Theatre Critic and Journalist

How the regions can recycle ‘new’ plays

How the regions can recycle ‘new’ plays

Published in The Stage, 20.09.2012

New writing theatre (n): 1. A theatre committed to the development and production of new plays. 2. A place new plays go to die. ORIGIN George Devine’s brain, circa March 1956: “Ours is not to be a producers’ theatre, nor an actors’ theatre; it is to be a writer’s theatre.”

George Devine got his wish, not just for his beloved Royal Court, but for the country as a whole. More new plays have been written and produced in the past decade than ever before. In 2008, Writernet estimated that some 25,000 new scripts were in circulation at any one time. While only a small percentage merit producing, new writing theatres can easily fill their production slots with a steady stream of new work.

However, new plays today have a depressingly short life expectancy. What’s more, the vast majority only get one life. So leaving aside new writing’s reincarnating giant tortoises – The History Boys, Arts and Jerusalems of this world – the average new play will be lucky to survive for four to six weeks before shuttering with no prospect of revival anytime soon. Better than a Maybug, admittedly. Worse than a World War Two RAF pilot.

Daniel Evans, Sheffield Crucible’s artistic director, thinks there’s something wrong with that. “These plays are put on in relatively small theatres – the Royal Court Upstairs, the Bush, the Cottesloe – so they’re seen by a relatively small audience over a short run. And then they cross the Atlantic or they sink without trace. Besides, no one north of Watford gets to see them.”

Plays exist to be performed and seen in performance. Theatre, by necessity, needs its audience in a given space and time. Miss the first run for whatever reason and, broadly speaking, you’ve missed the play. A revival-averse system wastes both good plays and willing audiences.

So it’s heartening to see a string of regional premieres in the autumn listings, all within a year of the original performance. Sheffield Crucible’s new staging of Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike, a Royal Court hit last summer, opened last week. After That Face and The Pride, it’s the third Royal Court play to head to Sheffield since Evans started. Later this month, Richard Bean’s The Heretic opens at the Lowry in Manchester, while Hull Truck are producing The Kitchen Sink by Tom Wells, following its success at the Bush in November.

Nor is it just a one-way thing, from London outwards. In January, London audiences will finally get the chance to see Simon Stephens’ Port, 10 years after its Manchester premiere. Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love had a quicker route into the capital; last year’s recast Royal Court production coming a mere 18 months after it opened at the Royal Exchange.

The question is why has this not happened more often before? Financially, there is no difference. Revival royalties are cheaper than commission fees and development costs – not that such revivals absolve regional theatres of their responsibility for new work. Additionally, a revival of a Stoppard or Acykbourn classic costs much the same as a revival of a recent hit; “sometimes within 0.5 of a percent,” says Evans.

The difference, he concedes, is in the work needed to sell newer plays over old favourites and syllabus ever-presents. While it’s no different to that involved in publicising new work, regional revivals are perceived to lack the bespoke quality of commissions. Advocating revivals from the get-go, Evans encountered initial scepticism and “suspicions about whether this work would be deemed dedicated to our audience.”

The point, however, is that while these plays might not be focus on subjects of particular local interest or character, they are undeniably timely; reflective of lives being lived all over the country. All three of Sheffield’s revivals have sold and gone down well. “Our audiences still connect with them in a very immediate and profound way. Despite being two years old, these plays feel new. The gloss hasn’t gone off them.”

It can be buffed and bolstered by new productions, capable as they are of approaching plays afresh and tweaking to new circumstances. This is the key: regional revivals offers fresh possibilities, breaking up the unity of play and production.

At the simplest level, this creates a second chance saloon for plays that might have misfired first time around, while also affording new personnel the opportunity to work with the best new writing around. In Sheffield, The Village Bike is being directed by the Crucible’s former resident assistant director Jonathan Humphreys, providing a hotly-tipped young director a script to match. Furthermore, by accepting the multiple possibilities inherent within a script, much as we demand of classical work, it serves to level out a new writing culture in which authorial intention rules. After all, 56 years on, it’s about time Devine’s writers’ theatre got a bit of a challenge.

However, regardless of whether such productions safely or radically overhaul, they ultimately recycle plays that deserve longer lives. As Evans says, “Otherwise it’s just a terrible, terrible waste.”

Photograph: Johan Persson

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