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Matt Trueman: Are we faced with a drought of new playwrights?

Ferdy Roberts, Monica Dolan. Alice Feldgate and Ted Reilly in Plaques and Tangles at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs A scene from Nicola Wilson’s Plaques and Tangles., the last debut play by a British writer to premiere the Royal Court
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Have we pulled the ladder up on new writing? After the golden age, the drought. Or so says the president of the Writers’ Guild, Olivia Hetreed. At one level, it’s easily dismissed: look at new plays reaching the West End; established playwrights sticking with theatre long term; look at The Ferryman, Ink, Anatomy of a Suicide and Killology just in the last two months.

At another, though, Hetreed has a point. New voices aren’t cutting through as they were a few years ago. For whatever reason – priorities, variety or just plain old money – the same initial opportunities don’t seem to be there. It’s very nearly two years (that’s 25 full length productions) since the Royal Court last premiered a debut play by a British writer: Nicola Wilson’s Plaques and Tangles.

Since then, in fairness, it has hosted debuts by Katherine Soper (Wish List) and Charlene James (Cuttin’ It), but both began elsewhere after winning major new writing prizes.

The result is still the same: Britain’s primary new writing theatre – which gave us Jez Butterworth, Lucy Prebble and Sarah Kane – hasn’t unearthed a new homegrown playwright in two years. You can argue that it is the top of the pile, that a lot of playwrights work their way up to the Court. The problem runs deeper. It’s four years since the Bush gave a debut play a full production: Rory Kinnear’s The Herd. The Tricycle last did so in February 2015, with John Hollingworth’s Multitudes. There’s none in the Traverse’s upcoming fringe programme, and just one, Ross Dunsmore’s Milk, in two years. (Incidentally, all three were written by actors.)

Better news elsewhere: two debuts in 12 months at both the Soho and the Gate and, even if its writers’ fees are well below the going rate, Hampstead Downstairs is at least staging first time playwrights – albeit without the possibility of critical acclaim and recognition (because they don’t admit reviewers).

A debut isn’t an every play occurrence, of course. Writers only get one each, and support shouldn’t stop there. We need to see second plays, third plays, eighth, ninth and 10th plays – top writers at top theatres. It’s true, we probably put too much emphasis on discovering first time playwrights – a hunt for the ‘next big thing’ – at the expense of established talent and mid career artists.

These days, it’s largely being left to playwriting prizes to launch new talent, and it’s worth noting how many of them go to first time writers. Fringe theatres are still bringing new voices through – the Finborough, the Bunker, Theatre503 and Vaults Festival – but remain under resourced and largely unfunded, as arbitrary as ever in terms of what gets put on.

New writing theatres are still working with emerging writers. There are more groups than ever and openings for short runs, readings and other forms of writing. Ultimately, though, new playwrights don’t cut through without being produced in full and if our new writing theatres won’t bear that responsibility, the pipeline of new plays will eventually run dry.

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