We’re all in the same boat: gatekeepers and fragile ecologies

by Fin Kennedy

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for We’re all in the same boat: gatekeepers and fragile ecologies

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

[The following essay is an edited version of three separate essays by the author and have been edited with the author’s permission for this salon.]

New writing development culture, comprising all the shorts nights, attachment schemes, dramaturgical meetings and writing workshops with which many taking part in this conference will be so familiar – is in fact a direct consequence of ten years of half decent arts funding under New Labour. There are now more playwrights who have undergone some kind of professional training or development than could ever hope to be produced.

This state of affairs results in pressure on theatres to make hard choices about which of the many play proposals available to them end up on their stages. It has also, arguably, left us with a set of in-built aesthetic assumptions about what a new play is, or ought to be, and a dramaturgical language in which to discuss that.

But there is also a further pressure on theatres, and that is: to in some way engage with all the writers they won’t necessarily produce – using their public subsidy to encourage the craft of playwriting in general. The irony of course, is that the majority of playwrights in whom these skills are nurtured, will never have a chance to put them into practice – at least, probably not with the theatre which developed them. And this is to ignore entirely the many thousands of unsolicited play submissions theatres receive simply due to the extraordinary success of new writing in recent years, and the hunger to be part of it which that has instilled in large swathes of the population.

From the outside, it’s sometimes hard not to see the complex web of processes which stand between writers and that elusive main stage production, as being there to keep writers at bay, rather than facilitate their journey towards it.

Which brings us to this issue of ‘gatekeepers’.

Wikipedia (that font of all truth) describes a gatekeeper as follows:

A gatekeeper is a person who controls access to something, for example via a city gate. In the late 20th century the term came into metaphorical use, referring to individuals who decide whether a given message will be distributed by a mass medium.

This last line seems particularly apt in this context: the mass medium (if you can call it that) being a theatrical production.

If the play is seen to have promise, it will then go to a senior reader, then to a literary associate, then the literary manager, possibly to an associate director and finally, if you get very lucky indeed, to the artistic director him or herself – who usually at that point will say No.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about this process, about who holds each of these positions, and the theatre’s sourcing of those individuals and investment in their skills. I know that I’m not alone in having been let down by this system in the past. My second play How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found was rejected by every theatre in London before winning a big award, and is now produced around the world.

But the flip side of this is that theatres are utterly overwhelmed with plays and playwrights. We are beating down their doors. We have been for years. Every Shopping and Fucking or Jerusalem or Three Kingdoms spawns another tidal wave of submissions – most of them awful, awful plays – and I say that as a former script reader and great lover of playwriting. How can theatres possibly sort the wheat from the chaff? Is there even enough wheat in there to make it worth their while? The Bush Theatre recently said that less than 0.1% of unsolicited plays it gets sent get produced, and has dramatically changed its submissions policy as a result. And besides, is it really the theatres’ role to nurture hope in all those drama graduates and retirees? Doesn’t this detract from their main business of producing great plays?

One other route of course, is to get an agent. It’s true that scripts sent to theatres under agency covers do jump the unsolicited queue – they have already been through some sort of quality filter after all. But isn’t this just substituting one gatekeeper for another? Who are agents and what are their credentials, work pressures and training?

There is one further way of course – to produce the play yourself. But this comes with its own set of hurdles, mostly financial. Those without private means, or with work patterns which preclude taking much time off, or who aren’t versed in the dark arts of fundraising, are at an obvious disadvantage.

But let’s try and be balanced here. What right do we as writers have to get resentful when that gate doesn’t open, or doesn’t open as often as we’d like? No-one owes us a living. And every other job has some sort of selection procedure, and assessment process. Why should playwriting be any different? My experience with How To Disappear, as distressing as it was at the time, at least showed that the good work will get through in the end. Don’t we just have to write better plays, hang in there, and get a grip? There is another name by which Gatekeepers are sometimes known, and it comes from the world of mythology and story structure: the Threshold Guardian. In The Writer’s Journey by Hollywood structure guru Chris Vogler, the Threshold Guardian tests whether the hero or heroine really is ready to move onto the next phase. They are a necessary part of the hero’s journey towards self-knowledge.

Is the term ‘Gatekeeper’ even useful? At least one literary manager I know hates the term, and its connotations of ‘Them and Us’. She argues instead that the literary manager is in fact the writer’s best friend: raising money for them, nurturing their talents, managing their relationships with others in the theatre, advocating their plays, championing their visions and pushing for them to be produced – ‘holding the gate open’ as she put it to me (though note that there is still a gate.)

At the end of last year, in December 2012, I attended the Performers’ Alliance Parliamentary reception, co-hosted by Equity, the Musician’s Union and The Writers’ Guild. It’s an annual event in the Terrace Pavilion in Parliament, and a chance for actors, musicians and writers to meet MPs and discuss any issues of concern. The Culture Minister and Shadow Culture Minister both come along and make speeches (Ed Vaizey and Dan Jarvis respectively) as do representatives from each union. MPs with an interest in culture also attend, like Ben Bradshaw, former Labour Culture Secretary and now member of the Culture Select Committee.

As the speeches ended and the mingling began, my Guild colleague – theatre, TV, radio and computer games writer Andy Walsh- bravely took on bullish Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. Andy decided to use the opportunity to take Vaizey to task over recent Arts Council cuts to theatre companies, and how those were impacting the development of new plays.

Vaizey’s response was extraordinary. After hiding behind the principle that the Arts Council was an arms-length body, and the government is not responsible for its decisions (which wasn’t what we were suggesting) he went on to assert in no uncertain terms that the cuts the Arts Council had imposed were in any case having no effect whatsoever on the British theatre industry. On the contrary, he said, new theatre writing was thriving – he cited in particular Soho Theatre’s expansion into a third auditorium, and the Bush Theatre.

Andy and I were dumbfounded. I tried to explain to Vaizey that in tough times theatres contract around their main stages and protect their core work. What gets cut is the complex web of development which backs up the main stage work, such as writer attachment schemes and schools work. I cited Hampstead Theatre’s recent decision to cut their entire education department, including their phenomenally successful Heat and Light youth theatre. In the short term, of course such work isn’t essential to what takes place on the main stage. But in the medium and long term, it absolutely is. Where else will the new talent come from?

The fact is that, since April 2012, 25 theatre companies or venues have suffered 100% cuts to their Arts Council grants, along with 5 writer development organisations. Further big cuts have fallen on some of our finest playwriting powerhouses, including the Almeida (39%), Soho Theatre (17.6%) and Out of Joint (27.9%). Smaller new writing companies who are busy nurturing the next generation, often in inner city or regional areas, have also been targeted – these include Red Ladder (39.6%), Theatre Centre (22.3%) and Talawa (21.9%). Even those who got off relatively lightly, like the Bush, Tamasha, BAC, ATC, Clean Break, Cardboard Citizens, Hampstead, the Tricycle, the Orange Tree, Bristol Old Vic and Salisbury Playhouse still suffered an 11% cut.

But Vaizey stuck to his guns: none of this was having any effect at all. And then he set us an extraordinary challenge. If we could provide evidence of our claims that Arts Council cuts were affecting new play development in the UK, he promised to read whatever we sent him. Moreover, if there was evidence that new play development was being adversely affected, he would bring it up on our behalf with the Arts Council.

At first, I couldn’t decide whether Vaizey was being disingenuous or merely ignorant of how our sector worked. On reflection, I think it was probably the latter. The long tail of development which lies behind any new play is of course invisible to the public, Vaizey included. It’s pretty specialist knowledge to understand how plays travel the long road from inspiration to opening night. That tail might be one, two, even three years long – sometimes far longer. Jez Butterworth is on record as saying Jerusalem was seven years in the making.

This is a fragile ecology which only those working within it truly understand. What you see performing on the nation’s stages on any given night is like gazing up at the stars – it is a vision from the past. Those productions were first seeded years ago, long before the current round of cuts. Indeed, you could even say that much of what’s playing right now is the final fruit from a pre-financial crash era of new play development. It would be an understandable mistake for a layperson to take a look around at Soho, the Bush, even the West End and say: new plays are thriving, what’s the problem?

The answer is that the problem will be in two, three or seven years hence.

So I decided to take Ed Vaizey at his word and, in good faith, to pick up the gauntlet he had thrown down. It was an opportunity not only to explain to him, but to the wider taxpaying public, precisely how new play development works, and how the cuts taking place now are hacking away at the roots of our future output.

The report involved a survey sent out to 70 theatres, enquiring how reductions in their funding was affecting their new writing R and D, and many further personal testimonies from theatre professionals.

The article which I wrote about this on my blog went a bit viral, clocking up 3000 hits within the week. I was inundated with offers of help from theatres and theatre-makers across the country. An Oxford PhD student came forward to help me crunch the numbers, and Lyn Gardner agreed to cover it for the Guardian. Former literary manager of the National Theatre, Jack Bradley, agreed to write a foreword. Original statements supporting my case were received from: Sonia Friedman, Nick Hytner, Max Stafford-Clarke, Chris Campbell, Nick Payne, Laura Wade, James Grieve and Alison Hindell, (Head of Audio Drama at the BBC) among many others.

The companies taking part ranged in scale from tiny companies touring village halls in Yorkshire, to large established city playhouses, and ranged in geographical location from Merseyside to London to Cornwall.

All in all I spoke to 33 artistic directors, 14 playwrights, 2 literary managers, 2 writer development agencies, 1 development director, 1 producer and 1 play publisher.

The data and testimonies gathered show funding cuts seriously affecting both new writing production and new writer development opportunities, with regional theatres, small scale touring and young people’s theatre particularly badly affected.

The report itself runs to 22,500 words and was launched at the ITC AGM on 22 February 2013. You can download a copy here.

A copy was sent to Ed Vaizey and the DCMS, and for a frustrating two months, they didn’t respond – or even acknowledge receipt. After various fruitless calls to their office, it was eventually decided at a packed-out campaign meeting above a pub in London, that we should put some pressure on Mr Vaizey.

An open letter was circulated, signed by over 70 of theatre’s best-known names, including Dame Helen Mirren, Michael Frayn, Sir Richard Eyre, Mike Leigh and Sir Tom Stoppard. The letter called on Ed Vaziey to take the report seriously and respond appropriately. You can read that letter here.

It did the trick – within the week Ed Vaziey issued this response. It essentially refutes all the claims made in the report, and even indulges in some analysis of his own to try to de-bunk us. At the time of writing, a response to this letter is being prepared.

The campaign has generated a lot of media coverage, in The Guardian here, here and here, The Stage here, the Independent here and here as well as in various newsletters and websites such as Equity and The Writers’ Guild.

But the campaign doesn’t end here. With further cuts to the Arts Council in the pipeline, and even rumours that the entire Department for Culture, Media and Sport might be scrapped in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (details announced on 24 June 2013) this issue isn’t going to go away. We intend to keep it in the news right up to the 2015 general election.

With my researcher Helen Campbell Pickford, I have launched a Delphi study into how to protect risk-taking in theatres. A Delphi study is a research methodology recognised by the civil service. There is an overview of what it entails on my blog here, a press release about it here, and a detailed briefing available for download here. All professional theatre-makers are welcome to take part. The results will be submitted to the Treasury, Arts Council and (if it still exists by then) the DCMS in the autumn. They will also be widely publicised.

I have no idea whether any of this will make the slightest bit of difference to policy. It probably won’t. But we’re not prepared to let the Government stick the knife into our industry without making a fuss.

If nothing else, we have succeeded in galvanising a whole load of people into taking action – including those in TV, radio and film, for whom new theatre writing is an important training ground. I’ve been really touched by the response I’ve had from across the creative industries, and hope that I might have generated a bit of momentum for some further, more formal study to be done.

All this has made me aware of quite how fragile the new writing ecology is, and how little understood by policy-makers. If all it manages to do is to create a bit more understanding of how we work, and how cuts now can affect a generation of playwrights further down the line, then it will have been worthwhile.

Gate or not gate, for the foreseeable future it looks like theatre-makers and those who employ us are going to be fighting on the same side.

Fin Kennedy is an award-winning UK playwright, teacher, University tutor, writer-in-residence and arts blogger. Fin is a graduate of the MA Writing for Performance programme at Goldsmiths College, London. He writes for adults and teenagers and his plays are regularly produced in the UK and around the world. He is also an acclaimed teacher of playwriting and community arts project manager, with a particular focus on young people’s projects in London’s East End.For five years Fin has been writer-in-residence at Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, where he is co-founder of Mulberry Theatre Company, for whom he has written four plays. In early 2013 Fin wrote In Battalions, an independent report about the effect of Arts Council cuts on new plays and playwriting in England. The report was a response to comments made to Fin by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, and is currently being widely circulated within the industry. Fin is an Associate Artist at Tamasha, and is developing new plays for Birmingham Rep, Bristol Old Vic and BBC Radio 4.

Edited by: Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus). caridadsvich.com