Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: New Writing, New Forms of Theatre

There is a great paragraph at the start of Dominic Dromgoole’s The Full Room (Methuen, 2000) in which he talks about having a discussion over tea with Stephen Daldry back in the early 1990s, when he was at the Bush and Daldry was running the Royal Court. Dromgoole proclaimed that they were living through a golden age of new writing for the theatre, and even if they weren’t, if he and Daldry said it enough, people would start to believe it and it would come to pass. It did.

It’s a reminder about how much confidence shapes theatre and the way the culture shape-shifts. Dromgoole and Daldry undoubtedly presided over a significant period of new writing in British theatre, one which produced Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Jez Butterworth amongst many. Even more importantly, it went on to spawn a subsequent generation of writers and theatre-makers who saw this work while still at school or college and who then decided that theatre was a medium in which they wanted to work. Theatre was perhaps not quite as dead and dusty as they had thought.

But since the start of the new century, one of the things that has significantly shifted is how we perceive new writing. As early as 2007 John Freeman was asking in New Perspectives/New Writing (Palgrave Macmillan) whether “we have reached the point where we no longer ask ‘what can we write?’ so much as ‘what can we do with writing?’” New writing is a term that can be expanded to far beyond the traditional script for a play.

One of the first things Rufus Norris did when he took over at the National Theatre was to roll the literary department in with the NT Studio to produce what is now known as the New Work Department. The pieces which emerge out of the New Work Department may end up having as great an influence on the future of British theatre as the playwriting explosion of the 1990s. If Kane’s Blasted was a play which smashed form, so a new generation of companies and artists, from Barrel Organ to Selina Thompson, are looking to find new ways of telling stories. Anna at the National Theatre is testament to that – a piece written by Ella Hickson but made collaboratively with sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, whose contribution is as essential as that of the writer.

Playwrights and critics of a certain generation, including David Edgar and David Hare, may sometimes rail against what they see as a threat to the long-held privileged position of the solo playwright, which has dominated British theatre culture since Shakespeare. But as Chris Goode – who is both a playwright and a theatre-maker – has suggested, this is simply part of a phoney war which tries to stir up tensions. It suggests that writers and makers are in conflict with each other, and perhaps betrays an anxiety that funders might start redirecting funds from playwrights to circus.

This is an absurd position to take, not least because that is not how the funding system works. But it also fails to recognise that different kinds of performance are connected to each other and are all just part of a toolkit that makes our theatre culture infinitely richer. After all, contemporary circus now often includes words penned by a writer and it is increasingly rare to see a new play which doesn’t have a movement director. British theatre inches ever closer to being a total theatre, but the suspicion of the auteur and the idea of a director’s theatre remains. Why can’t it be both a theatre of directors and writers?

Established playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill and Bryony Lavery found no difficulty in writing silence when they worked with Frantic Assembly on Pool (no water) and Stockholm. The shows of performance companies such as Forced Entertainment are full of words – often written by Tim Etchells – but you would never call them plays, and are created through a collective process. Bryony Kimmings’ confessional shows, hewn from her own experience of mental health issues (Fake It ‘Til You Make It) or motherhood and relationship break-up (I’m a Phoenix, Bitch), are scripted, but their influences come from live art. These may not be plays, but they are arguably as much a part of new writing as any single-authored play.

The old definitions about whether something is devised or whether it is physical theatre or dance are increasingly redundant in a theatre culture which is much more fluid and open than it was even a decade ago. We now live in a theatre world where theatre publishers publish scripts of productions made by those whose practice does not begin (or end) with the words; where it’s sometimes hard to assign who did exactly what in a production; and where the best idea in the room is simply the best idea. Where in the work of Robert Icke does the role of the writer and the role of the director begin or end?

The remit of a new writing theatre is changing. The question is no longer “is this a play” but, as Freeman posited, “what can we write?” In what way and using which tools? During her time at the Traverse, Orla O’Loughlin brought companies such as Ontroerend Goed, and makers such as Tim Crouch to its stages, as well as the storytelling gems of both Gary McNair and Daniel Kitson.

The Young Vic is staging work that might once have been called installation or dance, and at the Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone has not just been expanding our idea of what new writing can be – with shows such as Hole and Inside Bitch (created with Clean Break) – but also, in the process, making bold statements about who is allowed to hold the space at our new writing theatres. Perhaps our old ideas about what makes a great play are increasingly redundant.

The latter is important. As theatre opens up its stages to new voices – women, artists of colour, working-class voices and disabled theatre-makers – what new writing is will naturally expand, but old ideas around what makes a great play or what makes something a play at all will be challenged. Different cultures tell stories in different ways that do not necessarily fit the old Western ideas of how a play should be.

Back in the 1980s, women’s efforts to write differently were often dismissed as a failure to understand dramatic structure. In the 1990s, when Kane blew open her play halfway through, she was ticked off by critics for similar crimes against new writing. But if there is one thing that the evolving nature of new writing teaches us, it is that a more diverse theatre is always one of more diverse dramaturgies, because different voices will naturally use different forms. Whatever those forms, new writing is big enough and expansive enough to hold them.