Having A Play: Playwrights on playwriting in the last 25 years

To celebrate 25 years of publishing plays, Nick Hern Books invited four playwrights; Nicholas Wright, Lucy Kirkwood, Alecky Blythe and Conor McPherson, to talk about playwriting at the Almeida Theatre. The discussion was chaired by the outgoing Artistic Director of the Almeida, Michael Attenborough.

Attenborough kicked off the free event by posing two questions to the panel of writers: Has the agenda of writers – what they write about – changed over the last 25 years? And has the route by which plays reached the stage changed?

Nicholas Wright, co-author of Changing Stages: A View of British Theatre in the 20th Century, said he felt that recently there have been more bourgeois, middle-class plays; ‘plays about house prices.’ He suggested that the oppositional voice is not as pervasive as it was 25 years ago. Alecky Blythe said her practice of staging verbatim plays has allowed voices to be heard that might not be otherwise. Lucy Kirkwood thought young writers now were encouraged to write the epic, or beyond the domestic, reflected in her play Chimerica which is currently playing at the Almeida. Conor McPherson felt that British playwrights write about society, feeling that they have a stake in it, whereas Irish playwrights don’t always feel this so instead tend to write about one person, couples or families. McPherson reminded us how dangerous it is to predict trends, remembering in the early ‘90s when the bell was tolled for the death of traditional theatre forms.

When asked whether the route by which plays find their way to the stage has changed, most of the panel acknowledged the emergence of new writing theatres and scratch nights but emphasized the danger of recent funding cuts. Attenborough talked about the importance for an emerging playwright to ‘play’ and ‘splash about’ and then agreed he could longer commission or provide the funded research and development time as he used to.

Regular visitors to this website may sympathise with the opening question from the audience: did the writers feel pressure to write roles for women? First the female panellists responded, Alecky Blythe saying that her priority was to find a good story. As a former actress, however, she sympathised with the scarcity of good roles and suggested the questioner try writing her own. Lucy Kirkwood (who has spent two years as writer-in-residence for Clean Break writing for female prisoners) answered that she feels a responsibility rather than a pressure. The men also contributed that they felt a responsibility to write parts for women, although Conor McPherson archly pointed out his last play with five female and three male characters was not considered his best.

Prompted by questions from the audience other topics up for discussion were science-fiction in theatre, choosing form, the difference from final draft to opening night, fighting to keep parts of a script, directing, devising, writing for screen and having the courage to continue. The hour was full of interesting tips and insights and Michael Attenborough ended by thanking Nick Hern Books who offered free copies of a new anthology, ‘My First Play.’

(c) Ally Temple 2013
Reviewed at Almeida Theatre, Islington on 6th June 2013

Panel: Alecky Blythe, Lucy Kirkwood, Conor McPherson and Nicholas Wright.
Chaired by Michael Attenborough


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