Conference reports: who said what at which new writing conference
(Reports from the frontline...)
on the Eighth Birmingham Theatre Conference by Aleks Sierz
Report on the Eighth Birmingham Theatre Conference 2 by Aleks Sierz
Sometimes optimism pays off. In 1993, radical dramatist David Edgar pointed out that since we're living in a post-Cold War world, 'it seems to me inconceivable that young British playwrights will not bite into that subject with all the energy and vigour that their predecessors bit into the discontents of postwar Welfarism.'
Today, British theatre is enjoying a boom in new writing, proving that the idea of Cool Britannia - symbolising the energy of 1990s youth culture - is not confined to Brit pop or Brit film. Young writers such as Jez Butterworth (Mojo), Sarah Kane (Blasted) and Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking) are making a vivid contribution to the British stage.
Hosted by Edgar's postgrad course in playwriting studies at Birmingham University, About Now, the eighth annual conference, took place last weekend (11-13 April). Edgar, the author of Destiny, Maydays and Pentecost was upbeat about its theme, which is new work. 'Clearly,' he said, 'over the past four years, there has been an immense growth in exciting new writing by people under 30.'
In his opening address, Edgar outlined some of the characteristics of new British drama. For a start, masculinity 'is the big subject of the 1990s'. While in the 1980s, plays by women headed new work, now it's the turn of 'the boy's own play'. We are seeing a revival of the all-male play which examines a crisis in masculinity. One variant of the boy's play, said Edgar, 'is the girl-in-the-boys-gang play, where one woman holds a male milieu together.' Trainspotting and Shopping and Fucking are good examples.
A factor in the growth of new writing is sympathetic artistic directors such as the Royal Court's Stephen Daldry. But the new wave of in-yer-face plays is also a response to American work. 'The two texts that really turned things around were Angels in America and Oleanna,' said Edgar. 'People sensed that if American writers could write imaginatively about today's issues, then so could the British.'
'But what's needed is more institutional help for writers from the Arts Council,' said Edgar, before attacking 'the long march of the market through the institutions'. In a sharp critique, he showed how the 'BBC model' has affected the theatre system, especially outside London, leading to conservative programming and a stifling of diversity.
Putting the case against new writing, Peter Ansorge, senior drama editor at Channel 4, said that there were dangers in hyping up the new wave. Compared to the impact of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in 1956, today's plays were ghettoised and confined to small venues. The characteristic themes of new writing - drugs, kinky sex and violence - were, argued Ansorge, aimed at flattering young audiences rather than engaging the wider society in a debate.
The brat pack of new writers - of which Mark Ravenhill, David Eldridge, Rebecca Prichard and Conor McPherson were present - wrote plays aimed, said Ansorge, at 'their tribes' rather than at mainstream audiences. He concluded that the idea of a Golden Age in today's theatre was a media myth.
During the conference, new writing came under close scrutiny. The idea that the diversity of voices in today's theatre could be classified as a simple trend of 'boys plays' came under attack. For example, David Eldridge, author of Summer Begins, said that new drama was 'much richer than we give it credit for'.
Women playwrights, such as Winsome Pinnock, April de Angelis and Timberlake Wertenbaker, questioned the idea that women's writing could be pigeonholed as last decade's trend. They pointed out that many new plays are still being written by women.
In a session provocatively called Political Dinosaurs, the question of the supposed death of political drama was debated. Andy de la Tour, whose Landslide - a play about a Labour victory - is now at Birmingham Rep, attacked the narrowness of the cultural agenda set by theatre managements. Are new plays apolitical?
'In a sense yes,' said Edgar. 'But if Shopping and Fucking or Trainspotting are not state-of-the-nation plays, they certainly analyse a social milieu that's in crisis.' While the 'big political play' is not a form which appeals to writers under the age of 30, the reasons might be geo-political. 'In the 1970s we knew what we thought,' said Edgar. 'We had the optimism of the 1960s; we felt we were taking over. After the collapse of communism, it's surely no surprise that political drama is no longer centre stage.'
From Ireland, three playwrights who represented different generations and different parts of the island, spoke movingly about the effect of politics on drama. But while Bill Morrison and Anne Devlin - from the North - talked about how you couldn't avoid politics, Dublin's Conor McPherson had a more detached perspective.
Winding up the conference was a panel which included the Bush theatre's Mike Bradwell. He warned that the problem with seeing theatre as the new rock 'n' roll is that 'it could all go the way of the hoola-hoop'. Making sure that new writing was more than just a passing fad is hard work, and a new Labour government will have to fork out cash to sustain the new wave.
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Is It Just About Drugs, Kinky Sex and Violence?' in the Morning Star on 17 April 1997
Report on the Ninth Birmingham Theatre Conference by Aleks Sierz
'Better Red' conference report: in the 1980s, many practitioners of alternative theatre took a hard look at Thatcher's cuts in arts subsidy and decided that staying red might mean being dead. After all, early in the Iron Lady's first term, a Tory backbencher announced that it was his mission in life to put an end to all theatre groups which had the word 'red' in their titles. Founded in 1968, Leeds-based Red Ladder is one company that survived this bracing climate. But, in order to keep going, it has had to narrow its focus and concentrate on youth work.
Hosted by Red Ladder and David Edgar's MA in playwriting studies, 'Better Red' the Ninth Birmingham Theatre Conference (27-29 March 1998) discussed the state of 'the political and community theatre movement which,' says Edgar, 'still gives the lie to the idea that the only alternative to Miss Julie is Miss Saigon.'
The first part of the conference revisited the history of alternative theatre. Starting in the ferment of the street protests of 1968, socialist theatre groups were formed and turned their backs on mainstream venues and traditional drama. Instead, they tried to make the 'invisible visible', performing in new spaces (from community halls to working men's clubs) and to new audiences (from tenants groups to miners).
In the 1970s, groups such as General Will, Cartoon Archtypical Slogan Theatre (CAST) and Monstrous Regiment used both agitprop and surreal humour to hammer home their political points. But the failure of a mass audience for socialist theatre to materialise resulted in much soul searching. As Edgar says, 'The joke at the time went: "My show sold out." Yes, I know, but how did it do at the box office?'
Kully Thiarai, Red Ladder's current artistic director, charted the path that led from 'overthrowing the state' to 'service delivery work'. Since the mid-1980s, the group has concentrated on theatre for young people. But, she says, 'Instead of giving young people what they want, I want to go beyond what they think they want - our task is to mature young people's curiosity.'
After speaking about how theatre 'empowered' her at school, playwright Winsome Pinnock gave an account of her work with Clean Break, which works with female prisoners and ex-prisoners. While she was researching Mules, her 1996 play about drug smugglers, she found 'the prisoners were particularly impressed that I'd written two episodes of EastEnders.' In prisons, Mules, 'which is an action play that also makes you laugh', got standing ovations. In the mainstream, it did less well.
Enthusiastic audiences have greeted Mala Hashmi, whose Jama Natya Manch group performs street theatre in Delhi. Committed but unpaid, 'our aim has always been to take theatre to the people,' she says. Over 20 years, she estimates that 'about 50,000 people have seen our shows'. Despite violence from right-wing thugs, Mala Hashmi tells her audiences: 'If you want to take just one step, come and take it with us.'
While Pam Brighton of DubbelJoint spoke about her experiences of audience solidarity in West Belfast, Gillian Hanna talked about the early Monstrous Regiment tours. More than once, she says, 'We were booed off stage by lefties - which proved that a part of the audience didn't want to accept irony or debate.'
If one slogan of the 1960s was 'Revolution for the fun of it', CAST embodied this fun-loving element perfectly. As Roland Muldoon, a founder-member and now head of London's Hackney Empire, says: 'We were not so much agitprop as agitpop.' He sees Red Ladder as middle-class socialists, while CAST specialised in 'satirical comedy', rooted in popular culture.
Similar qualities appeal to 7:84 veteran greyhair John McGrath. 'I'm not interested in agitprop,' he says, 'what I want is for audiences to find their own solutions to their problems.' Theatre can be a place 'where we create an atmosphere of belief - which is rare.'
At Birmingham, there was plenty of belief in the power of drama to change lives. But there was also a great deal of scepticism not only about the government's commitment to the 'arts that cost money', but also about the insensitivity of mainstream institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. But there's nothing new about that.
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Look Back and Forward' in Tribune on 10 April 1998
Report on the Tenth Birmingham Theatre Conference by Aleks Sierz
What's the role of storytelling in a postmodern age? One of several paradoxes unearthed during the Tenth Birmingham Theatre Conference - aptly titled 'Losing the Plot?' - is that while hip postmodernists say conventional narratives are no longer meaningful, the public is crying out for stories it can understand. And a whole industry is now devoted to teaching writers the rules of good storytelling.
Organised by veteran radical playwright David Edgar, who teaches the MA in playwriting studies at the Birmingham University, this conference was one of those rare occasions when funky young academics (such as Dan Rebellato, who can make postmodern theory sound both interesting and amusing) rub notepads with established writers such as Phyllis Nagy and Stephen Jeffreys - as well as with up and coming playwrights such as David Eldridge and Sarah Woods.
Charlotte Keatley - whose play My Mother Said I Never Should is one of the most often performed feminist plays in Britain - related the complex structure of her work to femininity, while Shelagh Stephenson - whose Memory of Water is doing well in London's West End - took a more rationalist approach to writing. While some panellists were complacent and anecdotal, Nagy reminded us that one of the big unexplored themes in the nineties was 'the collapse of our collective bravery'.
Putting his venerable boot into New Labour's pathetic arts policies was veteran publisher John Calder, who also distributed application forms for the Shadow Arts Council, a new body launched by Peter Hall to encourage Culture Secretary Chris Smith to fund the arts properly. For a mere £10, anyone can join the party.
The star panel gave heavy-hitting academics David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury a chance to air their erudite views on adapting their own and other people's novels for television. The evening got a bit heated when Andrew Davies - who turned Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice so successfully into frock flicks - beat his own drum too loudly and provoked Theatre de Complicite's Annabel Arden to take him down a peg or two.
The contentious subject of soap operas - are they traditional moral stories for bored housewives or are they really open-ended narratives which, like capitalism, have taken on a life of their own? - exercised minds in a very informative discussion on how soaps are written. Archers fans in the audience were seen to go quite misty-eyed.
Finally, Michael Eaton - who wrote the drama-documentaries Shoot To Kill (about the RUC) and Why Lockerbie? - was left to remind us that although postmodern theory sees truth (aka the 'really real') as problematic and hard to fathom philosophically, it's still obvious that falsehoods exist. 'We must strip away the lies,' he said. The media may be unable to tell the whole truth, but that shouldn't prevent writers and programme-makers from exposing the political lies concocted by the state.
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Storytelling Rules' in Tribune on 16 April 1999
Sometimes the best way of looking at the future requires a backward glance. At the start of the '"In-Yer-Face?" British Drama in the 1990s' two-day international conference at the University of the West of England (Bristol, 6-7 September 2002), reference was made to 'About Now', the Eighth Birmingham Theatre Conference. If that was an interim report on the recent renaissance of new writing in British theatre, the publication of books such as my In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (Faber, 2001) and Dominic Dromgoole's The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting (Methuen, 2002) has proved that the subject remains both exciting and controversial.
Now that new writing in British theatre is more diverse, more widespread, and has bigger audiences and better funding than ever, it's salutary to remember that merely a decade ago critics and commentators were regularly bemoaning the 'crisis in new writing'. Then, in January 1995, came Sarah Kane's Blasted, and within a couple of years in-yer-face writers such as Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson, Martin McDonagh and Jez Butterworth had transformed the theatrical landscape.
Enthusiastically organised by Rebecca D'Monte and Graham Saunders - whose 'Love Me or Kill Me': Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes (MUP, 2002) is the first book to examine all Kane's plays - the conference offered a chance to assess the significance of new writing. Playwright David Eldridge kicked off the event with a personal account of the nineties, in which he found himself unwillingly cast in the role of 'the writer as bloke', and pressurised by the expectations aroused by his successful debut, Serving It Up, which he described as 'two-fingers up to some of my more PC student friends'. But while he was unhappy at being part of a 'banal in-yer-face gang', he was clear that in the past decade young writers have discovered a renewed sense of purpose.
In a paper titled 'Long Shadows and Elective Affinities', playwright Steve Waters reminded us that as well as marking a radical rupture with the past, the new writers of the nineties actively engaged with a rich tradition of British playwriting. Some of the best new work has been a rewriting of theatre traditions. After he suggested that the history of postwar British theatre could be reconfigured with Edward Bond's Saved as the turning point rather than John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the discussion broadened out to consider whether politics, in Mary Luckhurst's phrase, 'had become unfashionable'. Although the topic of race was notable by its absence, the question of what is political drama today constantly recurred.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of papers were about the work of Sarah Kane. They included Julie Waddington's account of apathy and passion in Phaedra's Love, Steve Barfield's reading of 4.48 Psychosis through a Lacanian perspective, Andy Smith's comparison of Kane and Howard Barker, Angela Stock's look at the links between Kane's violent stage images and those of Jacobean drama, and Valerie Martin-Perez's analysis of cruelty in Artaud and Kane. Josephine Machon and Paul Woodward explored the experiential quality of her work by reference to Woodward's November 2001 production of 4.48 Psychosis.
As well as Kane, the plays of Mark Ravenhill were examined by academics such as Sarah-Jane Dickenson and Helen Iball, who pointed out how echoes of Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams can be found not only in his Handbag but also in Phyllis Nagy's Weldon Rising, and Christine Quay, who examined the role of religion and metaphysics in Ravenhill's and Kane's plays. One of the more disturbing aspects of such work is its stage images of mutilation, and Dan Rebellato delivered a stimulating and original paper on the subject, suggesting that dismemberment and other atrocities express a desire for bodily wholeness in an age when globalisation 'breaks up the body both literally and metaphorically'.
On the level of practice, director Anthony Shrubsall explained how he tackled problems of characterisation in Mojo and Shopping and Fucking, two plays which have an 'amoral void of emotional experience' at their centre. Similarly, Philip Roberts gave a glimpse into Max Stafford-Clark's rehearsal techniques by reading from his diaries of the Out of Joint production of Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids - Roberts is currently editing Stafford-Clark's diaries for publication.
The reception of Sarah Kane in Germany, especially productions at the Schaubuehne, was the subject of Elahe Hashemi Yekani's paper, while Svetlana Klimenko looked at the 'special Danish enthusiasm' for Kane, and Mark Berninger 'went historical' by looking at Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House, which he found to be 'more revelling than rebelling'. Michal Lachman analysed two Polish versions of Kane's plays and the way they split critical opinion. As in 'About Now', women led the critical assault on cliched approaches to new writing. A feminist critique of the laddism and exclusiveness of in-yer-face theatre came from Carina Bartleet, who explored the links between today's women writers and the feminist theatre of the seventies and eighties. Elaine Aston spoke about Caryl Churchill's recent work, such as Blue Heart and Far Away, pointing out that critics have often failed to see that her power to disturb and discomfort remains as strong as ever. Similarly, Bill Boles argued that playwright Judy Upton was the previous decade's 'most accurate chronicler of gender wars'.
Scottish theatre and Irish drama were the subject of some controversial interventions. Jean-Pierre Simard looked at plays such as Simon Donald's The Life of Stuff, Irvine Welsh's Headstate and Suspect Culture's Casanova; David Pattie related plays by Chris Hannan, Stephen Greenhorn and David Greig to ideas about national identity; while Donna Soto-Morettini read Grae Cleugh's Fucking Games through the lens of Peter Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason. In another session, Nadine Holdsworth gave an excellent account of Gary Mitchell's work while Mary Luckhurst attacked the radical pretensions of Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore.
The highpoint of the conference was not the celebrity interview with actor Kate Ashfield, who'd been in the original productions of Blasted and Shopping and Fucking, but David Greig's keynote talk on political theatre, in which he expanded on his idea that political theatre must 'posit the possibility of change'. Criticising plays such as Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way for ending on a 'implied statement of hopelessness', Greig suggested that true political drama must in some way expand the imaginative horizons of its audiences, contesting the closing down of the imagination by the commercial mass media. Drawing on his experiences in Portugal and Palestine, he revived the idea of a rough theatre, 'liberatory, dangerous, poetic, intuitive, cheap, fast, enchanting and surprising'. 'Rough theatre,' he said, 'comes from resisting the management of the imagination by global capitalism.'
Similarly wide-ranging was Ken Urban's stylish and provocative paper on 'Cruel Britannia', in which he argued that the in-yer-face writers of the nineties explored the ethics of an active nihilism at a time when being 'cool' has become an imperative - and British culture's chief export. In the ensuing discussion, the political shortcomings of much in-yer-face theatre were criticised, although the work of Kane and Ravenhill withstands leftwing scrutiny better than most. Other discussions that broadened the theme of the conference included Gordon Ramsay's Theatre of the Fantastic manifesto, Kate Katafiasz's look at the influence of postmodernism and Juliet Rufford's examination of the Royal Court's new architectural style.
Winding up the conference, which was well attended and good humoured, I expanded on the theoretical and political implications of in-yer-face theatre, before arguing that, despite recent successes such as Anthony Neilson's Stitching, the first phase of in-yer-face sensibility in British theatre was now over, and that the future of new writing depended on exploring four areas: other styles such as magic realism; new fusions of writing, music, dance and physical theatre; writing for bigger stages; and, perhaps, reinventing a radically alternative fringe theatre whose practitioners could squat empty properties and put on shows outside the official and highly commercialised theatre system. But, in view of the volatile international situation, the words that had the greatest impact were not mine but those of Bertolt Brecht: 'Does not everything indicate that the night is falling and nothing that a new age is beginning? Should we not adopt an attitude appropriate to the people going into the night?' Chilling, eh?
© An earlier version of this article appeared as '"In Yer Face?" in Bristol', in New Theatre Quarterly 73, February 2003: pp 289-290.
Plus: new writing bibliography