Hundreds of planes cross the Atlantic every day, but, despite similarly writer-led theatre cultures, only a very small proportion of new plays make the same journey in either direction.
Laurence Boswell, artistic director of the Ustinov Studio in Bath, is out to change that. Under his watch, the Ustinov’s artistic policy revolves around UK premieres of international work and, for his next season, he’s looking to the US. The three playwrights involved – Richard Greenberg, Amy Herzog and Michael Weller – have all won prominent awards at home, but British audiences have had scant opportunity to see their work. Greenberg and Weller have had one West End production apiece. Herzog’s contribution, 4,000 Miles, will be her British debut. “These are major writers with a huge catalogue,” says Boswell. “We should be seeing more than one of their plays.”
Only a handful of American writers have built a significant body of work in Britain; Neil LaBute, David Mamet and John Logan, for example. The latter two have work opening soon – Mamet’s Race (2009) at the Hampstead, Logan’s Peter and Alice (2013) in the West End. The Royal Court, too, has committed to a small number of American writers – recently Tarell Alvin McCraney, Christopher Shinn and Bruce Norris, whose latest, The Low Road, opens in March. But we risk losing sight of a wider picture.
“The UK is getting a small slice of American playwriting,” says John M Baker, literary manager at the Woolly Mammoth theatre in Washington DC. “That particular group of writers doesn’t represent the true scope of our new play landscape.”
Boswell is more cautious: “It’s double-edged. They are undoubtedly major writers and deserve heralding, but, as ever with great whales, they do crush some of the other fish.”
Meanwhile, for all the talk of a British invasion, America’s cross-pond view is equally blinkered; not so much confined to particular playwrights as to particular venues. Royal Court and National Theatre plays regularly transfer to the US or get new productions, but smaller institutions are under-represented.
So what’s missing? Admittedly, every import keeps a homegrown play offstage. But, as Boswell argues, “It’s really important that we embrace the otherness of these plays.”
Both he and Baker point to the theatrical ambition of recent American writing, citing Sarah Ruhl, a playwright with roots in poetry, as a prime example. “There’s a whole post-realist group of writers,” Boswell explains, “who are looking at new ways of writing plays.” Broadly speaking, these are expressive plays, often streaked with magical realism, that sit at odds with Britain’s dominant strand of social realism. Ruhl’s 2007 play Dead Man’s Cell Phone, about a woman who falls into a stranger’s life after answering his phone, was described as a “loopy odyssey” by the New York Times.
Yet Christopher Haydon, artistic director of the Gate in London, where half his programming has come from the US, wonders whether such work appeals to British audiences. “At the most flamboyant end of American playwriting, there’s a style that would feel quite alien to us: people coming out of filing cabinets and so on. That surrealism can be incredibly exciting theatrically, but I’ve read plenty and just thought ‘Oh, shut up.’”
At the other end of the spectrum, according to the Royal Court’s literary manager Chris Campbell, are plays like John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or David Auburn’s Proof, soon to be revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Campbell characterises them as “theatre of debate: literate, articulate plays in which literate, articulate people discuss and solve a problem. Very often characters talk about the play’s core subject.” Yet both Doubt and Proof won Pulitzer Prizes, America’s most prestigious award for new plays.
So too did Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, but only after its UK premiere at the Royal Court led to an acclaimed Broadway revival. The original New York production went largely unnoticed. Campbell points to Norris’s “rough, violent humour that’s sometimes seen as unruly in the States, but which we like very much”.
However, Haydon believes Britain only sees one side of Norris. This month his 2002 play Purple Heart, set against the Vietnam war, opens at the Gate. “Through Clybourne Park and The Pain and the Itch [Royal Court, 2007] he’s seen as the scourge of the middle class. This play is different.”
Written just after the invasion of Afghanistan, it offers an alternative perspective to most British plays about war. “Aside from Black Watch, most of our stuff about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq concern the political machinations,” says Haydon. “America has 1m serving soldiers to our 80,000, so the response has been far more personal. Far more people have a stake in it.”
Another facet of contemporary American drama is its ability to tackle expansive national narratives. “Americans are still able to take their national story seriously in a way that we’re not,” says Campbell, referencing a tradition stretching from Sam Shepard and Tony Kushner. There are exceptions; Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Simon Stephens’s Harper Regan, both acclaimed on Broadway in recent years.
At a certain point, however, that reflection grinds to a halt. Haydon believes Purple Heart struggled in the US because the Vietnam war remains too loaded for audiences. Katori Hall has argued that The Mountaintop, an Olivier award winner in London, struggled on Broadway because it dared to criticise Martin Luther King. Challenging the consensus becomes doubly problematic if you’re British, as Lucy Prebble discovered when Enron’s Broadway transfer bombed, losing a reported $4m. “The one thing they absolutely don’t like from us are plays about America,” warns Campbell.
In part, that’s the result of a risk-averse new-writing culture. Lacking subsidy, American theatres rely on subscribers and are wary of scaring them off with controversial, or unproven, new work. That caution impacts on British plays.
Crucially, it also means that American writers struggle to get new work produced. Many end up stuck in cycles of readings and workshops and, as such, remain invisible to British programmers. For Campbell, that’s “catastrophic. A processed theatre comes out the other end. The more you develop a play, the more it resembles every other play.”
Haydon is more positive, arguing that it’s “a hugely untapped resource. Even if you take out 80 per cent of plays that won’t work for British audiences, that still leaves lots of brilliant writers.”
Ultimately, cross-pollination remains vital. As Boswell says, “A great writer is neither American nor British, but an open-property and an inspiration. Real talent, real vision is international.”
The American Season, Ustinov Studio, Bath, March 7-June 15, www.theatreroyal.org.uk/ustinov
‘Purple Heart’, Gate, London, until April 6, www.gatetheatre.co.uk
‘The Low Road’, Royal Court, London, March 21-May 11, www.royalcourttheatre.com