By Imogen Sarre
A couple of years ago, the Arts Council assessed the state of new playwriting in the UK. They concluded that, though we Brits are predisposed to be cautious with our optimism, new writing is in a much healthier and happier state than fears suggested. Indeed, it's rather booming. Having grown dramatically since the 1990s, new plays have broken out from the confines of studio spaces and have been hitting main stages in their droves. Productions of new plays are evenly divided between auditoria that hold under and over 200 seats, while an impressive 42% of all theatre shows are new plays. Plus, they're not just there to look pretty: commercially successful too, Box Office new writing sales rose from 62% (2003-4) to 69% by 2007-8. The signs - and statistics - are really very good.
It always takes a while for people's perceptions to catch up with results - and, inevitably, once we're happy with the present situation, worries set in that complacency will damage the future - but we'd just like to take a moment to raise a metaphorical glass to new writing and celebrate its successes.
Just looking back at ATG's canon of West End productions over the last year, it's very heart-warming to see how many of them are by new writers. There is a huge appetite for new writing in this country, and it's great to see how open our audiences are to take a punt on unknown plays and writers.
This appetite has seen us programme David Hare's South Downs alongside Rattigan's classic The Browning Version at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It has meant that Conor McPherson's established play The Weir is played just before his new play The Night Alive at the Donmar this summer. It has led to the Duke of York's Theatre receiving immensely successful transfers from the Royal Court (Posh, Jumpy and Constellations) and Hampstead Theatre (The Judas Kiss). Critically acclaimed as well as rapturously received by its audiences, these new plays have also led to a flowering of nominations and awards, as can best be seen by Constellations, which won The Evening Standard's 2012 Award for Best Play and got itself nominations in 4 different categories at this year's Olivier Nominations.
Trafalgar Studios 2
Perhaps nothing shows London's emphasis on new writing more than Whitehall Theatre's 2004 reconfiguration and its effects. Split to make two Trafalgar Studios spaces, the tiny and more affordable second studio provides a platform for more experimental drama. Not only does Trafalgar Studio 2 receive a great number of Fringe transfers (Mydidae from the Soho Theatre recently, and Happy New coming soon from the Old Red Lion), enabling superb productions to reach a much wider audience, it also programmes new pieces and has catapulted plays and writers into international fame. Just like Ella Hickson's Eight, which went on from the Trafalgar Studios to take Broadway by storm, there is a hope that this space can provide plays the opportunity to have a life beyond Studio 2, by going on tour or to larger theatres.
The West End is, in a way, a barometer to measure the extent to which the label 'new writing' has become established as the harbringer of quality. If audiences are prepared to pay the big bucks for something unknown, that shows real faith in the talent of cast, crew and creative teams. But it's also crucial to the ongoing success and future of the West End that new writing exists.
What New Writing brings to the table
New writing can grapple with current issues and preoccupations in a very direct and immediate way. Theatre503's ThatcherWrite, which responds to Margaret Thatcher's death on 8th April 2013 by putting on a series of short plays in June 2013, illustrates just how very timely theatre commentary can be. To prevent the West End from going stale it's important to provoke commentary on today's issues. Plays like Posh (which critiques the Bullingdon Club roots of Conservatives Cameron, Osborne and Johnson), or The Judas Kiss (which focuses on Oscar Wilde's homosexuality; is played by the openly gay Rupert Everett; and which was performed on the night of the parliamentary act about gay marriage) help to shape history as it happens.
New writing can also reinvigorate classics and people's interest in them. David Hare's South Downs, commissioned to go alongside Rattigan's The Browning Version, added a new angle from which to view Rattigan's infamous play. FIESTA, recently performed at the Trafalgar Studios, brought Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises into explosive life and so renewed interest in the author and his work. And Mark Rylance's renowned performance in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem has given the actor more widespread appeal, ensuring that his performances in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Richard III, and his upcoming directorship of Much Ado About Nothing at The Old Vic, do not go unnoticed by his following.
Examples abound, but perhaps the best thing about having new writing in the West End is that, put simply, it enables more people to see talent at its most creative and best. Prime example: the hundreds of people who queued through the night and round the block for Constellations. There is a keen demand for excellence and it's simply wonderful that the UK has so very much of it.