Mel Kenyon, literary agent: ‘It’s like a marriage – I need to fall in love with a writer’s work’
It is 25 years since the death of Peggy Ramsay. She was the eccentric doyenne of theatrical literary agents for nearly half a century, with an unrivalled list of 300-odd British playwrights and screenwriters.
Succeeding her was the then 28-year-old Mel Kenyon, at the time literary manager of the Royal Court. Kenyon had gone to the Court in her early 20s as PA to then artistic director Max Stafford-Clark. She read plays in her own time and eventually became literary manager, arguably the most important role at a theatre world-renowned for its new writing.
“When Max left, I got a call from Tom Erhardt, who had worked with Peggy asking if we could meet,” recalls Kenyon, now a svelte and youthful-looking 53. “He asked me if I knew anyone who was really good at reading plays because he was looking for someone to take over Peggy’s list of writers and find some new ones. So I said, ‘I’ll do it!” and Tom replied, ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’ ”
By then, the business had merged with Jenne Casarotto’s film and TV agency, and was now called Casarotto Ramsay. In a subsequent meeting with Casarotto and Erhardt, Kenyon recalls saying to them: “I will not make you any money for seven to 10 years, but you will have the best writers of my generation.” On her way home she thought, ‘Fuck, I blew that.’ ”
Luckily they admired her honesty and resolve enough to entrust Kenyon with the awesome task of picking up where Ramsay left off. “There was never any pressure on me to deliver commercial writers. Tom and Jenne were extraordinarily supportive, there was never any interference. I remember Tom reading Sarah Kane’s play Blasted and saying, ‘I don’t like it but she is brilliant.’ ”
Behind Kenyon’s desk in her office at Casarotto Ramsay Ltd off Oxford Street is a poster that reads, “The older I get the more everyone can kiss my ass”. While those of us who are no longer as young as we used to be can relate to that sentiment, you feel Kenyon needs to remind herself that she is de facto the doyenne of theatrical literary agents now, with a success rate to rival her predecessor’s.
She says she cannot remember a time when she wasn’t passionate about drama and performance, whether it was Greek tragedy or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Growing up in theatre-starved Bournemouth in the 1970s, she moved to Manchester in her late teens to study English and drama at university.
“I created terrible theatrical experiences, tortured and awful,” she says. “I never had the urge to direct but it dawned on me that I was better at analysing text than most of the directors I encountered.”
That gift for confidently analysing and assessing plays, later honed at the Royal Court, is what made her uniquely well placed to take on Ramsay’s mantle. But divining writing talent is only the start of the long and arduous process of getting a new play produced on stage. Kenyon then has to excite the interest of a producer or a producing theatre, negotiate a fee and terms for her writer, and make sure the play in question is match-fit. And very often she is dealing with a dozen or more new plays or screenplays at a time.
It all sounds incredibly complex, time-consuming and stressful, I say.
“You always feel as though you’re failing somebody somewhere,” she says. “Your work is never done. I’m very lucky in that, by and large, all my clients are doing well. They write plays and they get put on, so in that respect my life has become easier. What’s difficult is believing fervently in a piece of work you can’t get produced. When Robert Holman wrote Jonah and Otto, an exquisite piece of work, it took me three years to get anyone to produce it.”
With a work I find astonishing, I get the writer to come in as I need to look them in the eye
Holman was a respected and established writer with a formidable track record. But what happens with first-time writers Kenyon decides to take on? Isn’t it even harder to place the work of a novice? Does she look for potential or raw talent?
“What I’m looking for is innate dramatists. I’ve never taken on a writer for any reason other than I’ve fallen in love with the work. If it’s an unsolicited script, firstly you fall in love with the work, then you fall in love with the mind and spirit of the writer. Once I’ve decided a piece of work is astonishing, I get the writer to come in because you need to look them in the eye. They need to know that you understand their work and that they feel supported. You can’t hold their hand unless you believe they are an extraordinary talent.
“If the writer’s relationship with the agent is good, it’s like being in a long-term marriage that can go on for years.”
Can you be taught to write plays? Kenyon thinks not. In the past, she has locked horns with playwright and teacher of playwriting David Edgar (whom she does not represent) on the subject.
“I believe there is something instinctive about being able to create a dramatic arc,” she says. “There are plays that masquerade as plays, with a big three-act structure, but there is no life force, no propulsion, they’re static. You can’t teach that.
“There are certain very celebrated writers whose work I can admire but don’t actually like because of the spirit in which it is written. My spiritual landscape is different from theirs. I can tell by reading a play when the playwright has ceased to see his or her characters and their behaviour in a spatial sense and is just listening to them, channelling their thoughts and ideas.”
Q&A: Mel Kenyon
What was your first non-theatre job? Working as a chambermaid in a Bournemouth hotel, aged 11.
What was your first professional theatre job? Working in the bar at the Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Not to take it so personally.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My mother, Max Stafford-Clark and Tom Erhardt.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Truly believe in it.
If you hadn’t been a literary agent, what would you have been? A barrister.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? For press nights I have to colour-coordinate my underwear and socks, otherwise it will all go horribly wrong.
Because of the nature of the work she represents – original drama that is socially or intellectually challenging – Kenyon tends to deal more with the subsidised sector.
“The producers I like to work with are extraordinarily experienced, kind to the talent, open to discussion. They know you have to spend the right amount of money to have a chance of success, and therefore a chance of a real return.
“We need really good, young producers. I’ll always give young producers and directors a chance if I think they’re doing it for the right reasons. If they’re good, and it works out, you’ll go back to them. I can’t embrace cynical programming in which a big star is woefully miscast because it looks good on paper. For me it is a dishonest transaction with your audience, it’s just lazy. Producers who do that see plays and actors as commodities. It’s all about making the money. That isn’t what theatre is about for me. I’m not going to go there.”
That said, Kenyon is not averse to the West End per se. She was intimately involved with two current box office bonanzas – Matilda the Musical and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – from their original productions, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National respectively, to their triumphant London transfers. Indeed, she was largely responsible for her client Simon Stephens adapting Mark Haddon’s book, and the subsequent involvement of another client, Marianne Elliott, as director, who then persuaded the National to produce it.
Kenyon says she is keen to be “far more proactive” in the production process in future and is involved in the development of a number of shows – including two Neil Gaiman projects, a couple of stage musicals based on existing films, plus a stage adaptation of James and the Giant Peach.
Currently, she is brokering yet another Roald Dahl adaptation, The Witches, by her client Lucy Kirkwood, which will probably be for the National.
“You’re making things happen but in a rather casual way, which is how I like it,” she says.
There was nothing casual about Kenyon’s contribution to the 2006 Channel 4 series The Play’s The Thing, in which she was required to pick a play from some 2,000 entries submitted by previously unperformed writers that was deemed good enough to be produced in the West End. Her fellow judges were producer Sonia Friedman and actor Neil Pearson. A shortlist of 30 was whittled down to 10 and, finally, to three.
Kenyon agreed to take part in order to defend good writing. In the event she found there wasn’t a lot to defend. She lamented in an interview later “the lack of intellectual rigour, the lack of ambition in the use of stage space, image structure or metaphor”, not to mention a lack of raw energy. At one stage, after a heated exchange with Pearson, she stormed out of the room. “Everyone was being so nice,” she said later, “and nice didn’t do it for me at that moment.”
None of that came as any surprise to those who were aware that Kenyon’s reputation at the time – to the wider public at least – rested on two plays: Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1997) and Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995), neither of them intended to produce a warm glow of niceness in the audience.
Even now, 21 years after Blasted was first produced, and 17 years after Kane’s suicide, Kenyon is clearly still angry about what she calls “the unseemly and undignified” press reaction to Blasted. “The critics didn’t actually engage with the work. It was all about their discomfort. I did say to Sarah before it opened that they probably wouldn’t like it, but at least they’d recognise what an extraordinary writer she was, but that didn’t happen. I didn’t bargain on the stupidity and vindictiveness that would accompany the critique.”
Kenyon hasn’t demurred from criticising the critics in the past, so now that conventional newspaper reviewers, the big beasts, as it were, have become an endangered species, how does she view the present and future role of theatre criticism?
“To have a healthy theatrical culture there has to be a healthy debate,” she says. “We are no longer in a place where one or two critics can destroy a show. Word of mouth is viral now. If audiences have an enjoyable experience they will let each other know on social media, which is truly democratic. When we did Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms, there was a [negative] critical backlash, but young audiences took it to their hearts and word got out on social media. That is now the first indicator of whether or not something is going to be successful, and often pre-empts the press night because theatregoers start posting their reactions during the previews.”
Mel Kenyon on…
It is a huge problem across all media. I feel we haven’t done something right. I’m very aware there is not enough new writing from minorities but I’m not sure how you solve that problem. It is probably a question of outreach work, going into schools and allowing better access to theatre so that it is not just a middle-class pursuit. We’re increasingly mindful of it, that we live in a multicultural society, and that the work on our stages must reflect that.
… gender equality
There is a whole generation of men in the theatre now who grew up with feminist mothers and are therefore well disposed towards women being in key positions. It strikes me that there is a genuine move towards egalitarianism in the theatre. You used to get the feeling that [male] critics tolerated women playwrights but there was a kind of unspoken rule about the things they should and shouldn’t be writing about. It wasn’t conscious misogyny so much as men feeling discomforted by women like Caryl Churchill writing in a way they didn’t understand. Now it is not so anomalous that women write plays on all kinds of subjects, thanks to writers like Sarah Kane and Phyllis Nagy.
… stage versus screen
“The notion has grown up that, as a young playwright, you can train yourself in the theatre, get spotted and then become a screenwriter. In other words, theatre is just your nursery. Even some agents think having a play on at the National is not regarded as quite the same thing as having a film made by Miramax. This exploitation of the theatre and disregard for it as a real art form makes me see red. I think it is the most difficult thing in the world to write a really good stage play. The idea that somehow you grow up into screenwriting I find faintly ludicrous and insulting.” (from Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age by Anne Nicholson Weber, Routledge, 2006
Though she does not subscribe to the notion that top-of-the-range theatre has priced itself out of the market – “there are still plenty of concessions and deals available” – Kenyon is keenly aware that it is an expensive pursuit and that the paying public “deserve the very best we can give them”. She fervently believes “you can create things of excellence and beauty that people will remember all their lives” without “embroiling yourself in the awful mediocrity that is often mistaken for popular culture”.
But, more fundamentally, is theatre still viable in the age of push-button technology and home entertainments?
“To my mind, in our age of technology, there is nothing more exhilarating than going into a room and sharing something uniquely life-enhancing and thought-provoking with 800 other people. There is no other medium that offers that. I’m incredibly proud of our theatre culture in this country, which is down to subsidy and the brilliance of our writers and directors and designers. We have an extraordinary wealth of talent.
“If you take a child to a bad piece of theatre, they may grow up thinking ‘I hate theatre,’ but if you take a child to a fantastic piece of theatre, they may go back again and again. They may even become a better person as a result of going to the theatre because it is where we have those crucial philosophical discussions about the human condition.”
For most of her working life, Kenyon has dedicated herself mind, body and soul to her love of theatre. But now there is a new love in her life who’s proving to be every bit as beguiling. His name is Rudy, the baby son of her partner, TV editor Helen Wickham. “It is an extraordinary thing to happen in your middle years,” she says. “I’ve been forced to have a personal life in a way I’ve never had before. I now have to switch off when I get home in order to change a nappy and engage with Rudy. I thought my clients might find that difficult, but they’ve been extraordinarily generous and sweet about it.”
CV: Mel Kenyon
Born: 1963, Poole, Dorset
Training: BA (hons) in English and drama, Manchester University
Career: Royal Court Theatre, literary manager, 1988-91, Casarotto Ramsay Ltd, literary agent, 1991-the present
Clients include: April De Angelis, Alan Ayckbourn, Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, Stella Feehily, Neil Gaiman, David Greig, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Zinnie Harris, Robert Holman, Dennis Kelly, Lucy Kirkwood, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Duncan Macmillan, Frank McGuinness, Simon Stephens, Tom Wells
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.