Carry On (Writing) Regardless
Richard Bevan (below) on how aspiring playwrights should approach tough economic times
These are tough times. Arts cuts, corporate money down the pan and theatres that nurture writers increasingly having to tighten their belts - and in some cases cease funding work altogether. Having recently had a play, Cockeyed, cancelled due to the theatre company’s coffers running dry, I can fully empathise with any budding writer who believes their chosen vocation is akin to wading through raw meat in Vivienne Westwood heels.
But despite the gloom and doom there are lifelines out there and opportunities which even though won’t necessarily pay the mortgage, can at least help to keep creative juices flowing and prevent morale sagging to terminal levels.
In June this year a gathering of some of the north’s most vibrant and innovative theatre companies at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse, encompassing the likes of Freedom Studios, Hull Truck and Northern Bullits, demonstrated that outside of the West End and regional city theatre programming, there is still a healthy hub of activity taking place in fringe theatre.
At a national level, if you browse the BBC Writersroom website it is encouraging to see that even in these lean times schemes and competitions still abound for both experienced and the not so experienced playwright, even if this doesn’t mean receiving piles of cash. Recently, I was shortlisted for the Off West End Awards Adopt a Playwright scheme. Sadly for me I didn’t win the cherished prize but the nomination was a psychological boost.
The BBC Writersroom is often associated with television scriptwriting but its devotion to theatre has been significant from the department’s inception and continues to be so.
Henry Swindell, New Writing Manager at BBC Writersroom North, insists his team has an ongoing commitment to helping budding stage writers.
'We work in partnerships with theatres,' he explains. 'One of the big things we did last year was Writersroom 10 which was open to theatres all over the country. We asked them to nominate a writer who they were excited about, who hadn’t yet had a full commission but may have done a rehearsed reading or work in progress. So we supported the writer and the theatre throughout the year and then it meant we had a group of ten writers where we’ve done various events at the theatres where they’ve all been nominated.'
Lottie Ward, director of the Actors’ Studio in Halifax, believes this kind of initiative is a tonic for regional theatre companies such as hers that have been staging plays for years and serving the local community, but are facing increasing financial pressures.
'We’ve had to pull productions in the past and at the last moment, because of less money floating around, both from Government sources and the corporate sector, she says. 'It’s a box-ticking scenario for many theatre companies where they either have to fulfil a brief to access what council funds are available or do fewer plays and less nurturing of talent. So although the Actors’ Studio wasn’t a recipient of the Writersroom scheme, it’s encouraging to know that such things are still out there to help during this difficult economic climate.'
it’s not just losing opportunities to stage productions but also the ability to develop new works through writing and dramaturgy workshops that can make a difference to a writer’s development – something the Writersroom is trying to support.
'With Live Theatre in Newcastle we put on a showcase of all ten writers work,' says Henry Swindell. 'We got each one to write for a themed evening called The Parade, the idea being that everything had to be set within a shopping precinct that could be anywhere in the UK. Themes could have been about the recession, shops closing down or they could have just written a sitcom if they wanted. The main thing was that they could all show off their talent in different ways. Four of those productions have now gone on to be turned into radio plays. So things happen.' Mark Catley, Artistic Director of Northern Bullits theatre company that seeks out and develops Yorkshire-based talent, believes that a climate of austerity in theatre funding means many are being over-stretched with ever-decreasing resources.
'As opposed to commissioning a dozen new writers with the intention of only ever putting one or two plays on because you’ve got no money,' he suggests, 'perhaps it may be best to put all energy into one piece you absolutely believe in and help the writer make a name for themselves, and subsequently for the theatre too?'
One issue is that the theatre industry (like TV) is oversubscribed with writers and would-be-writers being trained up and down the country. It’s a classic case of supply outstripping demand and, with universities and colleges make pots of money offering creative writing courses, it is unlikely to change. 'The situation has become untenable,' reflects Mark Catley. 'There are more writers then there are slots available, so you’ve got all these writers who are working on scripts and constantly polishing them, redrafting and submitting them and in the present climate it’s difficult for them to get recognised, never mind make a living.'
'Of course,' he adds, 'if you’ve got a product that is good and you can get it under someone’s nose, chances are it’s going to be picked up. It’s just that our current theatre scene with its limited slots is a problem.'
So the onus is on writers to make their work the best it can be.
Kate Rowland, BBC Creative Director of New Writing, believes that one of the main roles of the Writersroom is to help them do that. 'Sometimes it’s about giving an individual playwright seed commission which we’ve done over the years to different writers such as at the Everyman (Liverpool) and West Yorkshire Playhouse,' she explains. 'It may be a case of us just going and attending their labs as Henry Swindell has been doing with Bolton’s Octagon theatre. So it’s different relationships with different theatres depending on what they ask of us.'
And how about, in these difficult times, some kind of symbiosis can develop between theatre and TV? 'I always thought it was important not just for theatre and TV to recognise each other but to work in partnership,' says Kate. 'Because we all want the same thing. We want to help writers develop a career. For us the main thing is trying to make sure the money is given to the writer rather than the theatres but at the same time we want to be able to support the theatre.'
But do theatre scripts still carry kudos with TV producers?
'Often a theatre script is where the writer shows their distinctive voice,' says Kate. 'They’re not trying to write what they think someone else wants to read. A lot of the people who get onto the BBC Writers’ Academy do so because of their theatre scripts. So theatre scripts are as recognised in the TV industry as it anywhere else.'
Henry Swindell has the last word on how important it is to keep motivated and write that play. 'Theatre is a great way writers can develop. It’s not easy but it’s easier to get a play on than it is to get a TV show made. It’s going to cost half a million quid to get an hour of TV where it’s going to cost a lot less than that for stage. You could just have a rehearsed reading and get something out there. It’s also about getting a stamp of approval from someone other than us. It says other people believe in this work, people are paying to see this work and it all proves, especially to the writer that they really can write.'