With many drama schools now commissioning new writing for their students, Sarah Lambie looks at how the experience can give students an invaluable insight into the working world they will be entering and provide playwrights with a rare chance to work at scale
Playwright Freddie Machin has a lot on at the moment. “I’m writing for Drama Studio London, and a piece for Worcester University that is going to Edinburgh next year, and I’m also writing for a private girls’ school… so a few things have come in recently, and they all seem to be for education institutions.” Work breeds work – and Machin has managed to carve out something of a niche for himself, alongside many other endeavours, in writing to commission for student groups.
“Somebody suggested I get in touch with Italia Conti, which was keen to develop a relationship with a writer that they might commission. After a couple of years of teaching there, supervising third-year projects, we talked about the possibility of my writing a play for them. I pitched them a few ideas and we developed The Real Estate, which is now published by Nick Hern Books.”
It makes enormous practical sense for drama schools to commission plays for their students – not least because the cast size and age range are pretty limiting for existing work, if they wish to show them off to their best advantage.
“That was a cast of 32 actors,” Machin explains. “So finding a piece of work that suits them and that age group is quite difficult. But also, it’s a great thing to be able to commission a writer to write for them, so the process was about me trying as much as possible to cater to the needs of the students. It went well, and they asked me to do it again the following year: there were only 28 in that year, so that was a breeze by comparison.
“It was a great opportunity for me,” he adds. “All my work up to that point had been for three people and had been performed above a pub. So the chance to write something of this size was incredible. Having written the first one, I knew that I could do it, and I had a skill to offer other drama schools.”
And there’s definitely a market for these skills: many drama schools are now commissioning new writing year after year for their students, with examples including the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, whose final-year Richard Burton Company takes an annual week at London’s Gate Theatre to perform new writing, and LAMDA, which partnered with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 2018 to mount a symposium called Commissioning the Future.
“As a drama school, LAMDA is uniquely placed to curate not just projects but conversations,” explains head of acting Caroline Leslie. “We can observe practice and reflect upon it, then share that knowledge with the industry to empower artists, evolve processes and uncover new opportunities.” Its one-day symposium in 2018, she continues, “brought together practitioners, producers and drama schools to explore the role of the drama school in the development of new work and its impact on a more inclusive and theatrically diverse landscape”.
‘For writers, a key advantage of developing work with LAMDA is the chance to explore projects at a scale they might not be able to elsewhere’ – Caroline Leslie, head of acting at LAMDA
By giving writers a forum in which to develop work for the young performers who are entering the industry now, drama schools play a role in ensuring that the body of work available for future professional performance is more representative of the performers in the industry, and of the audiences they hope to play to.
“This year, we have produced Barney Norris’ Blood Wedding, Phil Porter’s The Ofsted Massacre and Rob Evans’ The River and the Mountain, all of which we hope will have a further life,” Leslie explains.
Other plays that started life at LAMDA include Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House and Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn.
“For writers, a key advantage of developing work with LAMDA is the chance to explore projects at a scale they might not be able to elsewhere,” Leslie says.
This has certainly been the experience for Machin. “Inevitably I pursue my own artistic ambitions through these projects,” he says. “The Real Estate was an idea I had been developing over about a year – I got some money from the Arts Council to do a research and development project about how loads of LGBTQ pubs and clubs were closing down in London, and I did a scratch at the Battersea Arts Centre and a bit at the Camden People’s Theatre, but the project didn’t really go anywhere.
“About six weeks later, I wrote a short play for the Old Red Lion about a man sitting on his roof protesting about being forcibly evicted so they could knock down his house and build a block of flats. That was a three-hander.
“So when Italia Conti asked me for an idea, the first thing on my mind was this thing about gentrification, and moving people out of inner-city London so that big blocks of flats could be erected. I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to write a massive play about a whole social housing block that’s being evicted’ – it allowed me to develop the idea in a much bigger way than I could ever have anticipated: I’ve started thinking big ideas now, in a way that I haven’t before.”
The benefits for all parties are manifold. At Drama Studio London, the course leader began by telling Machin what the strengths were of each student, and the ways in which she wanted them to be stretched. “So, I almost had a set of character breakdowns before I’d even begun writing, which was really helpful,” he says.
Both Machin and Leslie also remark on the value of the experience for students as an insight into the working world they’ll be entering: “Having the experience of being in the room with a living writer can be really beneficial,” says Machin. He points out that it’s a more democratic process, breaking down what he refers to as the ‘textual hierarchy’ – who in the room has the greatest analytical knowledge of a dead or absent writer’s intentions. “And it means managing students’ expectations,” – a lesson for future R&D work – “recognising that you might develop the part, but you might not get the part.”
It’s a learning process for all parties, and through their commissioning of new writing, drama schools are supporting the writers and performers of the future, while producing a catalogue of texts that speak absolutely to the artists and audiences of today.
Sarah Lambie is an actor, writer and editor of Drama and Theatre magazine