Monday, November 28, 2011

On Parliamentary lobbying and the English Baccalaureate

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@finkennedy) may recall that I recently sought my followers advice for questions they would like me to ask MPs and Ministers when I attended the Performer’s Alliance Parliamentary Group reception at the House of Commons earlier this month.

The Performer’s Parliamentary Alliance is a lobbying group jointly set up and run by Equity, The Musician’s Union and The Writer’s Guild. I recently rejoined the Guild after a bit of a gap and was promptly recruited to the Theatre Committee, and hence also this event, on their behalf. Ostensibly it was to promote the Lost Arts website, launched by David Edgar a few months ago, but once you’re there you can nobble any of the MPs about whatever you like. The Guild forwarded me an interesting document in advance of the event, which contained various issues of concern. One in particular featured a note from the artistic director of a young people’s theatre company, which stated:

“The most alarming thing that is happening is the current government's moving from a point of view that access to the arts for young people is an entitlement and a right, towards it being considered a privilege and a reward for good behaviour … If this change in attitude is not addressed schools will just not programme in Young People's Theatre, or other art forms for that matter. The companies who survive this drop in audiences - and the numbers are very high for schools performances - will be thrown back on doing truncated Shakespeare and adapted set texts. All the new writing will go and the original play for young audiences will disappear … Aside from the affect on young people and the theatre companies who work to produce relevant and challenging theatre for them [which also incidentally supports the curriculum in many areas], there will be a significant loss of new writing commissions for writers, currently estimated at 30 original new plays per annum … the choice of subjects to be contained in the English Baccalaureate underlines this change in attitude.”

Like me, you may have heard about the English Baccalaureate but not really know what it is. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I did some further research, particularly among my schools contacts who are really upset about it. And rightly so, because it turns out the EBacc is really quite underhand and devious.

Basically, unlike the International Baccalaureate with which it shares its names (apart from which they are not linked at all) the EBacc isn’t a separate qualification. It is instead an additional award which students get given if they secure five A*-C grades in certain specific GCSE subjects. Relatively benign, you might think.

Think again. These subjects are as follows: English, Maths, any Science subject, any Language (including Latin and Ancient Greek), and a Humanities subject. The only subjects which count as Humanities are History and Geography. All important subjects, no doubt. But no Arts? No Design or Technology? What kind of future economy do they think they’re preparing students for exactly? One without computers? Or any kind of creative thinking taking place at all?

But here’s the really pernicious part. The DFES has instigated a wholesale change to the way in which school league tables are expressed, moving the goalposts so that schools are ranked first and foremost on how many English Baccalaureates their students attain. And they’ve done this retrospectively. And without any consultation of teachers at all.

What this means in practice is that schools in inner city areas which were previously high in the league tables (in particular schools that became Academies under Labour’s flagship education scheme) have suddenly dropped to the bottom of the tables because the rules have been changed. It’s educational gerrymandering of the most cynical kind. I’m reluctant to succumb to cynicism myself, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the EBacc seems deliberately designed to hit schools and students in deprived areas the hardest.

Anyway, I got quite angry reading up about it. If you’re interested you can read more here and here. (I also came across a rather brilliant short film about the wider problems with modern education on the RSA website here.)

Regular readers will know that I have been writer-in-residence in an east London state school for the past five years. I have direct experience of seeing the transformative effects of Arts projects on young people. So off I trooped to the Commons with my pet issue, all set for a bit of lobbying.

The Performer’s Alliance reception is apparently an annual do, held in the Terrace Pavilion, which is actually more of a semi-permanent marquee, right on the Thames side of the Palace of Westminster. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Someone at the Guild made me laugh by saying that it was basically wine and nibbles with whatever MPs want to turn up and that, historically, the way the Equity makes sure it is well-attended is to lay on a couple of sexy actresses. So after a hard day in the Chamber all the MPs troop down to have a gawp. I noticed Sam West and Jenny Agutter, who I suppose are both quite sexy in their own sort of way, and perhaps more importantly a happy sign that both male and female MPs are now being catered for in this enlightened day and age.

It was a large do with drinks and cakes, speeches, actors and MPs all hob-nobbing. This made it a bit difficult to navigate at first. There were some ruddy-faced Lords there who looked like they'd walked straight out of a Hogarth painting. One of them talked to me about Morris Dancing. The MPs were harder to spot. I did get chatting to John McDonnell, whose constituency includes Heathrow and who I happened to write to a few years ago about the case of a young Nigerian man being held in Harmondsworth Immigration Detention centre, who I interviewed as part of the research for Unstated, a play I wrote for The Red Room in 2008. He didn’t seem to remember.

I also met Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, who looks about 13 years old in person. She was very friendly and approachable and used the word 'fuck' in ordinary conversation, so I liked her immediately.

Then the speeches started. Ed Vaizey, Tory Culture Minister, stepped up to the mike, followed by Harriet Harman, new Shadow Culture Secretary. Vaizey’s speech was quite funny. He’s actually quite a skilled orator, and spoke without notes about a variety of subjects under his portfolio, including measures to combat online piracy and a new scheme soon to be launched aimed at helping schools and arts organisations to work together. (I'm keeping an eye on that one for you, so check back soon.) Vaizey reminded me of Boris Johnson in the way he worked the crowd. He used this affable exterior to get in a few political rebuffs, pointing out that the recent ACE shake-up had funded lots of new companies too, and so the Lost Arts website should maybe be called Lost and Found Arts.

Harriet Harman then stepped up and made a somewhat haranguing speech about all the cuts. While I didn’t disagree with what she was saying, it was done in such a crass way, and so misjudged the tone of the event, I felt she actually managed to alienate most of what should have been a home crowd. Perhaps she is still finding her feet with her new brief. Or perhaps Vaizey had second guessed her by making such a measured and outwardly likeable speech that she came across as shrill and disingenuous by comparison. I’m fascinated by that sort of thing. It was all rather Jacobean. Or possibly Machiavellian.

Anyway, I made a beeline for both of them afterwards and nobbled them separately about the English Baccalaureate. I’d brought along a couple of copies of my play volume of the work I have done in Mulberry School, which I used as a prop to start a conversation about this work that was under threat, and the feelings of some of my teacher colleagues about the EBacc.

It was my first experience talking to people at that level, and I couldn’t help feeling I needed to work on my technique. You basically get about 30 seconds to make your case before you can visibly see their attention wandering, and their eyes scanning the room for other people they either ought to be talking to, or who can rescue them from you. My 30 seconds of blether didn’t really seem to hit home in the way I would have liked. In Hollywood, they talk about writers developing an ‘elevator pitch’, in the event that you find yourself in the elevator with a studio executive. You try and sell them your idea in the time it takes to get to their floor. I suppose the same is true of any powerful person. You have to condense everything right down, something I’ve never been very good at. Just look at the length of this blog post. Or of my plays.

Funnily enough, although I find Vaizey's politics abhorrent he was actually more pleasant in person than Harman, who seemed distant and uninterested. She even handed my book to an adviser right in front of me, who shoved it with a huge pile of other crap on a clipboard. I found that rather rude. Vaizey by comparison didn’t appear to have a single adviser anywhere near him, and moved through the crowd with ease, unhindered by anyone, save the odd Lord who came over to slag off Harriet Harman. He clung onto my book at least for the duration of our conversation. Analysed in theatrical terms, the subtext of both encounters was clear, and gave away a lot about how each character operates, not to mention their respective ideologies.

Overall I was left with the sense that these sorts of events are mostly about PR rather than actually listening to anyone. Perhaps I was naive to think otherwise. But then I never really expected them to cancel the English Baccalaureate after talking to me for 30 seconds. (Maybe Derren Brown could pull that sort of stunt off but, alas, I didn’t spot him there.) I don’t even expect them to read my book. It was a prop, and as such part of my own PR campaign – something by which they will remember me from the sea of faces they must meet and be lobbied by every day. Hopefully, when I follow up with a letter, they might at least be able to vaguely recall who I am.

As a writer, I’m far more comfortable lobbying in print than in person. I just can't stand the unplanned nature of live conversation, especially when the power balance is so skewed against me. I want to be able to script it. That way I will always come out on top.

So here is my follow-up letter to Ed Vaizey. Sorry for the long intro, but you need to know all that for it to make sense.

Now sit back, relax, and watch as the pernicious English Baccalaureate is cancelled before your very eyes. Oh yes. The pen is indeed mightier than the blether.

Dear Mr Vaizey,

Drama teaching in schools and the English Baccalaureate

You may recall that we met recently at the Performer’s Alliance Parliamentary Group reception at the Commons on Wednesday 9 November. I was the playwright who gave you the play volume The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping and other plays, written during a four-year residency in an east London school. I enjoyed the speech you made and was keen to know more about the forthcoming scheme you mentioned to facilitate links between schools and arts organisations. I would like to be kept up to date about its launch, if possible.

But I also wanted to get in touch to say a little more about Arts subjects in schools and the English Baccalaureate, which I mentioned briefly when we met. Many of my colleagues in Mulberry School, for whom the plays in the volume I gave you were written, are very upset about the lack of an Arts subjects being included in the EBacc. Like many in the state education sector they feel that the narrow choice of EBacc subjects undervalues the outstanding work they are doing in Arts and other subjects.

I’m sure your colleagues at the DFES didn’t intend this. But it does seem like an unfortunate missed opportunity to demonstrate your government’s commitment to and understanding of the quality and success of Arts subject teaching in British state schools, and what it can do for the articulacy, confidence, empathy and employability of young people.

I was struck by your own confidence, stage presence and sense of comic timing during the speech I saw you deliver (especially compared to Harriet Harman’s effort shortly afterwards). I couldn’t help feeling that you were lucky to have had an upbringing and education which instilled in you such sophisticated interpersonal skills. It makes sense that your own school, St. Paul’s, is noted for its achievements in the Arts, particularly Drama. The effect of this on the skilled professional you have become is abundantly clear. Of course, as a fee-paying school, St. Paul’s has the resources to back that commitment up.

As I’m sure you’re aware, most state schools don’t have resources on anything like the same scale. Moreover, in the inner city areas where I tend to work, most students don’t come from backgrounds where confidence, articulacy and a flair for debate are encouraged at home. Many are raised with low aspirations, low confidence and with barely a book in the house. The only place they can conceivably acquire these skills is in school. The EBacc subjects of English, Maths, History and Languages are of course important, but they don’t teach these skills. The Arts subjects – and most especially Drama and Theatre Studies – emphatically do.

I could give you anecdotal evidence about the student excluded from school, whose behaviour transformed after taking part in one of my shows, to the point where the school changed their minds about allowing her into the sixth form. Or of the student now studying Design at University after having worked on the set and costumes. Or of the student now earning a living teaching Drama in her old primary school after performing in Edinburgh with us. I won't list them all here – but I enclose an article I wrote for the school newsletter last year, catching up with some of the students who have taken part in past projects, and the effect it has had on them.

But don’t just take my word for it. A report out only last month, The Case for Cultural Learning by the Cultural Learning Alliance, cites study after study proving such startling statistics as the fact that participation in structured Arts activities improves children’s Cognitive Ability Test scores by an average of 16-19%; that students from low income families who study Arts subjects are three times more likely to get a degree than their peers who do not; and that this same demographic are statistically more likely to find and maintain employment – and even that they are 20% more likely to vote! (Unfortunately it doesn’t say for which party.) A copy of this report is also enclosed.

These findings are not because Arts subjects are soft or easy – a common slur made against them by those without the experience to know better. (Try telling Tom Stoppard his subject is easy, or David Hockney, or Benjamin Britten.) No, it is because the effect of the Arts on young people’s cognitive, interpersonal and empathetic skills have now been proven beyond doubt. The power of Arts subjects to improve lives and grades is being utilised by teachers up and down the country. Or rather, it was, until the English Baccalaureate disincentivised them to do so. It seems it is only the DFES which hasn’t heard about this extraordinary body of evidence.

The work contained in the play volume which I gave you has been hugely successful, garnering broadsheet plaudits and even a Scotsman Fringe First Award for a school theatre company in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. Extracts from the plays have just this month been included in a new teacher training compendium from Routledge, Playwriting Across The Curriculum. But since your government came to power we have seen fund after fund axed for carrying out extra-curricular arts work in schools – work that might one day allow a state-educated youngster from Tower Hamlets to stand on a stage and deliver a speech with the same wit and skill as you.

I don’t share the view expressed by some of my teacher friends that your party doesn’t care about these sorts of young people. But from the loss of Creative Partnerships and Specialist Schools, through to cuts to the Arts Council and local council culture support, both artists-in-residence and teachers of Arts subjects really are feeling squeezed from all sides. We are busy using our ingenuity and creativity to find other ways to continue our work (we were taught these skills in our state schools.) We also understand the arguments about reducing the deficit. But given the tiny fraction of GDP which state spending on Arts and culture represents, even when you take education Arts spending into account, it’s hard in our more despondent moments not to feel that there’s a cruel ideological element to all this.

Including an Arts subject in the EBacc is a golden opportunity to prove to us that this isn’t the case. With the squeeze on extra-curricular arts projects, the curriculum Arts subjects are now the only place left where underprivileged young people can learn the skills that have served you so well in your life and career. It would also demonstrate once and for all that you and your colleagues understand the value of ‘cultural capital’ in creating an articulate, confident, empathetic workforce who can think through problems creatively, whatever the future might throw at them. Maths and History will give them knowledge. The Arts will allow them to put that knowledge into practice in innovative and valuable ways.

The skills I am describing are hard to measure. But please don’t let this mean that they drop off the radar of priorities. As you demonstrated so well on 9 November, they are skills that empower an individual to succeed. They are every bit as important as the core EBacc subjects, and ought to be included alongside them in any education system which cares about the success of every child, irrespective if their background.

Yours sincerely,
Fin Kennedy

CC: Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt

Friday, October 28, 2011

At this time of year, I am busy teaching on the Masters degree in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College. The following is a handout I put together for this year's students, elaborating on a theory I often muse about in class, and occasionally on this blog. It's the first time I've written it down though, so I though I'd share it with you here. As always, anonymous abuse can be left at your leisure in the comments box.

“Nuggets of Originality”
What they are and why good plays need them

A Theory: by Fin Kennedy

It is my belief that the best plays contain what I term “nuggets of originality”; that is, moments, ideas or even entire theses about aspects of human experience which contribute something new to the canon of thinking surrounding that subject. This is what gives great plays a ‘quality of mind’ that makes them stand out from the crowd and which, together with skilled theatricality, makes for the most satisfying experience for theatre audiences.

These ‘nuggets’ can take many forms. At their simplest, they might be a simple observation or witticism that one character makes to another, which encapsulates a truth about the subject in hand. Oscar Wilde is perhaps most famous for these:

“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”
- An Ideal Husband, Act III

Sometimes, nuggets might lead writers to locate their plays in unusual places, and take their audience to a world normally hidden from public view, or previously unrepresented on stage. Consider the metaphorical thought that has gone into Shan Khan’s choice of location in Prayer Room (EIF/Birmingham Rep, 2005):

From the back cover of the play text:

There was a place where the Christians and the Muslims existed in relative peace. Everyone was more or less happy, except for the Jews – who were few and had to be thankful to their Christian overlords for the little space they were accorded. Then one day more Jews came, and it soon became apparent to them that they’d need their own space – but at the Muslims’ expense. The Muslims of course are fuming. The Jews feel they’re perfectly within their rights. And the Christians are trying to take a back seat and let the other two share the blame.

This place is a multi-faith prayer room in a British college.


However, nuggets might embed themselves even more deeply. They might be a theory which runs throughout a play, like a word through a stick of rock, and which in hindsight turns out to explain much of the play’s events, indeed perhaps even illuminating something about the human condition. Consider the closing speech of Lucy Prebble’s Enron (Headlong, 2009):

The huge crack along the wall of the building glows from behind and becomes the jagged line graph of the Dow Jones Index over the last century.

Skilling (to us) There’s your mirror. Every dip, every crash, every bubble that’s burst, that’s you. Your brilliant stupidity. This one gave us the railroads. This one the internet. This one the slave trade. And if you wanna do anything about saving the environment or getting to other worlds, you’ll need a bubble for that too … All humanity is here. There’s Greed, there’s Fear, Joy, Faith, Hope. And the greatest of these – is Money.

Nuggets of originality can also give birth to unusual character types, inhabiting contradictory or unexpected combinations of qualities, or representing on stage certain types of people for the first time. Consider Dr Diane Cassell, the climate change scientist in Richard Bean’s The Heretic (Royal Court, 2010), whose research leads her to question whether global warming is happening:

Diane I’m a scientist. I don’t ‘believe’ in anything.

Or Zain, the young, gay Muslim party animal from Alia Bano's Shades (Royal Court, 2009):

Zain Technically, the Qur’an says nothing about having a few Es.

Nuggets might go deeper, and influence the way in which an entire storyline plays itself out. Consider the idea in Mike Bartlett’s Artefacts (Bush, 2009), in which Iraqi father Ibrahim decides not to pay the ransom for his daughter being held hostage, to the horror of his wife and British daughter from a previous marriage, Kelly:

Kelly That’s what fathers do. Dad. That’s what they do. They look after their own.

Ibrahim Maybe your fathers do that. But important men, better men, look after everyone. They look after their country. They stick to what they believe.

In this way, an abstract political ideal manifests itself in the real world as a tangible action in the plot. In going against every natural parental instinct, it makes us question whether one’s country or one’s children are more important in the long run – and whether there are cultural differences here that inform the answer.

Fully embedded ‘nuggets’ such as these have evolved beyond mere nuggets, into fully formed theses. Sometimes, they even go so far as to break the laws of time, space and physical possibility to make their point. Consider the characters of Catalina and Joris in The TEAM’s Mission Drift (Traverse Theatre, 2011); two teenage Dutch settlers to America who do not age throughout the play’s entire 400 year span. Eventually, we come to understand that the couple are a living, breathing manifestation of the young, thrusting spirit of American capitalism itself:

Catalina (drunk, slamming the bar) How bout a round for all these poor souls?! May not look like it, but I own all this. THIS IS mine. This glass – the ice in this glass – the bartender who pours it, the bottle, the bar, who carved it, who painted it – I own you, these people, the money in their pockets their clothes their shoes how much they’re all worth – I decide.

What all this is really about is the playwright taking a view on the subject they are writing about, as an original thinker.

Where do these nuggets come from?
In a research-led process they can come from a writer’s reading, meetings and site visits around the subject they are investigating. Experts in a field or academic thinkers can often come up with uniquely original insights which might elude the lay person. These can be ‘harvested’ and woven into a play text to provide moments of lucidity, insight, revelation or plot twists.

More satisfying is for writers to use all this as inspiration, and rather than just harvesting magpie-style the glittering ideas from their research, to actually come up with their own original angle on the subject matter.

But their most sophisticated use involves not merely having characters regurgitate original thought dreamed up by oneself or by others. It is in fact when the playwright deploys her own creativity to use put such insights into the service of an artistic vision. At its best, theatre is a crucible of new ideas at the forefront of its society, and playwrights theatrical philosophers. Plays that achieve timelessness do so because they capture something fundamentally true about their society, or about the human heart, yet manage also to newly or freshly articulate that. They run that truth throughout the play like DNA through a body – informing character arcs, plots, subplots, locations - taking many forms but essentially echoing something fundamental.

It is at times like this when theatre burns brightest, and when it becomes indispensable to our species - because it advances our understanding of the world, and of ourselves.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Amateur Theatre in the Age of Austerity

I've been rather busy lately, hence the absence. I'll do a proper update with news some other time, but here is something to keep you occupied in the meantime. Over the summer, I did an interview with Stage Talk TV, the cable channel aimed at the Amateur Theatre sector. My publisher Nick Hern Books arranged it, because it turns out my play How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found is in their Top Ten most licensed plays for amateur performance, which is great. A bit surprising, but great.

Those of you who are sick of hearing about How To Disappear might want to stop reading at this point. To be honest, I'm a little bit sick of it myself. But it sort of won't leave me alone. I'm called on to talk about it in various guises, because it continues to have the most extraordinary afterlife. Its popularity with student and amateur groups is just the latest.

Anyway, I had intended to do a longer blog about what I think the enduring appeal of the play is, including some interviews with some of the amateur companies who continue to stage it. I will do that at some point, but I don't have time at the moment (with apologies to those of you who were kind enough to answer my questions - perhaps I will do something for the play's five year anniversary next year.)

Instead, here is a piece Stage Talk asked me to write, a message to the Stage Talk community. They asked me to write something to accompany the episode. I sent it to them and then I don't think they put it up. Or if they did I can't find it. Maybe it was a bit too long. Or too political. Or maybe they just thought it was rubbish. You can be the judge of that, and leave some anonymous abuse in the comments section if you like.

You can also watch the episode of Stage Talk in which they interview me here (scroll down to Episode 5). It is an hour long though, and I only feature for 8 minutes of it. But I found it interesting to see what else is going on in the amateur theatre sector, which is apparently bucking the recession and as lively as ever. That's great news for writers. (In fact, one of my other projects seeks to capitalise on that, of which more news another time.)

Of course, if you're too busy to watch an hour-long missive from the UK's amateur sector, then Nick Hern Books helpfully cut and pasted my section into their YouTube channel, and you can watch that here. It would be very naughty to do that though. You really should watch the whole thing.

Anyway, here is my mysteriously unpublished statement to the Stage Talk community. I hope some of them find it and read it here.

A note for the Stage Talk community from Fin Kennedy

Thanks to everyone in the Stage Talk community who has staged my plays or is thinking of doing so. It’s really heartening to see the work having such an active life after its professional premieres. It’s a strange feeling seeing worlds, characters and ideas that once existed only in your head go out there and take on a life of their own in the wider world. There is a line in my most well-known play, How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, about the lead character Charlie, and what will happen to his old identity once he has cast it off and become someone else. A mentor figure, Mike, says to him: “Charlie will always be out there somewhere. Wandering the world. Alone.” The idea is that ‘Charlie’ as an identity will somehow cut the moorings to the physical body he was once attached to, and floats off into the ether, like a ghost.

I think about that sometimes when I get emails from groups producing this play, sending links to images of different Charlies in all his various incarnations. Charlie certainly isn’t alone any more, in fact there seems to be a whole army of him. The idea of ‘Charlie’ – and indeed the whole play he is a part of – has taken on a life of its own, beyond the writer who first invented him. That character, that play, and all the ideas within it, are in the theatrical ‘bloodstream’ now, completely independently of me.

It’s a surreal phenomenon, and one that I think is unique to writing plays for the stage. Novels, films and poems of course have their own afterlives, but not in the same living, breathing way as plays. In that sense, professional productions are just the tip of the iceberg. It is the amateur and student communities that judge whether a play makes it into the nation’s consciousness, and lives on. The amazing thing is that this process happens completely organically, like a natural democracy, operating by some sort of silent impulse towards a consensus, its mechanism unseen and unknown.

At a time when state investment in the arts has never been under such fierce attack, I take heart from this. It proves to me that theatre and creativity are in our DNA, as a species. Like other things that we strive for and are prepared to invest in collectively – good health, quality education, transport to connect us – access to culture also speaks to something deep within us, without which we are less complete. Human beings seem to hunger for stories – to hear, to tell, to re-enact. Theatre allows us to do this together. In doing so, we strengthen our communities, the bonds between us, and also our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

It is hard to make the case for continued investment in these things in an age of austerity. But as any well-structured play will show you, it’s when times get tough that characters come into their own. Sometimes they triumph, sometimes they fail. But by going on that journey with them, we all end up better equipped to take on the challenges in our own lives.

We may not have the same urgent claim on the public purse as schools or hospitals. But at its best, theatre provides the next level up – a reason to get educated and stay healthy. In the darkest days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill, when confronted with a proposal to cut culture to aid the war effort, famously asked: “Then what are we fighting for?”

Make no mistake, the arts in the UK are under attack from this government. But it is communities like Stage Talk that they will listen to – ordinary taxpayers, voters, and families across the country who love and value stories and culture. You probably already use your local theatre or arts centre. Please continue to do so – and to encourage others. If cuts are proposed, write to the council to see if there isn’t some way to lessen the blow. Lobby your MP about cuts to the Arts Council. Ask them to prove their commitment to the arts by asking them what will happen after this current austerity ends. Indeed, invite your local MP and councillors to your productions. Show them how your lives are enriched by the stories generated by state investment in the arts. It’s you they will listen to.

Keep up the good work.

Monday, August 15, 2011

On alcohol, theatre and the Edinburgh bubble

[I’ve just finished writing this blog and it turned a bit of a lengthy reflection on this year’s Edinburgh experience. If you can’t be bothered with all that and just want some damn show recommendations – and who can blame you? I do go on a bit – then skip down to the next bit like this in italics.]

Getting back from the Edinburgh Fringe is a bit like waking from a dream. Looking back, your memories have a similar hallucinatory quality – snatched images from shows and late night bars, the noir-ish quality to the architecture and the light, and the way that time seems to have simultaneously elongated and truncated itself, so that you recall having fitted in way more than seems possible, yet the whole thing was over in almost the blink of an eye.

Alcohol has a lot to do with that, of course. This is partly the excitement of being on holiday (my only one this year), and partly to do with the general student-y excitement of the festival atmosphere. But then again, spending the day in a state of constant semi-drunkenness is how human beings traditionally deal with cold, wet climates (one of the reasons, I would hazard, that Islam has never had much success in cold countries.)

And my God was it wet. Torrential, biblical monsoons that turned your umbrella into a drumskin and sent rivers cascading along pavements, ruthlessly soaking into every crack and pinprick in your shoes, and dampening your trousers to the knee. All of which makes for a strange, if unique, theatre experience.

I’ve been to Edinburgh before, of course. For three years running between 2007 and 2009 I premiered a show there with Mulberry Theatre Company, and will probably do so again before I retire. But being there with a show is a totally different experience to being there with nothing but shows to see. When I was there with the Mulberry girls I was there to work, and felt lucky if I caught one or two shows during a week. The day is spent flyering, chaperoning kids, lugging sets, ringing journalists and checking newspapers. Last year was the first time I went as a mere punter, but that was a snap decision at the end of the month and lasted barely a long weekend. This year I did a full week, and properly planned ahead. This ended up translating into 25 shows in 6 days. I have just looked back and done a quick tot up, and I have to admit that I walked out of ten of them.

Last year I went right at the end of August, which meant most shows had settled in and the reviews were out. The flip side of this means that the runaway hits are of course sold out, but at least you have something to go on. Going at the start is more of a gamble, and I published below some of my recommendations based on some very loosely-educated guesswork. The flip side here is that the first two ‘official’ weekdays of the festival (not counting previews) are 2 for 1 days which makes taking those risks a lot cheaper. But then they are risks, and I ended up feeling pretty stung with some shows, even if I did get in for half price.

I have certain rules in Edinburgh. There are the obvious ones like bring some waterproof shoes and don’t forget to factor meals and journey times into your show itinerary. Carrying a small bottle of single malt on you at all times can also help – such as on the top deck of an open top bus for James Graham’s The Tour Guide. But the main one is about where you sit when you walk into that auditorium. I always, without fail, make sure I am sitting on the end of a row, even if it means a worse view. This is so that I can walk out.

I have a pretty low tolerance for what I consider to be poor theatre at the best of times, but in Edinburgh, I just don’t have the time to have any time wasted. I’ll be discreet, of course, and choose an appropriately noisy moment. But if a show hasn’t grabbed me within 10 minutes then I will almost certainly have left by 20, unless they pull something amazing out of the bag. Twenty minutes is easily enough to grab an audience and demonstrate that you have something original to say, or show. In fact, what I was struck by more than ever before this year was how precisely you can tell in the opening few seconds whether or not a show is going to be any good. Those key moments once the lights go up reveal straight away whether this is a company with a sense of stagecraft, who are in control of their material, who have a sense of space, imagery, atmosphere, metaphor; whether or not they possess a quality of mind and an understanding of the audience experience.

A lot of the companies in Edinburgh are young, experimental, or both – and of course it is worth cutting these companies a bit more slack and waiting to see where the show is going. But I was astonished at how often I felt disappointed by professional companies in this way, companies who I would have thought would have been a safe bet. Some even made it onto my Recommended list, which in retrospect is a little embarrassing. (Sorry if you wasted any money. I have edited accordingly.)

I think the background of the UK riots might have had something to do with this. It was strange getting this news through in glimpses between shows, and made many productions seem frivolous, disconnected or self-absorbed by comparison. If ever there was a time for theatre to have a sense of urgency then this was it. But then again, I have always had a yearning to see theatre more politically and socially engaged, and I’m not sure how much this hourly news-feed reminder of theatre’s general detachment from the world would have changed this. Maybe I’m the freak. As a theatre-maker myself I get irrationally annoyed when it’s bad. It really affects my mood. I feel personally affronted, like my art form has been degraded, and a sense of despair at the swathes of future theatre audiences this tripe is going to alienate forever. (Note: never go to the theatre with Fin Kennedy.)

Don’t get me wrong, I saw some great stuff as well, and I’ll talk about that in a minute. But after everything that has happened this year, from the ACE funding announcements, to some of the shocking vitriol that has been directed towards the very idea of state investment in the arts, along with the most incredible year for current affairs on pretty much every front, I get particularly upset when I see state-funded companies putting out what I consider to be sub-standard work – by which I mean dramaturgically and artistically incompetent as much as socially unengaged. This is not a time to be giving our critics ammo by putting on dull, sloppy or self-absorbed work.

Longstanding readers will know that I don’t do reviews. This is partly because I love my art form and want to keep the tone of this blog broadly celebratory (though I have admittedly fucked that up a bit in the last couple of paragraphs). But it’s also because, as a creator of the work myself, it’s impossible for me to criticise with any specificity without the subtext being read as sour grapes or self-elevation of some sort. That and the fact that it’s a small industry. And it’s nice to be nice.

So, I’m afraid, until my own ideas dry up and I turn to professional punditry for a living, that is all I am going to say about that.

But I noticed something else this year. And that is that some shows I had walked out of went on to get four star reviews and even sometimes award nominations. So perhaps I am the freak after all. Which raises an important question: Which of us is right? The professional critic or the professional playwright? Surely, we should both be in agreement? But therein lies a maddening fact about art. It’s a slippery bugger. Your best bet is to work out who you agree with, which takes time, patience and not insignificant expenditure and disappointment. But if you find a pundit whose tastes coincide with yours, hang onto them.

Which I hope is why you have read this far.

[Attention busy people: This is where the show recommendations begin.]

The good news is that the internet age has meant there are a lot more of those voices out there than there used to be. One of my best experiences this year was care of the West End Whingers, whose no-nonsense reviews continue to contain a critical honesty about the lay audience’s experience missing from many paid critics. (I even once agreed with the Whingers when they slagged off one of my own shows … reluctantly of course, but they had a point.) Anyway, The Seagull Effect turned out to be one of the most confidently theatrical productions by a young company I have seen in a long while, with a beautiful understanding of stage metaphor, and simple but striking effects. So that would be my first recommendation.

Others that are worth a look include Translunar Paradise, a beautifully simple mask piece about old age and loss. Dry Ice is a clever, lyrical, multi-layered insight into the reality of working as a stripper. The Table is a hilariously witty piece of adult puppetry, looking at existential despair from the perspective of a gruff, sweary puppet, if you can imagine such a thing. If only they had had the confidence to stick with that idea for the full hour... The Strange of Undoing of Prudencia Hart is a gloriously celebratory piece of mythic, Scottish folk-inspired ensemble storytelling told among the tables of a historic Scottish drinking hall – you even get a free whisky. I understand it’s firmly sold out but queue for a return if you can, it’s wonderful. The TEAM’s Mission Drift has now ended but not before they earned a well-deserved Fringe First for their hugely ambitious mapping of the spirit of American capitalism from 17th century Dutch settlers to present day Las Vegas – every bit as gloriously theatrical as I hoped it would be. I will certainly be keeping an eye on their future work. I Hope My Heart Goes First is a precociously confident piece of performance art from Glasgow teenagers Junction 25, not a play in any traditional sense but an incredible style for this age group to pull off. I left inspired at what can be achieved with young performers in my own work I do with them. What Remains was wonderfully atmospheric if ultimately inconsequential – as I am unwaged at the moment I got in for the cheaper rate, otherwise £17 a pop seems a bit much for such a slight piece. I also enjoyed Two Johnnies Live Upstairs, though it turned out to be utterly insane. If anyone can tell me what the hell the middle bit involving a science lab stuffed rabbit massacre is supposed to be about then I would love to know.

I had a good run of luck with non-theatre shows this year. Geordie comic Tom Binns has a brilliant concept in Ian D Montfort, the spirit medium who cold reads his audience. Much of it is a hilarious and knowing spoof of this world of course, but every now and then he plucks something deeply personal about an audience member out of thin air and you can hear the gasps. It’s an inspired combination. German stand-up Henning Wehn has a nice line in sending up the often mutually-troubled Anglo-German relationship – and I was interested to discover he had supported Stewart Lee in the past, whose new show takes reflexive meta-comedy to a whole new level. On the music and music-comedy front Alex Horne’s late night band The Horne Section skilfully combined improvised song and warm, gentle stand-up to hilarious effect. It made me wish I’d had time to see his solo show. And finally, human beatbox Shlomo delivered a belter of a performance, combining his own incredible mimcry of impossible sounds with a ‘loopstation’ recorder to build up the electro-grime version of an orchestral score – made all the more unexpected by hearing it all come out of the mouth of a sweet home counties lad of Iraqi-Jewish descent. At one point he even pulls off a full-on recreation of an eight piece Arabic-Klezmer band at a family knees-up.

Oh, and I can seriously recommend the Maple Manhattans in Under The Stairs cocktail bar on Merchant Street. Just don’t have more than one. Oh actually fuck it, go on then.

So that was my Edinburgh 2011. A drunken rainstorm of watching, wishing, wading, wassailing, whooping and walking out.

I enjoyed it and hated it so much I am even wondering if there’s time to go back for a quick weekend right at the end. If I do, what would you recommend?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Edinburgh picks

I've been meaning to do this for ages, but today seems like a good day. Maybe it's because I've been bashing away at a plot structure for a new play for weeks and I just can't face it again today. Maybe it's because I realise the Fringe is only two weeks away and I'm all excited and want to get in the mood. (Edinburgh is like Christmas to me; in fact, I far prefer it.) Or maybe it's because all my highlighted shows are scribbled onto about six different sheets of paper and if I lose them or spill tea on them between now and then I'm fucked.

But either way, I thought I'd pick out the shows that stood out to me as being worth a punt, and share them with you here.

There are some perameters and disclaimers, of course. Firstly, I'm only going to include stuff from the Theatre section. This is partly because that is of course my specialism; when it comes to Comedy or Dance then your guess is as good as mine. It's also because I only have about an hour set aside to do this, and if I included everything I'd be here all day, and I while I love you dearly, dear reader, I'm not sure that affection stretches to dissecting an entire 359 page brochure for you. The other limitation is that I'm only there for a week, so I have selfishly but I hope understandably only selected shows that are on during the dates I'm there. This is inevitably quite annoying, even for me. For some reason there seems to be quite a lot of good stuff on this year which only opens towards the middle or end of the Festival. (A loud 'Fuck!' emanating from behind the brochure announced these shows when the listings first arrived; sadly, that is all I will be able to say about them.)

I got the Edinburgh Fringe brochure through when it first came out and did that thing of holing up for the weekend with a marker pen and a pencil-drawn grid, working out what looks exciting, but almost more importantly, what fits into my limited time. I still feel that a huge oversight in the layout of the Fringe brochure is a table listing everything by time slot. One of the joys of the Fringe is just going 'Oh we've got a two hour gap, shall we see what's on?' - but you can't just flick to one page which tells you everything that's on at, say, 3.45pm that day. So I have learned to pick out everything in advance and list it separately by time order. (Perhaps this is a bit ASD of me. I prefer to see it as making the most of a few days. So no need to leave a comment, Mother.) And don't all email saying there's an App for that now, I'm sure there is but I don't have a Tw@tphone so that's no use to me.

The main disclaimer is that I can't personally vouch for any of these shows. I'm not a critic and I haven't seen any of them. This is entirely based on the 40-word write-ups, plus a dash of background knowledge about companies, writers or directors. There also a few drops of instinct, a sprinkling of inclination towards plays with a political edge or intellectual curiosity about them, plus several large glugs of unabashed guesswork. So don't blame me if the pudding turns out to taste like shite. The dubious joy of Edinburgh is getting one show that blows you away after seeing ten stinkers in a row.

That said, I've divided the shows into a few different categories below. Top of the list is my Must Sees, that is, shows I am prepared to book for in advance, and which may well sell out if I don't. These ones I usually know something about, or have seen the company's previous work. After that comes Recommended, if I can fit them in. These ones I'm almost as excited about but I'm pretty sure there'll be tickets when I get there, allowing me a degree of flexibility with my schedule. Next is Maybes, that is, something has interested me about them and I'll see them if I have a slot and nothing on the Recommended list fits in. Then last of all is Total Risks. These ones I know nothing about, but something in the 40 words has pinged my Spidey Sense. These ones I'll take a punt on if neither of the others work out, or for some other reason like I get handed a flyer for it with a ticket offer on it, or read a good review. That isn't to do down these shows at all - they've made my list after all - more that in the furious pace of Edinburgh I have had to prioritise somehow, so they may or may not get a look-in.

Finally, long standing readers will know that I don't do reviews. The politics of that as a theatre-maker are just too ugly. So I won't be saying any more about these shows once I've seen them. (If a show totally blows me away I might - might - tweet it as a recommendation, but that's all. Follow @finkennedy if you're bothered.) Apart from anything else it's a festival, I'm up there with my Mrs, and I just don't have the time.

So, without further ado, here are my list of Educated Guesses for the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Must Sees

Mission Drift at The Traverse
Long and, yes, expensive, but the epic sweep of this play really appeals to me. I'm hoping it might be like Nancy Keystone's Apollo at PCS, one of the greatest shows I have ever seen.

David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudence Hart
I have no idea what to expect with this, apparently it did a valiant job at Latitude last weekend but suits a more intimate space. Suffice to say that David Greig is probably my favourite playwright working today.

What Remains
Just read about it. How could you not go? It's in the Medical School Anatomy Department!

Stewart Lee
I know I said I wouldn't do comedy but I make an exception for this guy. I try and see him whenever he's on. Maybe I'm getting old and grumpy, like him.

Blood and Roses
Bit of a risk actually, as I know nothing about the company, but love the premise so I might book.

Dry Ice
Sabrina Mahfouz was one of the writers on my Mulberry-Tamasha scheme earlier this year. She's also an accomplished performance poet and live artist.

Recommended

The Dark Philosophers
Seeing lots of shows at The Traverse gets really expensive, so although I like the sound of this one I might wait for a review.

The Wheel
Ditto.

A Slow Air
Ditto - though David Harrower makes this a strong contender.

Show Me The World
Bridge Theatre Co are the graduate company of BRIT School. I went to some play readings of theirs recently which were very good. This one is about Facebook and online identities, written by Simon Vinnicombe.

Free Run
I like this sort of thing, though Lyn Gardner recently tweeted that it was all boys and the girl parts were a bit naff. Intriguingly, it is listed under Theatre rather than Dance or Physical. Maybe there will be a story as well as acrobatics.

You Once Said Yes
Another site specific walky one, though their write-up is a little boastful. I might see what the weather's doing.

The Tour Guide
This sounds great, and it's high time I caught some of James Graham's stuff.

At the Sans Hotel
Profound or pretentious? There's only one way to find out.

(g)Host City
Downloadable, free, available whenever you want to do it - and featuring international artists. What's not to like?

The Table
An adult puppet show with an 18+ age restriction! Though it seems serious rather than filthy. I'm intrigued.

Whistle
Spoken Word company Apples and Snakes take on post-war Britain with a multimedia twist. I'll give that a go.

Maybes

2401 Objects
Analogue do some interesting things with projections. This would be in my Recommended section if it wasn't for their last show Beachy Head, which I didn't get on too well with.

Wondrous Flitting
Christ knows what this will be like. (Ha ha.)

Manipulators
Close up magic with storytelling. Hmmm.

I Hope My Heart Goes First
Glasgow teenagers take on the workings of the human heart. They sound like a young company on the up.

Go To Your God Like A Soldier
Physical theatre take on Afghanistan. Could be interesting.

Hotel Methuselah
Multimedia ghosts, apparently.

Total Risks

I'm getting a bit tired of putting all the links in now, so you'll have to look these up for yourself in the brochure or at www.edfringe.com You'll also have to try and work out for yourself why I've listed these. (Hey, it was while ago. And I really must go and do some work now.)

Biding Time
Dr Apple's Last Lecture
Drift
Eight
End Of The Line
Female Hitchhiker
An Imaginary History of Tango
The Infant
The Last Days of Gilda
Midnight Your Time
Museum of Horror
The Observatory
Oedipus by Berkoff
101
Penny Dreadful's Etherdome
Politically Incorrect
The Pretender
Release
Sideshow
Tales From Edgar Allen Poe
Thirsty
Thirty Two Teeth
Thugs N Tearz
Two Johnnies Live Upstairs
Viewless
We Draupadi's And Sitas
White Rabbit Red Rabbit
Wonder Bread
The Wright Bros
Young Pretender

Right, that's your lot. Don't blame me if you hate them. But do let me know if any of them turn out to be gems.

Maybe see you there.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Looking back at the pilot
How new writing in schools might be about to take off

Last month saw an unusual set of play readings at Soho Theatre. Featuring school students from east London performing alongside professional actors, these mixed casts were also interacting with recorded video footage and animation. This was the culmination of a unique and exciting collaboration - the first glimpse of an experimental partnership between Tamasha and Mulberry School. As I sat in the audience in Soho’s intimate upstairs space, I felt the warm glow of seeing months of planning and hard work paying off – and that wonderful feeling when you realise that a creative project which, until that moment existed mostly in your imagination, has suddenly taken on a momentum of its own. It felt like the start of something really special.

In fact, it was barely six months ago that the whole thing was just a paper proposition. It was a rainy December afternoon when filmmaker Tanya Singh and I got together in a Kings Cross coffee shop to discuss putting in a joint application for Associate Artists at Tamasha. We’d been colleagues for some years, part-time artists-in-residence at Mulberry School, as their filmmaker and playwright respectively.

So when Tamasha advertised for one of each of these artists, we applied together, suggesting a pilot writer’s scheme in which eight playwrights would come into the school, receive training from us both, and then take part in sessions with the students coming up with ideas for short plays.

What this was all about, for me, was two things.

The first was evolving the work at Mulberry. My involvement with the school stretches back to 2004, and in that time we’ve founded a theatre company together, written and performed new plays at Half Moon Theatre, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Southwark Playhouse, won an award, received national press coverage and had a book of plays published. Mulberry is always seeking to create new opportunities for its students. When I first started it was taking plays to Edinburgh. Then it became offering apprenticeships in stage management or theatre design, filmmaking or radio – every year there was something new.

Forging a partnership with a professional theatre company like Tamasha felt like the next logical development. I wanted to bring a whole new cohort of playwrights into the school, with all the exciting new ideas that entails.

But secondly, it was about an ongoing interest of mine, increasingly to be found in the professional theatre industry, and that is about the relationship of professional theatremakers, particularly playwrights, to the society of which they are a part.

I believe the model is changing. I predict that the next few years will see a lot less of playwrights developing work on their own, isolated from the world around them. Too often this gives the impression that we are like poets or philosophers, abstract intellectuals observing the world without taking an active part in it. Playwrighting, for me, is a lot more down and dirty than that.

It involves leaving the house. It involves talking. It involves opening yourself up to new and sometimes scary experiences. Like the living, breathing art form it is, it involves empathy and active participation and embedding yourself within the world you are investigating so that you can truly understand the hopes, fears and dreams of your characters.

This is what Mulberry has offered me over the years, and it has been a real pleasure to be able to open up its doors to a new generation of writers.

Tanya and I were appointed in January and immediately set about planning and recruiting for our scheme. I was commissioned by The Guardian to write a feature looking at playwrighting in schools, linking it to other events such as the Bush Theatre’s schools season. There seemed to be something in the air surrounding playwrights and schools, and the article expanded on some of my aims for how our scheme might contribute.

To our amazement, nearly sixty writers applied. With some difficulty, we whittled this down to a shortlist of twelve, of which we recruited eight.

The standard of all eight writers was very high, though they had not necessarily had high profile productions at any major venues. One of the side effects of this recruitment process was a realisation of the sheer amount of playwrights out there forming a ‘critical mass’ of writers at a certain stage of their careers. Many have done all the new writer’s schemes, had readings and short plays on, and done everything literary managers have asked of them, but haven’t yet had a break in terms of a full production on one of the major stages. This is a side effect of the new writing theatre culture much discussed among playwrights. Corresponding with some of them during this recruitment process reiterated to me just how enthusiastic they are, and how under-used. They would be a great resource to tap into for some future movement.

It also made me aware just how much of this sort of schools - and community-based work was already taking place out there – though largely ‘invisible’ in terms of critical coverage. Moreover, writers engaged in this work tend to do so on an ad hoc, word-of-mouth basis; they are not centrally organised nor really all that in touch even with one another. There would appear to be potential here for some sort of structured network for writers engaging in this kind of work. I would hope that our scheme might be the first step down that path, and may one day end up offering these writers an institutional hub for their work.

Interviews for the scheme took place in January and February, the eight writers received a full day’s training from Tanya and I during February half term, and child protection training from the school the following week. They then had four after school sessions with a lively group of mostly Year 10 Drama students during February and March, with an optional dramaturgy and filmmaking sessions with myself or Tanya prior to their first draft deadline.

Each writer was asked to deliver a 10-15 minute play written for up to five parts which could be played by Mulberry students or recent alumni. Other than that, the brief was completely open, and writers were free to follow their own creative instincts and be led by the students’ ideas and interests.

There’s an interesting question here about how the playwrights’ role differs from that of a normal playwrighting process. The model we kept referring back to was the Edinburgh plays I have written for the school, and which were published last year in The Urban Girls’ Guide To Camping and other plays. Clearly, I am neither female, Bengali, Muslim, a teenager, nor am I from east London. In that sense a degree of self-effacement is required when writing plays for, about and inspired by the girls of Mulberry School. But just as clearly, rarely will a 15-year old, whatever their background, be able to offer a fully formed play idea to a writer that needs no developing. The trick, I find, is to take the spirit of what they are offering you in these sessions, and read between the lines to divine the hopes, fears, dreams and values that lie behind the copious material generated by your discussions.

You also have the legitimacy to aestheticise. You are the professional writer after all. They provide the raw material. You discuss with them ways in which it might be shaped, talking them through what the implications of each direction would be. Then, week by week, you bring something in. Each week it comes a little more into focus. You show it to them, check they’re happy, listen to their suggestions, make changes accordingly – even at times passing the whole thing over to them for a while to do their own work on. Back and forth it goes, until eventually you have produced a creative product of some sophistication, which neither of you could have created on your own.

All this was supported by a large stock of creative exercises I had passed on to the writers during their training, which I had developed over many years at the school. Some of the writers used these verbatim, some adapted them according to their own interests, while some invented completely new exercises in response. One of the real joys of the scheme for me was to be able to pass some of these skills on, and see how they were adapted, evolved and put back into use with a completely new set of writers and students. Tanya is producing a set of short films showcasing some of these exercises and featuring interviews with both the writers and myself. We’re going to upload them onto teachers’ websites where they will be available for download along with the exercise sheets they are describing. (Keep an eye on the Tamasha blog, we might put them up there too.)

Tanya’s whole multimedia offer was enthusiastically taken up by many of the writers, and seemed to particularly tap into some of the students’ interests. Indeed, more than one of the plays ended up putting new media at the heart of its concept. There was also some imaginative use of technology in exercises to generate creative ideas. For example, with Tanya’s help one of the writers spent a session getting the students one by one to record private pieces to camera outside on the balcony, the idea being that they were contributing to a time capsule about life in east London, that would be opened in the distant future. The resulting footage was then reviewed by the writer, much of which fed into her final play. (Unfortunately the time capsule part was just a ruse – though one the students were in on.)

Mulberry’s students really deserve some credit here. They’ve been such an inspiration to me over the years, and I could see them working their magic every week with our writers. All the writers spoke glowingly of their student groups, with one saying she had never come across such self confident girls, and another describing her renewed respect for the ideas and opinions of young people. They all described how useful it was to bring in ideas week by week and gauge their group’s reaction. One of the writers described the process as like writing for their ‘first audience’ each week, while another admitted to having been worried about not finding a story, but in fact finding the problem was she had way too many. All of the writers agreed that bringing in new work to share with the students each week, based on the previous weeks’ exercises and discussions, was key to keeping them engaged and moving things along. But in terms of the creative product this also allowed students to shape the play ideas at a formative stage, which is a real USP of the Mulberry model.

All the writers said it was unusual to have a scheme with them as writers leading the sessions, as opposed to the directors or actors. Those with experience of young people’s projects that were led by others said how easy it was to step back as the writer. Leading the session yourself allows you to be more reactive, to jump on something that’s said and tease out the point.

There is an ongoing question about how useful or practical it is to team writers up with actors or directors as co-tutors, to generate dramatic material through improvisations rather than paper-based exercises. This is something I’ve still got an open mind about. Three of my four full length plays for the school were created in this way with a co-tutor, though as noted previously many of the writers on this scheme preferred being allowed to lead their own sessions, and almost all stayed at their desks. This does involve more concentrated work from the students though, and sometimes a few ‘up on your feet’ exercises at the start can be good to get some of that energy out of their system. But I wouldn’t expect or insist that playwrights had the skills to lead these exercises. Some will, some won't. It does also have cost implications for future schemes if other tutors are involved. But it occurred to me afterwards that perhaps the writers’ training at the start could involve a session with a director, drama teacher, or youth theatre leader to give the writers a set of these sorts of exercises, to add to their toolkit. It’s always good to have a stock of drama games up your sleeve to fall back on.

One practical thing that worked well was pairing the writers up for the duration of the scheme. This was primarily a practical response to not being able to recruit a group of 4-5 students for each of the eight writers (this would have meant an unwieldy group size of nearly 40). But what it did mean was that the after school sessions had to be split into two halves, with one writer leading the first half while the other observes, and vice versa after a short break. All the writers said that being able to observe both how another writer works, and the students’ behaviour from a position outside that of session leader, was very useful.

In anticipation of a potential problem, I instigated a rule that creative ideas that came up in one half were the first refusal of the writer whose half it was. But in the end this didn’t really come up as a source of conflict. Both writers became quite happily involved in each other’s halves, and many spoke later about how great it was to be able to jump in. It didn’t ever seem like they were cramping each other’s styles.

Afterwards, some of the writers suggested a mid-way session without the students, where they can share their experiences with each other about what is and isn’t working. Unfortunately, the sheer demands of delivering a project like this week by week generally mitigate against having time for much critical reflection. We did some of this afterwards, of course, in an evaluation session, where some interesting debates began, for example around the usefulness of sharing a cultural background with the group that they are writing for and about and, relatedly, what the ‘culture’ of the Mulberry students actually was. One of the writers suggested that they were “not their religion or their ethnicity or their gender but they were just their age”, to which another writer strongly disagreed. While we did talk about these things individually over the course of the project, looking back we could have made some more focussed space for these debates, and maybe even recorded them somehow. As it turned out they mostly took place in the pub. Both Tanya and Tamasha’s curator Orlagh Woods pointed out that artists from other disciplines, such as visual or live art, much more routinely engage in these processes of self-reflection and theorising. Playwrights don’t so much, and I’m not sure why that should be.

Once the first drafts came in there was one in-class read through which took place in a timetabled BTEC and GCSE Drama class. We were lucky in being able to neatly tie this in to a module on professional practice which the students were working on anyway (this was a total stroke of luck – and the brainwave of one inspired drama teacher. Though we would certainly factor it into the plan next time.) Then there was just one more draft to go before the plays were rehearsed up for presentation at Soho.

The plays themselves were great. We had one about the death of a cousin, whose memory is artificially kept alive on recorded smartphone clips. We had another set in a near future dystopia where all stories were banned by the government. One was about a girl who mathematically conjures into existence her digital double, who proceeds to take over her life. Another was set entirely on Facebook. Yet others took place on a live TV chat show, or in a fantastical hospital ward that conducts operations to remove your responsibility. They really were a terrific range of ideas and styles.

We paired the plays up according to cast size, so that one cast and director could work on two plays. It was agreed to cast four professional actors, one per play pairing. This was not because each play required an adult part – many didn’t – it was felt important to give students the opportunity to work alongside professionals.

Tamasha did a great job of recruiting four young actresses who were all excellent role models for Mulberry’s students. The four directors were also good choices, and all had trained under Kristine at one or more of the Tamasha Developing Artists workshops. It was a good opportunity for trainee directors to put this training into practice in a schools environment. This combination of everyone learning something was absolutely in keeping with the Mulberry ethos of developing artists as well as students, and created a warm and mutually supportive working environment.

The writers had an open invitation to drop by whenever they could and some were able to. This was an important learning experience for them about what in their writing did and didn’t work once it was up on its feet, and some further changes were made in the rehearsal room. Kristine from Tamasha came in on the final day’s rehearsal and offered notes to the directors on what she saw.

There was strong interest in the Soho event and it was well-attended by theatre professionals. The Mulberry girls did us proud – some were actually so good that they had people asking after their availability! Alas, most have to finish school first. But one of the sixth formers was recruited for a reading at the Blue Elephant Theatre earlier this month.

I know from my own work for Half Moon Young People’s Theatre over the years that the ultimate test of any play is to go in front of a teenage audience. I hope any future scheme will find a way of doing this. It is an important part of the writers’ development.

There were some unexpected spin-offs from the partnership which give some indication of the range of possibilities which a future collaboration between Mulberry and Tamasha could contain. Tamasha’s Artistic Director Sudha Bhuchar has been in discussions with some Bengali parents sourced through the school, as part of a new play she has been developing. Mulberry was also host to a Tamasha workshop on careers in professional theatre, in which students heard about a range of careers in the arts including stage management, lighting design, costume supervision, and marketing.

Tanya has also been in contact with Sita Brahmachari, a Tamasha writer and Artistic Associate, regarding a possible creative writing and online multi-media collaboration around her new children’s novel, working with Mulberry students via English, Media and I.T. classes.

All this indicates a two-way aspect to the Tamasha-Mulberry partnership which could continue to benefit both organisations in the future. For example, Mulberry students could be involved in Tamasha through its productions and Tamasha Developing Artists programme and there are possibilities for Mulberry to host placements or engage artists in their ongoing school shows.

In their final evaluation meeting with us, the writers expressed delight at the confidence this scheme had imbued them with in going into schools and cultural contexts different to their own. Yet they were also hesitant – unsure about precisely how to go about creating those opportunities for themselves, from scratch, without the institutional support and access of a managed scheme like ours. Tamasha and Mulberry are uniquely placed to broker these opportunities for these and future writers, and to take the Mulberry-Tamasha working model out to other schools across London.

Conversations are ongoing between both organisations about exactly what form that might take. But watch this space. Our pilot scheme might be about to take off.

Monday, June 06, 2011

I've done a Guardian Theatre blog about young people, technology and theatre. You can read it here.

It's all in aid of an event coming up this Friday at Soho Theatre, the result of the writer's scheme I have been running for Tamasha and Mulberry School.

Maybe see you there.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bushwhacked...

Well, that didn't take very long! Since I haven't been shortlisted, I can now share with you that I applied for Artistic Director of The Bush.

I know, it was a bit of a long shot, to say the least. What prompted me, and I don't think I'm betraying any confidences in saying this, was a message circulated via the Writer's Guild that The Bush had approached them to let them know that they would be open to receiving applications from playwrights. This seemed like an interesting and important development, so I thought I may as well take them up on it.

It was fun. I spent a weekend writing what was essentially my manifesto for theatre - any theatre, really (though I think The Bush is uniquely placed to take on many of my suggestions.) I thought: at least I can bung it on my blog if it doesn't get anywhere. And it didn't. So that is what I'm doing. I can only assume that its lack of success was down to a far more senior playwright than me having applied, which is quite an exciting thought. (It can't be that it wasn't any good, obviously.)

You'll forgive me if I don't reproduce the application in full. Apart from anything else that would make it insanely long rather than just annoyingly long. But you don't want to read How I Meet The Person Spec - that's just me blathering on about how great I am, and you know that already.

No, the real reason I reproduce this here is not self-aggrandisement. (Honestly - how can it be? I didn't even get through the first round!) It's more to share some of my thinking about where theatre is at in this country, particularly in the aftermath of the cuts debate. It's also to put some suggestions out there for how we - all of us, but particularly those running theatres - might respond to the current climate, and indeed even use it as a creative opportunity. So there's a range of stuff to follow. You probably won't agree with all of it. But I hope that you will at least find it interesting, and let me know what you think.

And if you do run a theatre, or if you have been shortlisted for the Bush job, then I hope you might even take some of these ideas on board. They are by no means copyrighted, and I would be delighted to see some of them get out there and take on a life of their own.

I tried my best, but now it is over to you...

Bush Theatre – Artistic Director

Why I am applying

This post presents a unique opportunity to lead one of the country’s foremost new writing venues into its next phase. At a time of great upheaval to arts funding, and even existential challenges to the value of state subsidy at all, the move into the old Shepherd’s Bush Library, along with ACE’s decision to keep the company within its portfolio, is a decisive vote of confidence in the Bush Theatre, and an acknowledgment of its importance to the local community. This move is a chance for the new Artistic Director to prove just how right that vote of confidence was. To achieve this, I would institute an unparalleled programme of community engagement which will build on the Bush’s greatest strength – developing intimate plays about ordinary lives, and how they are shaped by the society around them.

I would seek to direct this specialism towards making the Bush and its writers an essential part of their local area, in a way in which theatres much more commonly were, historically. By investigating local people’s lives, involving them in our processes and nurturing their own creative skills, the Bush could lead the way in showing how subsidised new writing can illuminate a community’s understanding of itself. It makes sense for a playwright – the theatre artist with whom all stories start, whose raw material is life itself – to be the one to lead this. One of my main policies would be to involve a rolling team of working playwrights in the key decisions of the company.

This opportunity comes at a time when circumstances have aligned within my own career for the vacancy to present an irresistible chance to consolidate a number of strands of my work. Various passions have come to fruition over ten years as a freelance writer and project manager, and are now seeking a new phase of their own. These projects are what I would variously term ‘investigative playwriting’, ‘embedded playwriting’ and ‘research and performance’ – and I will discuss in more detail precisely what they involve a little later in the application.

Originally, these practices began as passions explored in my own work as a student on the Goldsmiths MA Playwriting programme ten years ago. They then found their initial form as ad hoc freelance community writing projects for companies such as Half Moon Young People’s Theatre, All Change Arts and Almeida Projects. As my career developed, and I gained the experience and reputation to take things to the next stage, they became institutionally supported – most notably by Mulberry School for Girls in east London, with whom I have a long association as their writer-in-residence. This specialism developed to the point where I am now regularly invited to run workshops and speak at conferences on how to go about accessing communities and creating drama with, for and about them. This sharing of expertise has perhaps found its fullest expression in the Writing for Specific Audiences module, which I have taught on the Goldsmiths MA Playwriting course for the past five years. Two years ago, I instigated a partnership between Goldsmiths and the RADA Foundation course in Acting – with whom moves are underway to offer playwrighting training to local teachers, and schools tours of the short plays written by Goldsmiths students as part of their course.

In 2011 things have evolved yet again with my appointment as Associate Artist at Tamasha. Here, I am running a pilot playwrights’ training programme in collaboration with Mulberry School, with a view to creating a hub for training playwrights in this work, so they can start up their own projects in other schools around London. I will talk more a bit later in this application about what my vision would be for this work if it was to be placed at the heart of a theatre company like the Bush. But suffice to say that the combination of the Bush’s infrastructure, reputation, expertise and reach – along with its move to the Library – presents a thrilling opportunity to instigate what I confidently predict could become the next big cultural movement within British playwriting.

I should add that the community and writer training side of my work has not been at the expense of my own writing. I enjoy a thriving parallel career of mainstream play commissions and productions for a diverse range of theatre companies both in the UK and abroad. But ‘parallel’ makes these two halves of my work sound separate, when in fact they long ago became inextricably linked. My investigations of the communities I work with keep me fully connected with the real world and offer unparalleled inspiration for new play ideas to take back to the theatre industry. Shakespeare was familiar with this – that playwrights are totally of this world. They are the voices of their age and communities, not isolated artists pontificating about the world from afar – a model which seems to have become an unfortunate side effect of the structure of much of the modern creative industries.

It is reconnecting with this real world inspiration which I would like to address with my leadership of the Bush. How, in a post arts-cuts world, and at a time when state investment of the arts has never been under such fierce attack, can playwrights reconnect with the communities they are supposedly writing for and about? How can writers be supported in investigating experiences beyond their own, and represent those experiences with authenticity, legitimacy and integrity? How, in turn, can the surrounding community’s creativity be encouraged by having a world-class theatre company on its doorstep? What, precisely, are the taxpaying public getting for their subsidy? In short, what is theatre’s function in a digital, globalised society – and how can we make it essential once again, to our collective sense of self and where we are all going?

The Bush Theatre is on the cusp of an opportunity to revolutionise British theatre, by leading by example.

My Vision for The Bush

A man walks into a Library holding a crumpled scrap of paper. He approaches the front desk, hesitantly. The Librarian looks up and smiles.
‘Hi. Welcome. How can I help?’
The man pauses, unsure of quite how to proceed. He unravels the paper, on which a few short sentences are scrawled in blue biro.
‘I … I brought this. I heard you were collecting them.’
The Librarian nods. ‘We are. Thank you.’
She opens a door behind her, leading into some sort of vault beyond. The man catches a glimpse of shelves upon shelves stretching away ahead. The soft clamour of a thousand whispers catches him unawares.
‘It that…?’
‘Yes. That’s the others. Yours is just the latest one.’
The man frowns, and takes in his surroundings once more. The municipal doors are at odds with the play posters, the Librarian’s issuing desk incongruous next to the box office.
‘Is this a library ... or a theatre ... or what?’
The Librarian smiles.
‘It’s all three.’


The Library is the key. Allowing theatre artists to run the Library for local people will be the motor. Putting a playwright in the driving seat will determine the direction. Because this will not be an ordinary Library. It will not just house books, plays, specialists, and knowledge. In fact it won't be just a lending Library at all. It will be a borrowing Library, and a producing Library. A place where theatre artists not only stock the stories of yesterday, but actively invite new submissions, borrowing anecdotes, experiences and fresh ideas from the community around them. But it won’t just be a warehouse; it will be a forge, in which new stories are smelted every day, and the end results professionally staged for all to see. It will become an interface between dramatists and their immediate surroundings in west London. It will work as a collaborative process in which Londoners, young and old, rich and poor, are encouraged to bring in the raw materials for the specialists in the Library to work their magic. Those who have an idea for a play can bring it to us. They will be able to choose whether they develop the idea themselves under our specialist tuition, or whether they gift it to our collection, for our writers – and writers of the future - to browse and to do with as they will.

Perhaps they can't yet see the whole play, but instead have just a fragment – a hunch that something within their experience might contribute to a tale. An unusual line of work, a strange anecdote, a local rumour, a family mystery, an urban myth, or perhaps simply a desire to see someone like themselves represented on stage. They can bring us these fragments too. We will rinse them, polish them, place them into our collection, play them off against other fragments, see how they interact, hold them in different lights and see how they shine. In this way we will build a catalogue of inspiration for our writers, little pieces of real lives donated by the community which our theatre serves – sorted, indexed and filed away by our staff. Submissions could come from across media platforms, via voicemails, texts, tweets, wall posts, uploaded photos, audioboos, as well, of course, as emails. Perhaps they could take three dimensions in the form of objects; heirlooms, lost property, donations of a loved one’s possessions so that they might live on. We would display these fragments periodically, in collections curated by resident artists. Details of the donors would remain attached to each idea and exhibit, so that further investigation can take place if a writer becomes inspired.

Writers must of course bring their own ideas – that is what they do best. There would be nothing prescriptive about our approach. Writers can continue to operate in the traditional way should they so wish. But we will encourage them to at least have a browse of our Library of Life, just to see what they might find. You never know where it might lead them…

This concept, of building up this Library, is at the heart of my vision. The description above is just one way in which it might operate. As well as inviting submissions, the Library will of course house an extensive collection of plays and books on theatre history – but also books on other subjects of use to playwrights; politics, philosophy, economics, sociology, cultural studies. The Bush at the Library would become the first theatre company to take responsibility for the political and cultural education of its youngest playwrights. It would become a thriving hub of ‘living’ research – cultivating meaningful links with the great minds and thinkers of our time, for our writers to access during their research. We would broker introductions to specialists of all kinds at the cutting edge of their field; professors, philosophers, scientists, new media. We would host regular TED-style talks in our auditorium for writers and the wider public to listen and debate together, focusing on innovative new ideas that might come to shape our world. The Bush Library would become a centre for learning about where our world is currently at, and where it could be going. This constant spirit of enquiry is what will shape and inform our play-making process. Writers will be encouraged to come to us with requests for areas of human life they are interested in investigating, and we will do everything we can to gain them access to those who have had experiences the writer has not. We will offer training in interview techniques, seminars on the different forms creative research can take, and masterclasses on ways to extract drama from real life.

This is not a recipe for David Hare-style linear naturalism, nor for verbatim or documentary theatre. Writers will be encouraged to consider theatrical form in all its myriad possibilities and, where there is interest, will be teamed up with artists of other disciplines – composers, animators, dancers, MCs, sculptors. We will foster a spirit of blue skies collaboration, emphasising artistic ingenuity and formal originality in responding to the real world inspiration underpinning the plays in development.

Under my leadership, the Bush would dramatically expand its existing community programme, sending writers into local schools for medium to long term residencies. The company would form links with schools experienced in hosting artists-in-residence such as Mulberry, Thomas Tallis and Islington Arts and Media School, in order to offer supported training to playwrights looking to learn those skills. During their residencies, writers will not only research their own interests, but will teach playwrighting to both students and staff. The Bush Library will host regular short play festivals of the best of this new work.

But we wouldn’t stop at schools. The Bush at the Library will cultivate a wide network of relationships with local organisations who would like to host a playwright, and approach new organisations where a writer’s interests do not coincide with venues we have on our books. Writers will be encouraged to take up supported residencies wherever their interests take them - bookmakers, police stations, care homes, factories, restaurants, shopping centres, garages, timber yards, racecourses, private members’ clubs. They will investigate the hidden locations, characters and stories of London and bring their findings back to the Bush in their ideas for their main stage work. All organisations generous enough to host a writer will be repaid with the offer of a free Introduction to Playwriting course for interested members of their staff, and complimentary tickets for a staff outing to a Bush production. The best of the plays their staff write will be brought back to the Bush and presented in seasons of readings of short plays by local people.

No longer will our professional writers be told to ‘write what you know’. On the contrary, should they wish to they will be actively supported in writing what they don’t know – and guided and assisted in doing so with legitimacy and integrity. We will encourage this by paying more for plays which are more ambitious and which will take a longer time than the average to research and to write. On top of this commission fee, we will also pay writers an hourly rate for the teaching and community work they undertake as part of their ‘indirect’ research, for example as part of a residency. In this way we will equip our writers with proven experience and transferable skills, to help them make a living between commissions, or to take out to other theatres or on new projects they start up themselves.

The plays chosen for production would continue to build on what the Bush does best – from overtly political plays like Stovepipe, Little Platoons, or The Contingency Plan, to dark visions like Stitching or Bites, to more contemplative yet no less devastating personal stories like Artefacts, Adrenalin…Heart or Age of Consent. The common thread would be plays which aspire to make an original contribution to our understanding of what it means to be human and to live in the 21st century – either through taking up the baton of a national or international debate, or charting something tender and true about the human heart in its modern context. The difference would be the range of methods I would seek to open up for playwrights to access, understand and create these originals visions. Working in isolation would no longer be the default mode for our writers – though of course would still be there as one option, among many.

Under my leadership, the Bush’s productions would seek to place theatre as an art form at the cutting edge of articulating and shaping our sense of ourselves, while acknowledging the times of unprecedented political protest, economic upheaval, international conflict and technological change in which we now live. Along with my team, I would seek to take full advantage of the nature of live performance as one of the few areas left where we still gather en masse to consider issues of collective importance. As part of this, I would continue to seek out and develop artists from communities from whom we hear too seldom in British theatre. The Bush Library will understand that, at their best, both theatres and libraries can be organs of democracy.

Our writers’ key resource will first and foremost be other writers. We will appoint a rolling panel of working playwrights who will select and develop the work of other writers in the Literary Department, rotating perhaps every six months to fit the pattern of their own writing commitments. Playwrights will be actively involved in programming decisions, and in appointing and appraising the Literary Manager. We will build on Bushgreen to cultivate and facilitate communication among a national network of playwrights at all stages of their careers, and broker mentoring relationships, advice sessions, or script reading for younger writers by older writers they admire.

We will instigate a policy of publishing on the theatre website the names and biographies of everyone involved in reading scripts for the Bush. Those who are new to reading for us will be given formal training from a more experienced reader in dramaturgy, writing script reports and in feeding back to writers one-to-one. There will be opportunities for new readers to sit in on these meetings and shadow more experienced staff. Where we have the writer’s permission, we will publish script reports on the website, perhaps attached to the scripts on Bushgreen on which they are reporting, thereby highlighting examples of good practice which the writer has found particularly helpful. We will build on the Bushgreen technology to create a tracking system for scripts, not dissimilar to parcel tracking websites where, by entering a reference number, a writer can see how far through the theatre’s system their script has progressed, and when they are likely to hear back.

We will put in place a formal appraisal system for writers the theatre has worked with, involving debriefs for produced writers, and feedback sessions for commissioned and seeded writers which are a genuinely two-way conversation, and attempt to fully understand a writer’s intention before attempting to articulate a response. Written feedback will be collated and regularly reviewed.

We will facilitate networks and social opportunities for writers to meet directors and other potential collaborators, such as designers. We will ensure that there are at least two writers on the theatre’s Board at any one time. We will strive to guarantee every commissioned writer a minimum of £10,000 per play. Then we will open a welcoming cafĂ© and bar open all day long in which we will encourage them to spend it. (They will get a 50% discount if they can show they are there to work on a play in one of our soundproofed booths.)

The Library will regularly host public masterclasses, Alan Ayckbourn-style – where well-known writers will speak publicly about their work, while actors perform key scenes from the writer’s best plays, interspersed with analysis, anecdote and observation from the writer him or herself. These will be open to the general public as well other theatre-makers. We will hold Paines Plough style ‘Later’ events, where writers read from their own work in an informal cabaret-style setting. We will offer free playwrighting classes to other theatre staff, from sound, to LX, to stage management, to directors, to front of house – so that our specialism becomes shared with all those collaborating with us. If writers express an interest in learning other aspects of stagecraft, such as directing or design, then we would endeavour to offer them training too, in a reciprocal sharing of skills.

We would make an open and expansive offer to west London’s young people, by founding youth theatres and young writer’s groups for different age levels, and encourage our professional writers and other theatre artists and technicians to engage with them. The youth theatres would be arranged as mini theatre companies themselves, with opportunities to learn technical theatre arts, stage management, administration and marketing, as well as acting and playwriting. Those ‘graduating’ from either of the senior youth groups will be seriously considered for professional parts or commissions on our main stage, if necessary in smaller parts alongside professional actors, while they learn their craft fully. We would support any of our young people in applying for formal training, and raise money for bursaries for them to do so.

Our Library would make contact with influential academics with an interest in studying theatre’s positive effects on communities. Those with whom I already have some relationship - such as Dr Tim Prentki, convenor of Theatre for Development at University of Winchester, Prof Helen Nicholson at Royal Holloway and author of Theatre and Education, and Amanda Stuart-Fisher, senior lecturer in Applied Drama at Central School of Speech and Drama – would naturally be a first port of call, but we need not restrict ourselves to them. We would host and support these academics in applying for research funds to conduct formal studies of the work the Bush is undertaking, and publicise and disseminate their findings as part of a growing body of evidence to make the case for the positive social, economic and personal impact of a theatre’s direct involvement with its communities.

But it wouldn’t all be about plays and playwrighting. The theatre’s Executive Director, General Manager and Accountant will be encouraged to undertake public presentations explaining theatre economics, where public subsidy goes, how it interacts with other income, and the reasons for key spending decisions. These talks will explain the front-loaded nature of the costs of theatre production, and the need for a theatre to be able to take risks. They will answer the public’s questions. This is not by any means designed to put these staff members on the spot, but to use their expertise to make a solid financial case for continued state investment in new writing – and to start to compile a body of evidence for use by the whole industry against its critics. We will publish these arguments for continued state subsidy on our website, hold copies in our Library, and encourage other theatres to submit their own examples to our collection. The collection will be publicised among and made available to politicians and local councillors sympathetic to our case, for use in debates and future spending negotiations.

Libraries have historically been at the cutting edge of new media; they were some of the first places to offer public internet access. Our Library will be no different, but we will extend this offer to explore new media in all its forms. Our Library will understand that new media no longer means sitting passively in front of a screen – we all now have geo-locative computers in our pockets, making the whole world a potential location for stories if used in the right way. It’s really exciting that the Bush already has a member of Non Zero One among their staff, and that this has led to a forthcoming co-production – we would encourage more links with these companies who use ‘subtlemobbing’ and other interactive forms of storytelling to make the world their stage.

We will encourage our writers and directors to investigate computer gaming as a source of immersive storytelling for a new generation. We will make links with renowned British video games manufacturers like Sensible Software, Eidos and Rockstar to explore new ways of developing stories together. They need us – their games look stunning but their scripts are often somewhat lacking. And theatre needs them – their immense popularity, commercial success and technical know-how dwarf anything we can offer. Ironically, both our sectors are often lumped together in discussions and figures relating to the ‘creative industries’. Yet we almost never talk to one another. The Bush Library would begin a conversation.

We will explore collaborations with performance companies like Coney and Hide&Seek, and make links with video artists like Simon Wilkinson, who has invented immersive worlds using goggle and headphone technology in which the user can still move about – the nearest thing yet to virtual reality. We will talk to directors like Ellie Jones, who seek to involve the audience as characters in the play, with their own tasks, objectives and moral choices. There is a whole generation now who are used to being the heroes in their own stories but theatre has yet to really engage with them. Our Library will find ways to do so.

We will also use new media to share our expertise with those cut off from us by distance, for example by uploading video recordings of the masterclasses described above. But we could also commission shorter, more self-contained video podcasts of writers demonstrating playwriting exercises they have devised, or talking more generally about their approach. These could be watched by beginner writers in other parts of the country, or abroad, or utilised by teachers as part of a creative writing class with their students. Free downloadable exercise sheets could accompany the podcasts, and those who have made use of them invited to submit the results. The best of these could perhaps be recorded separately and uploaded as postscripts next to the original films. A series of these films arranged in order, and looking at different aspects of playwriting - from Location, to Character, to Dialogue – could in principle make up an entire distance learning module which anyone with internet access could undertake, wherever they live.

We would also use new media to involve the public in the processes our playwrights undergo – for example by having the writer set up and ‘operate’ a Facebook account in the identity of a character from a play they are developing. Audiences would be invited to friend request the character, and then interact with their fictional lives through commenting on their status updates. The writer operating the character could try out storylines they are considering, writing in the character’s voice. They could even see if they could find a way to get people on the character’s Friends list to begin their own imagined stories involving the character. In this way audiences can take part in a writer’s process in a fun and accessible way, without imposing too much on the writer’s space and ideas. The writer would not be obliged to use any material suggested, but something interesting might come out of it for them, and if nothing else it would double up as a useful marketing tool for the play. In theory, if audience members get really involved they could even potentially come to feature, directly or indirectly, as characters in the play themselves…

In the spirit of a public institution, our Library will operate under the principle that the public are allowed to see every area of our operations. I would hold regular ‘open access’ days, where rehearsals, board meetings, set workshops, programming meetings, could all be visited. Obviously I would seek other staff members’ permission where appropriate, restrict numbers if necessary, manage movement within the building and/or operate a by-appointment system. But in principal nowhere would be off-limits. This is the public’s theatre as much as ours and we want them to see how it works.

As for my own writing, I would happily write plays for the Bush in the same way that a director would direct them. I have a couple of currently unattached ideas in development which could become Bush plays, though I would need a couple of months away from frontline duties to complete them. I could broker co-productions with any of the companies mentioned on my CV, either here or in the US. But I would not want my work to dominate any one season. A significant proportion of my work in recent years has been as a producer and facilitator of other writers, and I would seek to maintain that healthy balance.

During my travels in America, where I have had several productions, I have been struck by the different arrangements they have to the set-up of their theatres. An almost total lack of state funding has made them very entrepreneurial. There have been two immediate side effects to this.

The first, predominantly employed by larger companies, is to cultivate a huge list of loyal subscribers – season ticket holders who get a discount for buying a ticket to every show, all in one go. This commitment in advance stabilises the theatre’s finances for the entire year. One theatre I worked with in Portland, Oregon has 50,000 on their list. The result of this is that they have to put on eight-week runs of all their plays. This is because the first four weeks are entirely booked up with subscribers, so further weeks have to be added if the general public are to get a look-in. I can tell you, the royalties on a sold out eight-week run are astronomical! Perversely in this scenario, lack of state funding means playwrights earn a lot more money. So I would seek to put in place a subscriber system at the Bush, and to put on slightly longer runs to allow for this, and to try to earn writers more money.

But the second side effect of the American model more directly affects theatres of the Bush’s size, and that is that they are largely found in an outlying suburb, and often operate part-time. Most staff there are part-time and have other jobs to supplement their theatre work, particularly actors. Shows are usually only performed Thursdays to Saturdays, and most rehearsals start at 6pm and go on late into the night to allow people to fit in their day jobs. But – crucially – to get by, their day-to-day costs are funded largely by direct donations from their local community, over and above ticket receipts. They operate like local charities, and become good causes in local fundraising events.

The result is an extraordinary local feeling of ownership over the neighbourhood theatre. It really does become a feature of that suburb or district, a fondly-regarded and cherished local institution. These theatres have a relationship with their local audience quite unlike anything I have come across in the UK. Again, somewhat counter-intuitively, our system of state funding has the side effect of diluting the public’s relationship with their venues by putting several layers of bureaucracy between the tax take and the theatre’s public portion of their income.

Many of my proposals above are about trying to remedy that distancing effect, and reconnect people with the publicly-funded theatres in their city, over which they have the right to feel an ownership. In the first instance, I would like to acknowledge this with an inaugural season of free events – offered to the public as a Thank You for their continued support. I would like to publicly acknowledge the debt that subsidised theatre owes to its taxpayers, and to offer them something in return. The Thank You season. (Though I might do another few drafts of that name.) Part of this season would be a three-day conference in the new space, aimed at bringing together theatre-makers, community organisations, private firms, academics and all the stakeholders mentioned above. It would simultaneously launch the vision outlined in this manifesto, and invite local suggestions for how it might be improved – or even submissions for entirely new ways in which the Bush might engage with its public, in ways which we haven’t even thought of yet.

Clearly, there will necessarily be financial and logistical limits to the scope and depth of the programme we can roll out at any one time. In that sense at least, this manifesto is admittedly something of a wish list. It contains a wide range of ideas which could be explored to take the theatre to its next stage. I would be sure to proceed in a spirit of collaboration – bold collaboration, setting our sights high - but nevertheless taking advice from all members of the company, using their existing expertise to guide us in how best to achieve these goals. I would rather do some of it brilliantly, and build on this over time, than overstretch ourselves doing all of it superficially in my first year. But if given this opportunity I would absolutely commit to this for the long haul. I also recognise the immense success the Bush has had doing what it already does so well. Its mission to ‘discover, premiere and champion … singular voices that speak directly to life in the modern world’ would still remain at the heart of the company. My proposals would simply seek to help the company do this bigger, bolder and better – and to take their wider public with them every step of the way.

Finally, there is a bigger political agenda here. And that is to use directorship of the Bush to make playwrights and playwrighting essential to a society again. I desperately want to tackle the disgraceful negative stereotype given such widespread currency during the cuts debate - that we are all ‘corduroyed luvvies’, lazy artists taking state handouts and producing obscure, self-indulgent work while other taxpayers do the nine-to-five slog. If there is one thing that debate highlighted in no uncertain terms it was that theatre-makers have a serious image problem. As Artistic Director of the Bush I would do everything within my power to address this. Showcasing who we are, what we’re like and what we do would be a key part of this – ordinary citizens contributing tangibly and unpretentiously to a community’s well-being on numerous fronts. I would demonstrate in no uncertain terms just what publicly-funded playwrights can do for a society given the right institutional support.

I hope you will consider my application.