During this month, Theatre 503’s ‘Summer Takeover’ has offered us creatives advice to help further our careers. Invited to the closing event, Blue Huseyin wonders just how much help new writers are getting.
Ducking out of another drizzly London August, the steely greys of the street make way for dark wood, shining brass and buttery light. I’m at one of many pub/theatres where exciting projects are born over a pint, but this one is much more than a performance venue. Theatre 503 is committed to supporting and showcasing new writers and their ‘Summer Takeover’ is a programme of talks and master classes offering feedback on scripts, advice on having plays commissioned and the journey beyond. I was invited to the closing event: a discussion and question and answer session on ‘The State of New Writing’. I feel excited, noble almost, to be privy to this priceless insight. We are innovators of our craft; gathering to exchange ideas and anticipate which new artistic directions playwriting can be pushed in.
Theatre 503 has many beneficial resources for new writers. Their events have a ‘pay what you can’ system and are therefore equally accessible for talented writers who are discouraged from pursuing a financially ‘insecure’ career. The industry is oversaturated with privilege and diversification is long overdue. This acknowledgment of unfunded talent offers that possibility. Refreshingly, Theatre 503’s services are open to creators of all ages, do not favour London-centric artists and accept unsolicited scripts. Most new playwrights face no response to their manuscripts even being blacklisted by companies for sending unsolicited work. With so few “official channels” to have work received, opportunities for feedback and the endorsement of industry professionals are monumental in having work commissioned. Even the location, above a pub, removes the intimidation. Playwriting is accessible at a community level where anyone can thrive as a writer.
Before entering the theatre, approximately 20 attendees and I gather in a lounge. The walls are covered in posters of past productions reminiscent of a proud parent displaying their child’s accomplishments. The nurture shown to Theatre 503’s mentees is undeniable. The speakers themselves represent the spectrum of age, experience, race and gender: Steve Harper, the Literary Manager/Dramaturg of Theatre503; Erica Whyman, the Deputy Artistic Director of ‘The Royal Shakespeare Company’; Yasmin Joseph, a Playwright and the Writer Of J’Ouvert andRoss Willis, a Playwright and Writer of Wolfie. I am glad to see a similar diversity reflected in the attendees. There is an inherent understanding that we are the catalyst for change.
Whyman reveals the dilemma within The Royal Shakespeare Company, of nurturing the UK’s respect for Jacobean theatre whilst trying to create more space for new, diverse writers. She explains that a tendency to favour familiar productions has seen many works stuck “at studio level.” She speaks determinedly about surpassing a glass ceiling that particularly restricts women of colour. In conjunction, Joseph discusses how her work is introspection on her experiences as a black woman and her dissatisfaction in her lack of representation. It would be naïve to suggest that we are close to a solution, but more than ever, new writers are politically engaged and galvanised to create the representation that is lacking. Willis then expresses his concern at the difficulties facing new writers who are attempting to write in an unforgiving economy. It is an unshrinking introduction to playwriting.
We then reach the central issue of the discussion: The chasm between innovative creators, and the lack of funding and trust placed on new work. Companies still regard new writing as financially risky preferring familiar work that appeals to a majority. This leads Willis to voice his scepticism for the “crass” and “formulaic” criteria used to judge script-writing contests. These factors have troubling implications for the creative integrity of British theatre. It does a disservice to writers today to be repeatedly overlooked by the dead playwrights we have venerated and studied for decades.
Theatre is a political vehicle that cannot avoid the stories that need telling. If a good enough case is not being made in defence of new writing, theatre companies/venues must make one with their funds and social influence. Each speaker is thoughtful, knowledgeable and has obvious enthusiasm yet frustration for the current climate of new writing. Topics range from the value of a writing group and lack information about Arts Funding, to larger societal issues of racial and class biases in script selection.
So what is the state of new writing? Playwriting is being respected as an instrument of grassroots revolution. Diverse writers have always existed but now fearlessly grow in number writing with a humility and originality unique to British theatre. Hopefully we will soon see new writers be treated with a greater esteem by those with the power to realise their vision. Only through support and funding from larger companies can new theatre achieve legitimacy. Companies like Theatre 503 uplift new writing, serving as an example to others and providing exciting predications for the future of theatre.