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Three Hands Clapping

In the race to make budget-friendly work for stage is the writer being lost?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

In October 2014 the Guardian published an article about a new dramatisation by London-based theatre company AllthePigs of ‘one of the more curious… true-life stories of the last decade. Dripping wet, traumatised and silent, a young man washed up on the British coast apparently unable to communicate except via the keys of a piano.’ A dramatisation of a real life event, nonetheless one might still imagine the role of a writer to be crucial in the creation of the work. Both the company director and actor playing the mysterious pianist were quoted at length, their creative input fully discussed. There was no mention of any writer (nor is one credited on the company website).

Perhaps this omission was not of note to the average newspaper reader, but for those of us who write for theatre it was indicative of a trend that is changing the way much new work for stage is created.

Until about 20 years ago, it was generally the case that a fully written script was the starting point for almost all stage productions. The script might have been commissioned by a theatre interested in exploring a particular theme, or a playwright might have submitted it on spec and found a creative connection with an artistic director. When actors assembled for the start of rehearsals, the script was a finished text, only to be significantly altered if problems or unforeseen opportunities arose in the rehearsal period. Rehearsals were just that: the process of lifting the words from the page to the stage.

There were always companies that operated differently. Joint Stock Theatre Group, for example, worked with Caryl Churchill to create plays such as Fen and Cloud Nine, now considered modern classics of the stage. They began by work-shopping ideas with actors and conducting long interviews with people whose personal stories became source material to be explored through improvisation. Less high-profile companies, whose work was typically staged on the Edinburgh Fringe, have also favoured collaborative processes, deploying writers to serve as a kind of ‘creative recorder’ for stories and characters discovered in workshops. But 20 years ago this way of working was the exception to the usual text-based way of working. No longer.

Although many new plays remain clearly authored – and the bigger the production the more likely the box office will trade on the writer’s name – there has been a dramatic growth in the number of works, especially small scale ones, in which the writer occupies a far less central role: shows whose creation begins not with a script but with a scenario, discussion, or improvisation. Many writers, now calling themselves ‘theatre makers’ (not playwrights), find this collaborative process creatively invigorating.

One might well predict that the balance of devised to scripted works will further increase as endless cuts to arts funding inhibit theatres from paying commission fees to writers. Hard times are also reflected in smaller casts, simpler sets and designs; but while many companies rise to these challenges, there is often a sense, both on stage and in the audience, of theatre constantly cutting the cloth to fit tighter and tighter restrictions. Clearly not all decisions to pare down a production are aesthetic.

Good work has been made in spite of continuing cuts. Hard-hitting productions by (the now UK-based) Belarus Free Theatre, whose shows weave together company members’ personal stories of living under an oppressive regime; and Frantic Assembly, for whom physical performance is central to the way a tale is told, have produced wonders, notably working with the playwright Bryony Lavery.

Verbatim theatre has also made an impact, creating compelling stories about contemporary situations. Defined in resource material produced by the National Theatre as ‘documentary theatre in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic’, verbatim theatre rose to prominence with the Tricycle Theatre’s 1999 production of Richard Norton-Taylor’s The Colour of Justice, about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. More recently, the National Theatre staged London Road (2012), a musical about the Ipswich murders, where the song lyrics were derived from interviews with people living or working in the city’s red light district.

As a writer, however, who is happy to acknowledge the creativity in what has been dubbed ‘austerity theatre’, I nonetheless feel very concerned that the playwright is too often and hastily reduced from a central (and paid) role to being one of the company, with a special brief to record the best ideas discovered in improvisation. Or, in the case of verbatim theatre, to source, log, edit and arrange the words of others, not starting with a blank page, inventing characters and owning every word the actors speak.

When writers are ‘lost’ in this way, it is theatre’s loss too. Lucy Prebble’s Enron (2009), for example, might easily have been envisaged as a verbatim production, but was instead developed as an original contemporary drama about financial scandal and appalling business malpractice. Prebble’s key characters are actual figures; the key events in her play dramatised from material made available when the Enron Corporation was investigated. However, there the similarity with verbatim theatre ends, and there, I would argue, the excitement and creative vision that an original script can deliver begins.

Enron is rich with metaphor, with highly crafted extended monologues, and flights of a creative imagination that portrays ‘tame’ company lawyers as puppets and aggressive commodity dealers as forms of prehistoric raptors who ‘eat’ debt. Enron invites us into the theatre to see a story derived from the ‘real world’. But it creates, through its glorious language and rich authorial vision, a new version of that world.

Of course there will always be plays like Enron commissioned from major writers by the Royal Court or the National Theatre, and from newer, emerging writers by, say, the Traverse in Edinburgh. There will always be theatre-goers who look to see the writer’s name after the phrase ‘a new play by’.

In the last couple of decades the careers of Jez Butterworth, David Greig, Mike Bartlett, Rona Munro, Laura Wade and Roy Williams have all been developed through productions of original plays with strong authorial voices. These writers bring to the stage unique stories delivered through imaginative use of language. The work is moulded by their individuality. Without this tradition, audiences would never have enjoyed Greig’s poetic description of the devil appearing near an Asda store in Kelso (The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart), or Butterworth’s perfect distilling of a New Age traveller and a ‘merrie England’s’ Lord of Misrule into the character of ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jersualem.

Such examples appear to suggest that playwrights have nothing to fear, as long as theatre companies and audiences remain hungry for such work. However, all these plays were large-scale productions by companies with resources sufficient to maintain literary departments that seek out and nurture new talent, and commission established writers to create scripts. It is small-scale theatre that is being hit hardest by funding cuts and where the future, I would argue, is far less rosy.

It’s worrying because this is where emerging writers, and career writers who are not necessarily household names, generally find their work produced. For every writer fortunate enough to have work staged at the Royal Court or the Traverse, there are twenty more working with companies resident in rooms above pubs; touring arts centres and community halls, playing to audiences of 50 to 100, and staging new work with limited production resources. Any writer developing their work here needs to be acutely aware of what can be achieved within budget.

New writers have occasionally managed to develop ‘big’ ideas in small productions. Polly Stenham’s Tusk Tusk and Tim Crouch’s The Author (both staged at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in 2009) come to mind. Part of the success of this work has been the level of dramaturgical support a theatre such as the Royal Court provides. Other small but important spaces have also committed themselves to finding and producing new plays, such as Fin Kennedy’s remarkable How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found at the Studio Theatre, Sheffield Crucible (2007), and Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall produced by the Bush Theatre, London (2008).

Yet these are exceptions to the rule, which is increasingly that theatres commission devised work. My gloom about this trend is not merely my personal fear for future employment, it is for the future of an artform I love passionately. A play born of the imagination and skill of a writer – from first ideas at their desk to final draft given to actors on day one of rehearsals – for me delivers an imaginatively unique, engaging and immersive theatre experience. The range of possible experiences is as diverse as the imaginations of writers.

Of course, all scripts are moulded by the input of the company bringing the work to life. Nonetheless, an individuality of voice and message sings through a play that is clearly authored, and this is often lacking in devised theatre. I would not go so far as to say that collaboratively made work calls to mind the saying ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’, but I would say that no committee would ever have the singleness of vision to write Hamlet or Waiting for Godot.

As a playwright, when I see publicity for a new work that says ‘devised by the company’ or that just overlooks the once essential writer’s credit, I feel like an engine driver seeing the introduction of a driverless train. It works, it’s new and modern, and the service may seem just as good as the one previously controlled by humans; but as a train driver I cannot help but be suspicious of the empty cab.

Scrumpy and Western: The Life and Times of Adge Cutler, Shaun McCarthy’s musical written with Tom Henry, tours in autumn 2015.

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