Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Where do new plays come from?

This is provoked by the recent Comment in the Winter 08 edition of TDR by Rick DesRochers (TDR: The Drama Review 52:4 T200, p7-11). Although framed by an American context of non-profit regional theatres, DesRochers asks some questions which may well be pertinent to us and source for discussion on Dec 7th or online. I paraphrase and enlarge: Where does interesting new (text-based) performance work come from? How does it get nurtured? If by theatres rather than new play development organisations, is it worth the time and energy if there is no guarantee of a production? (Worth the time and energy to whom?) Might a workshop/play reading be more about ‘audition’ than the creative process, in order to please producers and so hopefully ensure a later production? How do new plays move from development to the stage?

I particularly like that first question: where do new plays come from?

DesRochers contextualises his sense of ‘the new’ with the following provocation:

“A new work of art that offends no one, neither surprises, frightens, mystifies nor startles, is not a new work at all, but a clone of the past.” Craig Lucas (2008)

Any thoughts?

Kaite O'Reilly

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A key outcome of It Isn't Fixed will be to formulate questions / recommendations / challenges and provocations around how in the near future playwriting might develop - in response to the changing cultural, economic and political climate as well as the shifts in how plays are being made. This is important for playwrights, other theatre artists, companies, audiences, funders and policy makers alike.

This blog is an opportunity to throw stuff into the mix leading up to and also out of It Isn't Fixed...

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Open Ended?

Walking past the Royal Court in the 80's I remember a huge sign hung outside, on which was proudly displayed the following slogan - ' This is the Decade of Fear'. At the time I felt a whole mixture of feelings at this wierdly swaggering declaration. On the one hand I was indignant - who the hell had decided this was the decade of fear? What self appointed cultural Commissar had the effing cheek, quite frankly? Why was this decade more fearful than any others? Bollocks! And does that mean that every production had to, in some way, reflect that? Was this advertising slogan really a thinly disguised party line?
Of couse, underneath that indignance lurked my own personal insecurities - after all, my plays weren't being produced by the Royal Court. There were a few sniffs of interest, but nothing more substantial. So quite apart from my own raging doubts about my own ability which I hid behind the usual nonchalance, I was wondering - maybe my work wasn't fearful enough? How could I make them reek with zeitgeistian anxiety? Was the magic trick?
Trying to anticipate what Theatres want is of course the death knell to real creativity. Instead you immerse yourself in your chosen subject - which of course in many respects chooses you - and write from inside out. In that way if you're lucky you can sometimes find yourself one step ahead of the game - or at least discovering those things in your own writing which resonate with the times, as a friend put it - 'speak to the moment'. But slogans like - This is the Decade of Fear - have considerable impact upon young impressionable writers - and can be terribly unhelpful. They can come across as proscriptive. A template for the successful Royal Court Play. And after all, as much as we want to write we also want to be successful. Who doesn't?
Over the years Writernet has also pursued a different agenda, in which no assumptions are made about decades or otherwise. Instead of triumphalist slogans to live up to, it has offered writers a theoretical and practical tool kit to quietly develop their careers. This could be through opportunities to have their work produced, or to build alliances and relationships with Directors and Theatre Companies over time, or simply to reflect on the work itself. And I've always felt, that although the ideal end point for any finished script is production, there has been a part of Writernet that has really honoured the process of writing - has, in effect, valued the Playwright for what s/he is as well as what s/he does. So as we move from 'The Decade of Fear' to 'It isn't Fixed' - a movement that feels more open ended and inclusive to me, more confident to embrace new possibilities and to value new ways of making theatre - but all the time ensuring that what will enable theatre to survive is its 'theatricality' - a full blooded, vulgar, renegade spirit that is unashamedly rooted in artifice - the lie that tells the truth.
However, I have a challenge - and it's as much a personal one as professional, which I'd like to share at It Isn't Fixed - so humour me a moment. I'd like to see a really good new play written about Sex - and in particular the profoundly liberating influence it can have in our lives. In this country there is a terribly confused attitude towards Sex - partly nudge nudge, partly moralistic, very largely hypocritical. Behind this lies a really deep antipathy towards the idea of pleasure which is rooted in a puritanical ideology that thinks everything must be judged by it's usefulness. If it doesn't have some practical application then it is morally defect - and of course sexual pleasure in itself is supremely unuseful. I think drama - because it often seems to explore private individuals in public worlds - is by and large powered by this puritanical energy, this need to make a change, a contribution, to be 'useful'. Because of that sex is usually treated in several ways - agonised individuals caught up in sexual scandals, or sex seen as exploitative and/or commodified, used as metaphors for colonialism - and if not this doom laden catastrophic model then it is treated in purely ironic terms, laughed away into inconsequence, trivialised. How about writing about sex as a force for adventure, for personal fulfillment, for expansiveness, for JOY? Now that really would be radical, wouldn't it.

Nicholas McInerny

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Double your dramaturgy - The Lady of Burma

My memory of Writernet or the New Playwrights' Trust as it then was, goes back to the very beginning - I seem to remember a launch in the East End.
My next encounter was a meeting with Jonathan Meth. Jonathan had just taken over from Polly Thomas and I had asked for some help with a leaflet. The leaflet was designed to launch a new radio drama competition for writers on LBC Radio.
Jonathan had read my first stab at copy and was not impressed.
It was my first meeting with Jonathan and I soon realised that his direct and forensic approach to my offer to writers, was going to be very useful indeed.
From then on, New Playwrights' Trust was a key supporter of Independent Radio Drama Productions.
Many years later - I joined the Board. By this time I was working part-time as an Associate Director of Polka Theatre. My role included Literary Management and the dramaturgical work on new commissions. I soon realised that there was little or no professional development for people in these roles and over a few drinks at the John Whiting Award, punted an idea to the Arts Council: I wanted to set up a programme of events for Literary Managers.
I got some money and set up the Literary Managers' Forum. It was partly inspired by the Writers' Guild annual meeting but my version was to focus on very small groups and create the opportunity to share professional practice and real problems in confidence.
Once again, Writernet helped shape and inform the debate.
This loose grouping is now looking to join with the Dramaturges' net-work to continue and develop the work - using the Literary Managers' and Dramaturges of the Americas as a model.
During this time, I was also working as a writer and had finished my first one woman show - The Lady of Burma - the story of Aung San Suu Kyi. I had been prompted to write this piece by the seemingly endless oppression of the Burmese people, but also through a chance meeting with the actress Liana Mau Tan Gould at Polka. Liana looked exactly like Aung San Suu Kyi. This meeting kick started the idea that I should attempt to write a play on Burma.
My good friend, the writer, Brian Mcavera, immediately offered space and time at Stranmillis college, Belfast - to write. This space, in the depths of January 2006. was a vital start. Most of what I wrote was tub thumping political ranting; but I did complete one scene - where Suu's monther dies. This proved the key to discovering the emotional life of the play.
By this time, I had contacted the Burma Campaign UK. I proposed (not having written more than a few pages) that we put it on at the Old Vic - to raise money for the campaign. They agreed.
I now had a deadline. Everything had to be ready for November of that year.
I managed to interview many Burmese dissidents and some members of Aung San Suu Kyi's English family and gradually I was able to build the reseach base for the play.
But one major thing was missing - I had not been to Burma. I did not have the money to finance such a trip and it seemed impossible. Then an activist, who I was hoping to interview, challenged me - how could I write about a country I had never even seen?
I realised it was essential.
I then applied for and miraculously got, a grant from the Arts Council to make the trip and to buy more time to write.
And as critically, the grant also bought me the advice of two dramaturges - Paul Sirett and Hanna Slattne.
Both were, in very different ways, vital to the project. I knew them both as friends and colleagues and I felt confident that I could deal with what they would throw at me. I also realised I would learn a great deal about good dramaturgical practice at the same time!
Both were very encouraging, but rigorous and both approached the text very differently.
In a nut shell, Paul's approach tended to be broad brush stroke - after the first reading in Oxford we realised the first 15 minutes had to go; the lyrical writing (lovely but....) just held up the story. And it was essential to put the audience at their ease quickly - we found a joke for the start which did the job.
Hanna tended to look at the movement of energy in scenes and how each line either helped the flow of dramatic energy or held it up. One of her cuts released the conflict in a scene in a way I just couldn't have imagined.
I then showed the text to Jonathan. He seemed to like it - but...why was it all written in the past tense? Wouldn't it be be more powerful if I transformed everything into the present.
This key advice was reiterated by the producer who came on board after the opening at the Old Vic - Louise Chantal.
The performance at the Old Vic was a sell out and we raised a great deal of money for the campaign.
And thanks to Paul introducing me to Louise Chantal - the production went to Edinburgh, the Riverside and then a national tour. This time directed brilliantly by Owen Lewis.
The Lady of Burma has been published by Oberon and now I am hoping for productions in Italy and Poland and to take it to the European Parliament and the House of Commons.
There is no doubt in my mind that the text benefitted immeasurably from all the input along the way - and my two dramaturges and Writernet were very much in the mix.
Richard Shannon