New Writing 2023, David Edgar – edited transcript
28th February 2023
DAVID EDGAR: “The thing that Britain is best at in the world, in the post-war period, is new writing and it would be terrible if that baby was thrown out with the bathwater.”
In January 2023, I spoke to David Edgar among other playwrights, as well as artistic directors, to try and ascertain the state of playwriting in the wake of Hampstead theatre’s loss of ACE funding in November 2022. Edgar’s recent work includes an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the RSC, and a revival of his 1983 drama Maydays, also at the RSC, a production of which is being streamed on BBC online platforms after being presented on Radio 4. This is an edited, partially amended transcript of his contribution to our conversation. DC
Are we in a crisis? Theatre is in a crisis because it was closed for nearly two years, and that had a huge impact on top of difficulties which were already there. But the big story of this century for new writing is that new plays and new work in general overtook revivals for the first time probably since the 19th century.
There were a couple of pieces of research that I was involved in for a body called the British Theatre Consortium. We assessed theatres’ own reports of what they did, looking for the first time at all of the UK Theatre theatres, which is the reps, the regional theatres, London off-West End – plus, also, the West End, and places like the National.
And we found that for the first time, as far as we knew, in terms of productions, performances and attendances, new writing was over half the overall number. Now, when I was young, it was around 20 per cent. Of course the figures were not well collected then, but it was clear that a substantial majority of shows done in the theatre were revivals. From a new writing point of view, that change was very exciting.
Also, this change coincided in the 2000s with the end of “the end of history” – a whole series of increasingly cataclysmic events, from 9/11 to the 2008 financial crash, to the Arab Spring, and Occupy movements but also the rise of national populism, Brexit, Trump etc – which meant that a lot of those new plays were politically and socially engaged. So in a way it was what I’ve been campaigning for all my life, which is a largely new-writing-based, politically engaged theatre.
However, from outside and inside, countervailing forces emerged during the 2010s. One was the cumulative decline in funding, which has had a particular impact on regional theatre because London doesn’t rely nearly so much on local authority funding. For the provincial theatre, there has been a double-whammy of cuts.
Not only do emergent and developing playwrights tend to be done in smaller theatres, which are more dependent on subsidy; plays by women tend to be done in smaller theatres than those by men, so that decline in funding has been very deleterious for new writers and women writers. And then, when lockdown closed the theatres, we in the Writers Guild of Great Britain and the management body UK Theatre became very concerned about about a potential decline in commissions. First, of course, theatres had a backlog of existing plays they were committed to when they reopened. Second, commissioning is an easy cut – you don’t notice the effects of it for a while. The same is true of literary managers and literary departments. And, third, there was a fear of more conservative programming though I think that development may have been exaggerated. But we did a survey with UK Theatre that demonstrated that commissions were down by a third. That led to the Writers Guild and UK Theatre and the Independent Theatre Council jointly setting up a New Play Commission Scheme, which has led to 18 commissions of plays that probably wouldn’t have been commissioned without it.
While pressures on theatres have come from outside, another problem is the emergence of “Primark playwrights” – who have one play done, then find it’s very difficult to get a subsequent commission from the same theatre. That’s a self-inflicted problem. The policy is because theatres rightly want to increase the diversity of the cohort of playwrights. And it won’t do that if you just continue to do the work of playwrights who are already established – which, it should be added, now includes a significant number of playwrights of colour, women playwrights and disabled playwrights. Lyn Gardner came up with a good metaphor for this syndrome: the playwright feels they’re on a multilane motorway… and as soon as their first play’s on, they find themselves transferred to a narrow winding country lane.
Of course, there is a trade-off between expanding the cohort and increasing diversity on the one hand and enabling playwrights to have a sustained career on the other. So “all stable” means: no new playwrights, cementing the historical bias towards white men. “No stable” means no one gets revived, no one gets second commissions, no one has a career and we no longer have playwrights going into middle-age and old age.
Recently I went back over all the new work the RSC has done since 1962. You find this golden age between 1975 and 1985 roughly, where The Other Place is doing largely new plays, and that is feeding through to the [Donmar] Warehouse – which is also doing an additional overwhelmingly new play programme. What you’ve got there is one or two emergent playwrights, and the end-of-emergent writers like Howard Barker, Stephen Poliakoff and me, joined by a large number of women playwrights who tended to be premiered more in Stratford, like Pam Gems, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Heidi Thomas.
If you look at it, what was happening was that the RSC was turning emergent playwrights into established mid-career playwrights. Other theatres have done the same, the Royal Court, the Everyman in Liverpool; an institutional process. When the RSC moved to the Barbican and there was a change of policy towards new work under Adrian Noble that stopped happening. So, in the same way that without Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall putting new plays on their stages in the 70s and the 80s, the history of theatre in our time would have been different, so if it hadn’t been for The Other Place and the Warehouse in that period those playwrights wouldn’t have gone on writing and in many cases still be writing today.
I further think there are issues with over-commissioning and over-developing a lot of plays, only a small number of which are going to go on. It’s good that theatres commission plays but the Writers Guild thinks plays that are commissioned should have a realistic prospect of production – which means you shouldn’t be consciously commissioning vastly more plays than you could ever put on, because that’s demoralising for playwrights. There are ways to support playwrights financially if you want to. You can encourage them pre-commission in all kinds of ways, but once you’ve commissioned them there’s a kind of contract that they are intending to go on.
“The problem is that you make changes in policy, and you don’t realise what’s happened until five years’ time”
The Arts Council’s strategy Let’s Create might be contributing to these difficulties. Brigid Lamour wrote a piece in The Stage about the future of her theatre, the Watford Palace, suggesting that it might be the pantomime and community work and not producing six home-grown productions a year. I worry that could be a consequence of Let’s Create. If you fill in Arts Council forms, you know there’s a lot of encouragement to involve audiences in the creation of the work. I’ve been involved in large-scale community plays and it’s a thrilling way to make theatre but it’s not the only way. The thing that Britain is best at in the world, in the post-war period, is new writing and it would be terrible if that baby was thrown out with the bathwater.
The problem is that you make changes in policy, and you don’t realise what’s happened until in five years’ time people say: “Where are all the playwrights and why is British TV so good?”. I think there is that danger now.
To an extent, we’ve been here before. In the early 2000s, when the Arts Council’s Boyden Report was published, there was a lot of stuff about “text-based theatre is dead” and “the future lies in devising”. That argument was moralised: text-based theatre was hierarchical and anti-democratic and phallo-centric and even fascist. When we were able to show that new plays had increased as a proportion of the repertoire that anti-text perception declined and the Arts Council accepted that new writing was a jewel in the crown of British theatre. I’ve got a lot of time for Let’s Create and indeed levelling up. But look at Oldham Coliseum – there was a lot of new work going on there, which has been entirely cut. I don’t know if that’s a matter of intention – but it may be an unintended consequence of Let’s Create.
It would be crazy to think that theatre would be immune from the increased sensitivity on a whole number of topics. It isn’t. That’s something that we’ve got to negotiate. It’s a period of experiment in terms of how society deals with marginalised minority groups who feel vulnerable and threatened. People are finding out how to do it. It’s a worldwide project that’s going on. In the late 1970s, theatre became a space where two communities experimented and explored the movements of which they were a part – the women’s movement and the gay movement. I thought it was great. It wasn’t just theatre. Theatre became a site for a conversation about how those movements should develop. It’s becoming that again.
Theatre should be part of society, and at the moment we’re having a huge debate about what a genuinely equal society looks like. And the trans debate is the most obviously difficult and painful one. But there are lots of debates going on and theatre should be part of those. They’re going to be problematic. One hopes that eventually a new consensus will be reached. But it’s a process of discovery.
One thing that worried me is a little whiff of the argument that plays can’t have characters who express disreputable opinions. I’m occasionally having to remind people that a play is a dialogic medium and it’s about conflict and there will be characters who the playwright doesn’t personally agree with – but writing that character does not mean you endorse them. That’s something we need to be reminded of because occasionally people are forgetting that fact.
If you want to write characters from different ethnicities is there an inferred chorus going: ‘You don’t have the right’? That is a conversation which needs to happen. It is obvious that unless every show is going to be a monologue by a single person, then playwrights are going to be writing characters who are not them in terms of identity. And obviously the process becomes impossible if you have no right to do that. That is occasionally floated on social media. So the “Can you write about anybody?” issue is one that needs resolving. It’s worth remembering that Timberlake Wertenbaker and Pam Gems – and now Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Charlie Josephine – have written great historical dramas about people who are not them. And half the plays by a certain Warwickshire glover’s son were set in Italy, without any evidence that he ever visited the country. We have to defend writing beyond the writer’s direct personal experience.