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Back catalogue: New writing

‘Art flourishes in times of struggle’: creativity, funding and new writing by Aleks Sierz (2003)

‘Civilisation is money. Money is civilisation. And civilisation – how did we get here?’
(Brian in Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, Royal Court 1996)

‘It seems to me,’ writes David Mamet, that ‘in the life of the individual and in the life of the community or the culture, art flourishes in times of struggle, and, in times of surplus, disappears.’ (1) It’s so rare that a playwright expresses an opinion about creativity that when they do, it may be worth taking notice. Does theatre actually flourish in ‘times of struggle’? Has art really disappeared in ‘times of surplus’? Certainly, creativity is a slippery beast. Most writers are notoriously unwilling to discuss it – perhaps in the superstitious belief that describing inspiration will in some way diminish it. Academics find it hard to define, although much has been written analysing its psychological, biographical and social context – and self-help manuals encourage the use of techniques aimed at stimulating it. (2) It is now also a political buzz word: in 1998, Chris Smith, New Labour’s first culture supremo, published a book called Creative Britain; soon after, the home page of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport declared that ‘Britain’s creativity is flourishing as never before, whether in creative industries such as advertising or film, or in the visual and performing arts’, and in the 2001 press release for the Arts Council’s announcement of ‘£25 million extra for over 190 theatres and companies’, Stephen Daldry, a member of its theatre committee, said: ‘Subsidised theatre is the source of so much creativity in this country [...] new funds promise to once again encourage aspirations, innovation and creativity’. (3) But, apart from hype, what is the relationship between funding and creativity?

Take the case of new writing, arguably more of an indicator of theatrical health than classical revivals, physical theatre or live art. Crude common sense might suggest a direct relation between money going in, and talent coming out. If so, you’d expect the two national flagships – the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company – to be about ten times more creative than theatres such as the Royal Court, the Soho theatre, the Bush theatre or a regional rep simply because they get about ten times as much subsidy. But both these institutions have mixed records – and, until recently, whatever their achievements in reviving the classics, neither could boast a good track record of innovative new writing. And, over the past decade, specialist new writing venues (and new writing is a specialised activity) such as the Royal Court, Traverse and Bush have become adept at turning weakness into strength, making the most of low funding (by Continental European standards) to stage creative drama.

But creativity is not a tap that can be turned on or off. Even among such venues, increased funding might permit more ambitious programming, with more plays and larger casts, but that does not necessarily mean that what appears on stage is more creative or innovative, in the sense of pushing out boundaries or grabbing a place in the contemporary canon. Indeed, a creative play is hard to define. When money is short, and funding is cut – as it was to touring companies in the 1980s and to some fringe venues in the 1990s – ideas about whether a theatre’s output is creative or not become hotly contested. Arts funders, who have to implement political decisions that they themselves have not taken, struggle in hard times with questions of whether to spread the misery of cuts evenly or to close down some venues so that others might thrive. Either way, their decisions are more often political than an objective reflection of creativity. In terms of aesthetics, who decides? Critics, arts bureaucrats, academics or the paying public? Although postmodernism has destabilised traditional notions of form, character and plot without providing alternative criteria, it is surely still possible to distinguish a bad play – a show that doesn’t work, whether in term of writing, acting or staging – from a good one. Creative failures can be distinguished from humdrum work. Incompetence is common enough to be instantly recognisable.

Even so, objectivity is a chimera. Box office success only proves a play is popular, not that it’s innovative. Typically, even the best new writing theatres put on bad plays as well as good, have bad years as well as good ones. Headline-grabbing successes are rarer than seasons which mix success and failure. Two examples from the short career of Sarah Kane are suggestive. Her 1995 debut, Blasted, was savaged by critics, some of who called for the Royal Court’s subsidy to be cut – clearly, they did not grasp its innovative form. Three years later, her equally daring Cleansed played to 14% houses. Yet both works are now widely praised for their creativity. (4) To judge just how difficult it is to match funding with creative output, it’s enough to play a game: make a list of years from 1956 to 2002. Against each date write the annual Arts Council grant to a particular theatre; then compile a list of work produced by that theatre on another sheet of paper and see if anyone can guess the aesthetically good years just by looking at the list of funding increases – or vice versa.

If the creative quality of what appears on stage is bound to be contested, theatres can be creative in other ways. During the 1990s, the Royal Court, under artistic director Stephen Daldry, was innovative in terms of theatrical space (remodelling the auditorium for shows such his revival of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen) and in terms of programming (putting on more studio shows for shorter runs). By contrast, the National’s much hyped 2002 Transformation season of new writing (which spent the equivalent of the Royal Court’s annual budget in five months) was a rather lame and uncreative copy of these innovations. Some theatres have been creative in other ways. For example, when it moved to its new building in 2000, the Soho theatre had to raise money to pay for the £3 million freehold. So it formed a partnership with a residential developer, who let the building’s top three floors as luxury flats, which meant the company could afford to run the rest of the building. (5) And, sometimes, poverty can be the spur to innovation. When Katie Mitchell was asked to direct Jon Fosse’s Nightsongs for the Royal Court in February 2002, her experimental approach (no costumes, few props, short rehearsal) was dictated by lack of funds rather than ideology. (6) There are a variety of ways in which theatres can be creative: in their staffing policies, in their programming, even by deciding to go dark for a while.

Although it is difficult to prove Mamet’s idea that ‘art flourishes in times of struggle, and, in times of surplus, disappears’, what’s evident is that the idea expresses a powerful modern myth – the seductive notion that comfort encourages complacency and that a certain amount of discomfort can generate creative solutions. Whatever its truth, the idea is worth exploring.

In-yer-face theatre
It is clear that the history of British postwar drama has been punctuated by creative high points, years when a flash of energy lit up the theatre scene. The latest renaissance of new writing happened around the middle of the 1990s: in the same way that an earlier new wave was heralded by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956, this upsurge was symbolised by Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Although the 1990s were, to use Mamet’s phrase, ‘times of surplus’ for many people (despite gross social inequalities), for theatre it was a period of struggle (despite the largesse that came from the National Lottery). State subsidies for many theatres were either at a standstill or being cut, and morale in many new writing centres was low. The paradox, of course, is that the mid-1990s upsurge of creativity happened despite this. And the boom sector was new writing. Arts Council statistics show that, at the end of the 1980s, new plays formed less than 10% of staged work in subsidised theatres; by 1994-96 the figure was 20%. Even more important has been box office success. In the late 1980s, new writing regularly attracted audiences of less than 50%; by 1994, this figure was 53%, and by 1997 it was 57%, which means that new plays were outperforming adaptations, postwar revivals, translations, classics and even Shakespeare. ‘Theatre-going, still the most popular cultural activity, just ahead of visiting museums and galleries, hit a high of 24% [of Britain’s adults] in 1994-95 [when the new wave arrived].’ (7)

The upsurge in new writing in the 1990s was characterised by an avant-garde of in-yer-face writers, whose streetsmart sensibility and formal innovations attacked the complacency of the British theatre scene, provoking controversy and encouraging imitators. (8) Between about 1994, when plays by writers such as Philip Ridley and Anthony Neilson alerted audiences to a new experiential aesthetic, until 1999, when the suicide of Sarah Kane seemed to bring this era to a close, scarcely a month passed without a new writer making their newsworthy debut. And where they led, others followed. The result was that, at the start of the new millennium, the British new writing scene was more varied, more creative and more optimistic than at any other time in the past three decades. Scores of new authors produced work which was diverse and innovative. And the phenomenon attracted the attention of funding bodies – which meant more money for new writing than ever before. Finally, it also made a splash abroad. In 1995-99, there were more than four hundred productions worldwide of plays premiered at the Royal Court.

A good example of the creativity of small theatres run on a shoestring is the record of the Bush theatre in West London, a tiny ninety-seat pub theatre whose pioneering writers have won critical plaudits and moved on to the dizzy heights of television and the West End. ‘I suspect that the Bush’s sustained creativity over 30 years,’ says critic Michael Billington, ‘has a lot to do with the cramped, confined space itself: it both induces audience complicity and releases the imagination of artists.’ (9) Like some other small theatres, the Bush turned a potential drawback – a small studio space – into an actual advantage, creatively pioneering a form of experiential theatre that electrified its audiences. Since then, increases in its funding have enabled it to do more things, but haven’t had much effect on what is seen on its stage.

Crucial to the stimulation of creativity in the 1990s was the leadership of artistic directors such as Stephen Daldry (Royal Court), Dominic Dromgoole and Mike Bradwell (Bush) and Ian Brown (Traverse). Graham Whybrow, literary manager of the Royal Court, says: ‘Since 1994-95, our theatre – which is funded to do eight productions a year – has produced fifteen to nineteen shows a year by being creative, entrepreneurial and frugal. If theatres search, and know what they’re looking for, they’ll find good new writers.’ Daldry’s decision to stage short runs, but many productions, meant that it has premiered the work of more than fifty first-time playwrights since 1994. (10) As Jack Bradley, literary manager of the National Theatre, says: ‘If you put on lots of plays, you attract people. If you don’t, people forget to come.’ (11) Creativity is stimulated less by the amount of funding you get, and more by the way you use it: in the 1990s, the winners were not those theatres with the biggest budgets, but those that used their funding to stage a critical mass of productions. And the publicity generated by provocative programming brought in new audiences.

Commercialised theatre
One aspect of creativity concerns the way people think about the world of theatre. By now, the traditional myths about the structure of postwar British theatre are no longer a useful way of imagining the whole theatre system. Neither the bipolar division – created in the 1950s – between commercial and subsidised sectors, nor the tripartite division – so characteristic of the 1970s – between public, commercial and fringe theatre, have survived the political, economic and social changes of the 1980s. Both these mythical structures were dispatched by Thatcherism, which imposed the profit motive on almost all sectors of public life. As most commentators have noted, the 1980s was an era in which success, counted as ‘bums on seats’, became a criterion for funding, while the ‘right to fail’ (which had been to central to, for example, the Royal Court during George Devine’s stewardship) became a phrase which was spoken in whispers, and scarcely ever passed the lips of the new breed of arts administrators. (12)

By the end of the 1990s, the British theatre system had been commercialised from top to bottom. Now, subsidy makes up less than 50% of the income of subsidised theatres (another nail in the coffin of any theory that sees a direct link between funding and output). In place of bipolar and tripartite divisions, the theatre system resembles a three-tier pyramid, with the great flagship institutions such as the National and RSC at the top, closely followed by the top commercial organisations and smaller metropolitan and regional theatres. Since commercial criteria are now so pervasive, the fringe is not longer defined politically as an oppositional area but economically as a poor relation. Indeed, Time Out – the London listings magazine – now lists shows in three categories: West End (the top subsidised theatres and the West End commercial houses); Off-West End (which includes theatres with high production standards that are not in central locations); and Fringe (which includes poorly subsidised or unsubsidised venues).

But even if this three-tier model reflects most people’s experiences of going to theatre in the capital, it is also subject to change. For example, during the 1990s, argues Dominic Dromgoole, now artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company, the system became increasingly centralised:

'In the mid-1990s, there was a more vibrant garage-band feel when anyone could get their play on at the Old Red Lion or the Finborough [pub theatres]. And people would enjoy that. At the moment, we have an overconcentration on the centre – the Royal Court, Soho and Bush – whereas ten years ago there was no centre. You were as likely to have a good evening on the fringe as at the National. Now, there is not that ferment of energy on the margins.' (13)

Although beginners still put on shows in poorly subsidised spaces, they soon move to where the money is. One effect of this desertion of talent to the centre is that many fringe venues are now markedly less creative. Being poorly funded often means poor production values and tiny audiences. By 2002, successful high-profile pub theatres such as the Bush were trying to shake off the fringe label, while struggling fringe venues were facing increasing commercial pressures. The London Tabard’s artistic director, Hamish Gray, says, ‘If we have a production that does badly, the landlord is soon going to start asking questions.’ (14) Being worried about poor bar sales may not be the best spur to creative risk-taking.

By contrast, in the 1990s, poverty could have its advantages. Two small West London venues show this paradox in action: the subsidised Bush theatre could often only afford to put on new plays with small casts (paid union rates) while the unsubsidised Gate theatre (staffed largely by volunteers) could put on large-cast plays because no actors were getting paid anyway. As Jonathan Kent – formerly of north London’s hugely successful Almeida Theatre – said, ‘The great gift of the Almeida is that nobody is here for the money.’ (15) And Tom Morris, artistic director of BAC [Battersea Arts Centre], once said: ‘British artists and also international artists come here [London] with no money in order to make new kinds of work. That’s an enormous resource.’ (16) Scarcity of funding can close theatres, but sometimes it can also help liberate creative energies.

Abundant theatre
In the brave new theatre world, at the start of the twenty-first century, there has been a major shift from the problems of scarcity to the problems of abundance. In Mamet’s terms, there’s been a move away from ‘times of struggle’ and towards 'times of surplus’. Increases in Arts Council grants and the proliferation of lottery projects have changed the theatre landscape in previously unimagined ways. Jonathan Meth of Writernet says, ‘With £25 million pounds more per year for theatre, it’s the most significant single funding increase for at least a generation.’ (17) Since 1995, more than £240 million has been invested in new theatre buildings and the £25 million is ‘the largest annual increase in subsidy ever received by any art form’. (18) Such expressions of delight illustrate the psychological effect of increased funding – gone is the old siege mentality, now everything seems possible.

By mid-2002, some London theatres were already reporting positive changes. The Tricycle, which in 2001-2 could only afford to fund one of its own productions, could now fund four. Small amounts of seed money have helped numerous projects, which can – like The Shout’s Tall Stories (funded by £5,000 from BAC) – have a big impact at international festivals. Salaries have gone up, for example from £14,000 to £18,000 a year for the Tricycle’s admin staff, encouraging their commitment. At the Young Vic, actors’ wages are up from £285 to £310 a week. In general, statistics suggest that a 10% increase in funding produces a 25% increase in activity; and 20% amounts to an increase of 57%. With an uplift of 68% Oily Cart, a touring theatre company for young people, produced a 370% increase in productivity. (19) The only problem is that increased activity is not the same as increased creativity.

The first problem of abundance is that the massive expansion of lottery funding has resulted in much better buildings, but not necessarily in better plays. Roxana Silbert, literary manager of the Traverse and formerly at the Royal Court, says, ‘In the late 1990s, money came into buildings and personnel, without enough new money to put more on stage.’ So theatres such as the Royal Court and Traverse ‘have the infrastructure to produce a lot more work than they are actually producing’. (20) And the danger is that such institutions may find themselves cutting back on productions at the first hint of scarcity in the future.

Extra money brings other problems. Ruth Little, literary manager at the Soho theatre and formerly at the Royal Court and Out of Joint theatre company, says: ‘The uplift in funding not only provides you with state of the art, accessible and exciting physical structures but also raises the expectations of the theatre community.’ (21) For example, having moved into its new lottery-refurbished building, the Royal Court now has more complex staffing arrangements than ever before. Yet its Arts Council grant has only been modestly increased. Although the Court’s outburst of creativity in the mid-1990s was characterised by exuberance and dynamic energy, it was simply not sustainable: some staff members were working 70 hours a week. Now, in a cooler environment, their work is affected by union pressures, statutory minimums and European working time directives. There are pressures such as union monitoring, health and safety checks, disability access regulations and the need for round-the-clock maintenance contracts. Roxana Silbert says, ‘I completely endorse the idea that we should be properly remunerated, but there’s also something that happens when you overprofessionalise theatre, which is slightly deadening. You spend an awful lot of time in health and safety meetings and not much time discussing what you are putting on.’ (22) So while reversing decades of poor working conditions is obviously a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily have any effect on what you see on stage.

Occasionally, funding requirements can lead to Kafkaesque absurdity. In the 1990s, the Traverse theatre couldn’t apply for ‘additional’ new writing funds from the Scottish Arts Council because it was a new writing theatre and therefore new writing was not an ‘additional’ activity. It therefore lost a potential source of extra money while other theatres with no experience of new writing could enjoy a cash boost just by commissioning a couple of new plays.

Another pressure on new writing theatres comes from funders who increase grants but only if theatres provide evidence that they are expanding their audiences. Ruth Little says, ‘The desire of producing theatres to be exclusive and intensive can clash with the funding requirements to be inclusive and extensive.’ (23) John Tiffany, literary manager of Paines Plough touring company and formerly of the Traverse, says: ‘In funding there is a move to educate and not to innovate, but I’m a believer in innovating not educating. Running ancillary programmes, ticking boxes and doing outreach projects tends to distract from creativity.’ (24) Indeed, the National’s 2002 Transformation season was motivated more by a desire to increase ‘access’ – youth audiences – than by a love of new writing. Aesthetically, the result was solid new work rather than cutting-edge innovation.

The sudden abundance of new money can also paralyse theatres, especially those more familiar with scarcity. Paul Sirett, literary manager at the RSC and previously at the Soho, says:

'The arrival of new money can have the effect of compromising new writers. New money can scare theatres and writers into writing and producing more conservative work – after all, the responsibility of new money in a cash-starved business can be frightening. To get back to the extraordinary rocket-propelled thrust of the mid-1990s, you need to take risks. At the moment, too many new plays play to safe audiences in safe places.' (25)

In 2002, for example, the biggest hits in London were plays set in the 1960s, a time that evokes nostalgia and suggests a previous golden age of new writing: Peter Gill’s The York Realist (Royal Court) and Richard Cameron’s The Glee Club (Bush). ‘Although these were produced by England’s premier new writing theatres, and had West End transfers, neither could be described as cutting edge,’ says Paul Sirett. ‘New writing feels somewhat disparate at the moment – my fear is that complacency will take over.’ (26)

And what if the new funding for new writing programmes fails to discover a new Sarah Kane or a new Mark Ravenhill or a new Patrick Marber? The question of the relationship between creativity and funding is not an academic one – for many theatre workers it is a practical problem.

Theatre outside London
Following the 2000 Boyden Report by the Arts Council, the promise of increased funding has led to a renaissance in regional theatre, and new writing has been linked to the creation of new audiences. In a series of uplifts, theatre outside London has experienced a revival. According to the Guardian newspaper, ‘this fragile renaissance has been sparked by the mere promise’ of extra cash. (27) With increasing numbers of young people coming to the theatre, more theatres are developing new writing policies – and those who have never had literary mangers are appointing them. Despite this, the impression remains that many regional theatres, in Tom Stoppard’s words, ‘can’t afford to put on new writing as often as they did. I remember when it was of interest. Now, it’s just a risk.’ (28)

Still, ‘things are healthier now than seven years ago,’ says Jack Bradley, ‘The Door in Birmingham, Live Theatre in Newcastle, Contact in Manchester, the Plymouth Drum and Bristol Old Vic are all doing lively work.’ (29) One problem is that because of less arts coverage in national newspapers, much of this is a well-kept secret. On the other hand, one example of a well-publicised success story is Birmingham Rep’s studio theatre, The Door, relaunched in 1998 after the theatre got increased funding. Ben Payne, associate director (literary), says, ‘The three-year Arts Council stabilisation scheme liberated us from short-termism. And greater predictability means you are able to build an audience. More money did enable us to consistently produce our own work and commission new plays.’ (30) The theatre also invested in education. It aims to stage eight productions a year, and hosts work by touring companies such as Paines Plough and Shared Experience.

In London, says Payne, ‘Theatres are often fighting for the same audience, whereas we are aiming for cross-over in audiences.’ Interestingly, Behsharam (Shameless) – a 2001 debut by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti – ‘was a first play by a first-time writer and ended up being our best-selling play to date’. He argues that ‘any large city could be producing new work which is a challenge to received ideas about what good new work is’. In London theatres, ‘you feel as if you are among friends, taking the work at face value.’ But outside the London coteries, the challenge is to redefine what new writing is. ‘In terms of sensibility, there are several writers who don’t really fit into London scene’, such as Moira Buffini, Kate Dean, Bryony Lavery, Paul Lucas, Abi Morgan, Sarah Woods. (31) Some commentators also argue that Scottish playwrights, who tackle big issues and are ‘vital in debating and describing our new social and cultural responsibilities’, have a ‘very different agenda to the fashion-victim, nihilistic “shopping and fucking” introspection of London’. (32) Not only is there evidence of regional divides, which mirror political and cultural divisions, but it is also true that not every region is as creative as every other, nor at the same time.

In 2002, among self-help new writing groups, there is a feeling of optimism in the West Midlands, where Stagecoach is developing its relationship with the Birmingham Rep, and in Coventry, where the Writing House is working with the Belgrade Theatre and Chris O’Connell’s Theatre Absolute. New Writing North, North West Playwrights in Manchester and Pier Playwrights in Brighton feel hopeful about current projects. Wales has Sgript Cymru. Even areas which were previously moribund, such as the East Midlands, are experiencing a revival of interest in new writing.

Among touring companies, which don’t have expensive buildings to manage, and are often lighter on their feet than big institutions, extra funding feeds quickly into new projects. Paines Plough, for example, has five staff and has been sympathetically supported by the Arts Council. ‘As a small-scale touring company,’ says John Tiffany, 'Paines Plough could not sustain touring to small venues which had no new writing experience – every time the company arrived, it had to start from scratch to develop an audience. In places where you can sustain, develop and market new writing – such as Newcastle Live Theatre, Manchester Contact, West Yorkshire Playhouse or the Traverse – we frequently sell out.'

Tiffany sees the lack of ‘a building’s constraints’ as having a positive effect on ‘artistic freedom: we can really push the writers to write the plays they feel challenged by.’ Examples are Sarah Kane’s Crave, Abi Morgan’s Splendour and Tiny Dynamite, and Douglas Maxwell’s Helmet, work in which ‘writers have pushed themselves and got in touch with something new in theatrical terms’. This is ‘not a question of the right to fail in aimless experiments, it’s about the right to succeed’. (33) Small may be beautiful, but a touring company is just as likely to produce poor plays as an established theatre.

At the Traverse, Scotland’s premier new writing venue, artistic director Philip Howard says that although the theatre only has to deliver four productions a year, it usually produces between six and nine. He sees public subsidy as ‘a democratic antidote to the marketplace, where the paymasters pull all the strings’. After all, ‘it’s a mark of democracy for a culture to subsidise the artist even if the artist doesn’t support the establishment’. If the relationship between subsidy and creativity ‘is a tricky question’ (‘some of the largest hikes in public funding have in the past come under Conservative governments’), the main drawbacks are the bureaucratic demands of funders, which, however, ‘are perfectly justified since these bodies are publicly accountable’. Funding ‘hinders creativity when it becomes passive and taken for granted – there has to be a living relationship’. If funders are bad at discovering the new, and prefer giving money to buildings ‘which don’t answer back’ to giving money to individuals ‘who do’, Scotland is lucky enough to have its own vigorous local traditions. (34) It may be that having a vibrant city culture is more important to creativity than any amount of grants.

Optimistic theatre
At the moment, new writing remains ‘sexy’ not only with funding bodies but also with some theatregoers – especially those that also surf the internet. In a 2001 poll published by, a theatre website, 78% of respondents agreed with the proposition that ‘Theatre is a living art form & new writing is essential for its future’ and only 4% said they would ‘rather see a revival of a proven classic’ than a new play. (35) Still, complacency is always the enemy of creativity. As Graham Whybrow says,

'It is very easy to be controlled by the past. It is important that theatre managements don’t use the values of the last generation as a stick to beat the new generation. I think playwriting is often a search for a dramatic form to express new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling, and I believe that the theatre is responsible for creating the conditions for writers to flourish.' (36)

But, while theatres strive to create the right conditions for the future, drama remains a fragile art, much influenced by fuzzy factors such as feelings of optimism. Roxana Silbert says, ‘The good thing about new writing theatres is that they are among the few theatres left whose programming is fuelled by artistic desire – which is also why they can be so successful. Theatre is a pragmatic art – it’s about weighing up all those tensions between creativity and the demands of funders.’ (37)

Jack Bradley believes that ‘when the industry is thriving and people are optimistic there will be no shortage of good new plays. The trick is to find the right place for the play. If the play’s natural home is four weeks in the Finborough [pub theatre], it’s madness to put it on for ten weeks in the Cottesloe [at the National].’ Some plays will be robust enough to sustain a run in a major house under the glare of publicity; others deserve to be watched for a limited period in a protected environment. But, observes Bradley, ‘The creation of small black boxes and the reduction of funding has meant that people have got used to writing affordable plays, with three people in a single room.’ (38) In general, recent increases in funding haven’t yet opened out the artistic imagination.

The main ambition of Nicholas Hytner, artistic director designate of the National Theatre, is ‘to challenge writers who are at home in studio theatres to think big and address larger themes.’ (39) Of the dozens of young writers who emerged in the 1990s, only Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber have been staged in the large Lyttelton space, while the huge Olivier rarely witnesses new plays. Paul Sirett agrees that ‘the most urgent task facing new writing theatres is to expand the sense of possibilities for writers’. At the moment, ‘playwriting in this country is painfully introverted. People whose whole education has been on the fringe find it hard to write a bigger play. There’s a need to expand horizons, a need for writers to live dangerously.’ (40) Ben Payne says that ‘it feels as if new writing has the potential to do a lot more than it does. Most plays I receive tend to be about relationships rather than about ideas. People like Michael Punter, who write humanely about ideas, don’t get many productions.’ (41)

Still, there are good reasons for the current optimism. Graham Whybrow says that ‘relations between theatres are more collaborative than ever before’, with more co-productions and sharing of resources. But he also points out that things have changed from the 1970-80s model in which writers worked on the fringe and ‘percolated up’ the theatre system to a new model in which writers aim high, and ‘trickle down the hierarchy’ – ‘in a Darwinian way, new writers find their own level.’ (42) Because of the success of some very young writers in the 1990s, many first-time playwrights expect their work to be staged immediately at prestigious venues. Many will just have to learn to wait.

Paul Sirett also points out that ‘the money doesn’t always go to the talent. Lots of new writers miss out on opportunities because they don’t have pushy personalities.’ He dislikes ‘the idea that artists have to starve to be creative – but, unfortunately, starving garret artists do turn out good work. And, in the popular mind, eating well still equates with mediocrity.’ (43) Not everyone will agree that a regular income leads to complacency, but some writers do seem to thrive on the creative tensions of insecurity. Equally important is the role of critics, commentators and teachers as upholders of aesthetic rules – without someone to articulate rules, how can writers know when they were creatively bending them?

In the end, perhaps the funding system as a whole is in need of an overhaul. Jonathan Meth says, ‘The arts world is beginning to wake up to the fact that there is much more money outside the old state funding system – money in DTI budgets, European funding, regeneration, trusts and charity foundations as well as traditional sources such as sponsorship.’ The challenge is to deliver ‘a different culture of arts funding, moving away from the cash-dispenser model and towards being development agencies, helping individual artists and arts organisations come together to bid for some of these resources.’ He argues that ‘we need to think of ways not just of doing more of the same thing, but of doing new things’. Rather than putting all the cash into companies, there must be other ways of encouraging new writing. For example, instead of waiting for a commission, writers can try ‘teaching, mentoring, working in health care, prisons and regeneration – these are more lateral ways of being a writer.’ (44) Individual writers are now exploring creative funding ideas such as, for example, taking up a residency at an advertising agency, in partnership with a theatre, after which the writer writes a play about the world of advertising. Although the British system prefers funding buildings to funding individuals, some playwrights argue for the latter. For example, one character in Simon Block’s A Place at the Table (Bush Theatre, 2000) says, ‘Every creative act worth an audience derives from the selfish vision of a single individual.’

Roxana Silbert says, ‘Most theatres realise that there has to be a radical shift in thinking and that we can’t rely on subsidy any more.’ There is a need to ‘find other ways of supporting work so that if the Arts Council funding ever got cut you wouldn’t simply fall apart. Part of this is also about keeping hold of some artistic freedom because along with the big increases in money come increases in expectations of what theatres have to do for that money, which does limit your creative freedom.’ (45)

If the experience of the 1990s does suggest that theatre thrives in what Mamet calls ‘times of struggle’, when funding is low, there is no evidence that creativity disappears in ‘times of surplus’, when subsidy rises. What does happen is that extra money brings its own problems. If it is difficult to establish a causal connection between increases in funding and creativity, it is certainly not true that poverty is always stimulating. Beyond the banal point that nowadays most theatres need a minimum of core funding to survive and that fringe venues that do not have this are necessarily limited in their aspirations and achievements, it is hard to demonstrate a connection between funding granted and creative output. What’s much easier to show is that the present theatre system is much more centralised than ever before and that the fringe no longer has a political or experimental role. Theatres with the largest innovative output depend more on their own traditions, the charisma of their artistic directors and their attraction of talent than to percentage hikes in money, however welcome these are. In the end, the outstanding outbursts of creativity – such as the new wave of the late 1950s or the recent upsurge in the 1990s – are a result of a general cultural climate. They owe more to unpredictable factors than to any deliberate policy by arts funding bodies, whether local or national. Such uncontrollable factors include: a previous period of routine aesthetic dullness which acts as a spur to an oppositional new wave; a sense of do-it-yourself possibility; the arrival of a maverick new artistic director; or a feeling of individual frustration among would-be writers.

So where can we expect the next new wave to come from? Some commentators argue that the energy of the future will come from companies, such as Frantic Assembly, that fuse sharp writing, funky music and dance; others suggest that it will come from outside the current theatre system, from untutored voices demanding to be heard. Since major bursts of creativity are, by definition, unexpected, ‘you never know’, says Paul Sirett, ‘where the new energy will come from. It just sneaks up and hits you over the head. The joy of theatre is its unpredictability.’ (46) If small plays with conservative structures, and social realist accounts of life on council estates, continue to be the bread and butter of new writing, there are also plenty of examples of exciting – and varied – new voices: Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way (Traverse), Shan Khan’s Office (Soho), Peter Morris’s The Age of Consent (Edinburgh Fringe/Bush), Gary Owen’s Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco (Paines Plough/Sgript Cymru), Kaite O’Reilly’s Peeling (Graeae/The Door), Ash Kotek’s Hijra (Plymouth/Bush) and Tracey Daley, Jo Martin and Josephine Melville’s Shoot 2 Win (Stratford East). Although the most innovative writers tend to be establised names such as Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp and David Greig, the sheer diversity of work being produced now offers hope for the future. And, at the start of the millennium, the evidence suggests that the in-yer-face sensibility is giving way to a more magic realist aesthetic, as exemplified by Zinnie Harris’s Further Than the Furthest Thing (Tron/National Theatre), Enda Walsh’s Bedbound (Dublin Festival), Jez Butterworth’s The Night Heron and Nick Grosso’s Kosher Harry (both Royal Court).

When the current funding increases finally feed through, by about 2005, it will be easier to assess the aesthetic effects of a policy-led increase in funding. For while it’s unlikely that there will be another explosion of creativity such as the one in the mid-1990s, there may be a period of good, sustained growth. However, looking at the range of ambitious new plays that came to London from the United States in 2002 – from Tony Kushner’s amazing Homebody/Kabul to Richard Greenberg’s wonderful Take Me Out, from vehicles for Hollywood stars to highly individual voices such as Stephen Adly Guirgis – British theatre’s much vaunted new writing tradition sometimes feels a bit provincial, a bit quirky and often of only marginal interest. If the aesthetic definition of creativity includes work which embraces life fully, then British theatre still has a lot of work to do.

Now thoroughly commercialised, British theatre listens to and follows the money. But it may be that creative energy intensifies when people do things ‘improperly’, unofficially. It’s good to remember the sheer perversity of British theatre, its astonishing capacity to survive – whatever subsidies are granted or withheld, British theatre can perhaps still ‘best be celebrated as a triumph of the human spirit over various schemes for its better organisation and improvement’. (47)


1) David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife (London: Methuen, 2002), p. 50.

2) For example, Anthony Storr, The Dynamics of Creation (London: Penguin, 1991); Edward de Bono, Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking To Create New Ideas (London: Harper Collins, 1992); Margaret Bowden, The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms (London: Abacus, 1992); Howard Gardner, Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity (New York: Basic Books, 1993); Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention (New York: Harper, 1996); Robert J. Sternberg (ed.), Handbook of Creativity (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

3) See and

4) Graham Saunders, ‘Love Me or Kill Me’: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 37-38, 40-51, 186.

5) Aleks Sierz, ‘Soho Stories’, The Stage (2 March 2000), p. 8.

6) Katie Mitchell, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (13 June 2002). Compare Samantha Ellis, ‘No Sets Please, We’re British’, Guardian (27 February 2002), G2, p. 13.

7) Maev Kennedy, ‘Arts Audiences Dwindle Despite “Extra” Cash’, Guardian (25 July 2001), p. 8. See also David Edgar, ‘The Canon, the Contemporary and the New’, in Bernhard Reitz and Heiko Stahl (eds), What Revels Are in Hand? Contemporary Drama in English 8 (Trier: Wissenschafter Verlag Trier, 2001), p. 31 and Arts Council of England, ‘Annual “Cork” Analysis’ (London: Arts Council of England, 2000-01).

8) See Aleks Sierz, In-Yer-face Theatre: British Drama Today (London: Faber, 2001).

9) Michael Billington, ‘Up Close and Personal’, Guardian (24 April 2002), G2, p. 14.

10) Graham Whybrow, interviewed by Aleks Sierz, 17 April 2002; see also Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (London: Abacus, 2001) for an account of how individuals can create ‘epidemics’ of innovation.

11) Jack Bradley, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (16 April 2002).

12) See, for example, Michael Billington, ‘What Price the Arts?’ in Norman Buchan and Tricia Summer (eds), Glasnost in Britain? Against Censorship and in Defence of the Word (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 162–170.

13) Dominic Dromgoole, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (29 March 2001).

14) Kate Stratton, ‘Mine’s a Fringe One’, Time Out (24-31 July 2002), p. 144.

15) Jasper Rees, ‘Farewell to the Almeida A-team’, Evening Standard, 24 January 2002, p. 51.

16) Quoted in ‘Staying Alive’, Time Out (16-23 January 2002), p. 27.

17) Jonathan Meth, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (26 April 2002).

18) Lyn Gardner, ‘Raising the Roof’, Guardian Weekend (6 July 2002), p. 24.

19) Jane Edwardes, ‘Playing with Figures’, Time Out (17-24 July 2002), p 145.

20) Roxana Silbert, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (29 May 2002).

21) Ruth Little, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (4 April 2002).

22) Roxana Silbert interview.

23) Ibid.

24) John Tiffany, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (15 April 2002).

25) Paul Sirett, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (19 April 2002).

26) Ibid.

27) Fianchra Gibbons, ‘Theatres Singing Again as Cash Pledge Sparks Renaissance’, Guardian (4 February 2002), p. 3.

28) Mary Riddell, ‘Interview: Tom Stoppard’, New Statesman, 8 July 2002, p. 23.

29) Jack Bradley interview.

30) Ben Payne, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (16 April 2002).

31) Ibid.

32) Adrienne Scullion, ‘Contemporary Scottish Women Playwrights’, in Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 114-115.

33) John Tiffany interview.

34) Philip Howard, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (13 May 2002).

35) http//, ‘People’s Choice Awards’ (3 September 2001).

36) Graham Whybrow, interviewed by Petra Pogorevc (26 February, 2002).

37) Roxana Silbert interview.

38) Jack Bradley interview.

39) Nicholas Hytner, interviewed by Aleks Sierz (1 October 2001).

40) Paul Sirett interview.

41) Ben Payne interview.

42) Graham Whybrow, Sierz interview.

43) Paul Sirett interview.

44) Jonathan Meth interview.

45) Roxana Silbert interview.

46) Paul Sirett interview.

47) John Elsom, ‘United Kingdom’, in Don Rubin (ed.), The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre Vol. 1 Europe, (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 906.

© An earlier version of this article appeared as ‘Art flourishes in times of struggle’: creativity, funding and new writing', Contemporary Theatre Review, special issue on ‘Contemporary British theatre: playwrights, politics, performance’, vol 13 issue 1, February 2003: pp 33-45

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