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I felt the need to finally break my blog silence today (if the fact I have only blogged about once before can count as breaking a silence).

That is for one reason. In Deptford (which in SE London nestles between its trendy student cousin New Cross and rich sometime snobby uncle Greenwich) a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions is taking place.

I have grown to love Deptford during my time in London. It is where my place of work resides so I have spent lots of time walking its streets. I love its awesome market and the quirky nature it holds, and its inhabitants all possess. One of its gems is being taken away however. And without a sad whimper.

The Deptford Arms on Deptford High Street is closing down. Without warning and without any sign of a petition or anything. It is being replaced with a Betting shop… Or should I say ANOTHER betting shop. PADDY POWER coming soon! – It says in the windows of the boarded up pub. That will mean that a 100m stretch of Deptford High Street will have at least four bookies. Nothing seems to hit home more about the fact we really might have to deal with a recession (apart from the actions of a Tory government –… Liberal who?) than countless Bookmakers popping up everywhere when everyone else is closing down. Suddenly gambling with risk and chance is the only way some will find to make ends meet – to find a way to gain the wealth people feel is at least acceptable. It is this risk that seems so more appealing when your pay check no longer stretches further than one pint (thus the closing pub)

… So where do the arts fit into the changing face of Deptford High Street (and changing name to Betford or perhaps Debtford). Two things:   The Deptford Arms closing is tragedy of Shakespearian proportions because it is the place Marlowe met his tragedy. It is where Christopher Marlowe is meant to have been stabbed and it had still existed till this very day (does anyone know if it is still the original building? – answers on e-postcards, please) until Paddy Power decided to move in and give the people extensive choice on where they want to gamble their money and loiter in until about 9pm (!). The second thing is it reminds me of something that someone from Birmingham Rep once said at Exeter Uni at a conference at some point (my memory is profound). We seemed to be just approaching the recession then and many people were pondering how this would affect the arts. The chap from the Birmingham Rep stated that a recession meant that theatre had to take MORE risks and not play safe like he felt most would. He believed that it would be risk that would find the success stories and that a recession meant artists had to be even more creative, think even further away from the dreaded box to find the next big thing.

It is in this regards that I think performance should follow the example of Betford. We need to gamble to find the products and shows that will give us cultural wealth. Even if we remain short of pocket. It is that empty feeling in our wallets that should make everyone push the boundaries of theatre to find the next huge show.

So pay heed big theatres and producing houses. Pay heed companies and artists who think now might be the time to play safe. People short of money will take a risk on something they think could be new and great. Not safe, old and more of the same. They can’t afford it. Pay heed or find your establishment go the way of something similar to Marlowe’s now defunct watering hole. Pay heed or watch your theatre become a Foxy Bingo bingo hall.

Charlie.

Election night in WBN Towers went something along the lines of: watch rolling news in a vaguely obsessive compulsive manner, order pizza, discover that said pizza wasn’t as good as it used to be and thus blame David Cameron for affecting crust quality already, rubbish the exit poll (no one exit-polled us. In fact no one has exit polled me ever), drink wine, feel amused at the army of young people lifting ballot boxes in Sunderland (“Child labour up North – they better get used to it”), drink more wine, talk a lot about voting problems – and which polling station in Lewisham it had been that continued voting until 10.30, feel pain when the Conservatives make their first significant gains, WHERE ARE THE RESULTS?, shout loudly when Tooting stayed Red, generally be a little bit confused, drink more wine, indulge in calculations about seats needed, concede we might have been a bit wrong re: exit poll, feel sad for Dr Evan Harris (in twisty, turvy nature of fate someone who’d been MP for everyone sat in the room at various points during the previous decade), still be confused, fall asleep for twenty minutes somewhere around 5.00am, wake up with head in sofa cushion and discover am even more confused, swap wine for water, what – Lewisham have only just started counting?, like Caroline Lucas lots, conclude that we’re not the only ones who are confused as Nick Clegg retains his seat, COFFEE. And – er, who’s in charge exactly?

Along with what I suspect is every playwright in the country Charlie and I immediately wanted to write a play about the events (we’re now expanding to a six part television series). But the need to do contracted work that didn’t have anything to do with the election and sleep and whatnot filled up the next 24 hours. So I was rather excited (and impressed) that supporting wall had gathered together five hardy writers and (possibly) a copious supply of pro-plus, locked them in a room at 10.00pm on 6th May and made them write a short play in reaction to election day. Then merely one day later staged them. Things like this make me punch the air in delight – not only are they a little bit insane in the amount of work (and lack of sleep) that has to go into them but they demonstrate exactly how theatre can react to the world around it.

As Producers Ben Monks and Will Young (no, not that Will Young) noted the writers weren’t reacting so much to a result as to a question. And I was interested with what answers (or not) the five writers would dream up.

But…erm, it quickly became apparent that (on the whole) the writers weren’t reacting to election night (as the publicity suggested) as much as they were reacting to the election campaign (or, in one case, a rather generic election night). Which is all well and good, and in another type of evening, I’d have been very much up for a bit of campaign gazing.  But I was expecting quick fire responses to what was becoming apparent was the most dramatically interesting election night of my lifetime. I couldn’t help but feel that aside from a couple of references (hello, Nigel Farrage) there was no reason at least three of the plays couldn’t have been written at a more leisurely pace (with all the tightening and editing that would have allowed).

The stand out piece – that had me from the moment its premise was announced if I’m honest (a group of prisoners watch election night on television) – was Anders Lustgarten’s Bang Up. Not only did it have a genuinely provocative premise (Prisoners can’t vote after all) it also had something which, I hate to say, was missing – or unintelligible – from the other plays: a politically beating heart. Which is before I get to the part about it being genuinely funny – so much so that I found myself writing down lines (“You winning Sunderland is like getting an STI at a Stag Party. Unfortunate but not exactly unexpected”. “I don’t understand how you’re a Conservative” “Why?” “You’re black and a criminal”. “We need change. Yes, that’s right – change is what we’ll be living on for the next five years under you”). As with any hastily written play there were problems (the ending jarred) but I hope Lustgarten continues with this piece – I’d certainly pay to see its final outcome.

In some respects the evening felt like a homage to other playwrights (Rex Obano gave us vintage Harold Pinter, Che Walker channelled Caryl Churchill’s Far Away and Phil Wilmot even went as far subtitling his play After Uncle Vanya). What I didn’t get was five distinctive voices (though there were five distinctive styles) on the events of May 6th 2010. And – schooled as I am by the Goldsmiths method – there was a definite lack of basic research going on (I know, I know, but pro-plus, coffee and a quick google about how PPCs are chosen wouldn’t have hurt). And, erm, other than actual politicians, no one does The Thick of It as well as The Thick of It so – stay away.

When I discovered that the writers had to deliver scripts by 3.00pm on Friday I wondered if the timings had led to some of the problems. My experience of the election night (if we take out the wine) would mainly have been characterised by mild terror, mild (blind) hope and confusion. To react to election night, really, you couldn’t have started to write until morning because the story took so long to play out. Did that impact? What parameters were given to the writers? And, out of interest, how politically engaged (or disengaged) did the writers consider themselves to be?

I’d like to think I’m fairly aware of the compromises that have to be made by shows written and produced in such a short space of time (both as a Writer and as a Producer) and my expectations (and enthusiasm) were for these reasons rather than against them. I guess – I wanted more. I wanted aspirations and anger and fire and triumph and loss and hope and – well, everything election night 2010 felt like to me.

Yet another interesting post over at 99seats – this time about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of writing rather than the ‘how’. For, as I know from my own experience, writing groups tend to focus only on the ‘how’:

“There is a problem, though, and it’s exactly this: the focus is on craft, style, but rarely, if ever on substance. The focus is on the How and never on the What. Or even more importantly on the Why.”

Of course people need to know how to structure and use form and image and metaphor and etc etc (sadly my experience of reading unsolicited scripts points to the fact that these aspects of the ‘craft’ of playwriting do get ignored) but some times you do need someone to stop you and ask: why?

If there is one question which haunted everyone during my MA it was the one which our course convener would utter at some point during every class: why now? And, I would argue, the case can always be made for good art (case in point: Alan Bennett’s The History Boys would have withered at that question and that play is, however you look at it, bloody brilliant). Whilst equally I do not want to sit through a hundred different plays about – say the financial crisis – because it is a ‘now’ topic. But what was so brilliant about asking us that question is that it forces you to examine what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. And – maybe most importantly if you’re looking to have a play put on and suchlike – why anyone else should care.

Over the course of the year we spent many, many more hours talking about the whats and the whys than we did about the hows. That meant that some times you would have to say ‘ I don’t know’ or question someone on the ideology of their play which some times made you want to go somewhere quiet and rock in a corner.  And whilst I can’t speak for anyone else, just having that question floating around made me a better writer. My answer to ‘why now?’ may be as simple as ‘because I have to’. But I’m not scared of either asking it or having to answer it – and the more writers who can say that the better.

I feel before I write this blog that I should probably attach some kind of disclaimer to it –  the disclaimer being that the thoughts given are very much my own and that everyone is entitled to their own opinion…

Saying that, I do feel that some clarity needs to be given on what we can class as ‘new writing’. Where am I going with this? An example: I saw an adaptation of a well known ghost story the other day in a rather large local London venue. Suffice to say, it was poorly written, wearily acted and would have looked dated in the 1980s. Now, the fact that the script hadn’t seemed to have seen its way past a first draft (at least I assume not) which resulted in many minutes of boredom was not the problem. I have come to the sad realisation that ‘tat’ (in my humble opinion) will get commissioned for the stage.

My problem is that this well known short story adapted for the stage had to be classed as ‘New Writing’. At least, I had to reconcile it in my mind as such. Why this disturbed me so is not because it is an adaptation (I am fond of adaptations myself, and WBN is planning an adaptation of epic proportions), nor is the problem the productions dreadfulness. The problem I had was WHY NOW? Neither the script nor the production seemed to have any relevance to the world we live in today. The only reason I can fathom that this play was made was for financial reasons. In fact, I think the production meeting probably went something like this: … ‘People might know this story – and they def know the author… We could do it with just three actors and a shoddy set! Ooh, let’s pay a small child to write an adaptation for the price of a mars bar!’…

I am not trying to suggest that ALL new writing needs to be based on current affairs. Even I, with a love of political theatre, would get bored if every play on was a Stockwell or an Enron (by the by, if anyone has an Enron ticket they want to give me I will give many pounds or do things for them of a suspect nature). But surely New Writing should be coming from the now – the writer or creator is making it based on the world and life they are living today. If this is too much of a problem (or if this is just my sole humble opinion, and gets shouted down by the masses) could there be some kind of differentiation?

If a distinction hasn’t already been made, may I be so bold as to coin the term NOW WRITING. Writing we can see has been created for now – that resonates with the world today. That doesn’t mean it has to be about the Olympics or Iraq or current affairs but has a sense of today’s world at its core – in its being. Now, that is obviously going to be subjective and my argument may be flawed and problematic. But if we can find a way of separating new writing so the next Jerusalem doesn’t get tarred with the same brush as the inevitable new adaptation of Dracula (because Vampire are SO in right now) then I would be very happy… I’d be nit picking and snobby, but happy.

Charlie

Write By Numbers

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