Date: Tue, 28 Jun 2005 11:45:16 -0400
From: Geralyn Horton firstname.lastname@example.org
'Monsterist' David Eldridge explains in
The Guardian, Monday June 27, 2005
It all started with a lamentable production of an old, piss-poor European play by a new director on a large stage with a huge cast. The playwrights Richard Bean, Colin Teevan, Sarah Woods and Ryan Craig had seen it and were enraged that such resources aren't lavished on many living playwrights. If they were, they speculated, perhaps there wouldn't be such a lack of variety in the new plays being written.
And it's not just the poverty of resources that's having an effect on playwrights. According to Teevan: "There's been a predominance of television realism and of a section of the critical culture that demands a moral message from new writing. This is in danger of making theatre about as interesting as muesli."
"Why would anyone write stage plays now?" asks Craig. "If you can write dialogue and you can hit a deadline you can write TV. You can write about your south London council estate or your middle class swingers and you can make more money and reach more people and therefore have more impact." Apart from anything else, the denial of the larger stages to living playwrights has made it harder and harder for them to earn a living from writing, as they see their income from royalties dwindle to insultingly low levels.
"Theatre has moved out of the Webberised 1990s and the In-Yer-Face millennium," says Woods. We have moved on from the bleak post-Thatcher landscape and the end of the cold war. The big, messy complex world we find ourselves in, says Woods, "is not going to be best expressed by a two- or four-handed play in a studio theatre. It must also be allowed a cast of 12 or even 20 on a main stage."
But this was more than just moaning. Woods started writing down everything that the four playwrights said. Then they invited others associated with the National Theatre Studio to join them and form a writers' group. As we began to contribute our own experiences and ideas it became obvious that the original quartet didn't represent a narrow clique: they were speaking for the vast majority of new and aspiring playwrights. And Monsterism was born.
Moira Buffini sums up the thinking behind the campaign when she says: "It's our job to take people where they don't expect to go. It's our job to provoke, move, unsettle and inspire. It goes without saying that plays that manage to do this are big. It is possible to write them for a cast of two and perform them in a box barely bigger than a lounge but I've got to the point where I want to kick down the walls of these boxes. I'm sick of writing epics for six."
Initially our efforts were modest. We ceremonially gambled the tiny expenses allowance the National Studio gave us for our monthly meeting in the hope of backing a winner and raising some meagre funds for our campaign. Next we plotted kidnapping prominent theatre critics we particularly disliked and holding them captive for a pathetic ransom like 50p. Fortunately we quickly evolved out of our anarchist phase and began to apply for jobs running theatres instead. (Of course, playwrights always miss the deadline ...)
Then, having distilled our ideas on paper in the form of a manifesto, we set out to meet as many theatre managers as possible. The artistic director of the National Theatre, Nick Hytner, pledged to encourage big new plays. Another artistic director was none too happy at the small number of us who were available to meet with him (no reflection, mate, we're all busy too!). But, piqued or passionate, they all got the same treatment: we grilled them about their theatres and their visions for the future and we put our case.
When they have met us as a collective, directors, theatre managements and institutions have never been anything other than supportive, but often when they meet us privately or individually they lay the blame at our door. If you only wrote a big play, they say, we'd love to put it on. But dramatists, the most pragmatic of writers, only have to look at the plays that have been done in the past 20 years to see which way the wind has been blowing in often cash-strapped theatres. We want the managements to take some responsibility, be proactive and help to turn things around but we're not simply passing the buck. "We've become masters at crafting our stories into reductive, exclusive black-box experiences," Jonathan Lewis points out. "We fell in love with and are exhausting this intimate version of events."
"The moment someone decides to write for the stage," says Roy Williams, "they should be encouraged to believe the limits to what they can achieve are only the limits of their imagination." But this doesn't always happen. Like Bean, I increasingly miss the opportunity to write a whole world, with its opportunities for great parts for leading actors and small, gem-like one-scene roles. Newer playwrights have been formed in a democratic culture that encourages equality for all the characters in a narrative and instills the notion that if you employ a performer you ought to give them a good amount to do. Nothing wrong with that but sometimes we want to write a different kind of play.
This dominant mode is reinforced by the critical culture. Script development people and reviewers always seem to note that any small part is "underwritten" - even if, as Bean tartly points out, that is a deliberate choice on the part of the playwright. Many argue that the minor characters should be cut - but imagine Macbeth without the Porter. No wonder so many playwrights are frustrated.
Buffini warns: "If living writers are not given access to the stages that our dead forebears still dominate, then our skills cannot develop and our talent will go elsewhere." And there are other exciting places for talented writers to go if the theatre does not want us on at least some of our new terms. Writers like Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Monica Ali are showing how exciting the novel can be, inspiring and enthralling readers with an epic sweep and the accuracy with which they explore the human condition. And for the dyed-in- the-wool dramatists, Paul Abbott, Abi Morgan and Russell T Davies are living proof that if you write well and pursue a passionate, ambitious, inventive vision then TV can still be a place where you can tell the tales you want.
The Monsterists, though, are dedicated to theatre - and now we're shifting our private efforts into a public campaign. This Friday we are holding a Monster Day Out at Hampstead Theatre in London to discuss our ideas with critics, directors and other playwrights. Already things are looking up. Hytner is richly fulfilling his promise to produce big new plays, by playwrights new and established. The Royal Shakespeare Company is telling any writer who will listen that it wants new plays to be at heart of the company's work and is commissioning large cast pieces from the writers it believes in. Despite having smaller resources than the larger companies the Royal Court is doing its absolute best to stage large scale, ambitious work by its writers.
But there is a long way to go. The Monsterists, with the support of the Arts Council, commissioned a survey of the 2004 autumn season in British theatre. Of the 276 plays produced by our surveyed theatres, 35% were new - but our feedback suggests that substantially less than 35% of the participating companies' resources were actually spent on the new plays, while money as ever has been thrown at Shakespeare, Wilde and the rest.
What to do? Well, apart from dreaming of a year-long moratorium on Shakespeare, we would like the theatre industry to consider introducing a "dead writers' levy". Quite simply, every time a play is put on by a dead writer, to whom a royalty does not have to be paid, the producer contributes an equivalent sum towards a fund that supports the production of new work. The beauty of such a scheme is that it would, in one go, provide a substantial additional source of funding for theatres committed to putting on ambitious new work and remove the unfair financial incentive theatres have for producing old plays by dead writers.
Monsterism may have started out as a moan but it is a positive, forward-looking campaign by writers to ask British theatre to raise its game. Buffini speaks for all of us when she says: "Deluded though I may be, I am an optimist. If we playwrights work together we may effect a change. If we are allowed to give our imaginations free reign, if we have use of the same resources, the spaces, budgets, casts and directors that are usually reserved for the deceased, we may write the kind of plays that will attract a new audience. We all moan about tired old productions and dead theatre. We can only try to bring it back to life."
Monsterism is a theatre writers' campaign to promote new writing in the British theatre. It is a positive, forward looking movement that aims to create opportunities for British theatre writers to create large scale plays, for large stages.
The key aesthetic tenets of a monsterist work are:
· Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
· The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
· Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
· Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
· The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
· Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
On a practical level the implications of the manifesto are:
· The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage
· Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (ie equal with dead writers)
· Use of the very best directors for new plays
· Use of the very best actors for new plays