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Theatre has ‘dropped the ball’ for Netflix generation, playwrights warn

Theatre is failing the Netflix and YouTube generations, according to leading playwrights.

During a panel discussion at the London book launch of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, artistic director of Boundless Theatre Rob Drummer [1] and writer Stewart Pringle [2] called for more innovation in new playwriting.

Drummer said: “When you look at the most diverse generation we have known, who are culturally sophisticated, who are watching Netflix and YouTube and engaging in game culture, they aren’t necessarily meeting the equivalent work in the theatre.

“With theatre we are panicking about where the audience comes from, what work sells. Marketing holds a huge sway over programming.”

He added: “When you turn your attention to young adults and teenagers who have been so well served in young adult fiction, if you look at a decade of dystopian, Hunger Games-style fiction, I’m really frustrated that theatres didn’t pick up the baton and take those stories into their buildings.

“There are a lot of us saying, ‘We’ve kind of dropped the ball’. These stories are not stories that couldn’t have had their equivalents on stage.”

Drummer said that young people are “frustrated, political and really up for big stories”.

He added: “I’m convinced you can get teenagers in front of five hours of theatre so long as it’s relevant and it rewards their attention.”

His comments were echoed by Pringle, associate dramaturg at London’s Bush Theatre, where the book launch was held, who said he wants to see people approaching the venue with projects that “push us outside our comfort zone”.

He added: “Theatre should be consistently inventing the future, not just reflecting on what is happening in the present, not just attempting to produce that well-made, commercially successful or artistically viable play.”

Panellists also discussed cuts to arts education and a lack of diversity within scriptwriting, with panel chair Jennifer Tuckett, who leads the dramatic writing master’s course at Drama Centre London, stating that “writing training is in trouble”.

Tuckett said: “It begins at school and if we cancel courses like the A level in creative writing, which is due to be cancelled this year and which we are running a petition to save [3], I believe we are closing the door to students considering writing as a career.”

Pringle added: “The idea that theatre and playwriting are only for a certain kind of writer with a certain kind of experience is still pervasive.

“One of the best ways of breaking that down is people need to feel their voices are engaged with.”

Pringle argued that it is vital theatres continue to read unsolicited submissions of work from playwrights, despite it being costly, claiming it was the only way of creating a “truly democratic opportunity to submit plays”.

He said: “A lot of the ways writers get their first agent and therefore get their play sent around to all the theatres is by having a play staged at a London fringe theatre, or at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Those opportunities are largely only available to the middle class. It’s not generally easy to have your play staged above a pub somewhere if you have no economic resources.”

He added: “It’s a terrifying world if they’re the only voices that get heard.”

The event included performances from the five winners of the first ever Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting competition. This was jointly set up last year by Drama Centre London, writers development organisation Writers at Work Productions and publishers Oberon Books to give student playwrights the opportunity to have their work performed and published.