This weekend saw the Guardian open its doors to readers for its first ever Guardian Open Weekend. Just some of the theatrical highlights on offer saw Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicolas Kent talk to Lyn Gardner, Jez Butterworth in conversation with Andrew Dickson and, in an entertaining role reversal, critic Michael Billington being interviewed by Sir David Hare.

But first-off, a lively discussion on the subject of ‘What Can the Arts Offer in an Age of Austerity?’ On the panel were the Guardian’s Claire Armistead (Literary Editor), Melissa Denes (Arts Editor) and Mark Brown (Arts Correspondent), as well as author and founder of Poems on the Underground Judith Chernaik. Perhaps unsurprisingly, speakers and audience alike spoke overwhelmingly in defence of the arts (in particular the need to safeguard access to them), but there was still room for animated debate. Armistead paid lip service to pertinent arguments against cultural spending (“why pay for art in hospitals if you can’t afford hip replacements?”) and Chernaik emphasised that art has always survived – and always will – without government support. She namechecked artists who have overcome much more than austerity, from war to the Great Depression. Significantly, she also questioned the notion that the arts really are experiencing austerity (a word falsely applied by this government?) given the money consistently spent by audiences and consumers of the arts today.

Other points of contention arose with regard to how funding has been spent previously. One audience member referred to the large grants paid to institutions such as the Royal Opera House where high ticket prices might limit access to the well-off; others questioned whether funding really has succeeded in permeating beyond major cities. Brown’s commentary on the regenerative effects of funding in areas such as Margate (with its Turner Contemporary) was disputed by an audience member who questioned whether a gallery visited primarily by a “London weekend crowd” really benefitted local people, even in monetary terms. Another went so far as to suggest that, rather than the arts being starved by austerity, Britain seemed historically to need to be “battered down” to start producing worthwhile art.

Debate was rife elsewhere in the Guardian towers, too, but so it seemed was a fascination with occasions in which it might be lacking. In their separate talks, both Michael Billington and Nicolas Kent addressed the idea of “preaching to the converted” with both in fact defending the case for doing so. “What’s the problem with it?” Billington asked, commenting on whether political plays have made a real difference to society; “it happens in churches up and down the country”. Kent spoke of audiences at the Tricycle, stating that “if people feel passionately about something and you can reactivate their passion… that can be very useful. It’s reassuring to know that as a society we care about these issues.”

He also highlighted the way in which the Tricycle’s particular brand of political theatre, the “tribunal play”, presents an audience with evidence distilled in the purest form, allowing them to examine it for themselves. In the case of Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry (2003) he described how the audience arrived at “the opposite conclusion to Lord Hutton, as did the nation”.

So what does theatre have to offer that journalism cannot? Gardner pointed discussion towards the tension between the two media. For many plays, it seems largely a case of access and coverage. Trials and enquiries occurring behind a courtroom’s closed doors could be steno-graphed, distilled and staged to reach a wider audience. Norton-Taylor (also the Guardian’s Security Editor) described the “butterfly-mindedness” of many news editors, which often prevents stories from receiving the in-depth, continued exploration they deserve. As a journalist, he finds an audience that engages with a subject for two or three consecutive hours immensely satisfying.

However, plays can also offer a certain visceral detail impossible to the journalist. Norton-Taylor emphasised the significance of details such as body language, which the written reporter cannot describe but which his actors endeavoured to recreate with accuracy. For this same reason, Kent said he was uninterested in creating a play about the Leveson Inquiry, because it has been televised throughout and “at some point someone will string together an overview”. This statement was challenged by audience members entreating Kent to reconsider, and some thinking aloud from Norton-Taylor also suggested that Leveson could perhaps yet find itself in the Tricycle’s limelight. “I feel a play coming,” said Kent.

For playwright Butterworth, the premise upon which the creative process begins is perhaps less easily definable. Sometimes triggered by note making, it nonetheless essentially results from strange moments of inspiration, or thoughts which elicit a physical response: “I only follow ideas which give me goosebumps”, he said. One such moment occurred while driving, when a line familiar to Jerusalem fans suddenly popped into his head: “I, Rooster Byron, hereby place a curse upon the Kennet and Avon council”. He stopped the car and asked himself “what on earth was that?”, but felt a burst of excitement. However the roots of Jerusalem actually extend much earlier to a 2004 Royal Court read-through of a play set in a wood. Wryly describing this as “the most painful experience of my life”, Butterworth explained how this early attempt “wanted to be itself so badly, it wasn’t”. He never returned to that script in writing Jerusalem, but observes that the trouble he encountered has given him a curious new determination: “I no longer follow the things I want to write. I follow the things I don’t want to write.”

Butterworth also spoke fondly of his early connection with theatre; a desire to “go to Cambridge [University] and write plays” was fuelled by watching his older brother in a production of Brian Friel’s Translations there. Playwriting really was his sole focus as he admitted to having attended just one lecture in three years, and reflected fondly upon being quite literally chased by his head of studies Tom Morris (Director of War Horse) for an essay he would never write.

But there is also a kind of writing that Butterworth has avoided as a reader, upon Harold Pinter’s advice: reviews. Butterworth’s explanation invites controversy: “Harold worked out that there wasn’t a single person reviewing for the nationals who wouldn’t swap places with him in a heartbeat, and there wasn’t a single playwright whose work was being produced who would swap places with them.”

However, what arose most clearly from the interview was in fact Butterworth’s humility. On working with actors such as Mark Rylance to rewrite a script, Butterworth emphasised that the most important work happens inside the rehearsal room. He said that attempts to “forensically” assign parts of a performed play to a particular hand were ridiculous, because a play,  like a child, is a thing in itself: “I never feel even that the words I write belong to me, so why would anything else?”

For David Hare, criticism possessed potentially more irritating tendencies. Referring to a critic who had regularly mistaken not only the name of a play but also the theatre in which it was staged, he declared, “there seems to be a basic level of reporting about theatre criticism – that you get the facts right – and an awful lot of critics can’t seem to get over that bar”.  Not a charge he levelled at Billington, but he did suggest that his interviewee tended to be “soft on actors”. Billington partially accepted this, saying he had been moved by the (often tearful) effect of harsh criticism upon the people who must, after all, “make this thing live night after night”. To which Hare countered that he has himself likewise “picked playwrights out of the gutter”.

Billington also responded defensively to Hare’s suggestion that he had “a certain idea of how a play should be staged”. He explained that while he felt a critic was duty-bound to place plays into a context based on their experience and expertise, he also tried always to approach each production with the “innocence and wide-eyed enthusiasm” of a first-time theatregoer. He celebrated the “democratisation of criticism” through the recent boom in websites, blogs and social media. This idea also featured earlier in the weekend in the discussion ‘What Defines the Guardian?’ with Editor Alan Rusbridger. A critic like Billington, says Rusbridger, writes his professional review, but the show has likely been watched by nine hundred or so others. “Are their views unimportant? The answer is so obvious.”

Wholly representative of the Guardian’s current policy of “open journalism”, this sentence encapsulated the theme of the weekend overall. So let’s watch, react and talk about theatre, but just remember (for Hare’s sake) to get those all-important facts right.

Sarah Williams was at the Guardian’s Open Weekend, 24 – 25 March 2012. For more information, visit the website here.

Image credit: the Guardian