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‘I hope we see a pivot towards hope’ – What does the Covid-19 lockdown mean for new writing?

Ian McKellen as Lear and Danny Webb as Gloucester in Chichester Festival Theatre's King Lear. Photo
Ian McKellen as Lear and Danny Webb as Gloucester in Chichester Festival Theatre's King Lear. Photo

Lyn Gardner speaks to writers, artistic directors and literary managers about what companies and individual writers are doing during the coronavirus crisis, and asks: should we be writing our own King Lears, taking time out to process or giving ourselves a break?

What impact will the Covid-19 pandemic and theatre shutdown have on playwrights and new work? Some may think that weeks of isolation would be every writer’s dream. And for those looking to take the plunge for the first time, the internet is awash with writing masterclasses and courses as well as open invitations to submit monologues and plays – all encouraging playwrights and would-be playwrights to get busy during the lockdown.

Many are expecting it to be a particularly productive period for new play scripts. A few weeks ago, the UK’s second largest national playwriting competition, the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize, opened to submissions for its 2021 award. The prize for an unproduced comedy play, which has been running since 2015 and offers £10,000, is expecting a bumper crop of submissions in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

It’s not the only one. Chris Foxon, one of the founders of the Papatango Prize, expects the 2021 edition will see at least a 10% to 20% rise in entries with “an upturn in plays about disruption and lockdown”.

As Twitter kept reminding us after the theatre shutdown, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine from the plague. But, of course, Shakespeare wasn’t bombarded by anxiety-inducing 24-hour news, juggling homeschooling and childcare, and wasn’t looking after elderly relatives. Shakespeare hadn’t just lost his part-time job in the hospitality industry, making it impossible to pay the rent.

Quick reactions

But one person’s crisis can be another’s opportunity. Some playwrights are already writing and responding to the Covid-19 situation and they are doing it with remarkable speed.

“Our gut instinct was that we are all saturated by news, but what was lacking was art,” says Headlong’s associate artistic director Holly Race Roughan, who is one of the instigators behind the theatre company’s Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation, which is bringing new work to the nation with big-name writers such as April De Angelis, James Graham, Chloe Moss, Jasmine Lee Jones and Tim Price all responding to the crisis.

The scripts are already delivered and the films – created in collaboration with Century Films – will be available for audiences online this month. Race Roughan says almost every writer the company approached said yes, and some, such as Duncan Macmillan, delivered plays within 24 hours.

‘We were lucky; as a family we were able to have the funeral with everyone present unlike those whose loved ones are dying now from the virus’ – Headlong writer Chloe Moss

Chloe Moss
Chloe Moss

Chloe Moss was one of those speedy Headlong writers. Her play for Paines Plough, Run Sister Run, which opened in Sheffield in late February and was due to open at Soho Theatre at the end of March, was a victim of the theatre shutdown. For Moss, having an immediate project with a short deadline felt purposeful. All the more so because her father died – not related to coronavirus – during the Sheffield run of Run, Sister, Run and she is still processing the grief.

“It felt cathartic to have to write something and I’ve written about grief. We were lucky; as a family we were able to have the funeral with everyone present unlike those whose loved ones are dying now from the virus. How do you deal with your grief in such circumstances?”

If, for Moss, grief was the only thing she felt she could write about, grief in many different forms is making other writers feel paralysed. Whether its’s grief for the everyday loss of a way of life that everyone has taken for granted, or grief for the plays cancelled, projects put on hold, incomes slashed and the opportunities that may be lost forever.

‘It is the job of funded organisations like HighTide to support playwrights and independent artists’ – Suba Das, HighTide artistic director

Suba Das, HighTide artistic director. Photo: Pamela Raith

“I can write under pressure, but I can’t write under global pressure,” says Matilda Ibini, whose play Little Miss Burden was a hit at the Bunker last year. As a wheelchair user who needs carer support, Ibini says she is more adjusted to the current situation than most, as “I’ve been living it all my life”. When she previously broke a leg, she was unable to leave the house for six months. But worries about what the government’s Covid-19 bill, which gives local authorities the power to strip down care packages, might mean for her own care, and concerns about how, as a disabled person, she might be assessed if she gets the virus and needs hospital admission, mean anxiety is high. “I’m facing my mortality more than ever before. I do not feel creative.”

Actor and playwright Joel MacCormack had his first major play In That Short Space scheduled to open at Theatre503 in May. It has been the culmination of around six years’ work, most of it unpaid, and like any playwright with a looming production, he had hopes it would help him progress to new opportunities and maybe bring in some money to write more.

‘I’m worried about money. I’m worried about work. The words aren’t flowing out’ – Joel MacCormack, actor and playwright

Joel MacCormack, actor
and playwright. Photo: Pamela Raith

When I ask him how he’s coping, he says: “Well, am I? Yesterday I ate two Twixes on my designated walk around the park.” He adds: “It does feel particularly difficult at this moment to spend the afternoon thinking about a character for example, when the world is in extremis like this. My brother and his girlfriend have been ill. There are people in my life I’m worried will get it and die. I’m worried about money. I’m worried about work. The words aren’t flowing out.”

He’s not alone. Benedict Lombe, who is part of Theatre503’s Five writing scheme and one of the Bush Theatre’s emerging writers (she had a reading at the Bush the Friday before the shutdown) says she is finding it hard to write as she adjusts to what she describes as “this new normal”.

Lombe is writing a play about persona and national trauma and says it requires her to be emotionally vulnerable, which is particularly hard at this point in time. “I want to do this play right, and maybe I just have to accept I can’t do that just at the moment and be kind to myself and not worry about missing the deadline for a draft.”

‘The idea of this [lockdown] being an opportunity feels unnecessarily pressured’ – Lisa Spirling, Theatre503 artistic director

Lisa Spirling, Theatre503 artistic director. Photo: Karla Gowlett

Lisa Spirling, artistic director of Theatre503, a crucial part of the new writing ecology and a space that better-funded new-writing theatres look to for emerging talent, thinks writers must be kind to themselves and theatres need to be kinder still.

“It’s my job to keep in touch with writers and support them in whatever way they need. Being a writer is always about being emotionally open and making yourself vulnerable and all of society is in that place at the moment. That can make it doubly hard for some writers to write. A lot of our writers are getting in touch to say that at the moment we just can’t do it, and that’s fine. We understand that. Every writer is different.” For some that will mean trying to provide immediate opportunities and for others it is delaying deadlines and reducing pressure and allowing writers to take their time.

“The very worst thing would be for writers to feel a pressure to write King Lear, or anything else for that matter, while this is all going on. Even the idea of this being an opportunity feels unnecessarily pressured, because it suggests if you don’t come out of quarantine with a bundle of manuscripts under your arm you’ve somehow failed. You haven’t,” says Stewart Pringle, a playwright and dramaturg at the National Theatre who is recovering from coronavirus. “If my biggest tragedy to cope with at the end of all this is that I didn’t get a new play drafted then I’ll count myself very lucky.”

Providing work where it is lacking

But Foxon believes it is projects such as Papatango’s – the company set aside £2,000 from its cancelled production of Shook at Trafalgar Studios to create a project called Isolated But Open to support 10 writers to write a monologue, and 10 actors to self-film – that gives some writers the impetus and stimulation they need to begin. The payment is also a small lifeline when many have lost their income over night.

‘At Papatango we are focused on creating paid creative work that is open to anyone’ – Chris Foxon, Papatango Prize co-founder

Chris Foxon, Papatango Prize co-founder

“We launched Isolated But Open within 12 hours of the theatre shutdown because we wanted to show that the closure of theatres was not a barrier to stories being told,” he says. Indeed, it may well be stories that get us through this time of lockdown. Foxon dismisses the idea that with so many paid and, more often unpaid, opportunities flying around the internet, playwrights feel under pressure to be productive, pointing out that “providing opportunity is not the same as creating obligation”. He adds: “At Papatango we are focused on creating paid creative work that is open to anyone.”

Being accessible and offering opportunity not just to the already established but to new and marginalised voices, is important for HighTide artistic director Suba Das. Because of a change in its business model, the company already had a lull in production and was busy putting in place various schemes focused on the East of England, where there is lower educational attainment, higher domestic violence and rural isolation.

Some of those initiatives – which include an open submissions play-reading service, playwriting exercises and an adopt-a-playwright scheme in which HighTide alumni such as Nick Payne and Vinay Patel support emerging talent – have been put in place earlier than expected, and in some cases opened up nationwide.

“At HighTide we’re in it for the long haul,” says Das, “not just for the shutdown. It is the job of funded organisations like us to support playwrights and independent artists and not deepen the divisions between the salaried and the freelance.”

Arts Council England has suspended conditions for national portfolio organisations, and when production does resume many playwrights fear slots will be fewer and theatres will be more risk-adverse. Dipo Baruwa-Etti, whose debut play An Unfinished Man was due to open at the Yard in London in April, but which has been rescheduled for the end of August, knows he is one of the lucky ones. But he says theatres will need to keep championing early-career writers.

‘Those who are least disrupted, those who are most privileged, will find it easier to write’ – Gill Greer, Soho Theatre literary manager

Gill Greer, Soho Theatre literary manager

“Theatres are going to have the major challenge of bringing audiences back into their buildings following huge financial hits, and may feel the need to play it safe for box office purposes. If this happens, early-career artists will inevitably suffer and there needs to be transparency about the journey theatres are going on, so that it doesn’t feel as though the doors are permanently shut – which could lead to a loss of confidence and stop artists creating exciting work.”

Playwright Gill Greer, who is also literary manager at Soho Theatre, says: “It’s true that those who are least disrupted, and that means those who are most privileged, will find it easier to write and make work.” She continues: “Larger organisations are going to have to think very carefully about what projects they pause or cancel because the consequences are wide-ranging.”

She points to the fact that her play Meat, which finished its run the Saturday before the theatre shutdown began, would not have been possible if it had not had ACE project grants. If project grants remain suspended even after theatres reopen it will have a significant impact on what work gets off the ground and what doesn’t.

Will theatre lose writers?

Some, such as writer and director Jon Britton, whose West End and New York productions of Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer have both been affected by the shutdown, thinks there may be an exodus of writers from theatre, including those who can no longer afford to keep writing plays because they can’t afford the risk, and the more fortunate like himself who have TV opportunities. “I’ve always loved flip-flopping between theatre and TV but this happening has made me think that perhaps I should prioritise TV because its more secure and better paid than theatre.”

‘This is a moment to pause and think as an arts community what we do, why we do it and who we do it for’ – Charlotte Bennett, Paines Plough co-artistic director

Charlotte Bennett, Paines Plough co-artistic director

Charlotte Bennett and Katie Posner, the artistic directors of touring new-writing company Paines Plough, didn’t want to be rushed into making an announcement about what they would be doing to support writers and audiences over the coming months, but wanted to take stock.

“This is,” says Bennett, “a moment to pause and think as an arts community what we do, why we do it and who we do it for. The world will be changed by the current situation and that means theatre will be too.”

The company, which already has considerable experience of making work both in live spaces and digitally via its enormously influential Come to Where I’m From programme, which has given early opportunities to many writers, was keen to offer something different at a time when many of the online opportunities for playwrights look quite similar. It will be adapting the Come to Where I’m From initiative and teaming up with four theatres around the country to offer four writers in each area short play commissions to write a piece called Come to Where I Am.

Initially it will be a digital project, but it will be extended with all the plays being performed live when theatres reopen. Paines Plough has been thinking about how not everyone has access to digital mediums. So, it will be offering targeted groups the opportunity to have plays performed live over the phone to them. Another project called Come to Where I’ll Be is a collaboration with theatres across Europe that will team up UK writers with their counterparts in Europe to co-author 30-minute bilingual plays that push the boundaries of form for theatre on digital platforms.

“What it won’t be,” says Bennett, “is producing lots of plays about what it’s like to be in isolation.” She points to the fact that the project crosses borders and creates a freedom of movement of the imagination at a time when the world is on lockdown. “I hope there will be something inspiring and uplifting about it.”

Greer says: “I’m interested in what stories will come out of such a profound and immediate disruption of all our daily lives,” before adding: “I have been reading many dystopian narratives over the past three years and I will be interested to see if there is an increase after this or a slowdown. I hope we see a pivot towards hope.” As a writer, her instinct is “not to write as a Band-Aid to the wound but out of joy”. That may take time.

‘I’m sure I’ll read at least a few Covid-19 plays before the year is out’ – Stewart Pringle, playwright and dramaturg

Stewart Pringle, playwright and dramaturg

Time is what Britton thinks writers need to process what has happened and what it means. He says he would be delighted if great plays about the current situation emerge over the coming months but thinks it will take far longer. “We need to get some distance. Things will be different in ways we have never imagined and some things will be the same in ways we had not expected.”

He recalls listening to a podcast by London’s Royal Court in which Simon Stephens interviewed Jez Butterworth and they were talking about how Butterworth likes to sit with ideas for a while. “Stephens asks: ‘Do you mean a few months?’ And Butterworth replies: ‘10 to 15 years.’”

Pringle says: “I’m sure I’ll read at least a few Covid-19 plays before the year is out, and I can’t say I’m hugely looking forward to it.” He continues: “But in 10 years’ time I bet I’ll be able to point to a few that sprang out of everything we’re learning to plot some genuinely new territory, to excavate new truths about the human condition or whatever it is we hope plays can do.”

He cites the delay in theatre work that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks and the shock waves it sent around the world, and says the best work needs time to brew.

“It’s not really the ones that were written in the white heat of the moment that I cherish, but the ones that emerged later and grew from a historical perspective. I could probably go my whole life without seeing The Mercy Seat again, but Come from Away is a piece of theatre that speaks with clarity and eloquence, not just about those terrible days after, but about the human condition and the meaning of welcome and it has real lasting worth.”

Stage manager Diane Norburn: ‘Come from Away’s message of kindness is more relevant than ever’

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