Theatre Critic and Journalist

Bush babies, literary departments and British theatre’s new ‘new writing’

Bush babies, literary departments and British theatre’s new ‘new writing’

Published on Guardian Culture Pros, 07.11.2012

Bush babies have taken over London theatre. Lucy Kirkwood, Anthony Weigh and Nick Payne all had their debut plays staged at the West London new writing theatre. Between them this autumn, they will have been produced by the Royal Court, Soho Theatre, Donmar Warehouse and in the West End.

While we’re at it, let’s throw in This House writer James Graham, Jack Thorne and Penelope Skinner, also part of the Donmar Trafalgar season, both of whom had early work produced by the Bush. Not bad for what was, until recently, a tiny pub theatre with limited office space and less than a quarter of the Royal Court’s subsidy.

Tonight, however, the Bush Theatre will unveil a new literary policy. What do they say about fixing things that ain’t broke?

Over the past 15 years, as a major beneficiary of New Labour’s arts funding injections, new writing has been the biggest success story in British theatre. The number of new plays presented in subsidised theatres more than doubled during the past decade. Box office leapt to almost 70% and more than 300 playwrights had their first play staged.

However, in the past few years, there have been rumblings of disquiet. In 2009, the British Theatre Consortium’s Writ Large report detailed a number of playwrights’ concerns, including the lack of long-term support and meddling development processes. More recently, qualms have been raised about a tendency towards the formulaic and a wider culture of risk aversion.

“The same problem creeps into any system once it’s been going ten years or more,” says Alex Chisholm, who runs the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s literary department. “It starts to fall into habit – you do things because that’s what you do, rather than because it’s genuinely fulfilling artists’ needs.”

Inevitably, there will be some who don’t fit the mould. As habits form, principles crystallise into dogma. “Never underestimate the power of example,” says Chisholm. “Because writers don’t see another kind of play, they don’t think about writing it. The few that do – those brave or different enough – don’t then get those plays on. Trends start to creep into the way things are taught.”

The golden rule, then, is flexibility. It’s right at the heart of the Bush’s new literary policy. Artistic director Madani Younis hopes to widen the scope of new writing. “We’re introducing a strand where artists and writer-performers can engage with us without just submitting a script,” he explains. “Speaking to artists, they’ve said: ‘Don’t expect to read our stuff on a page.’ You need to meet them. You need to give them a different kind of space.”

Younis cites two of the Bush’s new associate artists, Caroline Horton and Sabrina Mahfouz, both of whom debuted with self-penned solo shows. Horton works with clowning techniques; Mahfouz, performance poetry. Younis openly admits that neither “would have been picked up off the page, because the performance is such a key component part.”

Not that the Bush is giving up on scripts. Younis is, however, moving to a seasonal model for unsolicited scripts. He insists that this allows a more diligent script-reading process – though Manchester Royal Exchange saw a fourfold increase in submissions on doing likewise. But it also looks like an admission of “the relatively low conversation rate of unsolicited plays into full productions across the new writing landscape. At a guess, I’d say it was less than a couple of per cent.”

The aim here is to initiate relationships with artists and Younis expects seed commissioning – a cheaper and therefore less risky alternative to a full commission – to become integral. The new model sits somewhere between a traditional literary department and Battersea Arts Centre’s scratch ladder.

It does, however, raise the spectre of what James Grieve, co-artistic director of Paines Plough, calls “development hell,” whereby a script get stuck in a spin-cycle of readings and workshops, but ultimately remains unproduced. “Playwrights said to us very loudly: ‘We would rather you worked with fewer writers and committed to putting their plays on.’ So whereas other new writing organisations might commission eight plays for four production slots, we make a commitment to a writer at the point of commission that we’re going to put their play on.”

But not every organisation can afford to take such risks, especially in the current financial climate. Since last year’s Collaborators, the National has been starting new work with a Cottesloe run and later transferring the most successful, such as London Road and This House, across to the much larger Olivier.

There’s a similar principle behind the Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space, initiated by its artistic director Ed Hall and now supported by the Peter Wolff Trust. A small studio with a capacity of around 80, the Downstairs Theatre hosts a programme of new writing and (mostly) only invites critics on the proviso they don’t publish a review.

“The main thing about the Downstairs space is not to have an agenda,” says Hall. “Buildings will always have an agenda, but here the agenda is the play.” To date, two Downstairs productions have transferred elsewhere and, next year, Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose will be the first to transfer to the theatre’s main space. The aim is to let a writer and creative team discover the piece in its fullest form. “It’s not a place I would try out directors,” adds Hall. “We find the best director for a play, so the writer has the best possible chance of learning about their play. We cast it as strongly as possible. We do everything to the hilt.”

For all such changes, the ultimate aim remains the same as ever. “The big prize at the end of this is that we will get better work,” says Chisholm. “We will get better, more inventive, more theatrical, braver, exciting work by allowing ourselves to work in many different ways.”

In a culture where potential audiences are spoilt for choice, that’s imperative. “We have a little challenge at Paines Plough,” says Grieve, with a hint of mischief. “Should someone come and see this play or should they stay at home and watch Mad Men? If we want people to leave their houses to see one of our shows, we better make sure it’s really, really good.”

Photograph: Bush Theatre

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