Lyn Gardner talks to Writing Squad director Steve Dearden and finds out about how the company has helped writers Nick Payne and Chris Bush to find their feet in a crowded marketplace – and how writing schemes can learn from football academies
Steve Dearden was working as a literature officer at Yorkshire Arts in the late 1990s when he came up with the idea for a programme to develop and support young writers. Two decades on and the Writing Squad has worked with more than 200 authors and is still going strong.
The Writing Squad works in all genres, from playwriting to poetry, and offers a free programme for those aged 16-21 who live, work, or study in the North of England.
Alumni have developed careers in all areas of the creative industries, and the Squad has produced major playwrights including Constellations writer Nick Payne and Chris Bush, who recently won a UK Theatre Award for The Assassination of Katie Hopkins. Another is Charley Miles, whose work Blackthorn – a finalist for the Susan Blackburn Smith award – premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016 and was revived for last year’s Paines Plough’s Roundabout season.
Dearden enjoys celebrating these successes, but is wary of measuring success by awards and the raised profiles of individuals. “At the Writing Squad we measure success in relation to an individual’s ambition and what that writer wants to do, not by how they measure up against Nick Payne or Chris Bush,” he says. “They need to be able to follow their own path, not the same one as those that came before them.”
He believes that too much early success can sometimes be damaging for young writers and says that at the Writing Squad the emphasis is on celebrating “the unfinished: the writer who sits and faces that blank screen and keeps doing it”.
It was the football-academy model that Dearden followed for the Writing Squad. “The best academies teach skills and techniques, but they also teach about being in the world and how to navigate it. I thought it would be good to have something similar for writers, something that helps them develop skills but also encourages them to be as authentic and honest as they can. To be adaptable too.”
When the Writing Squad was set up, writing schemes were still in their infancy in most British theatres and few universities offered creative writing courses. That has changed, but Dearden still sees the need for the Squad because it is completely free at the point of delivery. It also offers train fares and hotels for those who require them in order to attend gatherings, which include both workshops and one-to-one sessions tailored to the particular interests and needs of the individual writer. “We don’t have a model that says: ‘This is how to be a Squad writer.’ We treat every writer as an individual,” says Dearden.
There are around 200 applications for 30 places every two years, when a new intake is announced. Dearden looks beyond the applications to teachers in schools for recommendations in order to increase diversity and because different voices and people from different backgrounds “help change the nature of the squad and always for the good”.
It receives grant funding from Arts Council England and the rest is earned from projects that range from work in schools and museums, to working with festivals.
Dearden says that when writers applied to join 18 years ago, the influences they cited were often pretty homogenous – from Albert Camus to Caryl Churchill. But the last intake listed 142 different writers, “about half of which I had never heard”.
If a member suddenly decides that they are interested in writing a musical, creating a piece of performance art or writing for video games, the Squad will find someone to help, often from its own alumni. One of the particular things about the Squad is that nobody ever has to graduate and leave.
“It’s not a scheme, there is no exit strategy. Of course, somebody like Nick Payne may not need us anymore, but we are still helping writers 10 years on. We are there for them, but we never own or claim them.”
‘We are not trying to get writers to write plays that will sell seats, we are supporting them to write what they want’
Many do of course go on to be part of theatres’ playwriting schemes and get a great deal from them, but Dearden says the difference between what the Writing Squad offers and what schemes attached to theatres do is different because the Squad has no box-office interests. “We are not trying to get writers to write plays that will sell seats, we are supporting them to write what they want. We never try to shape them. It’s a different process.”
When Payne and Bush were part of the Squad and intent on writing for theatre, Dearden felt elated by their talent, but quite gloomy about their prospects. Particularly at a time when so many early-career playwrights seemed doomed to have plays continually workshopped and given rehearsed readings without the opportunity for full-scale productions in front of an audience that every playwright needs in order to progress.
He has seen a change for the better in recent years, with many more opportunities to get plays staged, but still thinks it is far too hard for playwrights to graduate from studio spaces to main stages. He doesn’t think it will change as long as British theatres operate on a model that has a single artistic director leading organisations.
“If you have the same artistic director for many years – some of them stay 10, even 20 years – then what that theatre will programme will be narrow because it is filtered through the taste of that artistic director. What we need is a new model that opens up theatres to be run by creative producers with five or six resident companies within the building. It would create an exciting plurality in what theatres programme and open up so many more opportunities for writers of all kinds.”
Director: Steve Dearden
Core team writers: Emma Adams, Jenn Ashworth, Malika Booker, Steve Ronnie
Company administrator: Amelia Collingwood
Graduates: The Writing Squad has worked with 211 writers since 2001. At the last count, 35 make their living as writers or in the cultural industries, a further 50 are beginning to make a name for themselves and earn some of their living as published, performed or produced writers and activists. In the last year, some kind of support has been offered to about 150 of them.
Number of employees: One part-time; five part-time freelances
Funding from all sources: £97,743
Turnover: £130,000 in 2017-18
Key contact: Steve Dearden email@example.com, 07939 561295
For more details visit writingsquad.com