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Birkbeck MFA Theatre Directing Unit G Essay:
My Time at the Royal Exchange. Or how I learned to appreciate programming,
creative producing and literary management
The directors relationship with the writer is only one aspect of my thinking that has
been exploded through my experience of being in a producing theatre. Before
Birkbeck I had never really appreciated any aspect of what goes on in buildings: the
full extent of artistic policy, engagement with communities or the process of building
a relationship with audiences.
As a freelance director who started at the Finborough, I understood a fringe
buildings workings very well and had a keen interest in the literary department in
particular, but whilst admiring Neil McPhersons artistic policy, I had no desire to do
his job, and the thought of being an artistic director seemed like opting for the side
lines as manager when you could have the fun of running around on pitch.
The role of literary manager too, seemed like the bit of the job Id rather not do,
preferring instead to read and report as part of the team without the bother of
sending out scripts and deciding where to meet. But I had entirely missed the point
of the literary managers role with regards to having responsibility for the
engagement of writers to become a part of a buildings work. The channels for how
theatres engaged writers were completely invisible to me. My thinking went no
further than directing the plays I liked.
First, through Phillip Hedleys session I became aware that plays meanings are
shaped significantly by who is watching and I instantly became aware of an artistic
directors responsibility, which is a useful compass in the practice of programming
work and cant help but make all theatres outward facing, engaging with their
audiences in other ways as well as producing plays.
I now know that the Exchange has an effective model for defining their wider role
within the community as a building about far more than just the plays it produces,
and found the experience of being there hugely valuable as someone who is now far
more interested in working for a building than continuing as a freelancer. Their
methods of building projects that engaged all strands of the theatres work together,
combining the young company with developing new work with engagement
strategies, has made me hugely interested in this business of devising inclusive
projects.

At a National Level
Three years ago, during a session organised through the NT Studio, I asked Nick
Hytner if he thought the name National Theatre meant that it had a duty to tour work
regionally, not just beam it into cinemas. He evaded the question somewhat but
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stunned us with his response. In his opinion, he told a group of young directors all
cutting their teeth on the London fringe, it was in fact the concentration of fringe
theatres in London that was responsible for draining talent away from the regions,
destroying an established model of professional development through which he had
come up.
At the time I didnt appreciate his comments, but I now wonder if we both missed the
point. I now think that the onus has to be on regional theatres making their own great
work. It cant be toured from London and it shouldnt even be the same model of
producing the hottest new writers plays. It has to be brilliant creative producing that
gives birth to new models for making great work relatively cheaply through
investment in models similar to the Exchanges Special Projects.
Collaborative work such as Hunger for Trade engages a number of artists, each on a
smaller scale than having their own play produced, but in a way that can create more
exciting forms that dont rely on an audience already knowing the name of the play,
or the writer; it can be sold through the idea. The project as a whole receives a brand
through what it aims to explore, and that is something audiences can get behind.
Effective new work develops artists, is prolific in its output, engages new audiences
and can give birth to further community projects. I am starting to realise that these
strands of a theatres work dont have to be separate; they can and should be
connected.
Theatres consider new work to be a risk. It relies on successful development
practices, takes time and even if the play and production are great they can be hard
to market and ultimately depend on having an engaged audience where trust has
been developed over time.
New work doesnt have to be risky though. It provides an opportunity to hand pick a
topic that is known to be an interest within the community and to find a broader
audience than existing theatre goers. A project about football for example, within the
context of Manchester, would find audiences who had never stepped foot in a
theatre before.
I used to be engaged with plays of a political nature. But now I know that the
business of choosing what goes on in a theatre is the REAL political act. I have
become engaged with notions I never previously thought about, including strategic
touring through my assist on Black Roses, through which I saw that taking a powerful
play about violence in a community to places more seriously affected by those
issues than middle class central Manchester immediately gravitates the work to
another level. It starts changing lives and opinions rather than just getting well
reviewed.
I am now a director with beliefs, where previously I had none. Beliefs enable me to
think about the nature of the work I want to makedesigning it on a conceptual level
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rather than simply waiting for plays to arrive that resonate with me. I now want to be
a theatre maker and creative producer, to instigate projects and engage artists in
response to a chosen stimulus.
Now, with funding cuts and austerity, many theatres and companies are complaining
(as exemplified by the In Battalions report) that the development of emerging artists
is suffering greatly BUT no one seems to be acknowledging or examining how to
make the most of what money there is. I hate this type of thing:
"We can no longer afford new full-length writing commissions, workshops on new
plays, nor can we plan, which is all part of the new writing development process.
Gillian Hambleton, Northumberland Theatre Company
There are good and bad ways for theatres/directors to support writers and despite
funding cuts there are ways for theatres to make the MOST of the money available
rather than squandering it, which I assert, happens a lot. Even if there was all the
money in the world, it wouldn't make up for the fact that many of the practices I've
observed only serve to damage relationships with emerging artists. Money and the
QUALITY of professional development aren't synonymous.
Through the In Battalions report I am now actively investigating the strategies
implemented to develop new work on a national scale, considering where money is
well spent and where it could be better utilised.
As I see it, new work is being developed through the following strands. From the
inclusive to the most select, here I have ordered them in terms of an organisations
allocation of resources:
SKILLS WORKSHOPS (e.g. Masterclass): These one off workshops to deliver skills
for 20-30 writers in each session. They may be useful to craft, but dont open the
avenues to a relationship with a producers.
STRUCTURED PLAY NIGHTS: These one night only performances of six ten minute
plays (for example) seem to be ways of filling Sunday/Monday nights in fringe
theatres. They are attended usually by the writers/actors friends and can be dead
ends to artistic energy.
UNSOLICTED SCRIPTS: Whilst only offered by 22 theatres and companies in the
UK, these open door policies provide an important opportunity for any good writing to
get noticed. How that relationship is then managed by the theatre or company is key.
SCRATCHES / FESTIVALS: BAC scratch nights or new work festivals are the DIY
model for writers/companies to get their work seen by an industry audience. They
require minimal investment on the theatres part and are highly successful for
building relationships within buildings and with like minded artists.
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SPACE (NT Studio/Royal Court): This hands off approach may give writers a
desk/rehearsal room--any environment in which organic collaborations and
encounters may take place. Requiring little investment from the building, they are a
vote of confidence in the artist and an organic model for development of craft.
COMPANIES (Writers in residence/on attachment): Resident writers at a company
such as Paines Plough are afforded the space and time to examine the structures for
making touring work whilst building a relationship with that company. Cheap and
very successful.
MENTORING SCHEMES: for the select few, perhaps nominated by theatres or
trusts, these writers are further along their career progression and are now being
given more resources (The Bruntwood Hub).
SPECIAL PROJECTS: Initiatives designed within producing theatres to commission
work from a number of writers who have achieved a level of engagement with that
theatre. They are successful because it is better for a theatre to engage four writers
on a project that costs less than putting one writers play on.
ATTACHEMENT (Pearson): These singular placements within a theatre provide a
talented playwright with opportunity to develop work for and within a theatre,
providing money to support the writer during this time. Very select but a very
successful model.
DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMMES: for big numbers of entry level writers through
schemes such as the Old Vics New Voices program, they are massively expensive
but by virtue of the fact that they take on many writers each year, it can become a
conveyer belt and grants little to no continued engagement.
AWARDS / COMPETITONS: These media fanfares are open access but eventually
grant prizes to a chosen few. They are hugely resource intensive. I believe that
playwriting prizes such as the Bruntwood are bad modelsthey suck resources
away from initiatives that better serve the development of craft.
By considering the strengths and weaknesses of each strategy I have developed a
set of conclusions that I will now bring to my practice as a theatre maker rather than
just a director. To me it seems the bottom three and top two within the tier of
expenses are wasteful, requiring the most management with the least return.
Amongst the middle tier, from Scratch nights to Pearson placements there is a level
of trust towards the artists (i.e. less structured and dictatorial) whilst granting the
greatest opportunity to produce an outcome or a relationship.
I used to think that theatre buildings, as dominant forces, often have an agenda that
is detrimental to an individual artist's voice because they often seem to want to
engage as many as possible and attempt to bend their talents to over-produced
schemes, or keep the largest talent base possible hanging on with the minimum
amount of contact in the hope that they might one day get a workshop.
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However, I believe that there is a middle ground, where writers are granted a broad
enough theme or issue to allow space for their own voice and it can be a very
successful model. The theatre should stand somewhere between the fringe model
(hands off) and the Old Vic New Voices model (dictatorial)a middle ground, where
the theatre is a fruitful suggester of ideas and then a generous host, affording time
and space without having to helicopter over everything.
In this respect, a director's role within a building for new writing development may be
best delivered as a creative producersomeone who can create creative calls to
arms, rather than trying to cherry pick individuals based on their submissions; the
resources are too stretched and an individuals opinion may become too dominant.
There may be some rules to engaging young writers in any capacity:
-Develop that writers craft. Genuinely. Dont just give some notes and hope they
write a better draft. Dont tell them what to write and get feedback from an audience.
Actually have them mentored. Commission them to write something they wouldnt
ordinarily to challenge themselves.
-Let the writer keep their voice. Dont make the theme so restrictive, so uninspiringly
linked to a main house show that they find it tough to muster the strength to get
engaged. Dont construct a format as boring as everyone read a newspaper and
write a scene inspired by a story. Actually pick something: The NHS / the education
system / the food crisismake it relevant. Make it broad. Leave room for them.
-Get their work on stage. Properly. With a production budget. An interesting
designer. A week long run. In a part of the programming that isnt an offcut Monday,
or down the road in a cheaper theatre. So that critics want to come, producers, and
an audience comprised of more than the writers mates.
Submissions, whether solicited or unsolicited are not the best way for theatres to
make early relationships with writers-getting a script report with feedback and a
reason code is faceless and industrial BUT if the right meeting is held off the back of
a good submission, to engage that writer in other initiatives it can be a useful
gateway.
Within the Exchange I observed TWO distinct strands of activity from the literary
department:
-NURTURING LOCAL TALENT: development activity/relationship management that
has nothing to do with programming but is VERY good for investing in the future of
the theatrical ecosystem in that region, building audiences amongst young people
and their families, marketing the theatres excellent use of public money, building a
national reputation, winning big on funding etc.essentially it starts a dialogue
between the theatre and local artists.
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-FEEDING THE PROGRAMME WITH EXCELELNCE: this is more expedientthe
cut-throat business of cherry picking the best writers work for the theatre. Just as
they have the hottest young directors, Blanche Macintyre/Maria Ayberg/Sam Yates
the theatre also wants a NATIONAL profile for its writing.
Often these strands are at odds with each other because as one hand develops a
writer, the other halts their opportunities in favour of better writers and it is easy for
writers to become disillusioned if they see a relationship they have courted over a
long time be usurped by others skipping to the front of the queue.
Overall, however, I believe the Exchange has a good policy mix of natural selection,
competition style projects that cherry pick the BEST plays for the theatre, and other
initiatives that invest in writer development, whilst also providing opportunities to
have their work shown and career developed.

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