Open Court, and presenting innovative work in risk-averse times

The Royal Court’s Open Court Festival – a programme of work programmed, curated and developed by writers – saw a variety of different styles of work presented, in many ways different to what we have come to expect from the Court. Along with the change in the Bush Theatre’s submissions process to accept a wider range of work, two major new writing venues are showing a willingness to embrace the desires of writers to create the work they wish to, rather than that which venues traditionally programme. But will this lead to a change in the type of work produced, or will the safer, more traditional work win out in the end?

There’s much to be praised for such important new writing venues to be adapting their ways of thinking to include contemporary approaches to theatre-making and writing, and playwrights have expressed concerns to Matt Trueman when writing for the Guardian; Roy Williams talks of not wanting the Royal Court to be “a conveyor belt to the West End”, David Eldridge warns against a “grey blob of homogeneity” and Anthony Nielson talks of a “culture of timidity”. I agree with much of what they say, but to me there is a concern that the effect of these schemes may not trickle down through the industry; whilst the Royal Court can take risks with their programming due to having both an established reputation and a loyal audience, many other venues operate in an environment where the risk is much greater. Furthermore, allowing established and confident writers such as those involved in Open Court is all fair and well, but could that relationship in itself lead to these new approaches becoming the ‘norm’, the styles which many emerging writers wish to ape in their own work? And, should companies wish to support development of work in non-traditional forms, can creative processes of this nature be truly distilled, or do we risk them simply becoming the new form to which writers are encouraged to work in order to achieve success?

Writer Kenny Emson and director Sherri Eden Barber during rehearsals for 'Sonderkommando'

I’m a firm believer in the responsibility of subsidised venues and organisations to support and nourish those with ability and potential; coming from a background of working in outreach and education, I’ve experienced first-hand the difference a little bit of support can make, in a much different way to that offered through formal education routes. Being able to share your work with peers and be given advice by practitioners and artists with experience and knowledge in a field you are interested in can be invaluable to artists at all stages of their careers, and can give people a sense of confidence in so much as knowing what they are doing has the potential to work; however, there is also a danger that programmes can actually stifle the creative process, and can influence work to become more traditional and, arguably, ‘safe’. There is sense from some companies and venues that the current financial climate means the programming and commissioning of work is increasingly risk-averse, with less new work being staged and, if it is, it often comes from established writers; this subsequently leads to a reduction in the number of opportunities for writers and artists to see their work get the level of exposure which can really put them and their work on the map, and increases pressure on smaller, non-building based companies to take the risk on behalf of venues. Venues who hire out to such companies allow themselves the opportunity to avoid risk whilst also being able to benefit which risks pay off; they can distance themselves from unsuccessful work by pointing out the show not a production of their own, but can also proclaim themselves champions of the cause of new work when such hires are successful. Although this is somewhat disingenuous, it is also completely understandable on behalf of smaller venues; as much as anyone they are feeling the effects of funding cuts, and have a responsibility to protect their interests whilst promoting ‘their’ successes at every turn to try and secure future funding.

There seems to be an ever-increasing list of competitions and opportunities for writers to submit their work to companies for consideration of being produced, but these opportunities are often heavily oversubscribed, financially unrewarding (if at all) and frequently only open to short plays – if you’ve written a full-length play, your options still remain to send your scripts unsolicited to companies/venues – who have less and less time to read, respond to and produce such work – to enter heavily subscribed competitions such as the Verity Bargate Award or to try and produce the work independently. There are a number of talented writers around who have established reputations as exciting talents on the back of their short works, but who still have failed to see a full-length piece staged; quite simply, the resources don’t exist for someone to take a punt on them when they can easily work with someone who is established. And the further along they get in their career, the fewer opportunities exist for them to develop their craft – once you’re over thirty, you’re on your own. But examples such as Vivienne Franzmann and Ishy Din suggest that the obsession with ‘young’ writers is perhaps misguided, and that talent can emerge at any age – without feeling a need to overcome the obstacles many writers believe are put in front of them.

Writers and theatre-makers sit stuck in the middle of the conflict between supporting new work and a culture which is increasingly risk-averse. With such pressures on the companies and venues, there is a tangible risk that the artists themselves could become marginalised during the production process, and their work reshaped and re-imagined to make it more traditionally commercially or artistically viable – gauged by looking at previous successful works and finding the best ways to replicate these. But this is a betrayal of the artistic intentions of the original work, and is potentially depriving them from honing their craft in a productive way; rather than allowing artists to create the work they wish to make, it instead encourages them to imitate the work of others which may not be natural to them and their process. The homogeneity which David Eldridge speaks of has implications far beyond simply what is produced, and permeates the development process itself – a process which has become increasingly inflated as we become obsessed with things being ‘polished’ before being staged, and deprives audiences of seeing work which is flawed but exciting in favour of work which often does not provoke the types of strong responses which theatre has the ability to do.

It should be said that a number of companies and venues have existing artist development programmes which allow the development of more vibrant and unique work, as this is in line with an established style of artistic programming; venues such as BAC and Artsadmin have a diverse programme of work, and support artists who work in traditional and non-traditional styles to develop work and their own practice. Although in many respects it should be admired that venues such as the Royal Court and The Bush are opening up their programming to engage with different work, these two venues in particular are heavily associated with new writing in a traditional way; to make a break with tradition and work with artists whose work perhaps lends itself to a more devised or live art context may not be successful immediately. Furthermore, the risks associated with changing a programme so distinct could mean that time is not given to allow an acceptance of such changes to happen gradually; reduced ticket sales and questions from donors and stakeholders regarding the programming could lead to a return to more accepted safe programming, or a desire to encourage artists to work towards the accepted models the venues are known for. Full credit should be given to Madani Younis and the team at The Bush for having committed to their new approach to programming and development which has enlivened their new site, but it would be interesting to know how their audience may have changed during this period.

In making decisions to open up their programming in such ways, venues are asking their audiences to put trust in their decision making, and hopefully a level of trust has been built up for audiences to be willing to go along with this; however, the financial climate applies to audiences as much as it does to companies and venues. If people are thinking more about how they spend their money, are they less inclined to see a show which they feel certain will be enjoyable, interesting or – at the very least – a familiar form, let alone something which seems more challenging to them? A change in programming needs to be progressive, and audiences often need to be reassured that there will not be wholesale changes to the venue as they know it – there is a delicate balancing act to manage here, and strong leadership and honest communication with audiences is essential during these times. The Royal Court themselves arguably had a swing-and-a-miss with their Wallace Shawn season in 2009, which divided audiences and critics alike with few alternative works to offer for the full duration of the season – but managed to both win back audiences and divert attention from that programming risk by scoring big with Jerusalem and Enron in the following season. An ill-judged move can really test audiences’ loyalty and even lead other venues luring in disenfranchised punters, and it could be incredibly difficult to either convince these audiences to come back or to replicate their numbers with new audiences – not every show will have the success and the appeal of an Enron or Jerusalem.

A positive note is that the Royal Court announced 45% of the audience for Open Court were attending the venue for the first time; the challenge now is to maintain that audience whilst not neglecting their existing audience – and hopefully they commit to finding a balance between producing traditional work and supporting those who want to do things a bit differently. It’s too early to suggest that Open Court has truly changed the landscape of writing, but perhaps it can be a pivotal moment in a more open way of thinking and producing.

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