The end of new writing?

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Is it time to get rid of the label ‘new writing’? What is the relationship between new performance and new writing? Are existing developmental structures in theatre companies specialising in new writing ultimately counter-productive and stifling creativity? How can we avoid being caught in development hell? These, and other issues, were part of a panel discussion I was part of at West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) a few weeks ago.

The End of ‘New Writing’? became a discussion point on WYP’s new writing blog, and the subject of an interesting feature by associate literary director, Alex Chisholm, in Exeunt magazine: http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/the-end-of-new-writing/

Alex clearly defines what she means by ‘the end of new writing’:

I am not talking about getting rid of writers, or plays, putting on plays by first time writers or young writers or not quite as young as they once were writers. I am still as passionate as I ever was about putting on plays written by all kinds of people.

What I am talking about is re-thinking and re-fashioning of the processes, assumptions and aesthetics that make up the sub-genre of British theatre known as New Writing, and most particularly an end to the, in my opinion, unnecessary opposition between New Writing and New Work.

I was in discussion around these issues at WYP’s writing festival with fellow playwrights David Eldridge and Fin Kennedy, director Dawn Walton, and Royal Exchange literary associate Suzanne Bell, chaired by Lyn Gardner, cultural commentator, blogger, novelist, and theatre critic of The Guardian newspaper.

My comments on this event are not necessarily representative of the wide-ranging discussion; being part of the panel has naturally favoured the points that were of personal interest or subject of my frantically scribbled notes as the event occurred. Despite these limitations, I hope that a fragmented partisan report will be better than none.

We were asked to make some provocations or reflections on the subject before the conversation began. What follows are some of my own:

Yes, I believe we should get rid of the term ‘new writing’ – it was a useful phrase and essential initiative nearly twenty years ago, establishing literary departments across the UK’s building-based theatres and promoting theatre writers and their plays – but it’s done its work, it’s time to move on. Shouldn’t processes reflect and engage with the ever-evolving  forms and types of live performance being made now? But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, or allow economic demands to squeeze and insist one size fits all (it doesn’t), I feel we should be clear on the different processes and contexts within which new work/new writing is made – and the different concerns and skills appropriate for each to thrive.

I think it is important to differentiate between developing the writers – nurturing, advising, and supporting young in career writers – developing/ giving feedback on the script – and then the dramaturgical work which may occur when working towards production.

Literary managers – or literary associates/directors as they seem to be increasingly called these days – often get an unfair bashing. I salute these great allies – they are often the first contact between a writer and a theatre – they champion, nurture, and develop new, emerging, arrived, and possibly even on the wane writers. They are passionate about writers and writing and performance and will often insist – as Suzanne Bell consistently did in the discussion – on the importance of keeping the writer – and the writing – at the centre of the process.

(As an aside – I’ve stood many times in literary departments, both as a poacher as well as a gamekeeper, and shuddered at the pile of unsolicited scripts waiting to be read, and smiled gratefully at the faithful readers steadily working their way through the piles. In one memorable incident fifteen years ago, they were stacked from the floor to level with the bottom of my left ear lobe – and I’m five feet seven inches… From that moment, my respect for the inhabitants of a literary department swelled.)

This work is skilled and very much appreciated, yet all of the playwrights on the panel commented on the dangers and frustration of being trapped in a seventh circle of developmental hell – held in a holding pattern – being endlessly developed and workshopped, and not a production in sight…. We of course are not guaranteed a production, and much depends on economics. I’ve heard theatre companies say they would rather have rehearsed readings than no ‘new’ work – and often the only way to work with a writer or begin a relationship is through offering them development…

This forced us again to return to the question about existing developmental structures in theatre companies specialising in new writing… Is it too rigid, too prescribed? My concern is it can homogenise the talent and stifle creativity.

There seems to be a recognized ‘type’ of play in form and content which is ‘the new play’. Like the snake swallowing its own tail, this definition or notion of the content, style and form of what constitutes a ‘new play’ helps shape workshops and feedback, and how courses are run – and these in turn help shape a particular kind of play…. It can be a vicious circle.  I compare it to the recognisable  ‘style’ of short fiction which has been developed through creative writing postgraduate degrees, especially in North American Universities: it’s well done, polished, professional work, but it can be somewhat ‘safe’ and anodyne. Similarly, I feel a kind of ‘new play’ template exists – and woe betide those (and I write from painful experience from being in development both sides of the Atlantic) whose work does not easily or comfortably fit into this ‘one size and process fits all’ model.

Although I personally loathe the distinction between ‘new writing’ and ‘new work’, I want us to be honest about the different skills and understanding which is required when working across a broad range of theatre styles and dramaturgies. Many in literary departments have predilections and specialisms – like everyone else in the business. Few individuals have the skills and experience to advise and guide across the full range of possibilities, from naturalism to post-dramatic performance, sign theatre or multi-lingual texts, site-specific work or forms incorporating movement or music, physical scores or puppetry, and so on.

Too often an untrue and false delineation is made, where ‘new writing’ equals character-driven naturalism, with linear chronology and consequential action; whilst ‘new work’ covers the non-naturalistic, montaged, more experimental styles. ‘Writer’s theatre’ is often viewed as the former, ‘director’s theatre’ as the latter. I’m only one example of a large number of dramatists who work in many ways, both sides of the ‘divide’, writing scripts, through a variety of processes and forms, which encompass both ‘camps’. There is a danger in over-simplifying and compartmentalising – but neither should we believe there is one process or a sole system. In my ideal world, when going into development with the intention of production, the creative team would be custom-made to serve the work – chosen by their specialism, experience, and skills accordingly.

Everyone on the panel felt theatres specialising in developing playwrights and plays shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘one stop shop.’

Playwright Mike Kenny spoke from the floor, responding to the panelists’ general assertion that a script was more than words on a page, and so the focus on ‘readings’ and polishing the text central to so many developmental practices undermined the three- dimensionality of a play – and its collaborative nature. Mike reminded us we are playwrights – wrights – and our work is as much about architecture as words. He also felt there exists a haziness about our work – he felt strongly that the world didn’t understand what it is we actually do – and it is important that work is done, ‘otherwise you get a shambles.’

During the discussion audience members asked how we might avoid this ‘holding pattern’ when we may be in development indefinitely, and never deliver a final draft that would then go into production. Fin gave other models of creating plays and new work – citing his own experience as playwright-in-residence at Mulberry school for girls in Tower Hamlets, East London, between 2007-10. During those years, they took productions he had written, developed with the students, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they won a Fringe First, and created a credible alternative route to developing work. Fin writes about the process at: http://www.finkennedy.co.uk/The-Mulberry-School-connection 

In addition, we spoke of making grant applications to the arts council to fund the development of new work – something playwrights are entitled to do, but seldom seem to act on.

Interestingly, David Eldridge warned against playwrights’ expectation of having their scripts developed. He reminded us it isn’t actually a right to have plays workshopped, and felt there was an unhealthy expectation that this was a course of action all scripts deserved. He also emphasized the power our work has, quoting Mark Ravenhill’s assertion that we don’t have to be Tom Stoppard to say ‘can we not meet in the theatre?’ and so meet elsewhere, on more neutral territory, which might create a more balanced and healthy power dynamic in these burgeoning relationships.

I felt a keener example of how to avoid developmental hell was revealed when David spoke briefly of his own process – how the first draft he delivers to literary managers when under commission is actually usually his third. The work will therefore be more polished and developed than the majority of scripts at this stage – the playwright’s understanding of the world of the play will be so much more defined, technically it will be more accomplished and crafted, and so less likely to invite major discussion, feedback and advice on development, or be ‘fiddled’ with.

And so we returned again to the central question – whether it was time to get rid of the term ‘new writing’.  It was a motion the whole panel seemed in favour of, and several directors and producers in the audience commented, alongside Dawn, on the difficulties in securing bookings and selling ‘new writing’ in these cash-strapped times. I referred to National Theatre Wales and how ‘new writing’ has never featured in any description of their work – nor even, in my memory, the words ‘new work’ or even ‘new performance’. As a body, we wondered if we should simply call what we do live performance, or theatre, and leave it at that.

‘The new’ has also been in discussion this week, from a different perspective, at the literary managers forum, reported on the Writers Guild website. John Morrison writes:

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?’

For the full report and some terrific provocations over the lack of second productions and the creation of a ‘Primark play – to be worn once and thrown away’ – go to: http://www.writersguild.org.uk/podcasts/296-literary-managers-forum-2012

There is also a podcast of the discussion, including the always excellent Suzanne Bell at:

http://www.writersguild.org.uk/news-a-features/theatre/283-theatrical-writing-fashion-zara-primark-or-oxfam

I hope this report has been stimulating and would to have readers’ thoughts and responses to these various events and debates. Please leave your comments, below. I’m sure this is a discussion which will run and run.

© Kaite O’Reilly 15/6/12

8 responses to “The end of new writing?

  1. I love reading your blog so I have nominated you for the versatile blogger award!

  2. Thank you so much! Writing blogs can be lonesome. I never really know if they’re read and they’re seldom commented on, so I have so appreciated your interaction – and today’s kind and generous action. Thank you.

  3. Excellent coverage of a debate from many angles. Enjoyed reading that.

  4. Sarah Dickenson

    Kaite – that is brilliant and balanced and exactly to the point. Really brilliant.

    • Thank you so much, Sarah and Laura. Further responses and perspectives on this issue would be welcomed! Please feel free to engage and write longer reflections, if you so please! Kaite x

  5. This is such a good response to the number of articles flying about decrying dramaturgy / literary management as the key pitfall of the industry at present; what you suggest here is a shift in aesthetic appreciation and understanding, and an ability for those representatives of venues who are lucky enough to engage with writers (who may be directors, dramaturgs, literary associates / managers, creative producers, producers, associate directors, writers-in-residence – and are they all equipped to comment upon and engage critically with the broad church of dramaturgies that theatre creates, and understand different writers’ processes?) to embrace the unknown, the challenging, the problematic and the genuinely new. Interestingly, I was speaking with somebody today whom, when I told them I’d been working in academia part-time for the last six years as a dramaturg-lecturer-playwright-associate-bod, whistled in through their teeth like a plumber checking out a bad leak and remarked ‘been sucked in have you?’ with a wry grin. I found this quite offensive. It’s on that side of the fence that British theatre traditionally shuns – the intellectual, academic side – that I find those people most literate in theatrical languages beyond the text-driven as well as the good old Aristotelian school. They apply the vocabulary of the playwright’s craft widely and carefully, stretching definitions to fit the logic of the play with a bottom-up approach, not a top-down terraforming tool to create something that looks like the singular definition of what a play should be. It’s this to-ing and fro-ing from academia to the industry that has, I believe, sustained my vocabulary and appreciation as a writer and dramaturg over the last ten years.

    What I’d agree with here and with Fin Kennedy and Alex Chisholm’s recent articles is that we need to honour that plasticity in our vocabulary – Paul Castagno suggests just this sort of ‘new Poetics’ in his book New Playwriting Strategies, with an exceptionally clear (and quite exciting) outline of ‘theatrical character’. Cathy Turner has also touched on it too in her academic articles on dramaturgy, as has Australian dramaturg and Melbourne Literary Associate Julian Meyrick – also in an academically published article. Another great article by Elinor Fuchs called Visit to a Small Planet is a fantastic tool for approaching play analysis using the organising principles of world and structure – in quite a metaphorical and visual sense – to unpick plays, not character character character. Oh look! Another academic. I would of course back up the benefit of academic writing in theatre practice because that’s what dramaturgs often do well, I think, but it’s interesting that the industry professionals often behave as if these things are not being written about, tackled and discussed elsewhere already, whereas they have been for some time. A British theatre culture often inherently scared of the world of academia – which I feel looks outwards, broadly and adventurously – is used to box-ticking and conservatism for cultural and economic (and perhaps populist) reasons, but let’s continue to look forward, to leap into the unknown, to be like the best directors who can sit there in a room full of people and say ‘you know what, I don’t know the answer to how this works. But together, we can try and find out.’

    End of unexpected mini-rant.

  6. Pingback: Playwright vs performance writer | kaiteoreilly

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