With the Durham Drama Festival in full swing, showcasing a series of student new-writing pieces, there seems like no greater time to reflect on this crucial part of theatre-making. For there is, quite simply, no play without its playwright.
Consistent new-writing is key to ensuring that the future of theatre reflects the diversity and changeability of the modern world and its audiences. However, this endless writing is, unfortunately, fairly redundant unless it is put on the stage, in front of the world that it is born from and seeks to represent. Indeed, accessibility has always been a fundamental issue in theatre that, unfortunately, limits the amount of new-writing exposure. Likewise, in a constantly fluctuating industry and business, fewer producers are willing to take the risk that comes with funding new-writing pieces, instead safely backing revivals or US transfers of an already acclaimed production.
On a more positive note, however, recent times have also seen a huge rise in dedicated theatre companies and theatres that produce entirely new-writing. The Royal Court in London remains the most famous, but closer to home we have Box Of Tricks Theatre, Blowin’ A Hooley Theatre, Luxi Creative, Hive North and Workie Ticket Theatre Company, to name but a few, all of whom consistently showcase new-writing or run schemes that specifically support new playwrights and arts education for young people. Durham’s own Drama Festival 5-7 February is also actively contributing to this trend by aiding students and young people tackling the difficult task of getting your work on stage.
Combining life in the north with our capital, a famous piece of inspiration to many young playwrights is Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’, set in 1950s Manchester and currently enjoying a run in 2020 London. Delaney wrote the play when she was 19 and sent it to Joan Littlewood, director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, accompanied by what is now a renowned letter, in which she declared herself “quite unqualified for anything like this”.
What she proved, however, is that no-one is unqualified for theatre. By writing the play, this bus driver’s daughter from Salford determined to have her voice heard, even if by just one director in Stratford. But by producing it, Littlewood ensured that one small part of a million working-class lives was somewhat illuminated to those who were utterly oblivious. The piece undeniably sparked something of a cultural revolution, exposing the ignorance of Harold Macmillan’s claim in 1957 that Britain “had never had it so good”, and revitalising the ‘kitchen sink’ genre in British theatre.
This is not to say that every new piece of play-writing is guaranteed to change the world. Nor is getting started the only challenge: all new writers must continue beyond their first pieces to sustain and develop their work and themselves as creators. Likewise, theatres and companies must be held accountable for what they not only develop but place in front of audiences. Hopefully, the Durham Drama Festival will just be the start for many of the plays on display in the first week of February.
There’s still time to catch some shows. Tickets can be purchased here.
You can read more from me in my blog on the Assembly Room Theatre website – here.