How can we improve the relationship between writers and theatre companies?

Proposed by = Kit Lambert

Participants = Sarah Argent, Louise Osborn, Othniel Smith, Adam Somerset, Kath Chandler, Julie Barclay

KL began the discussion with two points

1  There is a lot of energy to promote emerging artists but that there is a stage after that when artists who have emerged and who are working professionally  still find it difficult to progress..

2 In his experience the spirit of new writing can be lost and sacrificed to the needs and desires of the  producing company..and that writers can feel dis-empowered

LO asked KL to define what he thinks good dramaturgy is?

KL defines it as

Challenging a writer to create the best work they can- and provoking a writer to respond positively to neccessary changes and editorial ideas…

but also that good dramaturgy is NOT for the piece of writing to spiral off in development away from the authorial intention…. he felt that writers often feel pressured to conform. He returns to his first point above – saying that theatres tend to go for the safest options..the best possible bet financially and that it is hard to be commissioned…Emerging artists seem to be encouraged even if they aren’t that good sometimes but the terrain isn’t prepared for a writer to progress..he accepted that he doesn’t expect work to be dished out ..there’s not a sense of entitlement but seed commissions are given out without a real commitment from the company…so they can be seen to be doing the right thing and with no outcome in a sense…so the trust and respect gained melts away to nothing..and that actually the company aren’t risking anything at all.

JB: I said that I had a seed commission and thats exactly right..that when i went back clearly stating my route to move things forward .. I was shown the door..with a letter of support to the arts council and since then i have been alone in my journey to realise my adaptation of an award winning book..

KL’s response to his question..by way of a possible solution was to say..that artists who have emerged could be given writing residencies in order to nurture the promise they have shown..in preference over successful and well established writers who perhaps don’t need the exposure as much. The residency could include money for clear discussion about a concept and outline and a piece that meets the needs of the company.

The phrase ’emerging’ was discussed . The idea that the perception of emergence is usually somewnere between 16-25… new writers submitting work have to be under 25..some acting events  ( 24 hour voices – Bristol Old Vic) are for young actors between 18-25, which has a useful place but doesn’t meet the needs of people of all ages emerging in the arts…

The point is made the that role of literary manager is controversial..why is one person responsible for the development of new work? Its possible that the opinion of one person cant always be the correct decision?

KL goes on to say that in discussion with theatre companies..they dont always give a clear idea of what they want…when he asked them ‘what kind of piece are you looking for?’..they cant answer..  and he goes on to suggest that at TV script meetings there is a clear brief about what is required from  the writer..and the theatre community could benefit from this..

LO comments that she is frustrated by being put into a niche as a young peoples writer director. She acknowledges that she has had some success but that now she is never offered anything different..the profession limits your pathway

KC comments on the positive merits of an anonymous generic call out for a script clearly not based on the pedigree or personality..she has benefited from this twice and enjoys the fact that her success is based on her work alone…

There is a discussion about the realtionship between writers and theatre companies

  • writing not be read for months
  • writing not being acknowledged by the theatre company and the idea that sometimes there is no response to the work sent in..
  • its up to the writer to chase up the company
  • the lack of respect and communication between new writers and potential employers..

The idea that people from a script reading team/or literary manager can make suggestions to change the work when thay have no concept of where the work comes from or what the writer is trying to say..but it is expected that their random thoughts about the work should be acted upon because they have the commissioning rights in their corner…writers feel insulted and flabbergasted by the brainstorming session on a play that can have taken years to write

the commissioning process seems vague..why dont we know exactly how it works?..a kind of closed door policy…leads us down a dead end street

whereas we did talk about theatre with good practice ..like the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh who have vast administrative teams to meet the needs of the community, actors, writers..and this seems to work better.

There was a long discussion about Sherman Cymru…an agreement that we dont know how artistic decisions are made…and the question  –  Is a general manager ..an artistic director?…and if there isn’t an artistic director then what is actually happening there?

JB: I make the point that actors have experienced this for years…attending an audition and hearing nothing…paying out for auditions..with no clear indication of what the plan is or when they will hear the outcome..travelling for hours back from an audition to be told they are needed back there again the next day..with no travel expenses..etc ..etc…actors have been at the bottom of the heap for decades.

KL said there seems to be a culture of companies protecting themselves from these so called ‘hostile little writers’ who come along with their idea…and that its discouraging and debilitating…KL mentioned that he has felt so deterred that he had turned to writing for TV…because he felt there was no option for him to continue writing for theatre…

JB: Coming back to the idea of writing for theatre I suggested that if a writers idea could benefit from changes that would appeal to a broader audience then shouldn’t the writer be prepared to adapt to survive?…KL replied by saying that if the forum for discussion is open from the beginning of the process then it is possible to create a production that meets the spirit of the original idea and the practical demands of the producers/theatre company..but that the writer shouldn’t feel pressurised to do so.

LO mentioned the ‘Trojan Horsing’ principle…that often something is marketed as a certain product in a certain way and then the audience is given something totally different…it happens all the time…

JB: I make the point that at the bottom of the mountain there is plenty of space and air for us all to exist..that no-one feels threatened by the emerging ideas of contemporary artists but that as we grow ..and as we climb..there is less air for us all to breathe and we become fearful of the motives of people who it is perceived are only there for their own survival and progression..as we progress there is more at stake..and we close off our creativity based on the idea that we have to do what is finacially viable…a mixture of fear, personal politics, funding, subjective opinion and raging competition makes us all feels invisible and frustrated at times… we all make hay while the sun shines..and have to weather the storms too..

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