Last updated: April 28, 2012 12:54 am

Stages of development

What do young playwrights gain from theatre schemes to nurture ‘emerging’ talent?
'24 Hour Plays' at the Old Vic

'24 Hour Plays' at the Old Vic

The websites of theatres such as the Royal Court or the Old Vic boast schemes aimed at helping “young and emerging artists”. The phrase is both restrictive and vague – “young” typically means aged 18-30, while “emerging artists” could refer to any of the thousands of people applying, auditioning and writing for theatres every year: a small fraction of whom will become the next generation of playwrights, actors, producers and directors.

The Royal Court Theatre in London has been nurturing young writers since the 1960s, with such past alumni as Simon Stephens and Joe Penhall. Luke Norris, 26, whose play Goodbye to All That headlined the theatre’s recent Young Writers Festival, describes the Court as “the pinnacle”. “It’s the place as far as I’m concerned. It’s the dream, it’s where you want to be as a new writer,” he says.

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Launched in 1973 by the Court, the Young Writer’s Festival is a biannual competition for writers aged 18-25 that usually showcases two plays and script readings, while the Court’s Young Writers Programme is a 12-week course that claims to offer “an introduction to playwriting”.

“When I first moved to London in 2006 the YWP was amazing,” says Nick Payne, 28, who had his first reading at the YWF in 2008 and has since had two other plays produced at the Court, the most recent being Constellations earlier this year. “You went along to an actual theatre every week and met other writers. The advice and support from the Royal Court was practical – they would read a play and respond, there was always a direct dialogue.”

Norris, too, applauds the scheme. “[The YWP] is brilliant because it gives deadlines and different stimuli,” he says.

For the majority at the start of their theatre careers, finding time to write on top of working the necessary day job can be a thankless task. One of the marks of being “emerged” is the ability to pay the bills through writing alone. Maintaining self-esteem is essential. “It’s about being able to feel like a writer,” says Norris. “And being treated like a writer.”

Still, as one playwright pointed out: “If you look at it cynically, the Royal Court, for the cost of one tutor, is getting a bunch of new plays every season without commissioning any of them.” It’s true: the Court benefits hugely from getting a playwright’s “first play” – but Norris is unconcerned: “They make no secret of it. They say, ‘We’re not here to do your play, we’re here to find great new drama and put it on.’” Having a play produced is the only thing that matters.

At the Old Vic, the theatre’s New Voices schemes are tailor-made for finding out about the industry in a short period of time. For its 24 Hour Plays, when seven plays are written and produced in 24 hours for artistic director Kevin Spacey and an audience of industry professionals, their approach is akin to locking around 50 young writers, actors, directors and producers in a theatre, chucking them some pencils and muttering, “Make something.”

Lucy Jackson, 26, is a producer who’s worked on most of the Old Vic New Voices (OVNV) schemes: “They’ve got this huge theatre with an incredible reputation and they are able to put people in a theatre for a night and say, ‘Now work together and create something that people want to see.’ The rest of it is up to you.”

It sounds terrifying, but Jackson describes it as a situation that forces people to find out who they work with best in a very short space of time. Afterwards, they are part of a network of industry professionals and peers. It’s that dreaded term “networking”, but done in a way that’s focused on producing a piece in a professional theatre rather than standing around a bar discussing ideas. “It becomes a card that you can play,” says Jackson. “A badge which means that certain people who have a certain reputation must have some kind of faith in me and what I’m doing.”

There’s a difference, though, between the glamour of what these schemes appear to be and the reality that they offer. On the New York Exchange, the Old Vic sends a group of emerging artists to New York to meet peers and higher-ups in the industry there. It sounds great, but as a few people told me (there seemed to be an underlying fear among artists I spoke to: that publicly criticising the schemes would destroy their careers), you pay for the flights, get bundled in large groups to meetings, and are generally met with pleasant smiles and little else. An emerging artist’s reputation rarely travels.

One writer whose has is Ella Hickson. Her first play Eight debuted at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008, the year she graduated from university. It won a Fringe First award, and the Carol Tambor award, which involved a transfer of Eight to New York. After graduating, Hickson, 27, did the YWP at the Royal Court and the New York Exchange with the Old Vic.

'Binary' as imagined by a graphic artist

'Binary' as imagined by a graphic artist

For her, it’s a case of realistic expect­ations, of understanding that these schemes aren’t going to launch a career overnight: “It’s not just a chance to get produced,” she says. “Lateral networking, exposure to your peers and training with them, is actually incredibly rare ... unless you’ve got 10 incredibly willing friends and a house that’s built like a theatre, it’s quite difficult.”

Or unless you’re in a town that’s been taken over by a theatre. The High Tide Festival is a new writing festival that takes place over two weeks in the Suffolk market town of Halesworth, population 6,000. And it offers something different to the theatre schemes: a guaranteed independent production. This year it is putting on 18 shows, all first-time productions. Payne had a show here in 2008; this year Jackson is producing Mudlarks, her first named role as an independent producer, and Hickson premieres Boys.

It’s also a chance for those who have taken a different route to share their work and take part in the discussions. Curious Directive, an emerging company that produces devised work on the relationship between science and theatre, will be performing Binary at the festival.

The company formed at Warwick University and had initial success at the National Student Drama Festival in 2008. Since then, it has taken a more independent path – sourcing venues, theatres and events by “finding opportunities in the right places”, according to the group’s artistic director Jack Lowe.

There aren’t many schemes designed for the aims of a devising company. Instead, Lowe has created a board of industry professionals who advise on the logistics of shows, such as funding, practicalities and venues. It’s an example of the kind of contacts and expertise that others get on these schemes – how did Lowe manage it without? “Writing a lot of emails,” he tells me, without much of a smile. Lowe plans to use High Tide to learn how to “work with writers better in terms of scientific themes” – perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the two writers on Binary is Alexandra Wood (Royal Court, Young Vic).

There’s no guarantee that these schemes will turn an emerging artist into a success, but those who have been on them see them as an essential part of their development – for confidence, contacts and having their work produced. Payne has taken part in all these schemes, is close to 30, and, he says, is “about to be chucked out of the ecosystem. But that’s fine – I’m not saying it will be easy, but nothing guarantees a career and that’s part of the risk, that’s OK ... I am now emerged!”

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