New Writing vs New Work: The backing track

(PART ONE)

Thanks to my ranting and raving on this blog, Catherine Edwards of Capital Theatre Festival invited me to be on the panel of a debate at the Capital Theatre festival in Birmingham: ‘New Writing vs New Work’.

With me on the panel were: Fraser Grace, playwright who wrote ‘Breakfast with Mugabe’ and convenes the MPhil playwriting programme in Birmingham; Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, artistic director (with Rachel Briscoe) of the Ovalhouse, and Philip Monks, from the writers’ guild. Philip Monks chaired the debate. (And seemed to think it was just about the process of getting a play on stage, I’ll explain in part two)

So I did my introduction with the help of some other people:

On British theatre (‘crazedmhater’ commenting on a feature on Sarah Ruhl, Guardian blog)

The reason she hasn’t broken the London scene is quite simply because our standard of theatre is so dreadful, in comparison to the USA. We stopped producing truly original dramatists a long time ago.

On being a reader for a ‘new writing’ theatre

Maddy Costa: States of Deliquescence

I read a lot of really bad plays, plays that stolidly constructed a world without curiosity or surprise. I diligently wrote reports that I hoped would be constructive, all the while doubting my own right to do so, and fearing that I would be breaking people’s hearts. When I did hit upon something of promise, I knew it would never reach the stage, least of all untouched, but would get trapped in reading/workshop limbo, which teaches a playwright something, I’m sure, but not as much as an actual production. And then I was sent Jonah and Otto…..My closing paragraph to Soho buried fury in melancholy: “I can see why his work is so rarely staged. Jonah and Otto doesn’t seem very Soho: in fact, it doesn’t seem to be any London theatre in particular. It exists in its own realm, outside of time and politics, concerned with our place in the world on a more metaphysical level.

On ‘New Writing’ vs New Work, Alex Chisholm for Exeunt (and this is what the debate is all about):

The ‘New Writing’ play, like the ‘Well Made Play’ before it, exists as some sort of ideal to which new writers are supposed to aspire. This sense of what makes a good play has crept into the way workshops are run, courses are structured, feedback is given and, most damaging, into the very heart of the relationship between producers and artists. In teaching narrative, characterisation and structure, we are teaching a very particular set of aesthetic values predicated on creating a very particular kind of play. I have more than once seen development processes squeeze the very life out of a play, reducing it to what works on the page. And because most development happens in the abstract, working on a text, or at best in a bare bones rehearsed reading, everything is made explicit in the text. The rhetoric of New Writing is all about ‘serving the text’ and ‘serving the writer’ but can result in under funded, under rehearsed and unimaginative productions where little is gained from seeing the performance that you would not have had from reading the play….

Thinking about teaching playwriting…

I have been to so many (lovely) workshops where a particular approach is taught …an approach where character and conflict and story are key, and those things are taught in a particular way – a way that encourages lots of planning, rational thought, tables and graphs and lists (I’m exaggerating). But can’t we be taught other ways too? Maybe a bit of stream of consciousness writing, a bit of improvisation (Tim Crouch workshop style) a bit of collaborative writing and devising and ‘writing on your feet’. Shouldn’t we also debate all those plays that break all those rules? I hate it when rule breaking writers are treated as the exception, the post script, the blip in the system. It’s over now, it’s been done, it’s not for you. This insistence on it all having been done years ago is what stifles new work.

I understand people’s frustrations with the ‘hype’ (it wasn’t really hype) around Three Kingdoms when they are saying…yes but I saw the Mahabharata etc…. Good, yes, I’ve seen it on video – that doesn’t mean we should stop making and talking about ambitious, non-naturalistic work (of course 3K is nothing like the Mahabharata anyway, but everything non-naturalistic tends to get lumped together). (perhaps I shouldn’t have started that par. with ‘I understand’)

On the particular process of developing ‘New Writing’: Chris Goode in his blog:

That the Royal Court ended up not wanting The Extremists after what felt like a really ecstatically successful public reading in March has inevitably slightly distorted my relationship with it, but I think I mostly feel as I did at the time that the breakdown of that project was more to do with a mismatch of expectations around process than a direct reflection on the script; it didn’t go forward because they felt it didn’t quite work yet, and the frustrating thing is, I agreed that it didn’t — but it seems they wanted me to fix those problems by continuing to work on the piece as a lonely playwright in a little room, while I felt that only a rehearsal process would iron those wrinkles out, while further time alone in my writer’s cell would only produce rewrites of increasingly antisocial weirdness.

So that’s the groundwork, the fodder, the backing track. Next I’m going to try and argue something.

2 thoughts on “New Writing vs New Work: The backing track

  1. Yes – it’s all too easy to have the life squeezed out of a play by The Development Process, even when those involved are well-meaning and keen for the work/writer to succeed. I’ve seen my words come alive during a rehearsed reading, felt the audience respond in a hugely positive way, only to be told that the play couldn’t possibly work – by someone who wasn’t a part of that audience and was judging it purely by their reaction to words on a page (or perhaps that should read “misjudging.”) Still, it’s unusual to get a rehearsed reading without having gone through The Development Process, so most of us don’t get the chance to find out what our unadulterated words would create on stage. It feels as if theatres just need to trust us more, and it’s incredibly depressing to realise they don’t even trust someone of Chris Goode’s calibre, never mind emerging writers/artists.

  2. Hi Katherine, Yes it is all very odd – especially as it’s a process that supposedly puts the writer first/ in the centre or whatever. I think it is about trust, and I keep going back to that quote from Chris Goode – because he has proved himself as a writer/artist/theatre maker etc – it seems the ‘new writing’ theatres shut out those writers who work in a different way. Of course we can all go and make our work ourselves anyway, and we do. But it seems wrong to exclude a generation of writers from great resources because they don’t fit a particular development model. ‘Most of us don’t get the chance to find out what our unadulterated words would create on stage’ yes – ‘If it’s going to fail, let it fail the way I wrote it, rather than the way I re-wrote it’. – said Arthur Miller
    Thanks for reading!

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