Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Monsterism -- Dogma du Jour

From David Eldridge of The Guardian, courtesy of Gregg Henry at
The Kennedy Center:

It all started with a lamentable production of an old,
piss-poor European play by a new director on a large
stage with a huge cast. The playwrights Richard Bean,
Colin Teevan, Sarah Woods and Ryan Craig had seen it
and were enraged that such resources aren't lavished
on many living playwrights. If they were, they
speculated, perhaps there wouldn't be such a lack of
variety in the new plays being written.

And it's not just the poverty of resources that's
having an effect on playwrights. According to Teevan:
"There's been a predominance of television realism and
of a section of the critical culture that demands a
moral message from new writing. This is in danger of
making theatre about as interesting as muesli."

"Why would anyone write stage plays now?" asks Craig.
"If you can write dialogue and you can hit a deadline
you can write TV. You can write about your south London
council estate or your middle class swingers and you can
make more money and reach more people and therefore have
more impact." Apart from anything else, the denial of the
larger stages to living playwrights has made it harder and
harder for them to earn a living from writing, as they see
their income from royalties dwindle to insultingly low

"Theatre has moved out of the Webberised 1990s and the
In-Yer-Face millennium," says Woods. We have moved on from
the bleak post-Thatcher landscape and the end of the cold
war. The big, messy complex world we find ourselves in, says
Woods, "is not going to be best expressed by a two- or four-
handed play in a studio theatre. It must also be allowed a
cast of 12 or even 20 on a main stage."

But this was more than just moaning. Woods started writing
down everything that the four playwrights said. Then they
invited others associated with the National Theatre Studio
to join them and form a writers' group. As we began to
contribute our own experiences and ideas it became obvious
that the original quartet didn't represent a narrow clique:
they were speaking for the vast majority of new and aspiring
playwrights. And Monsterism was born.

Moira Buffini sums up the thinking behind the campaign when
she says: "It's our job to take people where they don't
expect to go. It's our job to provoke, move, unsettle and
inspire. It goes without saying that plays that manage to
do this are big. It is possible to write them for a cast of
two and perform them in a box barely bigger than a lounge
but I've got to the point where I want to kick down the
walls of these boxes. I'm sick of writing epics for six."

Initially our efforts were modest. We ceremonially gambled
the tiny expenses allowance the National Studio gave us for
our monthly meeting in the hope of backing a winner and
raising some meagre funds for our campaign. Next we plotted
kidnapping prominent theatre critics we particularly
disliked and holding them captive for a pathetic ransom
like 50p. Fortunately we quickly evolved out of our
anarchist phase and began to apply for jobs running
theatres instead. (Of course, playwrights always miss the
deadline ...)

Then, having distilled our ideas on paper in the form of
a manifesto, we set out to meet as many theatre managers
as possible. The artistic director of the National
Theatre, Nick Hytner, pledged to encourage big new plays.
Another artistic director was none too happy at the small
number of us who were available to meet with him (no
reflection, mate, we're all busy too!). But, piqued or
passionate, they all got the same treatment: we grilled
them about their theatres and their visions for the
future and we put our case.

When they have met us as a collective, directors, theatre
managements and institutions have never been anything
other than supportive, but often when they meet us
privately or individually they lay the blame at our door.
If you only wrote a big play, they say, we'd love to put
it on. But dramatists, the most pragmatic of writers, only
have to look at the plays that have been done in the past
20 years to see which way the wind has been blowing in
often cash-strapped theatres. We want the managements to
take some responsibility, be proactive and help to turn
things around but we're not simply passing the buck. "We've
become masters at crafting our stories into reductive,
exclusive black-box experiences," Jonathan Lewis points out.
"We fell in love with and are exhausting this intimate
version of events."

"The moment someone decides to write for the stage," says
Roy Williams, "they should be encouraged to believe the
limits to what they can achieve are only the limits of
their imagination." But this doesn't always happen. Like
Bean, I increasingly miss the opportunity to write a
whole world, with its opportunities for great parts for
leading actors and small, gem-like one-scene roles. Newer
playwrights have been formed in a democratic culture that
encourages equality for all the characters in a narrative
and instills the notion that if you employ a performer you
ought to give them a good amount to do. Nothing wrong with
that but sometimes we want to write a different kind of

This dominant mode is reinforced by the critical culture.
Script development people and reviewers always seem to note
that any small part is "underwritten" - even if, as Bean
tartly points out, that is a deliberate choice on the part
of the playwright. Many argue that the minor characters
should be cut - but imagine Macbeth without the Porter. No
wonder so many playwrights are frustrated. Buffini warns:
"If living writers are not given access to the stages that
our dead forebears still dominate, then our skills cannot
develop and our talent will go elsewhere." And there are
other exciting places for talented writers to go if the
theatre does not want us on at least some of our new
terms. Writers like Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Monica
Ali are showing how exciting the novel can be, inspiring
and enthralling readers with an epic sweep and the
accuracy with which they explore the human condition. And
for the dyed-in- the-wool dramatists, Paul Abbott, Abi
Morgan and Russell T Davies are living proof that if you
write well and pursue a passionate, ambitious, inventive
vision then TV can still be a place where you can tell the
tales you want.

The Monsterists, though, are dedicated to theatre - and
now we're shifting our private efforts into a public
campaign. This Friday we are holding a Monster Day Out at
Hampstead Theatre in London to discuss our ideas with
critics, directors and other playwrights. Already things
are looking up. Hytner is richly fulfilling his promise to
produce big new plays, by playwrights new and established.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is telling any writer who
will listen that it wants new plays to be at heart of the
company's work and is commissioning large cast pieces from
the writers it believes in. Despite having smaller
resources than the larger companies the Royal Court is
doing its absolute best to stage large scale, ambitious
work by its writers. But there is a long way to go. The
Monsterists, with the support of the Arts Council,
commissioned a survey of the 2004 autumn season in British
theatre. Of the 276 plays produced by our surveyed
theatres, 35% were new - but our feedback suggests that
substantially less than 35% of the participating
companies' resources were actually spent on the new plays,
while money as ever has been thrown at Shakespeare, Wilde
and the rest.

What to do? Well, apart from dreaming of a year-long
moratorium on Shakespeare, we would like the theatre
industry to consider introducing a "dead writers'levy".
Quite simply, every time a play is put on by a dead
writer, to whom a royalty does not have to be paid, the
producer contributes an equivalent sum towards a fund
that supports the production of new work. The beauty of
such a scheme is that it would, in one go, provide a
substantial additional source of funding for theatres
committed to putting on ambitious new work and remove
the unfair financial incentive theatres have for
producing old plays by dead writers.

Monsterism may have started out as a moan but it is a
positive, forward-looking campaign by writers to ask
British theatre to raise its game. Buffini speaks for
all of us when she says: "Deluded though I may be, I
am an optimist. If we playwrights work together we may
effect a change. If we are allowed to give our
imaginations free reign, if we have use of the same
resources, the spaces, budgets, casts and directors
that are usually reserved for the deceased, we may
write the kind of plays that will attract a new
audience. We all moan about tired old productions and
dead theatre. We can only try to bring it back to life."

Monsterism's Manifesto

Monsterism is a theatre writers' campaign to promote
new writing in the British theatre. It is a positive,
forward looking movement that aims to create
opportunities for British theatre writers to create
large scale plays, for large stages.

The key aesthetic tenets of a monsterist work are:
  • Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
  • The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
  • Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
  • Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
  • The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
  • Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
On a practical level the implications of the manifesto are:
  • The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage
  • Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living
  • writer (ie equal with dead writers)
  • Use of the very best directors for new plays
  • Use of the very best actors for new plays

1 comment:

LuckySpinster said...

I had a play recently produced that had four actors playing something like 54 supporting characters. Big ideas and large casts don't have to be cost-prohibitive.