The Theatrevoice Debate: New Writing (1/3)

28th May 2004



Playwrights Richard Bean, Mark Ravenhill and Simon Stephens take the measure of the new writing scene. Aleks Sierz hosts. Recorded live.

It might be a good time to ask the taboo question: are British playwrights actually any good?


Playwrights Richard Bean, Mark Ravenhill and Simon Stephens take the measure of the new writing scene. Aleks Sierz hosts.
Recorded: 28 May 2004.
Transcribed by Keyboard Freedom. © theatreVOICE.
Aleks Sierz: Good evening. My name’s Aleks Sierz, I’m a freelance theatre critic and author of In-Yer-Face Theatre, and I’d like to welcome you all to The Theatre Voice Debate which is being held here in London’s Theatre Museum. Our subject today is new writing for the theatre, and it’s a good subject because this seems to be a boom time for new writing. Ever since the brouha-ha about Sarah Kane’s Blasted in 1995, new plays have attracted an unprecedented amount of media interest. On the last count something like a hundred and seventy-five new writers have emerged in the past decade alone. Not only are the new writing theatres, such as The Royal Court and The Bush, doing well but other theatres such as the drop dead trendy Almeida and the Donmar have also taken up the torch. At the moment the new writing scene is more varied, more vibrant and better-funded than at any other time in the past three decades. So, is everything rosy in the garden? Perhaps not. Some signs give cause for concern. In 1968 Peter Brook wrote in his classic book The Empty Space that ‘In theory few men are as free as a playwright, he can bring the whole world onto his stage, but in fact he is strangely timid’. As an example, perhaps, of this timidity, two years ago the Verity Bargate Award for new writing wasn’t awarded because none of the entries was good enough. The year before The Evening Standard didn’t present their new play award. It seems also like quite a while since a really exciting new talent has exploded on to the scene. So is new writing in crisis? It might be a good time to ask the taboo question, are British playwrights actually any good or has the curse of insular timidity come back to haunt us? Joining me to discuss new writing in British theatre are three writers who I’m pleased to say are anything but timid and indeed who are at the top of their game. In alphabetical order they are Richard Bean, who came to attention with his play Toast in 1999 and who has recently managed to cram five plays in to eighteen months, which is something of a record I think. His latest being the highly successful Honeymoon Suite at The Royal Court. Next we have Mark Ravenhill whose notorious 1996 debut Shopping and Fucking managed to crash the Royal Court’s new computer system, because it had been programmed to repel obscene emails. Last year, following the success of his large-scale play with music, Mother Clap’s Molly House, Mark was made an Associate at The National Theatre. And the third member of our panel is Simon Stephens, whose new play Country Music opens next month at the Royal Court. As well as having his first hits, such as Herons, staged at that address, he is also the young writers’ tutor at the Court so he’s in a good position to tell us about the latest trends among first-time writers. OK, to kick-off I’d like to start by asking each of you just to say a few words about how you got started as writers. Mark, maybe you could start?
Mark Ravenhill: I’ve tried acting and I wasn’t very good at that, I’ve tried directing, and I was moderately better but still not that good. Stage management, no, anything technical, no. Administration, I did happen to have a little bit of a go at that, but no, that was a disaster. So there was only playwriting left really and, you know, I wanted to be part of the theatre. So it was a process of elimination really, and after trying everything else, yes, play writing was the thing that was left. And I didn’t really mean to be a playwright, I thought, you know, I’d write a play that I could direct and maybe, you know, put it on at The Finborough or something like that. But then I wrote a draft of Shopping and Fucking and I thought well, you know, I will try and send it out to some other people. And luckily one of the first people I sent it to was Max Stafford-Clark, because I always have admired his work, and he asked me to come in and talk and then, you know, gradually it happened that I found… And then they gave me some money and the play went on and I made some more money and then people asked me to write other plays and then… But it’s only a few years in that you start to think oh playwright, maybe as something to put on your passport, which I don’t think you do anymore, occupation, you’d actually put ‘playwright’.
Aleks Sierz: Because you actually started on the fringe though, you were part of The London New Play Festival at The Old Red Lion, a tiny venue. What was that about as well, what was that play?
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, I wrote a play, I think I’d already done one draft of Shopping and Fucking, but I wrote a play for, a new play festival that was at a pub theatre called The Old Red Lion. And they did lots and lots of new plays in a very short space of time, and I’d directed one for them the year before. So, I wrote a kind of piece really about a group of people who attempted to out an MP, and yes, I mean actually that kind of play is the best, is a really good way to lean stuff because you’ve got to plot it so carefully and the momentum of maintaining it and just getting people on and off is actually, you know, those, the skill of why does somebody come on and why do they leave the stage. That form is, it wasn’t a great play but, you know, I learnt a lot from having to work out how to do that play.
Aleks Sierz: You also wrote a ten-minute short called Fist for The Finborough.
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, and that’s the thing that Max saw, and that’s something where I just thought, you know, when I wrote that ten minutes we did a little evening of ten-minute plays called I’ll Show You Mine, which were erotic plays. And yes, and that was the first time I kind of thought, I wrote something and it was only ten minutes long but I thought oh, I can hear a voice here which sounds like me in some way. So that gave me some kind of clue into what my voice as a writer might be. You know, and that changes as you grow up and life happens, but you know, and you have to keep on listening again and say, does that sound true or am I writing something that’s received or something that’s an old me? But that the time I thought yes, that sounds authentic in some way, it just smelt of me.
Aleks Sierz: Richard, I think you started off in stand-up, is that right?
Richard Bean: Yes, that’s right, I was a stand-up comedian for a while, for about seven or eight years, yes. And I first came to playwriting because I had some friends who were writers and actors and stuff, and one of them rang me up and said Roger McGough has been commissioned to write a children’s play for The Unicorn Theatre and he’s pulled out because he has to go to Italy and write a poem or something. So can you do it, or something, so I did it. So that was my first introduction to theatre really, and the consultant director on that was Mark Ravenhill who…
Mark Ravenhill: Was I?
Aleks Sierz: You’ve forgotten about that haven’t you?
Mark Ravenhill: Completely forgotten about it.
Richard Bean: It’s true.
Mark Ravenhill: Oh I remember…
Aleks Sierz: Ahhh!
Mark Ravenhill: Yes.
Richard Bean: And he rashly…
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, yes.
Richard Bean: That’s right, yes, yes, yes. So that was the very first thing that I wrote that wasn’t a one-liner. And I didn’t really have to write any of it really because, you remember, all the kids wrote it really, didn’t they, do you remember? I don’t think we…
Mark Ravenhill: We had to kind of edit it, didn’t we, and shape it and…
Richard Bean: Yes, we had to edit it…
Mark Ravenhill: Yes.
Richard Bean: And you put this wonderful end of first act suspense moment in, which can’t have been that wonderful because I’ve forgotten it but… and you forgot the whole thing so… Anyway, so that was my first introduction to writing anything other than one-liners. But yes, I wrote a radio play before I wrote Toast, and I was trying to get comedy television writing work or anything really, like writing for The Bill or something. And a friend of mine said well, why don’t you write a play for The Bush? Because no member of the public ever goes to The Bush, they’re all television people and they’re all from, the entire audience is made up of film and television people spotting talent. So I wrote Toast and sent it to Mike Bradwell, and he didn’t want it so… But then The National picked it up and The Royal Court picked it up the second time around. The Royal Court had rejected it the first time round and then the artistic management changed, and that’s how I got started really.
Aleks Sierz: Simon?
Simon Stephens: Yes, I never even went to the theatre until I was about twenty, I’d always been compelled to write and grew up kind of watching… When I was growing up in the 80s, television drama in this country was dynamic and exciting and I grew up watching writers like Alan Bleasdale and Alan Bennett and Dennis Potter writing TV drama and watching Martin Scorsese movies and David Lynch movies. I didn’t go to the theatre until I went to university, and then realised that all the attractive girls at university were in god-awful productions of The Cherry Orchard and The Wild Ducks. So I decided to go and watch them and became quite fascinated and drawn to the idea that you could recreate the power and force of the kind of drama I grew up watching, but hold people in the same room. So I just started trying to write plays for these actresses and… and we did them, and they did them and it was great. You learn an awful lot about the backstage world of theatre that way.
Aleks Sierz: The honesty, the honesty, it’s just… keep going, keep going.
Simon Stephens: And decided, you know, by the time I left university I decided there was nothing else I wanted to do other than write, and write for theatre. I had such a good time with the actresses there. I went to live in Edinburgh and wrote fringe plays that were produced in tiny, little fringe venues for a few years. Came down to live in London, couldn’t get any plays put on anywhere. Started writing performance poetry, which was terrific fun, and then a play which I had written in 1994, somebody picked up and did a production of it in the ’97 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Which is an extraordinary festival because Shopping and Fucking was up there that year, because Knives and Hens was on that year, because Disco Pigs, Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs was on that year, Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart was on that year, and it felt like a terrifically exciting time to be writing for theatre. Wrote another play for the same company who did this fringe play, a play called Bluebird that I surreptitiously sent to The Royal Court instead of giving it to the company of actors that I’d written it for, and The Royal Court decided they wanted to do it as part of their Young Writers Festival. And that was how I started.
Aleks Sierz: Right. Well you mentioned all those other plays and looking back, extraordinarily enough, it’s almost a decade since that enormous flash of energy in the mid 1990s when some months it seemed as if there was a new young writer being discovered every week. Mark, as somebody who was there in the mid 90s… ho-ho, hey-hey! Why do you think there was this great explosion of new writing at the time?
Mark Ravenhill: I don’t know, well, I’ve got about twenty-five theories though, that would take all night, but…
Aleks Sierz: Give us three.
Mark Ravenhill: OK, I’ll give you three. I mean I think a shift in, an ideological vacuum so that political systems of thought and ways of evaluating the world collapsed, so new ways had to be found to look at the world. A big shift like that. I think the right people were in the right place at the right time, so that Stephen Daldry wanted a very fast turnover of new plays at The Royal Court. He wanted to create a sense of lots of plays happening very quickly, it was, you know, partly manufactured. The National Theatre Studio came in on that project and gave a lot of financial support to make that possible for a very quick turnover of plays. And I think, you know, at that stage, The Royal Court did set the agenda and inspired everybody else, you know, Out of Joint to bring their stuff in and find more and more writers and The Bush and, you know, I think there was that happening. And I think maybe a third thing was that there was less bravery in television, and so writers who might otherwise have found outlets in television, and the British film industry was kind of in the doldrums as well. So theatre was a place, you know, maybe ten years before that Simon would have gone into television and maybe Richard would. I mean, I always wanted to work in theatre so… but I think, you know, I think maybe something died a bit in television and film, and so more people came into theatre.
Aleks Sierz: Yes. I mean you were part, well, you knew people like Sarah Kane and so on and other Royal Court writers at the time, you were for a while at Paine’s Plough, the new writing group. Did you feel sort of part of a group of people with a set identity or an agenda at the time?
Mark Ravenhill: No. I don’t think there was… no, not really. I mean I knew Sarah a little bit so, but not a great deal, so occasionally, you know, there was a chance to talk about playwriting with Sarah and what plays were. And she was always very… and she was very well-read and very well-read kind of classically and intellectually, and so there would always be some quite fierce debates about that.
Aleks Sierz: What kind of things did you discuss?
Mark Ravenhill: Greek tragedy, TS Elliot and I don’t… you know.
Aleks Sierz: Good night out?
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, good night out, it was a good night out. And what the medication was like in The Maudesley, I mean… it was like that really. But no, I didn’t really know that many playwrights and I mean I have more and more over the years, and actually what, you know, what impressed me is I think… and I think one of the other things that was great was how generous older generations of playwrights were, and I don’t think that’s necessarily been noticed. But people like David Edgar and Caryl Churchill would talk to you about your work and be very encouraging and come and see the work and actually, you know, and more and more. Even people who you think I bet they’re going to hate me, you know, you meet Tom Stoppard and he’s really encouraging about your work and really lovely. So I don’t think there’s been that kind of rivalry in the sense of, you know, this new generation is somehow trying to knock-off the older generation, kill the older generation, and the older generation are kind of thinking they’re ruining the theatre. I think, I found older playwrights to be very generous.
Aleks Sierz: What about you Richard, did you have the same kind of encouraging experiences in the past decade or so?
Richard Bean: Well I can’t say I have really because I’ve never really been very involved with theatre, and even as a writer I don’t feel terribly involved with theatre. I sit in my room in Bethnal Green and I write plays and send them to Richard Wilson and he puts them on, you know. And he says in rehearsal Richard, lovely, lovely first week, it was all very productive. Don’t come back for a couple of weeks, you know. So I must do something to put everybody off, I don’t know. I met Caryl Churchill the other night, she turned her back on me and walked away, I don’t know.
Aleks Sierz: But you spend years…
Richard Bean: Tom Stoppard, he gave me a lift to Waterloo once, but Waterloo was like twenty-five yards away, I could see it. I don’t want a lift, I don’t want a lift. He said get in Richard, I’ll give you a lift. I don’t want a lift.
Aleks Sierz: But you spent years, you’ve spent years in a room at The National Theatre Studio, you must have talked to other writers when you came out of your room.
Richard Bean: Well other writers, yes…
Aleks Sierz: When you came out of your room for a coffee?
Richard Bean: No, what, do you use?
Aleks Sierz: You used to hang around by that urn.
Richard Bean: I was chained to that urn, do you remember? But you’re talking about the… I mean you’re making a good point about the Stoppards, the Hares, the Edgars, I mean I’ve never come into contact with that generation. Peter Gill’s the only one who’s actually been fairly encouraging to me, apart from Tom Stoppard giving me a lift as I say.
Aleks Sierz: Were you encouraged by an older generation or did you see yourself as distinct from them?
Simon Stephens: I didn’t really work at The Royal Court until I was offered the residency there in 2000. I never met any of the people that Mark or Richard are talking about, but the one person who was a massive influence and a massive education for me was Stephen Jeffreys, who I think is extremely generous to an awful lot of young writers, and I learnt a massive amount from him. I generally think that, the way I always talk about it to the writers, to the young writers I work with, is that the model in the theatre is, I think actors pretend to be very, very nice and supportive to one another and secretly they’re desperately envious and loathe each other, and directors openly loathe one another.
Aleks Sierz: Yes.
Simon Stephens: But writers, I genuinely think this is true, are generally very, very supportive. So I mean Mark was brilliant to me at the start of my career and my contemporaries, you know, I think we’re all… we’re all supportive to one another for the simple reason that whereas any number of actors could act one given part, any number of directors could direct one given play, there’s no way I could write the plays that Mark or Richard have written or any other playwright, so there’s no point being envious. And the only purpose is to be supportive of one another.
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, I mean envy, yes, definitely. I mean, you must have… I experience envy.
Richard Bean: Envy’s a terrible… I mean you want…
Mark Ravenhill: Richard gets good reviews and…
Richard Bean: Yes, well, you know, I mean you…
Simon Stephens: You feel that’s always awful.
Mark Ravenhill: And you feel envy, I mean one, you know…
Richard Bean: No, well then I absolutely…
Simon Stephens: I don’t feel envious about good reviews, I…
Richard Bean: No, no, I think this is absolutely a real issue because it is a terrible… it does a terrible thing to your sense of yourself and your sense of a person in the community, because you want everybody else to be crap. You can’t get away from that, there’s a hot… You know, Freud, what is it, id ego/super ego, id’s the horrible one, yes? Is that right? I seem to remember. Your id just wants everybody else to be rubbish and you to be the only one who’s any good, you know. And that’s horrible, and your ego is the one who’s the nice person… is that right, Freud, nice person, all functioning in the world or something? Realises that you can’t get away with that horribleness and you actually…
Simon Stephens: I remember…
Mark Ravenhill: But writers are quite encouraging to each other but you don’t actually meet each other that often…
Richard Bean: You don’t, and that’s very…
Mark Ravenhill: But occasionally you’ll bump into like Joe Penhall or somebody and they’ll actually be really nice to you and really encouraging. And I think we do kind of encourage each other and it’s great.
Richard Bean: Yes, but the sense of a group, the sense of a group is…
Mark Ravenhill: And it’s great when that happens but… yes.
Richard Bean: Is silly really.
Mark Ravenhill: But your initial question about a group, no, you never really get that sense…
Richard Bean: You can’t…
Mark Ravenhill: And you can go for three weeks without bumping into another. Whereas your job as a critic, you know, you see each other…
Aleks Sierz: And even on Fridays.
Mark Ravenhill: Yes.
Aleks Sierz: OK, let’s widen it out a bit. I don’t it’s a coincidence or I’m dreaming, but I can’t think of a play that’s had the impact of Blasted or Shopping and Fucking, since New Labour came to power in 1997. Is there a correlation that there hasn’t been such a splash in the last five, six, seven years? What do you think Mark?
Mark Ravenhill: I don’t know whether it matters, I mean, probably maybe there hasn’t, but I didn’t think that matters. I don’t know whether that means that those plays are good plays or better plays than other plays. You know, ultimately it is, it is a very long game, you know, what are the plays that are going to be revived, what are the plays that new generations of directors and actors are going to find mean something to them and then are going to mean something to their audiences? So that initial impact isn’t necessarily the same thing, so I don’t know.
Aleks Sierz: What does anyone else think?
Richard Bean: Those plays took some… I don’t know, I don’t know. Do you want to go Simon?
Simon Stephens: The only thing that I’d say is I think, although I think some of those plays, a lot of those plays have a real force and quality very well and they were produced by very driven producers, I think there’s been…
Aleks Sierz: That’s not true surely of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, that they didn’t market it at all.
Simon Stephens: I think there was some quite canny manipulation going on.
Aleks Sierz: Oh, I really don’t think so. There wasn’t even any…
Mark Ravenhill: You’re telling me Stephen Daldry doesn’t know…?
Aleks Sierz: No, but he was as surprised. He was in New York as you know.
Simon Stephens: He was on The Today Programme, that’s not, that’s not…?
Mark Ravenhill: I know, he flew in from New York to be there.
Simon Stephens: I think there are plays of real quality being written. I saw a play…
Aleks Sierz: What, now?
Simon Stephens: Yes, right now. I think, I think it’s kind of ludicrous comparing the quality of different plays, it’s like comparing the quality of different apples or something, it’s odd, it’s pointless. I think, I saw Leo Butler’s play Lucky Dog last night, I think it’s an extraordinary bit of writing.
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, it’s a brilliant play. And, you know, those quiet voices like Robert Holman and stuff that, you know, gradually over the years you just start to listen, or Peter Gill’s plays, you know, being revived at Sheffield. There were those very quiet voices that gradually creep up on you over the years I think as well, and that’s a different type of play.
Richard Bean: It’s difficult, I think it’s difficult to be noisy at the moment because…
Aleks Sierz: Well why’s that?
Richard Bean: I don’t know, did you… you saw Godbotherers didn’t you?
Aleks Sierz: Yes.
Richard Beam: Right, you know, I mean you look at that, there’s a really violent criticism of Islam in that play. There’s clitoraldectomy as a plot device, there’s, you know, a severe deconstruction of Christianity in Africa and everything and, you know, it got nice reviews and a full house and then it was all over. I was expecting to be killed, I was expecting a fatwa, you know, you can’t excite anybody really, you know.
Aleks Sierz: I remember you telling me that your dad was very anxious about your safety.
Richard Bean: Yes, my dad was very, very worried. He said don’t give anybody your address, your home address.
Simon Stephens: I was wondering if, I was thinking about this on the way here today and I remember May the 1st 1997 as being a genuinely joyful day, which seems deeply ironic now. I mean I remembered the kind of sense that… you know, I grew up at a time, eighteen years of Tory rule, I never… you know, I was alive in the 70s but not politically conscious, I never knew anything other than a Tory government. I remember the idea of that being overthrown felt impossible and deeply thrilling. And I think the crushing sense of disappointment that’s kind of permeated the culture since then maybe doesn’t explain the phenomena of the writing, but it explains the phenomena of the phenomena. People just aren’t bothered about how outlandish a play is anymore, because there’s a greater sense now I think that change is kind of fundamentally redundant. Maybe that’s bullshit, but…
Aleks Sierz: How do you mean though?
Simon Stephens: I think there was a, there was an inner reaction to up to, to kind of 1996. There was a sense in 1996 that things needed urgently to be changed, and I think now, given the consequences of that change, the urgency seems slightly pointless.
Aleks Sierz: Are you saying there’s a…?
Simon Stephens: There’s a kind of permeating sense of cynicism, you know, you can overthrow a government and it only gets worse. I don’t think that affects the quality of the writing, as I said I think there are fine writers starting their careers now. I think Dennis Kelly’s a fascinating writer, I think Lucy Prebble’s a fascinating writer. These are young writers who are writing very, very well. I think they’re received in a very different way because I think the people who receive them, perhaps, lack an energy or lack the sense of excitement that was around in the mid 90s.
Aleks Sierz: Right, good. Let’s broaden it out even further then. I mean I’d just like to hear from all of you what you think that, you know, the strengths of the new writing scene are at the moment. Mark?
Mark Ravenhill: Well firstly that there’s a lot of it. I mean we kind of take that for granted but most countries don’t have just that, generate that many new plays, they’re very surprised when you just say, you know, in any week all over the country there will be new plays opening. I don’t know, there must be, like if you count all the theatres in the country including fringe theatres, I mean there thirty new plays opening a week or something. I mean that’s, you know, that’s, that’s extraordinary, and that… I think we just about get the balance right between encouraging, developing, supporting schemes, blah, blah, blah, and production. Whereas if you go to the States, there’s a lot of money for trusts and funds and development and encouragement, but very hard to get productions. So I think, you know, I think, I think we get, we get those things right and I think, you know, now we have got a continuum of writers who’ve sustained careers, which is the other, you know, really tough thing which we’re, you know, Richard and I are just starting to face up to. Are we, you know, are we going to be long distance runners or sprinters? But, you know, we have got, you know, we have got the Michael Frayns and the David Hares and the Caryl Churchills and people who’ve actually managed to sustain that. But we’ve got young people, you know, twenty, twenty-one, coming through. So I mean I think those are the, those are the strengths.
Aleks Sierz: Is that how you see it as well Richard, or…?
Richard Bean: Yes, I mean, as I said before I wrote Toast because I wanted to write for The Bill, which is a ridiculous way to start in theatre. And then theatre has treated me so incredibly well because I’ve found all of the people I meet in theatre, you know, I mean, you know, decent, straightforward and honest. And everybody I’ve met in TV and film as been virtually the opposite to be perfectly honest. And I’ve completely given up on TV and film, you know, you go to Soho House and everybody there is walking around in black polo-neck jumpers and they’re all offering you bottles of wine and say this script is going to win BAFTAs and stuff, and then you don’t hear from them for six months. And they’re just nutters, I mean they’re just crazy. You go to The Bush, you meet this big, fantastic, charismatic, crazy guy called Mike Bradwell who says I’ll buy you a coffee, and he gives you three thousand quid. He didn’t buy you a coffee, he gives you three thousand quid. He says, give us the script by November. You know, and you think this is the way, this is writing. You’ve got, someone’s said we believe in you, here’s three thousand quid, off you go, go back to Bethnal Green, knock one out, you know. TV, oh, film, ridiculous. And the other thing about TV and film, it is so controlled and censored and these, you know, I don’t want to be ageist about this, but you get kids straight out of university saying well, this script is like twenty-seven minutes long and it’s got to be twenty-four minutes long. So I’ve cut these three minutes. And you go gulp, what have you cut? You know, and it’s just ah. So theatre, there’s no censorship, virtually no censorship. You can say what you like and the writer virtually, is pretty much king, the writer is, in new writing, in new writing in theatre.
Mark Ravenhill: Or queen.
Richard Bean: Or queen, thank you.
Mark Ravenhill: Thank you very much.
Richard Bean: The writer is… the writer is king/queen, let’s be fair. And if, you know, I came to this job quite late in life and I didn’t come to it as a young person, I gave up a very well-paid job to write, and I didn’t give up a well-paid job to be kicked around by TV executives. You know, I mean kicked around by Mike Bradwell because he’s twenty-four stone, so you get out the way don’t you, but you know.
Aleks Sierz: Yes Simon, you were nodding in agreement.
Simon Stephens: Yes, because I agree with everything they say.
Aleks Sierz: Yes, but you write for, you write for telly and for film as well.
Richard Bean: Do you?
Simon Stephens: Yes, I…
Mark Ravenhill: You’ve done well with your telly so far, I mean you’ve done stuff with integrity for television.
Simon Stephens: I think that the key if you’re going to work in TV or film is to find the people who work in TV or film who used to work in theatre, and they’re normally pretty good. So the main person I’ve done TV work is Kath Mattock at World TV who used to work at The Finborough and used to work at The Gate I think…
Mark Ravenhill: And The Bush.
Simon Stephens: And The Bush. Jake Lushington, who I’m writing a film for, is steeped in, you know, was trained at the theatre, and you can quickly identify the people who, who weren’t. And I think Jake and Kath and the other people I’ve worked with in film and TV have a sensitivity towards the writer’s sensibility that they’ve learnt in theatres.
Aleks Sierz: But we’ve talked about, you know, the writer being king or queen in this kind of British playwriting process, and that’s obviously great for you guys. But haven’t you ever sat in a theatre and thought oh a really good script editor could have done something about that? Now come on, be honest, I mean surely?
Richard Bean: Well yes, of course you have, yes, yes.
Aleks Sierz: Well?
Richard Bean: What, you want me to name names?
Aleks Sierz: No, no, I mean just to go down that road.
Simon Stephens: Well I… what do I do, I’ll tackle the literary managers…
Aleks Sierz: Yes.
Simon Stephens: Because, you know, I tend to get tickets to Press Night now. So if I see a play, a new play let’s say at The Hampstead or something like that, and I’ll, you know, I’ll get chatting to the literary manager, because I know them, and I’ll say something like yes, that was fantastic, but scene three is like, come on, it’s twenty minutes longer than it should be, surely. And we just have a little banter, but that’s… I think as a writer, you sit in the audience, you’re always looking at the writer’s contribution to the play, and I don’t take much notice of direction, for a new play I don’t take much notice of the acting even, or directing. You just think well why has he or she done that? Why is scene three forty minutes long when it could have been twenty minutes long?
Aleks Sierz: Yes, well it might be because nobody told them that it’s rubbish.
Simon Stephens: Well it might be but I mean I, you know, I suppose in the long run you’re pleased that nobody told them, I suppose because that’s maybe the genre. Yes, I take your point, I see the point you’re making.
Aleks Sierz: Simon, are you honest with a lot to young writers, I mean don’t you intervene, don’t you say well I don’t think that works and we can’t stage that?
Simon Stephens: I don’t think I’d intervene as directly as that.
Aleks Sierz: Coward.
Simon Stephens: I think my kind of key note when I’ve wrote, done developmental work with writers is to establish exactly what it is that they want to say with their plays and to try and help them say it as clearly as they possibly, and to work rigorously with them to see if that clarity can be enhanced at all.
Aleks Sierz: Well maybe that’s something we could discuss about what writers say. Surely one of the most significant global events of the past few years have been 9/11. I can think of a couple of American playwrights that have responded to it, and Leo Butler in Redundant at The Royal Court mentioned Osama Bin Laden…
Simon Stephens: That was taken out on Press Night.
Aleks Sierz: It was indeed, which was the 12th September. But I can’t think of any British playwrights that are really responding to that at the moment, can you?
Simon Stephens: I think the greatest joy of theatre is the playwright isn’t a journalist. And actually for me the strongest theatrical response to 9/11 was prescient and came before it, which was Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. I remember reading Caryl Churchill’s Far Away in April 2000 and loving it but feeling it had the kind of, the kind of timbre of absurdism about it, and you read it now and it feels like social realism. I think there are things that journalists can do but playwrights can’t, and it’s not really necessarily the job of the playwright to respond very quickly and very rapidly to global events.
Aleks Sierz: OK, would you agree with that Mark?
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, I mean I always feel as though I should have that responsibly as a journalist, but when I try it, it doesn’t come out very well. So yes, I mean I’m trying to dig away at some kind of, something that’s of the moment, of the Zeitgeist, of a collective unconscious or whatever it might be. But I don’t find that trying to write my play about Guantanamo Bay or anything comes out very, very well. So I think I, hopefully in some way you are responding to the way the world shifts and changes, and the play that you write this year wouldn’t be the same play that you wrote five years ago. But I don’t think it’s the same thing as, you know, I don’t think Chekhov’s plays are any the lesser because they’re not set, you know, in the Russian-Japanese war or, you know, or whatever.
Aleks Sierz: You say that, but in that public lecture you gave a couple of weeks ago you mentioned a play called The Cut that you were writing…
Mark Ravenhill: Yes.
Aleks Sierz: And it is about a father who’s been imprisoned for atrocities committed under an ancient regime, ancien regime, visited by his son. Isn’t that quite kind of obviously and…?
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, but I started writing it… well I did most of the work on it, I mean I need to do one other draft or so, but I mean I started writing it like eighteen months ago or something, so I don’t know how connected it was. And then, you know, you read stuff now and you see the, you know, the photos of tortured people and happy troops smiling over tortured bodies, and you kind of think oh that’s kind of tying in with what I’m writing. So, but this wasn’t, I didn’t see photos in a newspaper and decide to write a play about it.
Richard Bean: I think theatre’s also… the only thing I’d add to that, I think theatre is notoriously and always has been a very slow art form to respond…
Mark Ravenhill: Yes.
Simon Stephens: You know, it’s the slowest responder of all the art forms. We just had the Young Writers Festival at the Royal Court, we had five hundred and forty-nine scripts submitted, an increase of two hundred on the previous festival. And they’re just starting to come out, you know, young writers are starting to try to make sense of the shifts that happened in the wake of 9/11.
Aleks Sierz: Well why do you think that is? I mean it happened several years ago now?
Simon Stephens: I think it took a long time to take a human form, and I think playwrights filter their ideas through the human form. I mean the images of 9/11 were so deeply tele-visual and they were so overwhelming, but it took a long time before they were distilled into, into behaviour.
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, it’s that, it’s ultimately how do things change the way that Simon and I would actually treat each other, how do we actually use words with each other, against each other, for each other, how we use our bodies, what events would we create between the two of us, and that’s very different. I mean, you know, there is fantastic theatre which is surpassed to immediate reportage, blah, blah, blah. I’m not very… I’ve tried and I’m just not very good at writing it. But ultimately, you know, I think most writers, and most good writers, it’s by the time it actually has changed us so fundamentally that we couldn’t even share a glass of wine together without mentioning that event, without our language having changed and our bodies having changed, and that event having changed. I think it’s got… a good play I think is that fundamental.
Aleks Sierz: What about you Richard, what do you think?
Richard Bean: On what, on 9/11 plays? Yes, I think it’s… I think a good writer kind of avoids the main target in a way. I mean, you know, you’re setting yourself to be knocked down really. I suppose the first play that came out after 9/11 was The Guys, wasn’t it, which went to Edinburgh, do you know that one? It was a kind of… did anybody know that one, The Guys? It was… gosh. It was at The Edinburgh Festival with two Hollywood stars, played the two main roles.
Aleks Sierz: Oh yes, Susan Sarandon and…
Richard Bean: That’s right, yes, yes, yes, and it was..
Aleks Sierz: Tim Robbins I guess, was it?
Richard Bean: Yes, that’s right. And it sold out and it was the hot ticket and everything, and it was this kind of eulogy to the New York firemen in the most kind of dripping Hollywood way really. I only read it, I didn’t see it so I, you know, I can’t really dwell on it. And I though oh God, this is terrible, you know, I mean, you know, just awful. And you can’t, as a writer I think you have to avoid the main target, and I think Mark’s right to talk about Chekhov because, you know, you read Chekhov with the knowledge that the Russian Revolution and the end of serfdom and stuff is in the background, and that enriches it and it is very rarely, very rarely directly referred to. You know, I mean just talking personally, I would say Godbotherers was my 9/11 play because, you know, and I’m not going to do another one, you know. But I will do… I think, again, what Mark and Simon have said, is the ways that 9/11 has changed the minutiae, the way that people relate to each other, that’s going to just, that will infuse all of new writing.
Aleks Sierz: Well I hope so. I suppose as a final question, I’ll go round again and just ask what you think that, let’s say advice to young writers since you’re all quite established, if you were in a position of being a tutor to a young writer, and what’s the most important thing you could tell them? Starting with Richard, you know…?
Richard Bean: Well if you’re writing for the theatre, I would say the first job is to pay the rent first.
Aleks Sierz: So?
Richard Bean: Sorry?
Aleks Sierz: So?
Richard Bean: What do you mean, so?
Aleks Sierz: Well, how?
Richard Bean: Oh well, don’t rely on theatre to pay the rent. Pay the rent first, remain sane, romance… writing is not a romantic activity, I don’t think. It might be within your own soul, but if you start getting solipsistic about it you’re finished I think, you know. Because all you’re going to be doing is ringing up debt collection agencies all day. Pay the rent first, free your mind for four days a week, enjoy yourself.
Aleks Sierz: Simon, your recipe?
Simon Stephens: Read plays to steal rather than for pleasure, read as many plays as you can so that you can steal from them, go to the theatre as often as you can to get used to how stages work and how actors work and what, you know, what a physical presence on stage looks like and how it operates. Write all the time, this industry’s full of people, I mean, not, you know, full of people who describe themselves as playwrights and never actually do any writing. So that you just write all of the time.
Aleks Sierz: Some of those are critics though.
Simon Stephens: And it’s, the industry’s also full of actors who aren’t getting paid any money and will happily do things for free, so give it to some actors, try it out, put it on its feet, work it. And get it, get it in theatres where people will fall asleep if it’s boring or they’ll leave if they’re, you know, if they find it excruciatingly dull. Because that way, that’s how you learn I think.
Aleks Sierz: And Mark, your advice to young playwrights?
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, I mean that’s, I think that’s good. I mean I kind of decided, after all the options ran out of any possible work in the theatre, to be a playwright, and I did decide that if I was going to learn I shouldn’t write anything that wasn’t on a stage. So at first I decided just to write twenty-minute plays, ten-minute plays, and I just did a little series of kind of… I’d set myself little exercises to write, but I’d always get a couple of friends to put them on. And, you know, often just in a room, I’d just borrow a room from somebody to show them at the end, but then invite ten, twenty people to come and see it. So I never actually wrote any, I never wrote anything unless I thought, unless I could show it to a group of people, because I didn’t want to write like drafts and drafts of plays and start to learn to write something that wasn’t for the stage. So, you know, the first things that I wrote were for a bare space with, you know, with contemporary costumes and one prop, because otherwise we’d have headaches. And it’s still there in my plays in the whole, you know, you can pretty much do them on a bare stage with a couple of chairs and… but not Mother Clapp’s Molly House, that was something else, but the other plays, you can pretty much do with nothing, and that’s really because I’d learnt like that. So yes, I would say don’t ever write anything unless you can put it on.
Simon Stephens: Yes, that’s good.
Aleks Sierz: Since you’re sort of like captives here, I’m going to open it up to the audience just for five minutes just to see if there’s anybody who wants to ask a question, since you’ve been so kind. If anybody would like to ask a question, please, you know, now is your chance?
Male Member of the Audience 1: There was one question which I will quickly ask, which perhaps you were too polite to or because you, in a sense, in some ways gave the 90s a particular branding in your book, In-Yer-Face Theatre. And for many people that seemed to kind of crystallise that there was this movement of young writers and they were all much more visceral than their predecessors, and whether or not you agree with the exact phrase ‘in-yer-face theatre’, I wondered whether the panel felt that that particular kind of work was now no longer at the forefront of the kind of new writing scene. It seems to me, from a critic’s perspective, that certainly the kind of work that Mark and also Sarah Kane became kind of figureheads for is no longer the kind of work you’d see at The Royal Court.
Richard Bean: Yes, I think it’s quite true that things have moved on. There came a point where I suppose Mark, Mark needs to comment on this. I suppose there came a point where if you went to The Royal Court and somebody got their knob out and spat in their hand, and you think oh here we go again, you know. And it used to be, you know, anyone for tennis kind of, you know, it’s much the same kind of situation, you know, and there’s… sorry, I’ve embarrassed myself now, sorry.
Aleks Sierz: No, there was a time in the 1990s that if you didn’t see an anal rape on stage, you asked for your money back.
Richard Bean: Yes, well that’s what I’m saying, yes. Yes, kind of, that’s kind of what I’m saying. And then, and then people kind of got tired of that I think. But I mean I can’t, I don’t know why I’m not whinging. I mean in my last play there were two fucks and a wank so… I mean and, you know, everybody thought that was a.. You know, I looked at this website before I came here and there were critics saying, well why is this very commercial play being put on on the main stages of The Royal Court? And I though well, you know, there’s all this sex going on and obviously all that kind of gross behaviour is now perfectly acceptable, you know. What am I saying Richard, come on, let’s be a bit more clear. Yes, I think I put, I put sex in my plays not so shock really, it’s just, you know, it’s what people…
Aleks Sierz: It’s mostly funny on stage, it’s quite hard to do sex on stage without it being funny.
Richard Bean: Yes, it is funny, it is very funny, yes.
Aleks Sierz: I mean watching people have sex that objectively, a camera can be making it much more sexy, but on the whole it’s funny isn’t it?
Richard Bean: But, and I tend to be a naturalistic writer and people do have sex, I mean, you know, it’s sometimes what they do, you know.
Aleks Sierz: Simon, what do you think from your perspective might be some of the new sensibilities and the new styles of writing if people don’t write those kind of, you know in-yer-face type of plays any more, and obviously they don’t?
Simon Stephens: It’s really, really difficult to answer that question…
Aleks Sierz: I know…
Simon Stephens: It’s, it’s…
Aleks Sierz: That’s why I asked.
Simon Stephens: And it’s kind of almost not really, that’s kind of your job in a way.
Mark Ravenhill: I think we could be allowing…. I think we could be allowing… I think we could be allowing the voices to be more diverse than they are. I think a lot of people know that the way to get into one of those young writers programmes is to write that social realist play about, about their, you know, about their friend with a drug problem or blah, blah, blah.
Richard Bean: Well wait to you see The Young Writers Festival this year.
Mark Ravenhill: And I think actually, I think they’re being quite canny about that and there’s a lot more diversity of what people could write about to get their play on, to get their first play on, that’s, that’s what they’re doing. So in some ways I think we’ve got to be able to say the, you know, the stage is bigger than that and people’s imaginations are bigger than that, and kind of welcome that diversity. And theatricality and imagination, sexuality and naughtiness and inventiveness and I think with, I think as the years go by I think more and more we whittle things down to this one form. I mean The Soho Theatre, Bush, Royal Court Upstairs, blah, blah, blah, there is, there is very much that one dominant tradition of social realism.
Richard Bean: And it always feels also as if young writers are writing like that as a calling card for more lucrative work, you know, on The Bill…
Mark Ravenhill: And that’s the other thing, it’s The Bill audition.
Simon Stephens: I think the bad ones are, and I think, you know, I work with a lot of young writers who are really trying to stretch their form and trying to explore, explore form. And it’s fascinating now giving copies of Blasted to a group of young writers in The Young Writers Programme, and they find it completely alien and completely tedious and completely disinteresting. And they want to do, and they’re quite angry about the force that… a play which I personally think is quite extraordinary in many ways. They’re responding to it with anger, which I find really bracing, I think that’s terrific.
Richard Bean: What are they angry about?
Simon Stephens: I think they, I think they’re…
Richard Bean: People shouldn’t eat babies on stage or…
Simon Stephens: No, it’s not at all that. I think now because in the wake of Blasted, an awful lot of plays, and in the wake of that initial rush of very strong plays, an awful lot of lesser plays were written by pale imitators so that images of anal rape became tedious and became kind of signatures. And I think they’re maybe not distinguishing between the people who are original with those plays and their imitators, and they just find it a little bit gratuitous and a little bit… not gratuitous because it’s offensive, but gratuitous because it’s boring now. And the interesting things that young writers are doing or that all writers are… a lot of more established writers are doing now at the moment, it strikes me there’s a lot of people playing with time in a way. You know, I mean you look at David Eldridge’s MAD, with a twenty-year gap between the first few scenes and the final scene of that, you know, and Under The Whaleback, or even, you know, Mother Clap, there’s a lot of writers who are exploring the space between scenes as much as they’re exploring what’s happening on stage. And I think that’s quite exciting.
Aleks Sierz: Well your own One Minute, which you’re too modest to mention. Have you got a question there, yes?
Male Member of the Audience 2: Yes, I’ve got one question. Peter Gill is always railing against the fact that once upon a time writers wrote plays and they were put on. Now that may be, that may be a rose-tinted memory on his part, but basically he’s angry with the fact that what he sees as the intrusion of literary managers on texts. Do you think literary managers are a waste of time and that actually writers should be allowed to put their plays on rough and ready, and they will find out in production what’s strong and what’s not?
Mark Ravenhill: Well I’ve also had the experience of working with directors who are quite hands-on, so I haven’t, so I haven’t really felt that the scripts have been kind of reworked and worked and worked and put through a kind of process of literary management. It’s always just been a really strong relationship with, with the director. And I’ve always done, you know, a couple of drafts of… no, not always, but normally I’ve done a couple of drafts with the script before I show it to a director, and then a couple more as, you know, as part of my relationship with the director in the six months up to rehearsal, and then another draft during the rehearsal. So it’s always been a kind of relationship and a collaboration with the director, and that’s always really suited me. So I haven’t kind of felt the pressure of dramaturgs and workshops and literary mangers to that, in that way. And I think that writer/director relationship is, is often very fruitful. I mean I think Peter kind of feels that the play will come out of the writer and then you, what’s there the director respects. I wouldn’t want to see one of my first drafts staged.
Aleks Sierz: Richard, or Simon?
Richard Bean: Yes, I don’t, I think in Britain we’ve just about probably got it right in terms of dramaturgy. I mean I went to New York last year, and the whole scene in New York is barking man.
Aleks Sierz: It’s scary, it’s so scary.
Richard Bean: You know, people, people who call themselves playwrights in bars, you know, you meet them in bars, they’ve never had a play on, you know, they’ve had seventeen readings.
Mark Ravenhill: But the interesting thing is, you can make a living from…
Richard Bean: Yes, and they get paid for it.
Mark Ravenhill: From trusts and workshops and bursaries and teaching positions in universities. You know, and when I was in America there was people in forties, fifties, sixties, who’ve had permanent, had lives as playwrights from, you know, eighteen through to fifty-five, and who’ve maybe had one play produced in a small regional theatre in that time, but have made a living on it from getting bursaries and trusts and teaching positions and stuff.
Richard Bean: If you look at..
Mark Ravenhill: It’s a weird, weird thing.
Richard Bean: Sorry, sorry Mark. If you look at Angels in America which is a fantastic, fantastic play, particularly the, you know, the first half of it. If you look in the text, you look through the readings it’s been through and the bursaries it’s got and, you know, it’s, you know, I mean it’s a fantastic play in the end so you can’t knock it, but that is the process in America. And I think here what we’ve got is, as writers, we have relationships with our directors, don’t we? We may have a relationship with the literary manager of the theatre, and some are more interventionalist than others. Graham Whybrow has never ever said anything to me about changing anything in any of my plays to The Royal Court. He just says oh, nice rewrite Richard. He hasn’t told me what to rewrite, he’s just said well we can’t stage it at the moment, you know, and he hasn’t told me what to do. Jack Bradley at The National, because he works with lots of young writers, not just for The National, for all other theatres in London maybe, he’s a little bit more interventionist but he never really tells anybody what to do. He kind of thinks well I don’t think you need scene one, but that’s just my opinion, kind of… nobody’s actually telling him get rid of scene one. And I think, I think the balance in Britain is really very healthy actually, because as writers we need to be told which babies to slaughter. But in Britain I think it’s left up to us whether we do it or not, kind of thing.
Aleks Sierz: Great, OK. Any last…? Oh, there’s one here, yes, one more question?
Female Member of the Audience 1: I’m glad that you just mentioned America because my question was actually, obviously you’ve been talking about how contemporary British writing coheres on a national level. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit about ways in which playwrights in Britain are communicating across national boundaries with Ireland or America or non-English language drama, or ways in which they inspire others or are inspired by?
Aleks Sierz: Yes, Simon?
Simon Stephens: I’ve no idea how I inspire other people in other countries.
Mark Ravenhill: We’ve just been out in Mexico running, running playwrights workshops.
Simon Stephens: I, I’ve had a couple of productions in Germany, one in Germany, one in Austria, but because I don’t speak German, I’ve no idea what they think of it. What I can say is that I think there’s a formal boldness coming out of Europe which I find quite inspiring at the moment, which I feel quite inspired by. I mean the plays of Marius von Mayenburg or Vassily Sigarev, the Presnyakov brothers when they’re good, they’re less chained to the kind of anchor of social realism than I instinctively might be, and I find that quite liberating and quite thrilling. Whether or not my work has an impact in Germany or on the readings in America I have no idea, I have no idea.
Aleks Sierz: Richard?
Richard Bean: Talking personally, is this?
Aleks Sierz: Or generally if you want.
Richard Bean: Oh generally. Well I tend to generally write in a naturalistic genre, which the French hate and Europeans kind of despise I think, and I’ve never had any plays produced in Europe. I’ve had a play translated into French which, I don’t know, but nothing happened with it. It’s funny, I was at the Motley Design College, which is a theatre design college today and they’re doing theatre designs, and I just went in as a writer to do their crits, critique their designs and things. And the most conflict I had was with the German designers, there’s a guy there who’s from Germany. And the play, my play which they’ve designed is basically a naturalistic play and of course he’s just, you know… you know, put the big kind of, let’s throw all this stupid naturalism out of the window and let’s have a wonderful free, free design. So my work’s not so well received in Europe. America seems to quite like it.
Aleks Sierz: And by contrast here…
Richard Bean: And by contrast, Mark’s… yes.
Mark Ravenhill: Yes, America’s more resistant to my charms.
Richard Bean: Oh really?
Mark Ravenhill: Oh yes. I get a few university productions in the States and stuff and… Yes, and I had a production of Shopping and Fucking at a very good theatre called The New York Theatre Workshop, but it got the worst reviews, you know, you can possibly imagine. Like, Mr Ravenhill should go home and learn how to write a play was a particularly good one. But one that I quite liked was, Mr Ravenhill has a long… Mr Ravenhill is one of a long line of British whingers from John Osborne to Caryl Churchill. So I thought oh, I’m quite glad to be one of those British whingers. So, but it just got universally absolutely terrible reviews, but… and ever since then I haven’t had much of a career in the States. But yes, in the Germanic press, in the Germanic countries and the Norwegian countries, you know, all of that, and Poland and yes, they… I get a lot of productions. And that’s been one of the most exciting things about being a playwright is that I get invitations and go and see, not all of them, but occasionally go and see productions at directors in different countries. And Simon was in Mexico running workshops for the young writers, for the international programme, and I was there a couple of weeks before as a new writing festival and they were doing a production of Some Explicit Polaroids. So I’ve, you know, I did a little bit of holidaying before I was a playwright, but since I’ve been a playwright I’ve had this fantastic chance to travel all over the world and always get in to really good, talking to directors from all over the world. That’s been, that’s probably been about the best thing about being a playwright, apart from meeting Richard Bean, that’s the best thing. And the second thing..
Richard Bean: And Martin McDonagh.
Mark Ravenhill: And meeting Martin McDonagh, who played with my nipples once at The Evening Standard Theatre Awards, and that was very exciting.
Male Member of the Audience 3: Can I just… sorry, I know you need to wrap-up quite soon, but I just wanted to ask… which is about British playwrights, English playwrights being better known abroad sometimes than they are here. And one of the questions I wanted to ask is that presumably as writers with careers, it’s very satisfying when you work at a stage in a studio house, for example, when they reach, I don’t know, two hundred people a night. But are you frustrated at all that some of the work that you’ve done hasn’t gone into the West End? I’m thinking particularly recently of Under The Whaleback, which was a play that many critics admired, I particular thought was wonderful. But it came to the end of its run at The Royal Court and then it didn’t move on anywhere, and I think I sensed that it reached a kind of coterie of people in effect. And members of the public who could get tickets were, I’m sure, impressed, but there’s a sort of theatre-going crowd who get to see a lot of the stuff in the smaller spaces. And if there isn’t an impetus to transfer that work or to make it reach a big audience, it doesn’t seem to happen. I just wondered whether you felt there was a gap, as it were, between, you know, the success in the studio space and then what happens later.
Richard Bean: Yes, yes. I think, yes, I think you’ve hit on a kind of, yes, really quite important point there, that as a playwright if you… just talking about Under The Whaleback there, you’ve written a play which has a sell-out run, and then three weeks up bang, it’s over, it’s finished. That’s your point isn’t it, really, basically, yes? And it’s very frustrating that, because I talk to… and I’m a bit of a theatre naif, you know, I’ve come to this business incredibly late, I don’t understand the business really. And I talk to people like Peter Gill who will tell you, well that was a downstairs play, it should have been downstairs, you know, put it downstairs, you know. I said what, who, me, put it downstairs, what do you mean me? I mean, who do I ask to put it downstairs? You know, so the management were asked to put it downstairs and they chose not to, and then there was no interest in a West End transfer or anything like that. And it is, it’s a…
Aleks Sierz: But Richard, it was revived, which is very rare for a new play, in Hull, you know, so…
Richard Bean: No, no, no. Yes, but… Yes, but if that play wasn’t going to go to Hull then it was never going to go to anywhere, so… No, in a sense it’s never been anywhere, has it? You know, if you came…
Aleks Sierz: It’s like bringing fish to Hull, it’s like bringing trawler men to Hull.
Richard Bean: Yes, yes, yes. They love fish in Hull, I mean they’re obviously going to take it, aren’t they? But I mean I think your point is, it is exactly right, you know, that… you know, I mean it’s been sold abroad but.. You know, I was very proud of that play and it’s a great shame that it doesn’t do the tacky thing actually of going to the West End in a sense. You know, I think that’s a strong enough play for ordinary people, not necessarily Royal Court theatregoers, for ordinary people to enjoy that play. There’s nothing pretentious about the play, ordinary people would enjoy that play and it’s a great, great shame that as a very young playwright like myself, you can’t, you can’t make a living by a West End transfer anymore. As the generation, we’re talking about the generation, the Hares and the Edgars and things, they used to do that didn’t they, you know. David Storey would write a play about a tent and it would run in the West End for fifty weeks, you know, I mean if I wrote a play about a tent, you know..
Aleks Sierz: It would burn down in a hangar in East London, yes.
Richard Bean: But I think, I think it’s extraordinarily frustrating that, you know, you look at your portfolio and you think that’s probably my best piece of work, and nobody else wants to put it on. Terribly, terribly frustrating. And I’ve forgotten what your question was.
Male Member of The Audience 3: No, I just wondered what, you know, has somebody… because one remembers in the 90s, the mid-90s people were prepared to risk bringing in, you know, Closer and Shopping and Fucking in to the West End, they seemed to have a presence there. And I don’t know whether commercial producers have just got scared or whether they need some sort of hype, they need some sense of a movement behind the particular plays to make them catch fire in the West End. I don’t know what it is that some of these plays don’t seem to have, you know.
Richard Bean: Well very quickly, I think some of the West End theatres are too big really. I think what we could do with is some nice commercial three hundred seaters in the West End, and I’ll open that up to the panel, I’ve spoken enough for the moment on this one.
Simon Stephens: I think it’s deeply maddening, but to an extent there’s so little you can do about it. You can’t, you know, as you said about Peter Gill’s comment, it’s not our choice where the plays go, all we can do is write them as well as we can possibly write them. If there’s a caution amongst commercial producers, if that’s the question then yes, I think there is, and I think they underestimate the public’s intelligence.
Richard Bean: Yes, I think absolutely.
Simon Stephens: I think a whole manner of people can respond to plays of great complexity with real openness, and it’s absolutely nothing to do with how highbrow a play is or how dark its theme is. Yes, they’re cautious, yes, they’re scared, yes, they’re patronising. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it so I’ve just got to carry on writing plays as well as I can I think, otherwise you go mental.
Mark Ravenhill: What can I say? I mean I just love all, I love all the different forms that a play, different ways that a play can find its way out in to the world. So I love it when amateurs do the plays, and then when kids are reading them in college and university, you meet kids who are doing them for speeches from your plays for A levels or people who have done the university production. You know, probably Under The Whaleback has reached a lot of people in that way, and international productions and… You know, a play kind of seeps out and finds its life in all sorts of different ways that I think, I think is really exciting and it… And often a play that has, does have that three weeks at the theatre upstairs, it might not immediately get the West End transfer, it might even actually, people might not talk about it for the next four or five years. And then suddenly you find that it’s kind of found its way through and amateurs are doing it and university groups are doing it and then it, and then that means that somebody who’s been at university as a young director saw that production and said I want to do, you know a revival of it, and, you know, I think plays have this kind of fantastic life. So I think that immediate transfer to the West End isn’t the only way in which a play can have a life.
Aleks Sierz: Right. Well I think that’s it really, and we’ve overrun and… On behalf on Theatre Voice and The Theatre Museum, let me thank Richard Bean, Simon Stephens, Mark Ravenhill. Thank you very much.