The myth of ‘a writer’s theatre’

on 26 March 2012. Posted in Theatre

In an extract from his new book, Arnold Wesker argues that many artistic directors are in a state of denial

(Photo of Arnold Wesker by Leon Kreel)

My contention is that there is no such institution as ‘a writer’s theatre’; I speak with the authority of one whose first five plays were performed in the Royal Court - probably the first theatre to lay claim that it was a theatre for writers.

Of course, every theatre that mounts a play could be described as a writer’s theatre because what is offered, whether by commercial management or state-subsidised management, is written by a writer! But we all know what the description implies: ‘A writer’s theatre’ is the boast of an artistic directorship that wishes its policy to be understood as one that gives priority consideration to new writing by new writers. Not, note, a policy simply of new writing but new writing by new or newish writers, a policy that could be termed ‘ageism’.

The Royal Court, the Bush, the Young Vic and many others lay claim to being ‘a writer’s theatre’. But is it true? Can it be true? What really can it mean? Let’s look a little more closely at the boast. We know it doesn’t mean that writers read and choose the plays that will fill each season’s offerings. It certainly can’t mean — to go to the ridiculous extreme — that anyone with a first play can knock at the theatre’s door and expect it to be performed; but might it mean that a playwright with a track record could expect his or her next play to be performed? Apart from Sir Alan Ayckbourn, who was the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in Scarborough (retired in 2009), where his plays were premiered, I know of few others where a writer has such power of entry.

Let me write a little about the one theatre with which I ‘grew up’, the Royal Court. There is no doubt that George Devine and Tony Richardson (the late joint artistic directors) cherished and indulged their writers, but it didn’t stop them initially turning down, one after the other, those first five plays of mine: Chicken Soup With Barley, Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem (all launched from the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and titled by the Court as The Wesker Trilogy); The Kitchen - cautiously permitted as a Sunday Night ‘production without decor’ at the Court; and Chips With Everything, accepted only after a commercial manager, Bob Swash, offered to co-produce it with the Court. Nevertheless, it is the nearest I can get to imagining ‘a writer’s theatre’. In an essay I wrote for a book celebrating the Royal Court’s 25th Anniversary I acknowledged my debt to this glorious establishment, but what really made us imagine it was a genuine ‘writer’s theatre’?

First, they gave writers a physical base. To be able to walk into that building in Sloane Square at will, pop in to watch rehearsals, meet other theatre people, and feel it was ours gave us an invaluable sense of belonging.

Next, they spotlighted our plays for the world to see. The interest in new drama which the Royal Court engendered and which was given its initial thrust by John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, brought the Court to the attention of agents, impresarios and directors from all over the world. We were made ‘international writers’ overnight. This was a launching pad from which, 50 years later, I’m still reaping some benefits.

Third, there were the famous writers’ gatherings, which took place mainly in a huge room of a house on Chiswick Mall belonging to Anne Piper, one of the group. We talked, played theatre games, tried out our ideas – not all of them productive but always with an air of gaiety and anticipation.

And last, most important of all for me, the Court gave me a team: the late John Dexter, director, and the late Jocelyn Herbert, designer. We made my first five plays together. I can’t pretend there was no friction, but there is no doubt in my mind that I learned from John how to direct plays, and from Jocelyn the central importance of design, how the wrong set can utterly destroy the careful rhythms a writer weaves into his work. Jocelyn was an inspired designer and a modest human being upon whom Dexter and I leaned for advice in uncertain times, and reassurance in dark and doubting times.

These four elements – the base, the international spotlight, the writers’ group and, most important, the team – all culminated in the fifth element: self-confidence. Of course, many things have since conspired to destroy that self-confidence – careless critics, treacherous actors, unadventurous directors; but nothing, I suppose, can really shake that foundation which I received in those first four years of my association with the Royal Court. They didn’t like or understand what I wrote, but they took the risk. I’d like to think they trusted the writer but with experience and hindsight I now understand it was the directors – Anderson and Dexter – whom they trusted. But whoever and however, they gave this writer self-confidence and he owes them a debt.

But the question persists: was it ‘a writer’s theatre’? Despite the enthusiastic reception of Roots and The Kitchen, I still could not expect my next plays automatically to be accepted. The directors, Devine and Richardson, who considered The Kitchen, with its 31 actors on stage simulating work in a restaurant kitchen, impossible to stage nevertheless decided that Dexter had earned the opportunity to stage the play. John was confident he knew how to pull such a mammoth work together. He suggested rewrites and a new section – The Interlude – a period of quiet between serving lunch in Act One and serving dinner in Act Two without which the play would not have been as strong. He rehearsed for two weeks on a budget of £100 and the result was electrifying. But Devine and Richardson still didn’t bring it in to the following season until another play dropped out and Dexter was called upon to rush a production together, which was again a huge success. It has subsequently become the most performed of my plays around the world.

The successful reception of Chicken Soup With Barley led to the production of Roots, which led to the production of The Kitchen. But those successes were no guarantee that the Court’s management would accept my next play, Chips With Everything; they didn’t until a commercial management entered the scene. It ran for a year in the West End but was still no guarantee of subsequent productions of my later plays, not even under the heading ‘New Writing’. So on what basis could The Royal Court claim to be a writer’s theatre when they kept rejecting the work of one of its most acclaimed writers? The answer is simple – there exists no such basis. Artistic directors everywhere who claim they are running ‘a writer’s theatre’ are in a state of denial. No such theatre exists, nor can exist. All plays must be filtered through those directors and, more likely, literary managers with first-class degrees in Eng. Lit. and little ability to lift a play off a page, or whose antenna are tilted to detect what is politically correct or (ephemerally) of the moment.

To my detriment, I don’t write like that. I find myself drawn to universal material and unpopular perceptions, qualities a bold management should cherish; they seem not to, and so I have no home, no base, no team with whom to work on that material, and my file of curious, stuttering, contradictory letters of rejection grows. Artistic directors admire my plays for their ‘powerful’ themes, ‘passionate dialogue’, and ‘brilliant’ something or other but, but, but ... they do not fit into their artistic policy.

I don’t understand the notion of ‘artistic policy’. Why is not the artistic policy of every theatre simply to mount a good play regardless of race, colour, gender or age? I call upon artistic directors to be honest, move out of their state of denial and confess: that what audiences are permitted to see is not what writers write but what directors want to direct. Admit it, there is no such thing as a writer’s theatre, there can only ever be a director’s theatre.

On this my 50th anniversary as a playwright I have about half a dozen works, including a musical of The Kitchen, looking for a home in this country. Others, such as Denial, The Wedding Feast and Shylock have been performed only in the regions. Seventeen of them have had their world premieres abroad, and a couple of them have never been performed at all. I don’t think I’m the only such writer. There being no writer’s theatre, many of us feel like Shostakovich waiting for Stalin to die. We name no names.

Perhaps it’s the rudeness that is demoralising. I never send unsolicited scripts to a theatre but write first to ask if they’re interested to read a new play. I did so with the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The play was Denial, about ‘the false memory syndrome’ – a hot potato of a play about false accusations of child abuse. They asked to read it. I sent a copy by email. Months passed, I prompted them. They replied that they’d lost the script due to a technical breakdown and would I send another. Which I did. Despite prompts, the years have passed in silence. I’m still waiting – even if only for a courteous rejection.

© Arnold Wesker

Extracted from Wesker On Theatre, by Arnold Wesker Published by Oberon Books, price £9.99