A New Writer Doesn’t Mean A Young Writer….

Octagenarian PLaywrights wanted: Photo from The Independent newspaper

Octagenarian PLaywrights wanted: Photo from The Independent newspaper






I’m grateful to my friend the writer Sandra Bendelow for bringing my attention to this…. The wonderful news that the Royal Court Theatre in London is seeking out ‘bright octogenarian writers.’ For a theatre so often associated with youth (I, amongst many, have benefitted from the development process attached to its well established  young writers programme), this is a major turning point indeed.

“The question was: ‘Why aren’t we giving those people a voice?’ ‘Vicky Featherstone says in an interview with the Independent, the link for which is below. ”What if you want to be a playwright in your 80’s, why can’t you be?”

Frankly, if this is what Vicky Featherstone has in store for the Court under her new directorship, things are looking up indeed…

For years I worked with Jonathan Meth and Sarah Dickenson of (now, sadly defunct) writernet – and we constantly challenged the notion that new = young. Although pretty youthful myself at the time, I was still painfully aware of the disparity in opportunity offered to the beginner performance writer, which revolved around how many years (or, rather how few) any scribbler had been on the planet. It seemed for a while that those who were rich in elastin but poor in life experience had a monopoly on any call for script development, when the hungry, eager 25 year olds (and god help the 45 plus year olds) were consigned to the scrapheap. New writing meant young in age writers. No wonder we began to introduce those clunky, worthy terms ‘young in career’, ’emerging writers’ and so on, to try and counter the endemic ageism within the profession.

For years everyone wanted ‘the new’, which meant ‘the young’, which also seemed to mean ‘the first’.  I was in my mid-20’s when I co-won The Peggy Ramsay Award for my first London production, Yard, at the Bush. I’d been writing for many years, with several BBC radio plays broadcast, two international productions, a handful of scripts produced for young audiences, and a solo presented at the Royal Court Upstairs as part of the Young Writers Festival. Despite all this hard work and experience, in the press I was still described  as ‘new, young writer wins award with her first play.’ It was clear that my long apprenticeship and years of self-sufficiency didn’t live up to the myth, the story so often paraded in our media: the overnight success; the ‘discovery’; the untutored ingenue, the young ‘natural’…

I’m sure these stories will continue – and some of them may indeed be true. I have no problem with precocious talent, and I celebrate creativity and success whatever the age. What became so wearing, especially having been one of those ‘prodigies’ bandied about myself, was it seemed to be the only story. Young in age practitioners seemed to be the only ones wanted.

I think the monopoly of youth-orientated workshops, opportunities, and development programmes may be weakening. We have had an explosion in fee-paying courses (and not just those in higher and further education and the original writers centres like Arvon and Ty Newydd, but now the Faber Academy, and the Guardian masterclasses, etc….) and it is often those who have been around a while who can afford to develop themselves. At some workshops I gave in the South West recently, the 50 plus writer was as evident as the under 25 – which personally, I think is fabulous. For years I’ve seen new plays which sparkle with potential but are sometimes thin on content. On more than a few occasions I’ve gone away thinking ‘that playwright will be really interesting in about ten years when they’ve got something to write about.’

So what might octogenarian first time playwrights write – and in what form? I hope it’s edgy and experimental – which are not exclusive to youth (our own Caryl Churchill is, after all, 74 years young). I can’t wait.


2 responses to “A New Writer Doesn’t Mean A Young Writer….

  1. This is a fantastic post Kaite on a strangely neglected subject. I always assumed the relentless focus on young writers was, at least in part, connected to funding.

    But many moons ago when I was on the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme the then artistic director dropped into one session and kindly described us as being the “youth team” of the theatre. He said in passing that the theatre helped under 25s so much because a 40 year old writer in Norwich wouldn’t need the help. But I’m not so sure…

    • Thanks for the comment, Andy. That’s an interesting anecdote, too.
      This is such a big subject and one I’d love to engage further with…
      I also think there has been a sea-change in education and training and personal development, which has the older practitioner looking for opportunities. I remember several conversations I had when I was starting out as a writer in my early 20’s with people perhaps 20 years my senior, speaking as though they had missed the boat… You didn’t change career in middle age, nor follow ‘silly dreams’ of being involved in the arts once you’d started work ‘in the real world.’ I also remember the careers officer at my school telling me I should get a degree, so if I hadn’t ‘made it’ in theatre by the time I was 25, I’d have teaching to fall back on….
      Thank the universe times and attitudes are changing!

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