01 April 2012
Posted in Theatre
John Morrison reports from the Writers' Guild’s annual forum for theatre literary managers
(Photo from the literary managers fourm by John Morrison)
Is your play a Primark play, designed to be performed once and thrown away, never to be seen by an audience again? That was the pithy metaphor Guild Theatre Committee chair Amanda Whittington used at the Writers’ Guild forum of theatre literary managers on 30th March to sum up the difficulty many playwrights find in getting their plays performed a second or third time.
The forum, hosted by the Almeida Theatre in Islington, brought together around 40 literary managers, mostly from regional theatres, to focus on whether the current stress on developing and promoting ‘new writing’ tends to discourage theatres from putting on plays that, in fashion terms, are almost new, but not quite. ‘In the last ten years we have seen a unprecedented amount of writer development,’ Amanda explained. ‘There’s a fantastic back catalogue of contemporary British work, but do we value it in the way we should? Are we seeing plays passed over in favour of the new, the new, the new?’
Suzanne Bell, formerly of the Liverpool Everyman and now at Manchester Royal Exchange, warned of the danger of too many regional theatres performing the same plays. ‘We want a model that doesn’t recreate the ubiquitous High Street in which a range of cities across the UK have the same plays throughout any given year. When I visit anywhere I don’t necessarily want to shop in Zara or Next or Topshop… I want to find the places that are unique to that city, that give me a glimpse into the identity of the place.’ Suzanne’s view is that only a small proportion of contemporary work will stand the test of time and become modern classics; second and third runs of new plays should happen on a case by case basis, rather than being built into a formal system.
Jackie Elliman of the Independent Theatre Council pointed out some other obstacles standing in the way of second and third runs. Many plays are created by companies for a specific reason or are linked to specific funding streams. ‘And there isn’t Arts Council funding for re-runs and revivals.’ Some companies which invest money, time and creative skills in creating a stage work have a strong sense of ownership and want to hang on to the rights. The third panellist, Nick Hern of Nick Hern Books, explained what his company was doing to ensure that worthwhile plays secured an ‘afterlife’ on the professional and amateur stage, rather than vanishing after an initial run. New technology means playtexts can now be produced faster than before, and can be revised and reissued more easily if a playwright produces a new version.
Most literary managers agreed that they should be trying to create a theatrical legacy, but pointed out they were often hemmed in by Arts Council funding rules. ‘New writing’ means just that. Elizabeth Newman from the Octagon in Bolton complained that writers’ agents were rarely in contact and often proposed revivals of plays which did not match the theatre’s remit. One literary manager pointed out that London critics rarely visit regional theatres, and when they do, only review first performances of new work.
Amanda Whittington, whose plays including Be My Baby have been staged by a long procession of regional theatres, reminded the forum her career and her earnings relied on revivals: ‘We don’t want a Primark culture where you put on a play once, throw it away and find a new one! If an audience in Portsmouth have seen a play and an audience in Manchester hasn’t…in the end, an audience is an audience.’
A podcast from the literary managers forum will be available on this website soon.
More photos from the event are at http://www.facebook.com/thewritersguild