New Writing, 2023 – David Eldridge, edited transcript
26th February 2023
In January 2023, I spoke to David Eldridge 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. Eldridge’s first major play Serving It Up was produced at the Bush in 1996; Beginning (2017) is currently being revived at the Manchester Royal Exchange.
Dominic Cavendish: To start with Hampstead, to see a major new writing theatre go through a funding cut and allied to that a mission crisis throws a lot of questions in the air. What’s your view?
David Eldridge: The reason why it has caused so much concern is that what we’re seeing is a kind of pendulum swing. When I started – when I was a young playwright, I knew personally all the young promising playwrights. There were maybe two dozen of us and we all knew each other. It was a much smaller world, and when you got into Manchester or Edinburgh or Glasgow they were even smaller pools. But what has happened – it’s partly a success story of British theatre and partly a consequence of people like me doing jobs at Birkbeck – we’re now producing hundreds of promising playwrights. There are hundreds around all these theatres that do new plays. What you’re seeing is a pendulum swing from what David Edgar calls “the stable”. When theatres did a play by Martin McDonagh or Sarah Kane, they saw that initial commitment as the beginning of a relationship. And you could do that then, because there was a much smaller pool of talented playwrights.
We’ve been through this fertile period of new work – there was a great period of arts funding, for 10 years, from the beginning of the millennium to 2010: money for theatres to invest in playwrights, money sloshing around in theatres. Then you get a swing. You’ve got all these playwrights – you want to diversify and get away from the dominance of the white male playwright. But you end up with a situation in which managements commit to playwrights on a play-by-play basis and it means it’s harder and harder to develop careers.
The reason this links to Hampstead is that over the years it has been a fantastic theatre, not just for doing first plays but for mid-career playwrights. There has not been a lot of great news coming from Hampstead recently but one is about Joe White’s play Blackout Songs, which was in the studio and is now on in the main-house in the spring.
That’s not Joe’s first play – his first was at the Orange Tree and did well there. Hampstead has been a great place for doing the second, third or fourth play – sometimes a play by Howard Brenton… To remove that piece of the ecology, has emphasised the problem for many. Where do you go when you’ve had your first play on? Who is going to do that play? We’ve got this WhatsApp group going on, to do with Hampstead . Someone was talking about the “bottleneck”. It has just got worse. Lyn Gardner put it well – in her recent Stage piece. She talked of a multi-lane world where there are different opportunities as a first-time playwright but after that, the lanes immediately start to narrow. So I think that’s why the Hampstead issue has caused such concern among writers, aside from the circumstances of that theatre.
DC: There’s levelling-up – there’s also, we know from Let’s Create, the Arts Council pivoting away from new writing. This is the fruit of that, isn’t it?
DE: I think that’s right. People are pissed off with the direction of arts policy in general. But I think playwrights generally talk shop – the discussions are more on the level of “Can you get so and so to read a play quicker than six months?” Of course, some writers talk about policy but I don’t think a lot of people really engage with it on that level. There’s a general sense that the direction of public policy towards arts and education is one that is hostile.
Beyond that, people tend to talk about how hard it is for so-and-so to read your play. Everyone is worried that Hampstead seems to be removing itself from the list of places you might go. It seems they will keep the downstairs going, but that’s the sexy bit – debuting the first playwright and everyone going “There is this exciting new playwright”. The essential but less glamorous stuff that Hampstead has done of doing mid-career plays seems to be what is getting de-prioritised. None of us know what will happen there.
DC: It seems there has been a move in the funding climate towards theatre being a socially engaged artistic endeavour. It seems as though writers are potentially pitched into a battle. You may believe theatre can make the world a better place but if that money is taken out of your mouth to support outreach endeavour is that almost a battle-point? Do we need to stick up for the artform that’s supposedly more elitist, private and personal?
DE: I think we’ve been there before a bit. If you think about the priorities of the last Labour government… you got all this extra arts funding but you had to show how socially useful you are. At the end of the first decade of the millennium, the Arts Council took away the prominence of new writing and started to prioritise devised work. We have been here before. There has been a tendency of governments of all stripes in the last 25 years to interfere from their particular political perspective.
What worries me is that we are getting to a situation where it becomes much more like America, where the new writing funding goes into development but not the production of new plays. That happens because it’s really cheap to do a reading, compared to putting on a play. And when it comes to donors, or government agencies, or local council funding, the idea that they’re going to invest in developing a writer sounds great. But what playwrights really learn from is having their play on! What worries me is that, especially through this period of retrenchment, what we will see is a culture where things are spread increasingly thinly. You have a lot of playwrights that now have to be satisfied that a reading for their play is as good as it gets. You hear that across the pond. It “goes on the CV”. Actually what’s really important is that these plays get on. It’s not to say that development isn’t important. It would worry me about Hampstead that they continue to make a commitment to writers, and [just mainly] do development work. That’s very good when you’re trying to become an NPO again, but if, in the main-house, what we’re going to be seeing is very few new plays, that worries me.
DC: Did the pandemic see a shift in this, or has this been a factor for a while?
DE: The pandemic has thrown everything up in the air. The theatres have lost a lot of their regular audiences. But this shift in the culture, this is something Duncan Macmillan and I were talking about with ‘the Antelopes’ back in 2008. That there’s a shift in the culture… you want to be accessible and diversify and you want to make sure it’s not a closed shop, but what happens is that you spend a tiny amount on lots and lots of people, and the focus becomes on development – whether a writer gets read, whether they get a reading, a workshop, whether they get a seed commission, or a commission.
It has gone a long way from being a world where a management is maybe interested in a play and then you do some work on the play, and the management says either we’re going to commit to this or we’re not. There’s this whole process now, which I alluded to in my thread on Twitter in response to your end of year round-up. People couldn’t write a play now that’s topical and it get on. If you talk to agents and writers now, all people are talking about is how long it’s taking x theatre to read a play. It’s a massive problem. That includes plays by well-established writers too.
“All people are talking about is how long it’s taking x theatre to read a play”
It feels like all the emphasis over a 15-year period has shifted onto development. It does have very real impacts. I had lunch with quite a plugged-in young theatre-maker in the spring. I’d hate to be one of those people who presumes to know about the young. So I was curious to hear what she thought of everything. I talked to her about issues faced by younger playwrights. She said that a lot of the younger and newer playwrights now do not write topical plays because they know it’s going to take their plays two or three years to get on – you need to write something that could survive the change of events in two-three years. I was so depressed when I heard her talk like that. This is not good. All the new writing institutions take for ever and a day to read and get plays on now. Your view was ‘Where are the plays that speak to the moment?” I would add – if you’re 22, and you’ve written this talented play you need to get it on quickly, then all the energy of your youth can get going on writing the next one. You don’t want to hang around for three years where you’re held up.
DC: Those venues are there to be responsive to emerging voices, surely. The 90s playwriting culture elbowed its way into the Royal Court. There was something elastic in the theatre culture, that meant it could expand to enable these voices to emerge. All the theatres adjusted in accordance with what was seen as something meaningful happening. Now it sounds like there’s a quota – there will be x number of plays – and you jump over the hurdles to get the slot, it’s pre-determined. Somehow it’s not organic. Yes? You’d think the system would be “let’s absorb what we can”, not telling people to get in the queue.
DE: It permanently feels a bit like the Heathrow stack – planes circling over London. Just imagine you’re a playwright and you’ve been on this exciting flight and you have to wait for three years in a holding pattern above the Bush, the Royal Court, or Theatre503. If you talk to them, they all know what they’re doing for the next year and a half. But what about that really great play that just comes through the door? None of them leave room anymore for that play that comes in and you think “Fuck me, we need to get this on quick”. The pandemic has intensified that problem. Theatres like the Royal Court have quite fairly said “We will honour commitments”. So the pandemic has intensified a problem that was already there. But it’s crap – as writers you think “This is awful”.
I think a lot of the newer writers get into a bit of Catch-22. They’re grateful for what the theatres offer. If you want to be seen as someone collaborative, you almost fall into a pattern of being in this system, developing many drafts that might take a year, and the theatre goes “Now it’s ready and now we will think about whether we’re going to do it or not” and… the usual answer is, after all of that journey, “We’re not going to do it”! If I had a pound for every coffee I’ve had over the last few years where a playwright has said “I’ve done six drafts over 14 months with this management and now they’re not going to do it!” At least when that happens in telly, you’re being paid well. The main issue is that these plays sometimes hang around for a long time, and miss their moment.
Peter Gill says: “You can’t improve a play, you can just make a play different”. Sometimes, through the rewriting of a play you can make it a bit more dramaturgically logical or tidy but in that process you knock the edges off it that make it interesting. Sometimes critics will say “This play isn’t ready”. I go: I reckon the problem there is that it’s had about eight drafts… It has hung around for a while, there has been another draft and another draft. I feel that is the real problem here.
“There is no doubt that my play Serving It Up wouldn’t have gone on now”
There is no doubt that my play Serving It Up wouldn’t have gone on now. It was a play that was sent unsolicited. It just came through the door to the Bush theatre. What’s remarkable is that my first play was in a “London Fragments” season, with a Simon Bent commission called Goldhawk Road, and Clocks and Whistles by Samuel Adamson that was also sent unsolicited. In that season, which won a Time Out award, two of the plays were unsolicited plays by first-time playwrights. There is a cat in hell’s chance that that would ever happen today, getting one play on, let alone two. What would happen is that a reader might think it had promise. I’d be invited into the theatre to maybe take part in a scheme, maybe invited to join a writers group. The other thing is that the theatres want to develop plays themselves, it’s a bit like TV. They want ownership of the ideas with the writers in a way that didn’t happen years ago. No one would be interested in Serving It Up because it was something I just arrived with. What they would want is to commission the next play from me, and develop that with me. So if I was lucky I would go through a development process and they might put on that play.
Now there have been lots of fantastic plays written in the last 15 years, and the theatres can take equal credit for that. But we have a situation where the pandemic has precipitated something of a crisis and it has meant that all of these issues that have been building up for a number of years now are really in sharp relief. How do you get a play on in any quicker time than two years? Are you as a new playwright going to get more interest than just a reading of your play? Maybe your play only deserves a reading, but it feels so endemic that that’s how things are done…