Tag Archives: literary managers

Things I wish I’d known when starting out: don’t second guess what ‘they’ want.

I’ve been giving workshops in the South West this week, enjoying the passion and engagement of the playwrights I’ve met and the vibrant communities they constitute. They’re confident dramatists, mature, informed and getting on with it: making their own companies, directing and producing each others’ work, collaborating and creating… It’s been inspiring and uplifting to see such activity and optimism in the face of cuts and redundancies I’m hearing about elsewhere in the UK.

So in the midst of this week of discussions and long conversations I’ve been reminded again of some of the things I wish I’d known when starting out

It seems regardless of how experienced you may be as a self-producer, when it comes to potentially  getting your foot in a building based theatre’s door, the questions are the same: What are they looking for? What kind of script may get me noticed? What do ‘they’ want? Or at least those were the queries some of my fellow writers asked me over the slightly warm wine, smiling like conspirators, lowering their voices.

For years I’ve seen emerging playwrights trying to second guess directors, producers and literary managers, or considering shaping their emerging work towards whatever is currently doing well. It’s an understandable impulse, but deadly. Never try to jump on a band wagon. Whatever is currently trending would have been seeded over eighteen months ago. By the time ‘your’ version amounts to something, it will be very much out of date.

And as to what ‘they’ want…? What every director and literary manager and producer is looking for is fresh work, made with energy and skill and passion, about subjects that matter to you, communicated in a way that has resonance to all. They want strong, developed, realised ‘voices’ with something to say. They don’t want mynah birds, or would-be mind readers. They want to be surprised, moved, excited. They want to hear what you think is important, in the form and aesthetic you want to use. So trust it. Trust your own voice and your own passions.

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

Revision notes (5): Script presentation

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So you spend all that time dreaming up a complex web of engaging characters, writing audacious but credible dialogue which shimmers within the incredible world of the play with its astonishing, gripping plot – and then you type it all up without a moment’s thought of layout or presentation, bung it in the post and then wonder why the phone doesn’t ring….

Despite the above, I do actually believe that quality will out. There is always some story doing the rounds about the one script which found its way to the right desk and the significant reader, despite all the odds.

And they are huge odds – which is why I’m perpetually amazed at writers’ nonchalance about the appearance of their work as they send it out into the world. Maybe it’s like personal grooming – we don’t want to appear to be trying too hard, and deep down we believe it’s what’s inside that counts, not the shiny wrapper. This may work for nice boys and girls in literary novels, but in the (now fabled and close to extinction) literary manager’s office, where in-coming scripts stand in swaying piles ear high – spare a thought for the over-worked and committed readers.

Scripts pass through a plethora of hands before they reach someone who may be in the position to make real decisions about the script and therefore your career. Most theatres which accept unsolicited scripts have a series of rounds that the scripts pass through – an outer circle (usually made of volunteers or minimum waged enthusiasts who are writers themselves or working their way up the rungs of the ladder) who read and make comments on the scripts, passing them on to the next round if they feel they merit a second read. Few make it all the way to the artistic director’s hands, but this is one way promising writers are identified and perhaps invited in for that perplexing but important ‘coffee and a chat’. Building a relationship with a dramaturg or director is the way, eventually, work gets made or commissioned, and having your script recommended is one of the routes in. So, bearing in mind that initial passionate but over-worked reader, what kind of script do you think s/he will light up at and pick first to read off the pile?

  • the one clearly printed on clean paper, not photocopied to hell, dog-eared and beaten up from doing the rounds.
  • the one which has lots of white space on the pages – double-spaced and not (as was once my misfortune) handwritten in purple ink on yellow paper.
  • the one which is in at least 12 font (arial is my favourite) and not (which was also once my misfortune) font 8 single spaced in lucida Blackletter.
  • the one that is in loose leaf form, but page numbered, and not held together with a rusting bulldog clip/vicious paperclip, which will stab you when you you try to remove it so you can turn the pages and read the bloody script, then require you to get a tetanus jab (thankfully not my misfortune, but a true story from a friend who was first reader (‘the sieve’) for a large and prestigious short story competition). Also not bound, or tied with ribbon/string/an old shoe lace/plastic grips from bread wrappers/knicker elastic.
  • the one which has been checked for spelling and grammar and sense,  not the one full of typos and errors, crossings out, inserted words in blue felt tip with little arrows put in the wrong places.
  • the one which suggested professionalism and pride in the work, not something that seemed spawned from a long sleepless night and thrown together without any care for it or those who might be asked to read it.

Try not to be one of the writers who seem consistently happy – eager, even – to sabotage their work by the carelessness of their presentation.

Enjoy. Take pleasure and pride in your work.

And good luck.

(c) kaite o’reilly November 2011.