WGGB has joined Scottish writers in opposing the ban of a play written by WGGB member Gregory Burke. The headteacher of a school in Angus recently banned the play Black Watch (see video above) from the curriculum because of bad language and sexual content.
Her decision has generated controversy and column inches in a number of Scottish papers (including The Herald), resulting in an open letter from a group of writers and endorsed by Scottish PEN. The letter, co-signed by authors Ian Rankin and Louise Welsh and screenwriter Mike Cullen, calls for the ban to be overturned. They describe the text as an “essential piece of Scottish culture”.
Black Watch, which explores the Scottish regiment’s time in Iraq, is based on interviews with soldiers and is approved by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). The writers claim that the play “allows us to hear soldiers speak in their own voice about their lives and the effects of momentous political decisions… When we ignore those voices, we step away from an important dialogue about our society, and our understanding is worse for it.”
They say it is “more important than ever for our educators to highlight the fundamental importance of free speech and expression to a healthy society. But it is hard to set a credible example if the school itself feels the need to prevent its students from studying a piece approved by the SQA due to concerns about its content.”
WGGB General Secretary Bernie Corbett commented: “Education is not about being mollycoddled, it is about being exposed to facts, ideas and influences, however uncomfortable. This is the only way human minds can develop and evolve. A return to Bowdlerism would leave our young people ignorant and unprepared for real life. In the Western so-called democracies we are clinging on to free speech as if for dear life. Censorship in schools would be another battle lost in the perilous war against a new dark age.”
Lending his voice to the fray, former First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond told The Courier there could be “no blackballing of The Black Watch”. He said the play provides the definitive explanation of the Scottish attitude to warfare: “It explains why as a nation we can be pro-soldier but anti-war; why we understand that very good men can die for very bad reasons. Certainly, some of the language is choice. After all, it reflects the real-life experience of Scots squaddies. However, it would be unwise to ban plays on these grounds. It would rule out most of Shakespeare, for a start. And crucially, we are talking here about fifth and sixth year pupils - ie young people of the age who were entrusted last year with the vote about the future of their country.”
Accustomed to controversy over the play, Burke has remained steadfastly calm. However, he told WGGB: “I would like to thank Scottish PEN and the authors who have spoken out in support of Black Watch. I am also full of admiration for the determination the students have shown to study the play, despite the obstacles which are being put in their way. Hopefully, a resolution to the impasse can be found.”
Olivia Vinall as Hilary in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard (photo: Johan Persson)
Acclaimed playwright and WGGB member Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem is his first play for stage since Rock ‘n’ Roll in 2006.
Running at the National Theatre until 27 May 2015, its central character Hilary (Olivia Vinall) is a psychology student at Loughborough University, conducting experiments on adult motivation and child behaviour patterns.
Renowned for using drama to explore problems, Stoppard poses questions such as: how does consciousness come about? And how much is human behaviour the product of egoism or altruism?
You can book tickets, and see events running alongside the production, on the National Theatre’s website.
WGGB member A.C.H. Smith has written the script and lyrics to Walking the Chains, described as an ambitious, extravagant and audacious circus-theatre play with music, and a love song to the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It is being performed at the Passenger Shed at Bristol Temple Meads station until 25 January 2015. Book tickets on the Colston Hall website, and watch a video preview here:
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
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:
Guild member and award-winning playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s new production Roundelay has its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough on 9 September 2014 (running until 4 October 2014).
Roundelay consists of five short, self-contained plays (The Judge, The Novelist, The Politician, The Star and The Agent), written to be played in any sequence. Many of the plays are connected, sometimes through shared characters, sometimes through an overlapping narrative. Sequels turn out to be prequels, and each evening will develop differently. Tickets for the production, billed as a “unique adventure in theatre”, with 120 different possibilities, can be booked online.
Following a recent meeting with directors from the three major theatres; Royal National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court (collectively known as the TNC theatres) your Guild representatives have successfully negotiated an increase of 2% on all minimum fees effective from today, 1 August 2014. In real terms this means that the minimum fee for a play is now just under £12,000 (excluding upstairs at the Royal Court which is now £9,387). For further details of all the new rates click here.
By David Edgar
It’s saddening to report that playwright and Guild member Peter Whelan has died at 82. As fellow RSC associate artists, we met and colluded frequently. He’d had health problems over many years (complications following a hip replacement) and was confined to hospital during rehearsals for his Morris/Rossetti play at the Almeida, The Earthly Paradise. But fellow playwright and Guardian interviewer Samantha Ellis found him working, from his bed, on a new play.
The son of a lithographic artist, Peter was born and brought up in Stoke on Trent, accounting for his fascination with history and pottery. A considerable actor at the Questors Theatre, Ealing, he played Guildenstern in an early version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, directed by Tom Stoppard himself. But although he always intended to be a playwright, he didn’t start writing till he was almost 40. His first play for the RSC, Captain Swing, was picked up off the mat.
Peter’s subsequent work for the company included The Accrington Pals (being revived this year), Clay and The Bright and Bold Design (both potteries plays) and A Russian in the Woods, based on his national service in postwar Berlin. His best known plays – also for the RSC – were set in the English renaissance. His Marlowe/Thomas Kyd play The School of Night was revived at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and his play about Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, The Herbal Bed, had runs in the west end and on Broadway (and, with his Birmingham Rep play about the monarchy, Divine Right, won him a Guild best regional play award in 1996). For me, the scene in The School of Night in which the unknown actor Tom Stone is revealed to be Shakespeare (“Two writers under one roof is one too many”. “If you ask me, it’s two too many”. “Especially when there are three”) is one of the great dramatic coups of the contemporary theatre. He also wrote for broadcast (his television work included The Trial of Lord Lucan for Granada).
Peter was no pushover – in or out of the rehearsal room - but his kindness and generosity of spirit shone through his work. Four years ago, we found ourselves pursuing the same subject, and his withdrawal was typically gracious. He was unfailingly supportive to younger writers, and a great friend. The RSC were lucky to have him. Our condolences go to his wife of 56 years, Ffrangcon, and their children.
A celebration of risk, innovation and collaboration in British theatre
On the 4th of July 2014 the first In Battalions Festival will take place at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins. This one-day summer festival is a new opportunity for professional theatre-makers, academics, politicians, journalists and other culture professionals to share innovative ideas and practical models for maintaining a vital theatre ecology in the UK and will take place as part of The Year of Experimentation, a three day new writing festival taking place at Drama Centre London as the culmination of the first year of its new MA in Dramatic Writing.
The In Battalions report, published by playwright and Writers' Guild member Fin Kennedy and researcher Helen Campbell Pickford in 2013, received widespread coverage and formed a significant part of the recent debate about arts funding cuts, in particular around theatres' capacity to take risks on developing new plays and playwrights in an age of austerity.
The 2014 follow-up, the In Battalions Delphi study, brought together 36 innovative solutions to this problem, sourced from and voted on by theatre professionals. These proposals suggest new ways for theatres and theatre-makers to work with the Arts Council to protect creative risk-taking on new work.
Playwright Fin Kennedy said: "The original In Battalions study of 2013 found theatres across England cancelling shows and cutting back on creative Research and Development as a result of Government cuts to the Arts Council. The Delphi study was a solution-focused follow-up. Both studies have been widely circulated online, and carved out some valuable 'blue skies' space for our sector. But what's needed now is a physical space where culture professionals can come together to make real connections to take these ideas forward. The In Battalions Festival at Central Saint Martins is the third stage of the campaign, and attempts to do just that. I'd invite anyone who cares about the future of new British theatre to come along, meet inspiring speakers and share their ideas."
The In Battalions Festival is a chance to discuss some of the issues raised by the In Battalions reports, form consortia to take forward solutions, and suggest new ways in which the sector might work together better, fund itself more sustainably and articulate its case more effectively. The Festival will be made up of talks and provocations from invited speakers, studies of best practice within the theatre industry and other art forms, space to debate how best for the theatre industry to make its case in the run-up to next year's general election, as well social time for attendees to make connections with one another.
Full details and booking: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/in-battalions-festival-tickets-11868732699
After lengthy negotiations the Guild has reached agreement with UK Theatre and negotiated a 6% increase on minimum fees.
This is a significant increase and is effective from 1 May 2014.
Guild Theatre Committee Chair, Nick Wood said, “We welcome the agreement we've reached with UK Theatre and see it as a step in the right direction for UK playwrights at a time when the arts are under pressure from all sides.”
The negotiating team, which also includes representatives from the agents organisation PMA and Society of Scottish Playwrights, has been working to improve and update the 1993 TMA/WGGB/SSP agreement on subsidised theatre, we have made significant headway on this but there are still some areas where we have not reached agreement so further meetings will be held with UK Theatre.