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17 Jun 2017

Theatre is no longer the writer's medium

𝔗heatre has evolved away from the writer. This is a stark statement, but increasingly proving itself to be true. Where once the writer was the main crux of the stage, and productions were put on to bring the writer's vision to fruition, or to maximise the impact of their ideas, it is now largely a storefront for singers, dancers and physical performers.


Take the West End - once the behemoth of world theatre, where the great writers of the 20th Century would present their work. It is now almost entirely musicals (many of them jukebox musicals where the songs are well known pop hits) or revived works by classic writers - Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities has recently been adapted and A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of several Shakespeare adaptations currently running. The very few modern plays on offer are Disco Pigs, Enda Walsh's drama from 2000, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, which Edward Albee premiered in 2002,

Of the actual new plays, the Bush Thatre offers Of Kith and Kin, the ever-reliable Trafalgar Studios is presenting the thriller Out There On Fried Meat Ridge Road, while the Lyric Hammersmith has transferred Terror Tickets,  an audience interactive play where they decide the fate of a fighter pilot who shot down a hijacked plane, before it was flown deliberately into a packed football stadium.

That's a pretty thin line-up of new writing, given the dozens of theatres in the West End. Obviously, new writing is much more difficult sell than a musical based on a well-known Hollywood movie, and in the current world, audiences (especially tourists, who budget £70 ticket prices into their itinerary) want escapism. But in this turbulent time, where the world seems to be hurtling itself in oblivion, theatre should be heaving with new ideas.

Even off-West End it's s difficult furrow for writers to plough. The words 'No Unsolicited Submissions' are screen-burned onto the forehead of every writer trying to get their work out there. For every theatre that changes their policy to this (whether willingly, or forced to due to restraints of time and resources), another theatre will get an increased workload, likely leading to them adopting the policy as well.

So then the competition for attention at the bottom end of the theatre industry pyramid becomes more crowded, and the good work that invariably exists on the fringe is being shouted down by the cacophony of choice facing the risk-taking ticket-buyer. For the producers putting on the production, they are pretty much expecting to make a loss on the venture, but will have to become experts in Social Media Marketing in order to attempt to break even on three-week run.

What this has lead to is a dearth of great new 21st century writing - especially in Britain. Since 2010, four British-written original plays (ie, not adaptation) have won the Olivier Award for Best New play; Collaborators in 2011 by established screenwriter John Hodge; Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood; King Charles III by Mike Bartlett and Hangmen by the established playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh. Only Kirkwood and Bartlett were born since 1980.

And for the writers, the likely investment in years before a career brings itself to fruition is now at least ten - even assuming they are getting the attention at the bottom end. In Belfast young writers such as Seamus Collins and Karen Quinn have been making inroads for years, winning numerous awards for their stage work, without being able to sustain themselves solely as writers. This is a hefty expectation to place on someone - basically dedicate your entire free time for decades at a time, but there's no guarantee anything will come of it.

On the other hand, the same dedication by writers for the screen can at least comfort themselves with the notion that anything they write that gets published (ie made into a film/tv show), will have the advantages of permanence-they'll still be able to show it people five years after production has completed; unlimited distribution potential-it can be sent to festivals all over the world, without having to organise the logistics of a touring show; and a bigger potential pay packet if they do strike gold. The Writer's Guild of America suggests that the writer should be paid $12,000 for a feature film that's produced with a budget of under $200,000. Can you imagine a first-time theatre writer getting that kind of money?

First published at OnStage blog.