Protecting the playwright

Originally written for ArtsProfessional

As a producer who works largely in new writing, I’m always fascinated to observe the process a writer undertakes – between first draft and first night a number of things in a script can change, and watching a piece grow stronger is one of the joys of the process. But as a community, we must ensure that writers are protected to enable them to develop without feeling pressurised.

For many emerging writers, the starting point for them to seeing their work on stage often comes through sending unsolicited scripts to venues with active literary departments who stage such work – the likes of the Royal Court, Soho Theatre and Theatre503 will often be the first places to try. Should the first reader like the script, then it will usually be passed onto a senior reader, before detailed feedback is provided to the writer – or if it is not to a reader’s taste, then it may be returned with no feedback at all. Often the process is a long one – it isn’t unusual for a writer to wait up to twelve weeks for a response – and if no feedback is provided then it’s also incredibly unrewarding; no opportunity is provided for the writer to learn about how best to develop their piece or their style as a whole, and instead they must go through the process all over again.

In addition to the process outlined above, there are now increasingly more opportunities for writers to submit scripts into competitions – the Verity Bargate Award and Bruntwood Prize being two such examples. Schemes such as these provide a great opportunity for a writer to develop a piece of their work over a longer period of time, and with a high level of support from experienced professionals to do so – along with the undoubted benefit of financial support, which allows the freedom to focus on writing instead of having to fit it in around the inevitable temping work many are forced into. However, such competitions are incredibly competitive, and again there is no guarantee of success or feedback on their work.

So, how can writers develop their work if they don’t succeed in ways listed above? The good news is that, as fringe theatre thrives, there are a number of companies and venues who give writers the opportunity to see and hear their work being performed, in front of an audience but without the pressure of a full production run on their shoulders. New writing nights such as Rogue Writers at the Canal Café Theatre and Blackshaw’s at The Horse pub in Lambeth allow writers to try work out in a scratch setting, and moving onwards events such as The Miniaturists and Theatre503’s PLAYlist offer good production values for short plays by those writers beginning to establish themselves. Through participating in such events, writers are also given a platform to invite people to see their work, and to build relationships with directors, actors and producers who they may wish to work with in the future.

For Box of Tricks, our Word:Play scheme sees writers commissioned to create short pieces of writing inspired by a particular word. We are constantly looking to work with talented writers whose potential shines through, and by giving them the opportunity to be a part of Word:Play we hope they can benefit from developing their work over a length of time with a professional company – and by seeing their ideas fully realised on stage. Furthermore, by being a part of a week-long run the opportunity also exists for critics to be invited, and for their comments to help inform the writers of the perceived strengths and weaknesses of their work – providing a greater ecology of critical input can only serve to help them on the road to establishing themselves as successful writers.

There are often trends which emerge in new writing, with particular ‘voices’ being fast-tracked and labelled too quickly – recent examples include the apparent need to group together any young female playwright, which is both disrespectful of their own voices and creates a perception of their work to audiences before even seeing anything. The new writing scene is vibrant at present, and talent will always shine through – but as a community, those of us out there with an interest in their work owe it to writers to help support their development without pressurising them.

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One Response to “Protecting the playwright”

  1. Hi Dan, good article. I was at a meeting of Dramaturgs and Literary Managers a few years back and this very question came up. It’s difficult for in house literary departments to think beyond the “House Style” that is prescribed to them from on high. There also seems to be a snobbish attitude to who has “ownership” of a particular writer – one theatre might not touch a writer that another has helped to develop. It was a really fascinating and lively discussion. I transcribed it for the Dramaturgs’ Network shortly afterwards. I’ll send it to you if you’re interested.

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