In a lively debate chaired by Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner, a panel of playwright Mike Bartlett, Paines Plough’s Artistic Director James Grieve, and Liverpool Everyman’s Literary Manager, Suzanne Bell, together with an enthusiastic audience, discussed both the successes and challenges facing new writing today.
Gardner opened the session by asking what actually is new writing? Are we clear on what the definition is? For Mike Bartlett new writing has changed considerably in the last 10 years and he believes writers are now coming from a creative background rather than the traditional academic route. Bartlett believes that audiences don’t care how a piece was made or the background of the creator – all they really want is quality.
Quality, agrees Suzanne Bell, is vital but she questions how quality is actually measured. Is a writer who is successful in engaging audiences and telling stories in regional theatre recognised in the same way as a writer who has work staged at the Royal Court in London? A playwright in the regions can have a piece that plays to over 7000 audience and receive only one review but a play seen by 200 people in a fringe venue in London could get coverage from eight national publications.
As a national theatre critic, Gardner believes that regional audiences are more open to new work than London audiences who are traditional more fragmented and loyal to one particular venue or genre.
Paines Plough’s James Grieve explains that they made a conscious decision not to play London for 2 years, instead concentrating on regional touring. It is a policy that conversely came in for criticism from some quarters, being accused of elitism and inverse snobbery. For Grieve, though, it is fantastically exciting to premiere new work outside of London. Bartlett agrees that regional audiences are receptive to new work. He wants an audience to be impacted by his work and believes there is more chance of that happening if this is the one new play an audience sees in a season instead of say the third play of the month at the Royal Court.
There seems to be an assumption from some London venues that a playwright has only made it when their work is staged in London. For Grieve it is the ‘cult of the new’. A playwright is seen as the next big thing despite having been working consistently outside London for the previous 10 years.
There is a need for the industry to look beyond that fascination with youth. While there are massive opportunities for the under 26s, Grieve believes that opportunities say a 38-year- old living in Cambridge are few and far between. This sustainability of writers is something the panel feels strongly the industry needs to consider and work out how to develop writers throughout their careers.
In times of economic cuts, the pressure on venues to maximise income while reducing risk is immense and a healthy debate ensued about the need for venues to trust in an audience wanting to experience good storytelling including new work. Bartlett believes the model of staging old favourites is slowly changing. For Grieve his challenge is competing with other entertainment outlets such as HBO and he firmly believes that if his shows can’t match the entertainment values of TV series such as Mad Men, audiences will stay at home.
According to Grieve there is also a need for agents to encourage Actors on their books to recognise the importance of touring new work. He recounts tales of agents turning down offers of work for their clients on national tours in favour of the hope that a walk on part will turn up in a TV drama series such as Downton Abbey.
Despite the challenges there is a sense of optimism from the panel. A recognition that the rôle of writers has developed and they are now seen much more as part of the creative process, rather than just handing over a script to a director. There is also the recognition that writers need to become more of an integral part of the management of arts organisations. Grieve explained that Paines Plough already has a writer on the board and it’s vital to avoid a company becoming a ‘directors theatre’.
So despite what some may fear, the consensus is that audiences will always welcome new work, regardless of the author, as long as it engages, has a strong story, and is of high enough quality. As Suzanne Bell summed up – it is all about finding that right play for the right audience.