I've been appointed a '50th Anniversary Master' on the new MA Dramatic Writing degree at the Drama Centre, part of Central St Martin's. There are six of us, all industry professionals, and I'm pleased to say I am in very esteemed company! The others are dramaturg Caroline Jester, playwright Stephen Jeffreys, BBC Writersroom's Kate Rowland, Steve Winter of Old Vic New Voices and John Yorke of Eastenders. It's the 50th anniversay of Drama Centre this year and the industry links seek to celebrate that. We're kind of like Visiting Tutors with a steering group function, able to suggest ideas. I was recruited largely due to my long-term collaboration with Mulberry School.
Anyway, last night was the launch and I wrote a speech for it which I thought I would reproduce here.
I’ve spoken at length in the past about my theory of supply and demand in British playwriting training. I’ll give you the potted version.
I believe that ten years of half-decent arts funding under the last Labour government caused us to put more resources into playwright training than we perhaps should have. The raft of newcomers was exciting, but there simply weren’t enough production slots to go around. But the money was there and theatres had to spend it on something – plus they were expected to meet various inclusion and professional development criteria set down by the Arts Council.
Now the money isn’t there, and we look back on those days slightly wistfully. But what we’ve been left with is a critical mass of playwrights who have gone through some sort of professional development – far more than could ever hope to be produced.
This is a generation of writers who, like me, trained over the past ten years when they were in their twenties (either attached to theatres or in the parallel marketplace of higher education) and while some have had some success, most have scratched a living with the odd commission, some fringe shows, entering endless shorts night and competitions – all the while holding down a day job in something (hopefully) related like teaching or journalism.
Large amounts of them are kept in what one writer I know describes as a ‘holding pattern’ around theatres up and down the country, waiting for their ‘call’ to come in and ‘land’ with a full-length production; their big break.
Almost all report the attendant symptoms of any marketplace in which there is an over-supply of labour – low or no pay, poor treatment, and exclusion from the means of production. This is a generation now entering their thirties and looking for some security; marriage, kids, mortgage, pension. They are an under-used resource but, harnessed in the right way, could be a powerful force – such as one-to-one mentors to students on this course, for example.
But the good news is that those who have survived have done so by becoming entrepreneurs. Many of this generation of playwrights have started their own companies, often blurring the boundaries of acting, playwriting and directing. Many don’t wait for the phone to ring, but produce their own work, raise their own funds and broker their own professional connections – effectively becoming their own producers. Jennifer Tuckett’s own Alligators’ Club in Manchester is a fine example.
I set up something similar at Mulberry School for Girls in East London. When the opportunity arose to work as the school’s playwright-in-residence, it was initially for one term. But I saw an opportunity – and was lucky to have found a school with a similar appetite to be at the cutting edge.
Six years later I am still there. Together, we have founded a theatre company, produced five plays in Edinburgh and London, received national press coverage, had all our work commercially published in a volume by Nick Hern Books, and to this day we’re still the only British state school ever to have won a Scotsman Fringe First award. Along the way, we’ve touched the lives of hundreds of East London teenagers. Of all the plays I’ve written, those for Mulberry are undoubtedly the ones I’m most proud of.
But it doesn’t end there. Such was the profile of the work which Mulberry and I were able to achieve together, that fundraising became possible to build the school’s own, on site, 150-seat studio theatre. A new play of mine, The Dream Collector, a 16-hander developed across two schools, will officially open the building this autumn. In addition, I have personally spent two years raising some funds of my own for the new theatre to become a hub of playwright-in-education training. The scheme, Schoolwrights, aims to become an annual rolling programme, and will tap into that critical mass of professionally-trained but under-utilised playwrights. From September I am returning to the school to take up a part-time position of External Projects Producer, brokering new partnerships between the school and the theatre industry.
I tell you all this not to show off – though I am proud of it – but because I think that actually, this is the future of theatre.
My In Battalions report, widely circulated, showed conclusively that there is not only less money now for training and development, but a climate of fear taking hold in the arts. But that is an opportunity as well as a challenge. We are going to have to be more imaginative about how we develop ourselves as artists, and as Jennifer and I have found, that can be immensely empowering. And if we end up doing it in community settings, we kill two birds with one stone – simultaneously taking our skills back to the taxpayers who initially funded them, and securing their support for future investment in our sector.
I would like to see this model more fully embedded in playwright training, and this is one of the things I hope to be able to bring to Central St Martin’s new MA. Upheavals to the arts funding system – such as the recent rule change that regularly-funded Arts Council companies can no longer apply to Grants for the Arts – means that this lottery-funded pot will become more led by individual artists than ever before. And as politicians like Ed Vaizey like to remind us, this is one of the few pots of arts funding which is actually going up – though not by much and, being the Lottery, it’s a bit of a gamble to rely on it for long. What politicians like Vaizey also don’t mention is that the parallel strand, the Arts Council’s grant-in-aid budget, Government money which sustains the infrastructure of theatre buildings and touring companies, is being repeatedly slashed.
But whatever the politics of the situation, the reality is that the balance of power appears to be shifting. Producing infrastructure, the bricks-and-mortar of theatre, is on its knees – caught in a risk-averse storm of Arts Council and local council cuts, audiences with less to spend and ferocious competition for what philanthropy remains.
But artist-led, light-on-their-feet, individual projects appear to be in the ascendancy. One senior practitioner even speculated to me that we might be seeing a return to the 1970s model of artist-led touring companies such as Joint Stock, as the place where the radical, cutting edge of theatre takes place.
Perhaps that’s fanciful. But if you think about it, doesn’t part of you agree that the idea of theatre as having to take place in an expensive building, at 7.30pm, with a whole mechanical infrastructure behind it seems just a little bit ... well ... 20th century?
We need to educate the next generation of writers not just in how to take advantage of that, but how to take the lead. I don’t want them to have the same ad hoc, sink-or-swim experiences that my generation did. As In Battalions again proved, they will be entering the profession under some of the toughest economic conditions in living memory.
So I hope to bring three things to this course:
I want to try to embed in playwright training the model of looking beyond the traditional means of production – and towards schools, hospitals, socials services departments and others, as the potential nurseries for developing our craft.
I will be running workshops in workshop leading, including passing on a whole raft of imaginative exercises for developing plays with young people, so that graduates can deliver on this promise and generate their own income along the way.
And finally, funding permitting, I hope to hold a one-day conference on the findings of my Delphi study – a spin-off from In Battalions – about new, low-cost ways in which we can continue to protect risk-taking in theatre.
I look forward to working with you.