening to it now, it seems pretty hit-and-miss. Some of it holds up well, and some of it makes me cringe. I wonder with hindsight whether I should have learned more about writing a conventional sitcom before attempting to subvert the genre. Tellingly, the show's playful surrealism works best when it's firmly rooted in character and story. In some ways Reception reflects this lesson: character is at its heart; it obeys the formal rules of the genre, and it attempts to combine the restrictions of the format with the unique qualities of radio to create a series of intimate stories about friendship in the workplace. Does it succeed? The audience will decide that.
The Writers’ Guild and members of seven other unions will be forming a human chain in front of London’s National Gallery on 18 September to call on government to protect arts and culture funding. The event is being organised by Lost Arts, an affiliation of eight unions whose members have all been affected by cuts to the arts.
Since 2010, the overall budget of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has been cut by a third. This has meant a drastic reduction in subsidies and grants to museums, theatres, libraries and other cultural bodies, and led to closures, staffing cuts and reduced access for the public. Local arts and culture is also suffering because of £124 million arts cuts in the department's 2013-14 budgeted expenditure for local government.
The government continues to make cuts to arts and culture and ignore its true value. For every £1 invested in arts and culture, up to £6 is generated for the local economy. Arts and culture costs just 14p per person per week. It is directly responsible for at least £865m of spending by tourists every year. Creative industries employ 2.5 million people and 78% of adults attended or participated in the arts in the last year.
Show your support:
Join the human chain in front of the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London at 6pm on Wednesday 18 September.
Tweet your support for arts funding using #LinkUpForArt
Say you’re going on the Facebook event page and spread the word.