By Helen Campbell Pickford
Can the continued production of new work for the stage be taken as an indicator of the health of British theatre? If so, it’s fighting fit — recent research funded by the Arts Council shows that new work has overtaken revivals in the repertoire, selling five million seats. New plays by single authors and devised work produced by groups of collaborators are attracting an increasing proportion of the audience. Playwright David Edgar, this year’s Humanitas Visiting Professor of Drama Studies, co-authored the report for the British Theatre Consortium, Theatre UK and the Society of London Theatres. So why did he title the events he curated at Oxford Is the Playwright Dead?
Over four evenings, playwrights April de Angelis, David Greig, Bryony Lavery, Howard Brenton and Rachel De-lahay, theatre maker Chris Goode, scholar Dr Liz Tomlin and critic Michael Billington discussed with Edgar trends in play production. The theatre has been transformed by the Angry Young Men producing not only a new kind of play, but a new kind of playwright. It has seen off ‘the triple threat — Aids, drugs and Maggie’. Plays by women and black, Asian and minority-ethnic writers started in studio spaces that felt liberating at first, but when they became restrictive these new writers demanded, and increasingly gained, access to main stages.
With new work outperforming revivals, for the first time living playwrights are winning the never-ending competition with their deceased colleagues — as Edgar points out, the playwright is the only member of a production team who can do the job perfectly adequately from six feet underground. Surely the playwright is not only living, but thriving?
There’s a catch. With the rise of verbatim theatre using recorded speech, companies like Joint Stock devising performances through collaboration of the actors with the playwright, and the influence of the performing arts, Edgar argues that the individual playwright’s voice is being replaced by forms of production that are seen as more democratic, or even anti-textual. Some centres are describing themselves as ‘script-free’, and academic playwriting courses are actively discouraging linear narratives and old advice about ‘write what you know’.
Goode confirmed that as a theatre maker, sitting alone to write a script seemed increasingly pointless. Rather than writing longer and longer stage directions, it made sense to improvise them in the room with the dancers and other artists. With academic departments, companies and individual practitioners feeling the pressure to produce work more democratically, the ‘god-like’ domination of the single playwright’s vision is under threat.
But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As the playwrights said, the idea that any of them had ever been confined to their garrets producing linear narratives had never been true anyway. Collaboration takes as many forms as writers employing it.
De-lahay provides a skeleton for the actors to work on, knowing that they will ‘honour’ her work. Giving the actors part-ownership has, she said, never prevented her script ‘staying the story I wanted to tell’. Greig claimed never to have written down a line that had been spoken in rehearsal, despite collaborating with experimental theatre company Suspect Culture. For Brenton, collaboration with another playwright was not a corrective, but liberating. ‘It’s not really your voice. There’s a third person present, Howard Hare or David Brenton — it’s like a party.’ Lavery, who has recently adapted Treasure Island for the National Theatre, discovered that collaborating with Robert Louis Stevenson was ‘a joy, because he always agreed with me’.
As Billington pointed out, it’s a fallacy to assume that more ‘democratic’ or ‘scriptless’ work which deposes the playwright in favour of collaborative production will produce more radical work. For Edgar, the increased diversity of working methods is welcome, but ultimately ‘skill gives power’. Far from being reactionary, the single-author play is flourishing because it produces the best work. That hardened survivor, the playwright, is again off the danger list.
Images from top (and left to right): David Edgar, Howard Brenton and Bryony Lavery; Rachel De-lahay; David Edgar, Michael Billington and Chris Goode. All © Stuart Bebb, reproduced with kind permission.