The Playgoer: Development Hell comes to the UK

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Development Hell comes to the UK

Sometimes it takes an outsider's eyes to show us our own problems. The Guardian's Lyn Gardner does some truth telling about what's happening to new plays and playwrights, now that the once flourishing London new-writing scene has been infected.

Over the last 10 years a new play development culture - based on American models - has taken root in British theatres and it is now so firmly embedded that it has become an industry in itself. These schemes are not always hungry for new talent and there is little evidence that they are producing better plays. Those who have jobs in this growing industry have a vested interest in the schemes continued growth, as do the theatres who have squeezed money from public or private sources to fund such schemes often in the name of access. But, if playwrighting schemes worked, every new play you saw would be outstanding. They are not....

...Play development should be about enabling writers, not tying up their talent in a queue of unproduced plays. It is often a mirage, a substitute for real action and commitment by a theatre to a writer and his or her play. It provides the theatres with an opportunity to tick all the right funding boxes while offering playwrights very little at all - except misplaced hope.

I sense another problem between the lines here. About those "funding boxes"... Could what we're witnessing be the result of a gradual de-funding of the arts on both sides of the pond? Even in Britain, where a comparatively healthy Arts Council subsidy persists, the trend has been privatization and corporatization. (And according to this, the Arts Council ain't what it used to be, either.) As grants get smaller, so does a theatre's goals. Okay, you won't give us enough for a production, how about a reading? And then when the reading is deemed a success, everyone gladly settles for less.

Gardner also offers a great aphorism: "It's like teaching people to swim but then denying them access to swimming pools."