January and February are AYT Career Central months with guest blogs and features from arts professionals. Our third guest blog in this exciting series is from Paul Robinson, Artistic Director of Theatre503
I have been sole Artistic Director here at Theatre503 – the country’s leading entry-level new writing theatre – for just over two years and it has been the busiest couple of years I’ve ever had.
Last year we launched the 503 International Playwrighting Award for which we had 1500 applications from 41 countries. We transferred two shows – Land of Our Fathers and A Handful of Stars – to the West End and had two further hits – Freak and Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho – at Edinburgh. This was in addition to our normal programme of eight full-length runs, six one-weekers and twenty one-nighters. This year we open our first in-house show – Animals by Emma Adams – in April, take Land of Our Fathers on tour in co-production with Wales Millennium Centre and produce The Award Season – our joint award winners at 503 then on regional tour.
Being an Artistic Director is immensely rewarding but there are serious challenges along the way too. Despite being recognised as one of the foremost new writing theatres we aren’t one of the Arts Council’s regularly funded organisations, or National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) as they are now called. This was disappointing particularly as we were since told that had the economic squeeze not hit the arts quite so badly then we would’ve been on the list. It’s a pity but you can’t get bitter about it. It does mean that our income has to come from elsewhere – box office, trusts and individuals in our case. And fundraising is a tough game. There’s so much competition and a venue like ours, despite its tremendous work, comes with little associated glamour, which funders often prefer. That said, there are particular individuals and organisations who really get us, who really understand the importance of nurturing writers at the start of their career and who understand that you can draw a straight line between writers who are making waves on the fringe now and who will be part of the canon in ten years’ time. After all Theatre503 launched Dennis Kelly, Phil Porter, Alice Birch, Tom Morton-Smith, Chris Urch, Duncan Macmillan, Anna Jordan and Katori Hall.
I’m really proud of 503’s unique place in the market. I’m particularly proud to be able to nurture the hugely rich seam of talent coming through our doors. For example, we have had ten trainee producers all find permanent work in the sector after leaving us. Our writer development model is the best in the country and we’re looking forward to moving this onto a national platform next year.
As for advice? I have a mixed relationship with advice as I believe that people find their own path and that’s important but I also personally know the importance of mentors. In fact, that would be my first piece of advice.
Find a mentor. Write to someone who you think you want to be. You won’t want to be them by the time you get there but it’s a good place to start. Also, people will tend to be flattered to be asked – it’s a lovely ego boost – so you might just get a meeting. If you’re a writer I’d say just write. Write, write and write until it’s a bit less crap. Read lots of plays and read, with a poet’s regard for the truth, some books on writing. The three I’d recommend are: Lisa Goldman’s The No Rules Handbook, Mike Bradwell’s Inventing the Truth and David Edgar’s How Plays Work. And try to understand how acting works.
If you’re a director or producer or creative or teccie I’d say train. It’s a saturated market and it might just make the difference. I was lucky enough to train at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School then won an Arts Council Bursary as an assistant director at The Royal Exchange. It was wonderful but it wasn’t until I was a Staff Director at the NT that I really knew what directing was all about. If you can’t train, assist. Even if you’ve trained, assist. The sector is full of generous people prepared to have you follow them around for a day. It’s also full of people who are very busy and who don’t suffer fools gladly so work hard and try not to p*** them off. I’m one of them. So write to me at the theatre and we’ll see what we can do.
Find out more about Theatre503 on their website.