Hello!Come on in, put your feet up and have a cuppa while I tell you a story.
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Process. The first stages; inspiration, the spark of an idea like a fish-hook caught in the imagination. It will not let you go, no matter what else you need to be thinking about.
Beach-combing, as Rebecca Manson Jones put it at the weekend’s Theatre Writing South West event. A gathering together of images, ideas, research. Characters forming, the ghostly outline of a story beginning to take shape – a wisp of a thing that shifts shape and evades your glance if you stare at it too hard. Moments beginning to crystallize, the certainty that this will happen, and this, and this, but who knows where it will end. For me, this includes putting together a playlist of essential listening, but many other writers consider this complete anathema, preferring silence, or a radio playing faintly in another room to reassure them that the world goes on around them. Picking up whatever looks interesting, keeping some of it, discarding the rest. Finding quotes that resonate and inspire, ripping out or printing pictures that somehow speak of what it is, what it might be.
All of this in preparation for the main event; the swan dive. Standing at the edge of the cliff, ready to jump into the ocean. Knowing that you won’t be surfacing until the first draft is done. The laundry will pile up, emails remain unanswered, many vital things overlooked because you will be underwater, diving down in search of a pearl, a lost piece of pirate treasure, a cannonball from a ship long since forgotten, weaving together strands of seaweed while holding your breath as long as you can for fear of having to surface and break the spell. Of losing the thread, forgetting how it felt, this new and strange world you were creating. Interruptions are not welcome at this point. And yet, because you are not an eminent Victorian, safely walled up within a book-lined study, or even Roald Dahl wrapped in a blanket in a shed at the end of the garden, interruptions will be inevitable. You know this, and it puts you off making the jump, not wanting to feel the resentment that Mummy what’s for dinner? might bring. You know this and so you strap your supplies to your body before you make the jump, patting yourself down to check that you have what you need, the writing equivalent of goggles and weights and knife. Something is missing, but what? You still haven’t found the right music, or perhaps there is more to learn about the characters, or maybe just the realisation that it’s your daughter’s birthday in two weeks, something that will definitely require your attention. And so you hold off a while longer.
Before you jump, the in-breath. The moment when courage might fail. When niggling doubts rise up; am I up to this? Can I really write this and will it be any good? What if I can’t? What if I can’t do the job properly? What if I’ve been kidding myself all along? What if the idea turns out to be rubbish, or fizzles out after ten minutes? What if it’s shit? basically. Writer’s paranoia can be mean. Beyond that; am I ready? Have I done the research I need to do, have I found the sweet spot between spontaneity and over-planning? And am I ready? Is life going to conspire against me as soon as I start? Is this the right project at the right time, should I be writing something else, what’s this going to bring up for me emotionally and am I willing to go there? That last one is not to be overlooked; the swan dive requires the ego to be surrendered, the self to be lost while the story takes over – and sometimes the ego just doesn’t want to be sequestered in a backroom while the subconscious takes over. The subconscious can also be wary of where this one’s going, what uncomfortable memories or admissions are lurking, waiting to be dredged, what dodgy and unsafe terrain is about to be crossed emotionally. Why would you go there, why? it squeals, trying to hide itself from view, or sitting whistling nonchalantly while refusing to get involved in this particular narrative. Writer’s block is so often not about getting stuck halfway through a project, and much more about never quite getting round to starting it.
But start it you must, if you’re going to be a writer. And why the reluctance, why this resistance to writing, if writing is what you do? So you must take yourself there, to the edge of the cliff. Take a good look around you, check you have what you think you’ll need, take a moment to gaze at the ocean below you. Take that moment to prepare yourself, to staunch any energy leaking in the wrong direction, anything non-essential that will pull you away (and let’s include Facebook/Twitter at this point.) Breathe in. The deepest breath you’ve ever taken, the one that’s going to sustain you. Use it to call in the inspiration, commitment, courage that you’re going to need. Use it to crack yourself open before you jump, feel your ego slipping out through the ends of your fingers to allow the story to slip in and take its place, your body changing shape as you dive and fall into the unknown. Trust that the sea will be there, that the story will catch you, that it is not all just the glimmer of an illusion. That glimmer might just be gold. Breathe in, and jump.
You never know what to expect when you start on a project. And if you’re a new/emerging writer, you don’t have the benefit of experience to let you know what you should expect. Generally you’re so grateful to have found someone who is willing to perform your work that you think it’s wisest not to ask too many questions. Like how come the actors are getting paid but I’m not? Or Does the director really know what she’s doing, because that really isn’t what I meant? (take a look at Your Rights as a Playwright to gen up on the basics.) Starting out, it’s likely that you’re going to be part of unpaid/collaborative/profit-share projects – some of these are going to be a fantastic experience. Others, sadly, are not. It’s not possible to take up every opportunity that comes our way (hello burnout!), so what do we need to bear in mind before we sign up for the deadline?
Get your ducks lined up before you start shooting.
Often, there’s no contracts involved, just imagination, hope and a lot of trust; all marvellous qualities, but not much use when you’re standing there wondering what the hell happened. No matter what good intentions everyone has for a project, it’s worth taking time at the start to make sure that roles, rules and expectations have been agreed on. As well as agreeing these with the others, make sure you’ve asked yourself the vital question:
What do I want to get out of this?
Because if you’re not clear on what you want, you’re unlikely to get it. Be clear: why are you doing this project? Are you hoping that it will help to get your name out there, promote your abilities? Does it just look like fun? You’re thinking it might lead to getting paid at some point? You’re doing it because you’re an artist, darling, theatre is in your blood? Be honest with yourself at the start: what do I want to get out of this? And then let’s look at whether the project is likely to deliver or disappoint.
Financial – Let’s get it out of the way. If you ask about money, the other people involved in the project are going to look at you like you just pissed on the table. Try it and see. But don’t let this put you off. If your writing is going to be more than an expensive hobby, you need to get comfortable talking about money. So: what’s in this for you financially? There is a period of time in which you’re trying to get work performed, get experience and get yourself noticed. Once you’ve got past this, when you’re getting involved in profit-shares and collaborative ventures, you need to start talking money. If it’s a profit-share, ensure that the writer is included, as for some reason there seems to be a belief that writers don’t mind not getting paid. I’d love to know who started this rumour. If actors are included in a profit-share, the writer should be as well. Go sneak a peek at the WGGB website (from their guidelines for profit-share or expenses-only productions.)
1) The Writer is to receive compensation equal to that paid to every other artistic contributor to the production (Director, Designer, Actor, etc.) Should for any reason the compensation paid these other contributors not be standard, the Writer is to receive compensation equal to that of the highest-paid among the other artistic contributors.
2) The Writer is to receive expense monies (food, travel, etc) equal to that of every other artistic contributor to the production.
Questions to consider:
- Where is the money coming from to do this, and who is likely to profit from it?
- Who is getting paid a fee? Who isn’t? Why?
- If it is a profit-share, who is included? Are you happy that everyone is receiving their fair share according to the work they’ve contributed?
- What is the policy on comps? (Because if everyone else is writing off 6 seats a night as comps while you’re making your friends pay for their seats, they’re cutting into your fair share of the profits.)
- Who, if anyone, is liable financially if it all goes horribly wrong?
- What is the budget for the show? Has it been vastly under- or over- budgeted?* What corners are being cut to make it happen? Has enough been set aside for marketing? Basically has enough been invested to do the show properly?
Don’t forget that there are inevitable expenses when you’re involved in a theatre project and if you’re not getting paid you need to consider whether you can afford to do it. Working for free means taking several hits; not getting paid, turning down other paid work, plus the expenses involved in participating. If you’re not getting paid, what are you getting? Some projects might pay off well in other ways such as creative challenge, experience, or working with someone you really want to, others won’t.
Creative - Will this project challenge/stretch you creatively? Do you feel inspired by it? Are you happy to dedicate weeks, months, years of your life to it? Is this a piece you’re going to be pouring your heart and soul into, or are you doing it for the sake of it? Are you going to enjoy it on a creative level? Hopefully the answer should be yes. If the answer’s not yes, be clear on why else you’re doing it.
Networking - If the project will enable you to work alongside new people, or in a new place, then that can be a good enough reason to go ahead. Perhaps it’s unpaid, but you’ll be working with a particular actor or director that will make it all worthwhile. Maybe it will allow you to build up some valuable connections in a new venue or town. Ask yourself whether this project will provide a good networking opportunity.
Reputation - Will this project provide you with good exposure? Who will see it? Is it going to enhance your professional reputation? Is it in danger of damaging your reputation? What’s the kudos? Increased reputation can be a pay-off in itself; some artists are willing to suffer a financial loss by taking a show to Edinburgh in order to buy exposure for their work. It can also be kind to ask yourself whether you really need this one… you know, the ten-minute script in hand designed for new writers; is signing up for this one really fair? Do you really need it, or should you spend your time on a bigger goal?
Education – What are you going to learn from this project? How is it going to continue your growth as a playwright? If you’re not going to be allowed into the rehearsal room (and remember the Writers’ Guild guidelines on this one), is it going to be helpful to your development? I’m always advocating for writers to be in rehearsals – this is where the learning takes place. If you’re taking part in a development scheme/competition and you’re not going to be invited to rehearsals, usually because of the “there just isn’t time” argument, it’s worth gently pointing out that it’s so much more useful to your ongoing learning if you can attend (and promise to be good.) Education is a great reason for getting involved in a project; if you can learn from it then it’s worth doing. If you’re not going to be learning… yeah you know the drill. Ask yourself why.
Expectations – Make sure that everyone involved is on the same page. This is a biggie. Do you and your director agree about who has the final say on cuts? How about casting?
Areas to consider include:
- Script changes.
- Creative control.
- Set design and costumes.
- Being able to attend rehearsals.
- Giving notes.
- Choice of music etc.
- Publicity and marketing
You will avoid a lot of future grief if you sort this out before you start. If you’ve got very definite ideas about the use of music in your play, while your director considers the choice of music to be their decision, then there’s going to be trouble ahead. If you want a particular actor, and the director casts someone else, is that going to be okay by you? And who has final say over the script? What if you hate the costume designs? If there’s anything that’s a deal-breaker, all parties need to make it clear from the start. If you know you’re a control freak, it’s best to avoid working with another control freak (and you might want to take up producing, or puppetry, both of which stand more chance of fulfilling this desire to be in charge.)
Time - How much time is this project going to take? Do you have enough time to do it properly? Has enough time been set aside for rehearsals? How many re-writes will be expected, and what’s the schedule looking like? Time is a big issue when you’re working for free – are you giving the project too much of your unpaid time? Can you afford to? Are you in danger of missing other important deadlines? Can you really fit this one in around your day job? Ask yourself whether you’ve really got the time to get involved.
Fun – Let’s not miss this one out. If it’s going to be a blast, go for it. If it’s not going to be fun, then I hope to god you’re getting paid well.
Publicity - Whose job is publicity/marketing and are they going to do it well? Will you have a say in how the play is marketed, what the flyer looks like, what copy is used? How much info is going to be released online – tweets, photos, blog posts etc, and is everyone happy about this? Do actors need a veto on whether particular rehearsal shots are posted online? Should the director be allowed a say on what you blog about the production? Are you happy to have quotes from your play tweeted out of context? Try to establish what the marketing strategy is going to look like and who will take responsibility for it. Because if the strategy is inadequate then you’re wasting your time – there won’t be an audience. And if you hate the flyers and publicity materials, it’s going to be really hard to promote the play.
Theatre is an odd thing. Relationships are forged fast, personal and professional blur because we’re all giving so much of ourselves in a collaborative act of creation. We might really like the people we’re working with, and yet something just isn’t right. We hold back from speaking up, because we don’t want to get in the way or seem difficult… and the end result is a piece we’re not satisfied with, or a project that gets soured by conflict. Having clear communication from the start can help to avoid this. And let’s be honest, most of the time we head blithely into a project, at least when we’re starting out, without thinking any of this stuff through. You don’t necessarily need to march into a preproduction meeting clutching a checklist, but it’s wise to start thinking about what’s important to you. What matters to you. And then make sure that it’s taken care of, rather than blithely hoping that it’ll be alright on the night.
Be serious about your writing, be serious about your career, be serious about you and your work being treated with respect and integrity. Treat others with the same respect and integrity. If respect and integrity aren’t in the room, ask yourself whether you need to make an exit. Make sure everyone is on the same page, and then go have fun with it. Go shoot some ducks.
* Over-budgeted. How I’d love for that to be an issue… If it’s happened to you, do please write and let me know. If you’re currently involved in such a dilemma, feel free to siphon off some of the excess into the budget for my next project.
No, I’m not going to tell you who he is. But you can listen in here for this next week.
I thought Rosie Cavaliero did a wonderful job with the piece and wish I’d been able to be there on the night to congratulate her. It’s one of the first things that I wrote, once I’d decided to give this writing thing a proper go, so I’m a little bit well and truly chuffed about having it on the radio.
I made the Radio Times. This may be the biggest moment of my career, ever. I mean literally, I might be looking at the peak of my career tip – I don’t mean in terms of Wow, aren’t I amazing, but more along the lines of it’s all downhill from this point. Writer’s paranoia, that fear that no matter what we’ve just achieved, that’ll be it. We’ll never get another piece of our writing out in the world ever again and we’re going to die sad and lonely with our cats. Please tell me it’s not just me.
Anyway, there it is. The Most Beautiful Man in the World, tomorrow (Easter Sunday), Radio 4, 7.45pm. I missed the recording, at the Bath Festival – I was struck down by a weird migraine/flu type thing as I was driving. Managed to make it into Bath whilst clutching my head and swearing loudly, but knew there was no way I’d make it through the performance and had to phone home and beg the hubbie to come and rescue me. So I’m looking forward to hearing it performed by Rosie Cavaliero, and apparently it all went off very well. And in the meantime, look out for that migraine/flu thing – I swear it’s some kind of invisible Dr Who monster, stalking innocent drivers. You might be next. Last spotted on the A46, but it could be still lurking in the car park in Bath, you never know.
Also up is CSI Millionaire on The Space website. Mixed feelings about this one – it was written for theatre and radio, and I think that shows. It’s not the same as film. They’ve filmed it “theatrically” – one take, fixed camera. I reckon I’d have preferred to rewrite it as a short film and have it filmed in different shots and edited together. But resources didn’t allow for that, it all happened very fast; and perhaps the goal was to record it as theatre. It’s nice to see it having more of a life, anyway. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? For stories to go off into the world on their own, without clinging to my legs on the way out of the door. There’s 4 films in all, part of The Parade, a BBC Writersroom initiative, so check out Becky’s, Kenny’s and Amman’s while you’re there. Nice use of comedy underpants, anyway.
Stage directions. Newbie writers struggle to know what to include, whether to include them at all or whether to write vast paragraphs detailing everything from the set design down to how many buttons should be fastened on an actor’s shirt. Some directors claim never to read them, while some writers complain that their stage directions were completely ignored, ruining the intention of the piece. Equally we’ve all read scripts stuffed full of unnecessary descriptions of the orange cushions on the brown sofa, the picture on the wall centre stage, while each line the characters deliver is prefaced with a bracketed instruction: (sarcastically) (angrily) (quietly) etc. Not so good.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: read more plays. As well as seeing contemporary work, it’s vitally important to read it in order to learn how professional playwrights set their plays out on the page. Even if you’re going to watch a particular production it’s worth also trying to get hold of the script, to see the journey that has been made from page to stage. Asking about whether or not to include stage directions is like holding a big flashing sign over your head that states Amateur! Beginner! Haven’t a Clue What I’m Doing! And while it’s fine to be a beginner (we’ve all got to start somewhere after all,) what you don’t want is a producer thinking that not only do you not have a clue, you can’t be bothered to learn. So go read. The answers are waiting in a stack of plays somewhere. You’ll learn how each playwright has their own style in terms of layout and directions. That there aren’t any hard and fast rules, but most plays no longer begin with a paragraph describing the exact set design, or indeed a page titled “Dramatis Personae.” It’s amazing how many wannabe playwrights haven’t figured that one out yet.
First things first: some directions are entirely necessarily. The ones that read “they kiss,” or “she stabs him,” or even “exits,” which helps prevent an actor hanging around onstage, wondering why he’s got no lines in the rest of the scene. Even the quick line at the start of the scene, Paris 1945, or Bob’s living room. Messy, in order to tell us when and where we are. What we don’t need is an exact description of the Parisian street, or every single item of furniture Bob possesses.
When you read a contemporary play, it’s striking how few stage directions are included as a general rule of thumb. Experienced writers understand how little a director/actors/designers need, how much should be left to their interpretation. The writing itself should suggest the manner and tone of delivery; each line is going to be examined by the actor in search of meaning and motivation at a far deeper level than (angrily) might suggest. No matter how clearly you can see a character delivering a line in your head, the truth is that a talented actor can surprise you in rehearsal by doing something unexpected and far more truthful to the moment. This for me is another reason why writers need to be in rehearsal, in order to fully understand the working processes of actors and directors, which then feeds into creating a stronger script next time around.
Generally, a less-is-more approach seems to serve most plays well, although this hugely depends on the director and actors involved. Let’s face it, some directors are better than others. Some will have a better understanding of your work than others. Some put more effort in than others. Some will just “get it” as soon as they read the script, others will set out to direct the play in a way that’s completely the opposite to your intention. Being in rehearsal can help clear up any confusion and avoid the OH-MY-GOD-WHAT-HAVE-YOU-DONE? catastrophe when a writer watches the dress rehearsal and wants to curl up and die over the hideous monstrosity that has their name on it and is now too late to change. Let’s assume this isn’t going to happen: you’ve got a great director and a fantastic cast, you’ve made your intentions clear in the tone of the dialogue, and you’ve kept your stage directions to the minimum.
BUT. A play is more than dialogue alone. And here’s where we hit a snag. What if we want a scene, or indeed an entire piece in which silence is as important as speech? Where the unspoken is valued over the spoken? How, for example do we create a moment like this: profound, raw, devastating, beautiful?
If a director isn’t willing to pay attention to stage directions (and good directors will pay attention, even if they then decide to go with something else) then we have no chance of creating that scene. Equally, if we are over-prescriptive and rigid about our scripts, a director and actor won’t have the opportunity to explore the spaces in the work, the gaps which allow for the spontaneous, the unpredicted. Increasingly, it’s the gaps that interest me as a writer, the bits that are left unsaid – and yet in order for those gaps to occur, I have to structure the script around them. I have to create the space for them to happen.
In my experience one of the biggest mistakes newbie writers make is over-writing. At a workshop last year, I sat with a group of emerging writers while we all admitted that our biggest problem was a tendency to overwrite. Overwriting isn’t necessarily a huge problem as long as you’re prepared to cut out the excess, but if you’re a beginner it can mean that your script is cluttered and doesn’t jump off the page. It can be too on the nose, it doesn’t leave space for the actors. If everything is said in the dialogue, then you’re writing for radio. So instructing writers to just concentrate on the dialogue isn’t necessarily good advice. A script is a balance of dialogue and action, movement and stillness, speech and silence.
A script-reader’s heart will generally sink when faced with a text-heavy page, knowing that there just isn’t enough white space; literally the white space on the page that leaves room for the director and actors to work their magic (although having looked at Koltes In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, density can have its own charms, if well-written.) Encouraging writers to concentrate as much on the unsaid as the said might produce work that’s far more exciting. Trying to capture the unspoken, in as few words as possible, trying to write silence; this is as important as knowing how to write captivating dialogue. And yes, this will involve writing stage directions.
So then, it becomes a balance. A balance between dialogue and directions, and equally a balance between writer and director. We could talk about ownership of the script, except I suspect that ownership isn’t a particularly useful term here. A dance, perhaps, co-created. Trusting that this isn’t about anyone’s ego, but about the desire to create the best work possible. That it’s not about a writer being wrong and a director being right, or vice versa. Knowing that a beginning writer won’t have had enough experience in the rehearsal room to know what to leave in and what to leave out (and allowing the writer access to rehearsal in order to learn.) Knowing that a director can’t see inside your head and isn’t going to recreate exactly what you see. Give and take, basically. Establishing lines of communication that are open and honest so that everyone feels heard, allowing room for experimentation and mess as part of the process. Words like trust, respect, flexibility, response, play, seem more important than ownership.
Final thoughts: keep stage directions to a minimum. Use what you need to tell the story. But don’t be afraid of using them when necessary, when it feels important to you, and be willing to explore the unsaid as much as the said. Communication with your director is more important in delivering the final draft of the play than whether or not you’ve included a particular direction. But above all: read.
Edited to add: excellent post on stage directions by Kate O’Reilly here, thanks David!
Hi. Me again. I didn’t get a response to my last email, so I presume you had manflu, there’s a lot of it about at the moment. I hope you’re feeling better and ready to take up arms to defend the nation’s culture. At least, I was hoping that, but then I read your speech to the Local Government Association Conference. Oh, Ed. Where do I start?
Thing is, I was at another meeting of 40 playwrights this week, up at Bolton’s Octagon theatre (they have theatres up north, who’d have thought?!) and your name was mentioned quite frequently, although not in a good way. Firstly I wanted to check whether you’re thinking of misrepresenting the meeting for your own “There is no impact on new writing” propaganda, because if that’s the case I’d like to get a headstart on composing my next email to you. Although perhaps you consider that the fact that there are as many as 40 playwrights in the UK is a good sign of a thriving theatre economy (I should point out that we weren’t being paid to attend and all travelled at our own cost in the desperate hope of getting a commission, it’s not like being an MP*.) Secondly, we wanted to know whether you had paid any attention at all to Fin Kennedy’s report, (here the link although I’m fairly sure you’ve had a copy sent to you), and if so, what you were intending to do about the very clear evidence that funding cuts are having on new writing. But that was last week. Having read your speech it’s clear that you haven’t paid any attention to Fin’s report (seriously mate, did you even read it?) and that you intend to do nothing about it.
Okay. It must be difficult being UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries in a government which seems intent on stamping out all forms of creativity, particularly in education. Us “creatives” can be a tricky lot, with a tendency to ask difficult questions of society and government, so I can understand the desire to do away with us entirely. I managed to study Drama at the University of Bristol before the introduction of tuition fees, which I understand you voted in favour of; there’s no way I could take the same degree now, in fact I doubt I would have been able to go to university at all. I doubt that the course will continue being offered for much longer, and if it does it’s likely to be populated solely by students from places like Berkshire (isn’t that where you’re from, Ed?) rather than Liverpool (that would be me) – I mean that kind of class divide was fairly evident at Bristol Uni way back in the 90s, but it’s getting worse instead of better. And that’s pretty much where theatre is heading as an industry, and TV, and film** and journalism and so many other professions***; you can work here if you’re rich (or at least if Mummy and Daddy are.) Because you’re going to have to work for free for a long time before you stand any chance of getting paid, and getting paid is increasingly less likely given the cuts, and that’s not an option if you’re not from a wealthy background. Ahhh, I see where you’re going with this; people from wealthy backgrounds are maybe less likely to challenge the status quo and more likely to stick with Shakespeare and ballet. Nice.
Maybe you’re wondering what I’m blathering on about. Privilege, Ed. You, and so many other Tory MPs, come from from a privileged background. And you have no idea. You really have no idea what it’s like for everyone else. When I heard about the idea of a Bedroom tax, I was thrilled. I’m living in Gloucestershire and there are so many wealthy old people rattling around in mansions, it seemed only fair that they should cough up for the privilege of being privileged. Of having been born into money. But then it turns out it’s aimed at poor people. My mistake. See, in your speech you go on about how great it is that some libraries are turning into business enterprise centres, how delighted you are. Please excuse me for my ignorance, but my reaction was What the fuck? Because to me, a library is a place where you can access books for free. I’ve had a library card since I was a kid, because we couldn’t afford to buy new books and I was a reading addict. I take my kids to the library to encourage them to read too, only the libraries around here are under threat of closure and are being kept open by volunteers. The very idea that we have a government that can even consider allowing libraries to close, or thinks that turning them into business enterprise centres is a delightful idea makes me despair for the future of humanity. Do they all need to open Starbucks franchises to keep going? Or could we maybe make the decision that libraries are a good thing in any civilised society? It makes me angry, Ed. I don’t really like being angry.
Call me naive, but is it too much to hope for a minister for culture that actually cares about culture? Is culture only about profit? Is life only about profit? Is art only viable if it can be proven commercially? There are so many things in your speech that are just plain wrong. I’d like to go through it line by line, but I’d be here all day and the kids are climbing the walls already (I know, I should hire a nanny so I can concentrate better, but hey, that would cost more than I earn.) Let me spell it out: the cuts are having a devastating effect in theatres. Oh, and theatres come in many shapes, sizes and locations, let’s be clear on that. We’re not just talking about the National.
I’m not an expert on the other fields, but I can’t imagine that other forms of the arts have got it any easier. Your big idea is philanthropy, and I’ve got to ask, when you said-
In the case of endowments, this might take a century to bear full fruit, and it is for that very reason we must get cracking, to promote a broader culture of giving.
-did anyone laugh? I did. No matter how many portions of fruit and veg I eat, I’m definitely going to be dead in a century’s time, so yes, please do get cracking on this one. Giving? How much did you personally donate to the arts over the last year? I tithe my very limited income, so I can proudly announce I sponsored a seat at The Bike Shed theatre in Exeter, as well as giving to other charities. I don’t think I spotted your name on one of those seats, but let me know which branch of the arts you’ve personally philanthropised and I’ll proudly announce it. The problem with philanthropy is that it is London-centric, as even you acknowledged, and also that it goes to the big institutions. The National Ballet. The Royal Opera House. The RSC. It doesn’t trickle down to the grass roots. People who can afford philanthropy don’t tend to fund tiny alternative spaces, radical political theatre companies, queer theatre, physical and devised pieces, emerging writers that no one has heard of, the new stuff Ed, the challenging stuff, the exciting stuff, the stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable, stretched, angry, confused as well as inspired, dazed, wondrous, alive. And yes, while the regional producing theatres are still getting funding (and philanthropy), again that money doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the grass roots. Tom Morris’s current production at Bristol Old Vic is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while at the Tobacco Factory we’ve got Richard III – both are exciting and popular and innovative, but let’s face it, Shakespeare doesn’t need to make rent this month. The main houses in our regional theatres tend to have to stick with the classics, the big name playwrights, revivals; new writing is too much of a financial risk. What’s happening on the main stages bears no relation to the studios and alternative spaces, and they’re the ones under threat. New work is under threat. New artists are under threat. Without new writing, theatres become museums (incidentally I’ve heard that museums are going to start charging admission fees again soon. Christ, Ed, with the libraries going and the museums charging, there’s not much hope for poor kids is there?) Only I’m guessing you don’t really give a shit, frankly, being a Tory rather than some dodgy left-wing artist. As long as we still have the RSC, that’s culture, innit?
It says on your website that you were a board member of The Bush, so I guess you’ve been in a theatre before now, if only to attend board meetings. Not only a theatre, but one that does a lot for new writing. Have you talked to them honestly and openly about whether they think new writing will be affected? About whether the playwrights, actors, designers, directors, stage managers, technicians that they’d like to develop can wait a full century in the hope of some philanthropic giving? Have you seen any new writing recently? At all? Or are you strictly a football man? (how are Didcot doing at the moment?) There’s a lot of us that are passionate about theatre and the impact it can have on people’s lives, and it hurts, Ed, it hurts to see our industry going down the pan. As Peter Bazalgette**** said recently, subsidy isn’t the right word to use, it’s investment in the arts and it makes so much of a difference. A small amount of investment can bring such a huge return, both financially (not just directly in the theatres but also their local economy) as well as culturally and creatively. As you said;
Every £1 spent by local authorities on the arts brings in an extra £3.83 of additional funding. That suggests leverage funding of almost £1.5 million per local authority.
It’s been proved time and again that investment in the Arts pays off. You’re falling over yourself to give examples of this in your speech. But you don’t mention a single council that’s decided to make cuts. Eh? Because if those local authorities don’t spend that £1, it all falls apart. And that’s what’s happening. Newcastle? Somerset? Even Westminster, for Christ’s sake. Why aren’t you tackling them? That’s not really an accurate picture you’re painting there, Ed, is it? Past glories like Liverpool City of Culture? Are you personally going to try and take credit for that one?
I’ll be honest with you, Ed; I’m feeling a little bit down about all of this. I was chatting to a fellow playwright last week who pointed out that it’s all a waste of time because Tories just don’t care. You’re not even listening to us. Scare-mongering? Theatres and arts centres are closing, productions are being cancelled. That’s not scare-mongering. You’re not going to help the Arts (certainly not at a grass roots level) any more than you’re going to help the poor. I’m looking at the current theatre economy and I don’t fancy my chances, particularly as I don’t live in London, I’m over 30 (ruling out a lot of development schemes) and I don’t have rich parents or a wealthy husband to bail me out or finance a production for me. Perhaps I should divorce Mr Mitchell***** and find myself someone with more money, what do you think? Actually, are you single, given that you’ve described yourself as relatively affluent? I know that we’re unlikely to be soulmates, seeing as you’re a Tory and I’m umm… human, but you never know your luck and I’m used to making sacrifices for my art. Or maybe you could put in a word for me at the RSC, because Roald Dahl’s got several more books I could have a go at. Or given that I’m not independently wealthy enough for the arts, perhaps you could persuade me to accept that there’s no profit in it so I should go along to my local library-based business enterprise scheme and get a real job instead. Or just sign on, while jobseeker’s is still available. By the way, we’re not waving, we really are drowning. Just so you know. Looking forward to hearing from you, Ed.
* From Wikipedia: “In November 2011, it was further reported that Vaizey had submitted expenses claims of 8p for a 350 yard car journey and 16p for a 700 yard journey.” Seriously? Plus “Regular journeys between home/constituency/Westminster: Mileage £3,513 (224th). Rail £1,598 (392nd). Other: Mileage £168 (36th). Rail £218 (77th).” (Figures from 2008/9) £5497 for travel? That’s more than I earned for the whole of last year, Ed. But then your expenses for that year were £119,591, reportedly. I don’t actually know anyone who earns that much. Do you understand that? What it means that you were able to claim expenses that are in excess of 4 times the average wage?
** And you’ve been in a film! Tortoise in Love. Did they pay you? I’m guessing they didn’t (actually, I’m hoping they didn‘t) – but wow, what a valuable insight into the life of an unpaid Arts professional. Try it again, this time without your Westminster salary/expenses to buffer your accounts with.
***Congratulations on managing to qualify as a barrister. A friend of mine, also from Liverpool, got a degree in Law from Oxford but couldn’t afford to complete her training so she had to settle for being a solicitor instead. Well done you.
**** I’d like to point out that this email is addressed to you, not to him, so please don’t try and palm me off to some unsuspecting Arts Council staffer.
***** Although given the cuts in legal aid, I don’t reckon I can afford a divorce, to be honest. Sorry if I got your hopes up. I know I’m a catch.
Reality Arts Proposal Speak
I don’t know what I’m doing Exploration
I’m making this up as I go Improvisational
I didn’t make a plan Spontaneous
I’ll think of something Responsive
Fuck knows Using a range of methodologies…
I’ll have a chat with… Interviewing
Writing Recording, scribing
This doesn’t make sense Perception
It might work Potential
I’m shit scared Intimate, compelling
I’m going to mess this up Brave
I really need the money Important, urgent
Talking Spoken word
I’ll just have to do it myself Maker
Factual Truth-telling, honest
Haven’t got time to rehearse it Raw
Do we have to pay a writer? Devised
Am I swearing too much? Powerful
This is probably highly offensive Controversial
This is definitely offensive Radical
My Nan told me this Verbatim
I could just read from my journal Confessional
Can’t we just rip-off that other story? Re-interpretation
People are going to laugh at me Vulnerable
I write in bed Working in isolation
I’ll take my laptop to Starbucks Site-specific
I’ll write it on the train Fast-moving
The church hall is pretty cheap The space
It’s just an idea, really The work
I hope they like it Impact
Should we change the ending? Choices
I can’t decide on an ending Ambiguous
I told my friends about it Feedback
Just do something Create
After a bit of a break (not just from blogging, more a complete hibernation from life itself until we’re firmly back into Spring and I regain the feeling in my toes) and during the mental overwhelm that comes from conducting an email debate with Ed Vaizey while simultaneously trying to sort out the car insurance, give the husband a haircut, feed the cat and tie the children to their beds so they can’t escape, it entirely slipped my mind to mention that I’m doing this. By which I mean an actress will be performing The Most Beautiful Man in the World, while I sit in the audience at the Bath Festival of Literature and listen. And if you can’t be there in person, the whole thing will be recorded for broadcast on Radio 4, so you can stay at home with the beverage of your choice and listen to the whole thing then. Hmm… tempting. Is it Spring yet?