summarised by Maggie Inchley
1. David Eldridge and Oladipo Agboluaje – Is Theatre Commissioning Too Many Plays?
The two playwrights had a lively conversation by posing questions to each other on the above topic. The following are the main points they raised:
David Eldridge explained how playwright Robert Holman had had several plays commissioned by the Royal Court, but not produced by that theatre. He felt that producers were determining the limits of the playwrights’ imagination. He felt that the 40 writers under commission at the Court was excessive and suggested sometimes it might be better for writers to turn down commissions (though he acknowledged the privileged position he had found himself in). Applauding Josie Rourke’s restructuring of the literary management model at the Bush, Eldridge thought it was time more theatres experimented in this way.
Oladipo Agboulaje outlined his experience of how most writing comes from initiatives generated by theatres rather than from writers. This causes a tick-box mentality, producers deciding what is good, and writers writing to please them.
The audience were dismayed to hear his description of a theatre accepting unsolicited scripts in order to fulfil funding imperatives but not reading them.
Contributions from the audience raised the question of the writer’s power, one delegate suggesting that the writer was also at the mercy of the decisions of directors as well as producers until they had established a reputation.
Another audience member suggested that theatres are monocultural institutions and that they are under pressure to achieve a marketable identity.
Lisa Goldman, AD of the Soho Theatre, answered some of the above charges by saying that the development of writers could be seen as a service to the industry even if not all of them were produced. She acknowledged that it might be time to change the literary management model, and expressed a desire for totally original ways of writing.
2. Alex Bulmer, Jenny Sealey and Paul Sirett – In Bed With writernet
This session was a good-humoured joint effort in which all speakers were more than happy to give way to other contributors!
Jenny Sealey talked about Graeae and the role of Writernet in supporting the development of its work with new writing. She outlined some of the issues concerning new work by and for disabled performers, including whether disability should form the content of the work and how this affects casting and future productions; the challenge of finding an audio-descriptive narrative for the texts; and the reluctance of some artists to have the ‘disability tag’ attached to their work.
The conference was informed about projects such as disPlay 4 and the Disabled Writers’ Mentoring Scheme that have helped to support disabled writers. Alex Bulmer explained how ‘Play labs’ gave disabled writers a chance to develop their processes, and explained how the nature of many disabilities had a functional impact on the nature of their work that made it unique. Most importantly, the Graeae aesthetic was concerned with privileging the communication needs of the audience.
Discussion centred around how disabled theatre’s determination to put issues of audience access foremost had caused it to challenge the traditional norms of traditional text-based theatre and find genuinely new ways of providing contact between actors and audience. Disabled work, it was felt, was therefore at the avant garde of contemporary theatre.
3. Peter Arnott and Richard Shannon – Thriving OR Surviving – Let Terror Be Your Guide
This was a highly amusing and lively session about how the two writers speaking had managed to survive and succeed as writers.
Both writers explained how it sometimes felt that writers had to choose between writing from the imagination and writing for money. They stressed that flexibility was needed, and the willingness to take risks. In any case, jobs for money could provide grist for the imaginative mill, lead to other, more interesting jobs, or even accidentally perhaps, result in worthwhile and creative writing.
Richard Shannon explained how he had been able to fund creative and worthwhile projects by using money he had made by corporate work. He had also been able to resurrect projects once he was in a position to do so – he stressed that keeping one’s ear to the ground was very useful for attracting the interest of theatres, and that ‘persistence and stickability’ were vital traits for a writer.
Peter Arnott explained the importance of appealing to the audience’s ‘arse’ as well as their ‘head’, and that a playwright’s arse should ideally speak to those of the audience. Describing a writer as ‘an actor with a pen’ he stressed the energy required both to hold audiences’ attention and to sustain a career.
The speakers and audience concurred that a writer had to be individually responsible for his or her own career.
4. Peter Rumney and Sara Clifford, But is it Art?
This session discussed young people’s involvement in theatre and attitudes towards it.
Peter Rumney claimed that young people had been deprived of a voice, and that they are gravely exploited by a commercialised culture. He felt that he had a responsibility to young people to listen to their stories and give them the opportunities and skills to tell them. He also felt that as an individual he had things he wanted to say. He said that the stories he and young people told could be validated, challenged and changed by the audience.
Sara Clifford stated that the ‘compartmentalisation’ of young people’s theatre in some senses disqualified it as art. She too felt that her job was to help people to find ways to articulate their stories, and, in addition to her work with young people, had worked on this with the terminally ill.
The speakers discussed the ethical issues raised by this role of the writer, and the fine line between enabling voices and the appropriation of others’ material.
Delegates in the audience raised the issue of the quality of writing for children and urged writers to accept the money to make their art when it is available regardless of attitudes that would sideline it.
5. Kate O’Reilly and Gabriel Gbadamosi – Groups of White Clouds Waiting to be Painted
The session discussed issues concerning accessing work and the different points of view that could be used to approach art.
Gabriel Gbadamosi related a visit to an art gallery where the exhibits could only be understood within that context. He explained that his work on the Chorus rather than on the Heroes of Greek drama had led to a change in perspective in the whole work. He raised the issue of ‘labels’, and how it is easily assumed that such work is excessively worthy. Theatre, he claimed, does not want to be labeled, but to ‘escape’.
Kate O’Reilly explained that theatre could show us the different and diverse possibilities of what it is to be human. From her perspective, the atypical is typical, and this must be expressed through form rather than content. Cutting edge practice, she claimed, could be found with the unnormalised. Alternative dramaturgies could be achieved through the vantage point of the atypical. Sometimes, a Trojan Horse was necessary for a mainstream audience, placing radical dramaturgies within the expectations of a mainstream audience.
Audience debate raised the danger of excluding elements of the audience, particularly its ‘normal’ members, by coming from the renegade position. This was answered by the idea that narrative is shared collectively and the idea of the audience as dramaturg.
A view was expressed that the anger of excluded artists and their struggles can be a useful motivation to create art. O’Reilly claimed that this anger must be used to innovate. Another delegate complained that theatre was dominated by institutionalised norms that privileged bigger companies such as the RSC.