Provincial Playwriting (1970)

This article was published in The Author magazine during 1970.

Until very recently, the fairest advice one could offer a would-be playwright who was contemplating writing his first play for the theatre was "don't if you can possibly avoid it". The odds against getting a production at all, let alone a successful one, were formidable. For the author lucky enough to land a repertory production the financial rewards were even bleaker, in most cases. If he could recoup the cost of script duplication and typewriter ribbons he was doing well. Encouragement from managements and producers was negligible. West End managements clung to their waltz-like policy of taking one step forward, two to the side, relying on tried and tested formulas, whilst their provincial counterparts echoed these policies with barely a cursory glance at their own particular audience or location. It would be misleading to say that the situation has improved beyond recognition but, of course, a great deal has happened since then. The West End still has that distinct air of an impecunious gentlewoman raising and lowering her hemline to keep up with whatever fashion decrees (remember the spate of homosexual plays only recently?). Certainly, an examination of the returns for some of the so-called long running hits is quite frightening. Increasingly high costs have made managements reluctant to experiment - backers for shows are more difficult to find. The ill-fated Park Theatre was a chastening lesson for future experimenters. London, it appears, has little or no interest in promising near-misses, and try-outs on this scale, unless vigorously supported, can only prove financially disastrous. Leaving aside the several small off West End theatres, it's in the comparative peace and calm of the provinces that the bulk of serious new work has to be carried out. This is not to presume that theatres in smaller county towns haven't got their own problems but the advantage they do have, if they're doing anything like a worthwhile job, is a positive, sometimes very personal, relationship with their audience. It's been cheering to see theatres like Stoke, Sheffield and Newcastle, to pick three at random, presenting their own highly individual forms of documentary theatre. Whatever one's own feelings may be on this particular theatrical form, it is at least a clear sign that individual theatres are gradually declaring an identity of their own. And in case this should be read as mere parochialism, Newcastle's
Close The Coalhouse Door proved a sturdy enough bloom to be uprooted bodily and transplanted in London, then in Nottingham and Leeds, and so forth. To describe this process as anything other than gradual, though, would be severely to over-estimate it. A quick look at the What's-on-Where column in The Stage gives a pretty clear indication of just how fast this rate of development is really moving. It is perhaps worth, parenthetically, mentioning that the area where one might assume the greatest degree of artistic freedom - the amateur theatre - is in the majority of cases most reluctant of all to experiment. Anyone who has sat through more than a couple of one-act drama festivals must be struck by the monotonous regularity with which the faded old favourites crop up. Personally, if I'm adjudicating, I try whenever possible to award first prize to any company that's bothered to hunt out a premiere of its own. But I'm prejudiced. It's not so much that theatres lack ingenuity or enterprise: talk to most directors of production and they express a real enthusiasm for new plays. "But", they explain, "our audiences don't really go for them, you see". A quick look at the audience of the average rep reveals that they are mostly middle-aged, predominantly female; people who have supported that theatre all their lives, know what they like (or think they do) and don't fancy paying their twelve-and-sixes to witness some playwright's birth pangs. Well, middle-aged is not necessarily synonymous with half-witted and, although there's undoubtedly a great deal of prejudice about, it doesn't necessarily mean the exclusion of every new play from a season. A theatre like the Victoria at Stoke scores hands-down on this, because its audiences have never been prepared for anything other than a high proportion of new work. Hence the Octagon at Bolton can stage a double-bill by two authors, both of whom are virtually unknown in the theatre, and still carry it off. In a longer established theatre like, say, York, this would be unheard of. The new theatres, then, are the most likely to include that play with the grandiose description so often found on playbills, "World Premiere": theatres with fresh audiences who come prepared. The season at Scarborough, which I've been running myself for the past couple of years, can safely present new plays in over half the programme, thanks mainly to the enlightened policy introduced by its founder, Stephen Joseph, over ten years ago. For the long established reps it's a more complex problem. How to keep the audiences they've got and yet not face the gloomy prospect that they'll all die off with no-one to replace them? One method is the "tame" writer system-employed, for instance, by Sheffield Playhouse. Alan Cullen, who has written several successful shows for this theatre, is a good example of how this system can be made to work. His documentary, Stirrings in Sheffield on Saturday Night, was in every sense a hit. It has been revived countless times, played to packed houses, and was obviously enormous fun to do. Author, theatre and city at large all became equal ingredients-one firing off the other. It doesn't have to be a permanent relationship or even a longstanding one. Peter Terson, another example, played much the same role in Stoke, wrote successfully there, then transferred his loyalties temporarily to Michael Croft's Youth Theatre and produced Zigger Zagger and The Apprentices. Keeping tame dramatists, though, is rather like keeping chimpanzees. They can upset people through their lack of niceties, refuse to perform their tricks when called upon to do so and finish up eating the fingers that feed them, in violent fits of temperament. In fact, the continuance of their relationship with a theatre is a full-time job. So, unfortunately, is that of a theatre director, the obvious man to correspond and deal with them. The real answer, if this system is to gain any sort of serious momentum, is for every theatre to engage its own dramaturg, play reader, literary manager, call him what you will. It does call for someone rather exceptional, close enough to the director to have his confidence, with the temperament to deal with authors, and the confidence in his own judgment to produce, if necessary, any play he himself feels passionately enough about. Whether any theatre could ever afford the services of such a man, without considerable outside financial assistance, is another matter. Television, though, with its insatiable appetite for the written word, has made use of script editors from the beginning (some more successful than others) and, with the growing tendency of television directors to return to the theatre, support for this sort of role is undoubtedly growing. To adapt the saying slightly - playwrights may be born but they're also made. Their growth of talents is, to some extent, controlled by the treatment they receive from the medium they write for. It is an extraordinary and dedicated man who can, indefinitely, write for actors and improve, yet never hear his words spoken on a stage. Perhaps, gradually, the theatre is acknowledging this.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.