When I left university there was no doubt in my mind which letter I would write first to further my career as a director. I would write to Max Stafford-Clark, who was then the artistic director of the Royal Court. Perhaps of all directors at that time Max was known for his commitment to the development and production of new plays. Virtually every contemporary playwright I had admired had worked with Max.
It was not unusual back then to commit to new writing as a director, in fact I think back then the landscape encouraged this nailing of colours to the mast, new writing – even saying that now feels a little dated now – was almost a religion and it seemed to me back then that those who just wanted to direct plays seemed to lack that faith.
Directing seemed to me then, and still does, a political act. That theory of a political piece of work applies as strongly to a classic as it does to a new piece of writing and I still believe that all the work that you do comes from a position of asking a question, and that question is inevitably is about wanting to place a human being in society and as soon as you start asking that question on some level you are asking some sort of political question.
I very rarely meet a young director now who says ‘hello, I’m a new writing director, I only direct new plays’ and that made me think about why that landscape might have changed – why that religious zeal might have changed. When Deborah Aydon and I came to these theatres, it never crossed our minds that we would run these theatres without a commitment to new writing. It was a religious belief that if you want to nurture writers, if you want the next generation of voices to come up, that is what you do, otherwise you are just ploughing the same fields again and again.
We came into a theatre, the Everyman in particular but also the Playhouse, that had a tradition of putting on brave work and we felt of course we will produce new writing. It is not now a given and it certainly is not necessarily the religious belief of all that you do. What I’ve come to believe now, and what excites me now, is that new writing is about so much more than a religious commitment to the thing itself and I suspect now we are moving in to a territory which is very exciting, a political landscape where these voices are really needed.
Not just from an altruistic desire that we should do new writing but actually because there are really important things that we need to be saying right now. We live in times of recession, in times where the luxury of doing new writing as a religious belief is under threat. The arts is threatened by cuts and changes; but actually where the world outside the arts is also threatened by these cuts, and it’s an awful thing to say, but there is never a better time to write a play than when times are tough.
Without writers we become a museum. What theatre must never be is the reflection of a dead art form
Yes, there is this thing called new writing, but what I have learnt in the last nine years is what it is to be rooted in a place and to value the voice of a city, of a region and I feel that the best way of touching that voice is through the voice of its artists. Where I began thinking new writing was this religion that was an art form in itself I have come now to think about the nurturing of a region, of the development of artists, of different ways of working, of emerging art forms. There are many, many ways that make this theatrical art form alive and I think as a theatre it is our duty to discover not only great playwrights but to ask them other ways they’d like to work, to find other artists who want to work with writers in collaboration, to constantly test this art form.
The future for these theatres has to be built on writers. Sometimes we will ask writers to adapt work. There is this new born creation called ‘a new play’ but sometimes asking someone like Stephen Sharkey to look at a Brecht play and bring a Liverpool sensibility to it, or bring a new writing sensibility to it, bring the time and place we are now to it. There are many ways this thing ‘new writing’ can be.
All I know is that without writers we become a museum. What theatre must never be is the reflection of a dead art form that speaks of a time. The urgency for all of us is to ask questions of our time and what it is to be a human being and that can’t be done in a museum that speaks of another time. That’s our duty to our writing and our writers.
The times to me feel exciting, as exciting as they feel threatening with cuts all around us, but the cuts make us think in new ways. There is no doubt that selling a new play by an unknown writer is a much harder task for a theatre than to sell a classic. Audiences are nervous of something they don’t recognise but if we can bring 100 people a night to see something urgent we are actually sowing the seeds of a great literary career, we are responding to our times, we are not just a ubiquitous theatre putting on shows, we are an urgent living, breathing thing that is moving along and talking about what it is to be a human being and that’s what we need to be.
Gemma Bodinetz is artistic director of Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatres. This is a transcript of the venues’ inaugural Everyword Lecture.