Of course I disagree with Michael Billington’s assertion, here, that ‘few dramatists possess a passionate commitment to the theatre’. However, he’s entirely right when he says it’s the adaptations that are doing well right now, that and verbatim work.
Neither of them are, as far as I’m concerned, NEW writing. It’s NOT writing when you make a verbatim piece, writing is making stuff up. That’s all (and everything) that writing is – making stuff up. With verbatim theatre (as with the all too many writers who use the work of actors to improvise and then cull lines from the actors’ improvisation/devising to create a piece) the big work is in editing. It’s re-making. At it’s best (London Road for eg) verbatim theatre is glorious choreography. At its worst it’s the drear, worthy stuff that all too many people think verbatim is – work we’re supposed to value because it’s true, whether it has any theatricality or not. Verbatim work is its own thing, but it’s most certainly not new writing. Nor do I think adaptation is the same as writing. I loved adapting Medea. I loved working on the text, I loved trying to make it real as well as poetry. But someone else had already done the really hard bit – someone else had already made up the story.
But whose fault is it that the work that’s doing so well right now is not new? It’s certainly not the fault of the dramatists who are trying their (our) hardest to make work in a recession, where all we are told is there’s no money, that it’s not easy, that we all have to pull back and retrench. This culture of fear is rampant in our theatre. It’s coming down from the top of the hierarchies, and the reason Michael Billington is not seeing NEW work on stages is because less NEW work is being commissioned and made. Theatres and managements know an old classic is always going to be safe, no matter how well made, how excitingly adapted. The reason theatres are turning to classics right now is because they’re scared, scared of lack of money, scared of audiences staying home, scared of the new. It’s the buildings and managements – commissioning and churning out classic play and novel adapations for audiences who like the comfort of what they already know – who lack daring and guts, not the writers.
Meanwhile the unfunded, unsubsidised Shaky Isles TaniwhaThames company finished our run at Oval House on Saturday night just a few quid off doubling our break-even target. Amazing. Yes, we made the show on less than a shoe-string, with an gorgeous company who gave more and more as the weeks went on, and yes we had great support from Oval House, but there are plenty of companies and individuals making work that is truly NEW. Mr Billington may just have to look outside the mainstream and/or subsidised buildings to find it.
also – serious dearth of women writers in Billington’s list. Still, given this (‘why is British public life so dominated by men?’ that’s no surprise.