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.
Former Guild President David Edgar has received an Otto Award for political theatre in New York. Named after a Guatemalan poet and revolutionary executed by the authorities in 1968, the Otto Rene Castillo Theatre has been making political theatre for 30 years, alongside educational and performance work for deprived young people.
The theatre’s annual awards have been going since 1998, and past recipients include playwrights Ed Bullins and Ntozake Shange, as well as noted American companies like the Living Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Steppenwolf. In addition to David Edgar, this year’s award recipients included playwright Katori Hall, whose The Mountaintop won the 2009 Olivier best play award.
David’s award was presented by Oscar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theatre, who commissioned and directed the first production of Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking Angels in America.
Free tickets still available for showcase at Leicester Square Theatre at 2pm next Friday 9th May, to celebrate the ‘best of British’ new writing for the stage.
Drawn from over 220 plays submitted nationwide, the Playwrights' Progress showcase features Imran Yusuf’s Westernization (pictured) and Kate Davidson’s The Ostrich. They are an exciting reflection of this unique script development project, promoted by the Writers’ Guild in partnership with Royal Central School of Speech & Drama and Leicester Square Theatre.
So don’t miss this exclusive Guild promotion at this exciting central London venue. And book for free now via Leicester Square Theatre.
WESTERNIZATION by Imran Yusuf - A married couple in crisis takes a comic journey from East to West. Over one night of metaphysical flight and fantasy, they navigate a world of authority figures, taking in gender politics, gymnastics, green tea and God; they argue, fumble and dance a way through the fundamentals of their relationship. What on earth can they – or any of us - do when the ground beneath their feet is shifting at a rapid pace?
THE OSTRICH by Kate Davidson - Middle-aged banker Teddy gets a shock when he goes home for his mother’s birthday to find that her dementia has significantly deteriorated. With neither of his sisters able to pay for nursing care, Teddy must make the tough choice about whether to put his feisty mother into a home. In this witty and poignant family drama secrets come to light, but does Teddy face up to painful reality or keep digging his head further into the sand?
This showcase will be a staged reading, performed by actors of the highest calibre, largely drawn from Central’s alumni, as the culmination of a whole process of readings and workshops, which have been led by the distinguished directors Gwenda Hughes, Tim Trimingham Lee, Janette Smith & Grainne Byrne. And is the distillation of our eight chosen playwrights and their plays.
The performance will run no later than 5 pm, when the theatre bar will be open for refreshment.
This project is funded by Arts Council England and the Writers’ Foundation (UK) with further financial support from RCSSD & Leicester Square Theatre.
Mike Sharland remembers the actor, director, Guild member and playwright who co-wrote what was to become arguably the most famous British farce, No Sex Please, We're British, which holds the world record for the longest running farce in the history of the theatre.
Anthony Marriott, who has died aged 83 on 17 April 2014 after a long illness. He was born on 17 January 1931 in London, England. Tony was an actor, stage director and writer of over 32 plays. His first appearance as an actor was in Laburnham Grove at the Horsham Repertory Company in 1950. He then took part in various repertory seasons from 1951 to 1954 including Worthing, Warrington, Manchester Library Theatre, Dudley, Norwich, Yeovil and Salisbury.
From 1954-1956 he became a member of the BBC Radio Drama Repertory Company starring in among others, The Journey Into Space series, and Dan Dare. He became a contract writer for the Rank Organisation working on Waltz Of The Toreadors, Gypsy and the Gentleman, Operation Amsterdam. For television, he was a story editor on the Ghost Squad series and he created and wrote BBC Radio’s Roundabout series.
I first met Tony during this period in the mid sixties. We shared offices in the basement of Associated London Scripts at the legendary 9 Orme Court where a great deal of the comedy for television, film and theatre was created by Spike Milligan, Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Eric Sykes. Tony created with Roger Marshall Public Eye, starring Alfred Burke for ABC. He was also a contributing writer on series including The Avengers, No Hiding Place, This Man Craig, Fireball XL5.
Turning to the theatre, he wrote with Alistair Foot Uproar In The House, a farce which ran at the Garrick and Whitehall Theatres from 1967-1969. They followed this up with No Sex Please, We’re British, which starred Michael Crawford. It opened at the Strand Theatre in 1971, later transferring to the Garrick Theatre enjoying a sixteen and a half year run becoming on the way the world’s longest running farce. With Bob Grant he wrote Darling Mr. London, No Room For Love, Home Is Where Your Clothes Are, which is one of the most popular farces with amateur companies in North America.
No Sex Please, We’re British has to date seen productions in over 90 countries. It was always a disappointment to Tony that such a perfectly constructed farce was never taken up by the National Theatre. There have been no West End revivals of No Sex Please, We’re British as it was always difficult to cast and Tony knew that farce depended on the right casting.
Tony got together with another great comedy writer, John Chapman, and they produced Shut Your Eyes And Think Of England, which ran for a year and a half starring one of Britain’s finest comedy and classical actors, Donald Sinden. Due to the success of Shut Your Eyes And Think Of England, Tony wrote three more plays with John Chapman.
When he wasn’t writing, Tony served for 21 years as a Justice of the Peace in the West End Courts. Tony was a great supporter of writers and served on both the Council and the Theatre Committee of The Writer’s Guild of Great Britain. He brought a sharp eye and a great deal of commonsense to the meetings which always seemed to end in laughter.
Tony was married to Heulwen who pre deceased him in 1999. They had three children.
Richard Pinner reports on the Writers' Guild's development scheme
Playwrights (clockwise from top left) Rachael McGill, John McCarthy, Imran Yusuf and Kate Davidson
After an exciting week at the beginning of March, when all eight of our chosen plays were read by a high-calibre company of actors, largely drawn from Central School’s alumni, Playwrights’ Progress really took off in style. And having now completed a successful week of workshops for four of these plays we now look forward to the showcase.
But, firstly, we would like to commend the four pieces selected as 'plays of promise' – Junk by Susan Avery and Sally Grey, Guilt by Julie Bainbridge, The Room Inside by Jimmy Osborne and Ninety Days by Ashok Patel. For these writers the read-through was the event. No doubt both exhilarating and daunting for the authors – as they were observed by a distinguished group of guests, including literary managers, artistic directors and literary agents – in each case the plays proved their mettle. Indeed, the discussions that followed each reading were so animated and engaged they could have continued well after the time allowed for them. Already there has been significant interest and follow-up for some of the playwrights involved, while all the writers were encouraged and stimulated to address re-writes and pursue suggestions made by their guests to improve and refine their scripts.
Meanwhile, Ostrich by Kate Davidson, Stage Irish by John McCarthy, Chickens Don’t Fly by Rachael McGill and Westernization by Imran Yusuf , have just been given their three-day workshop, which was served by a brilliant company of actors, cast by Central’s Martin Wylde - and led by the distinguished directors & mentors Gwenda Hughes, Janette Smith, Grainne Byrne, Tim Trimingham, Lisa Evans & Roy Kendall.
Thumbnail sketches of these plays (see below) reveal the rich diversity of material we explored and provide an appetiser for the forthcoming Showcase, featuring the best work to emerge from the workshops.
This showcase, at Leicester Square Theatre at 2pm on Friday 9 May, culminates the whole project and will be staged in the main theatre, and is open to the public with FREE tickets. We would therefore be delighted if the auditorium was full and for the Guild to be present in force, so please book now and bring your friends!