Let's do the new plays right here

As the Royal Court bids a temporary farewell to Sloane Square, Paul Taylor sits in on its on-going script development meetings and, below, mingles with the celebrity guests at the company's house-moving party
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The Independent Culture
"Every theatrical renaissance is started by writers," declared John Mortimer in a speech at the Royal Court bash last Saturday, pertinently reminding his audience that the original Globe was "a new-writing theatre" - the Royal Court of its day.

The Royal Court of our day has strong claims to being the largest script development centre in world theatre. It receives some 2,500 plays a year, all of which are read. With its Young People's Theatre and Young Writers' Festival, it is poised to capture future Osbornes, Bonds and Churchills at the raw, pimply stage and to stick with promising talent - not just through outright commissions, but by putting dramatists on attachment, by workshopping their scripts, or by putting them in touch, via the Writers' Groups (New and Senior), with the wealth of dramaturgical experience that's knocking around this place.

If the theatre's network in Britain is far reaching (work nurtured but not finally produced at the Court is often picked up and premiered elsewhere), it also extends globally through a burgeoning system of international exchange programmes with theatres in locations as far apart as Los Angeles and Uganda.

A crucial feature of the Court's working week, therefore, is the Monday morning script meeting at which plays on the "Grid" - a chart itemising all the works currently considered of interest - are evaluated by a group whose constituency has broadened since Stephen Daldry took over as artistic director. For brief stints of service, members of the administrative team now join the regular panel of associate directors and literary staff while, from time to time, senior playwrights and visiting directors are invited so as to bring a fresh perspective. Recently, the Court decided to push this policy of letting outsiders in to an extreme of sorts by allowing me - a newspaper critic normally employed in delivering judgements much further down the line - to take part in a couple of the meetings.

There were two conditions. I had to agree to take notes rather than tape- record the proceedings and I was asked to be discreet about the identity of the playwrights under discussion (the dramatists had, after all, submitted their plays in the reasonable expectation that the theatre would not be sharing its frank views on them with the readers of a national broadsheet). In any case, I was more interested in what I could pick up from these sessions about the considerations that must be balanced and the general principles that have to be applied in the Court's selection, development and programming of plays.

The meetings take place in the orderly office of the person who chairs them. This is the literary manager, Graham Whybrow, a deceptively austere- looking thirtysomething who is, I would guess, a rare bird among literary managers in having trained for the Bar and run his own publishing company, after acquiring the predictable Oxford English degree. Each of the scripts has been read by at least two members of the group and the resulting debate is cleverly orchestrated by Whybrow to bring a vivid picture of the arguments and critical issues to the attention of the inspiring, flirty, quick-on- the-uptake Daldry, who cannot be expected to read everything.

There's a chance at the start of the sessions for members to report on their activities in the past week (which may include sitting next to Rosemary West at a Royal Court prison performance of Winsome Pinnock's Mules) and to raise general points. Perhaps because I was there, the second meeting began with a vigorous discussion about the theatre and the press. David Lan, the writer-in-residence, was incensed by a comprehensively negative review in an upmarket Sunday of the second work by a 23-year-old non-Court dramatist who had been chosen, on the strength of his debut play, as that very paper's "dramatist to watch".

The critic had made quite a feature of the rueful back-pedalling now necessary. You could call that honesty, but Lan saw it as an example of the press building people up only to smash them down, a process here speeded up to a cartoonish degree. Others present worried that the Court might be laying its dramatists open to this treatment in its deliberate, artistically fruitful higher-profiling of first plays from the twentysomething generation of Sarah Kane, Nick Grosso, Joe Penhall, Jez Butterworth, whose Mojo stormed straight on to the main stage, and now Mark Ravenhill, whose first full- length work, Shopping and Fucking, opened last night at the Stage of the Court's revamped Ambassadors.

What the discussion principally illuminated for me was the difference between critics who are paid to give an honest opinion, regardless of whatever sensitive stage the writer's career may have reached, and a theatre like the Royal Court whose decisions with regard to a particular play have to take into account the interests of their long-term relationship with the dramatist. Put yourself in the Court's position. If you are disappointed with a commissioned piece after forcing a number of rewrites, do you programme it none the less, acting on the hunch that there are better plays in this dramatist that will never be released without a "gesture of faith"?

There can be unexpected benefits. I was most surprised to learn that one of the strongest and best-received plays in the last Theatre Upstairs season had only got through on this sprat-to-catch-a-mackerel basis. On the other hand, what would you do for the best in the case of two of the plays we discussed? (I'm changing the details slightly). The first script, commissioned from a well-regarded young dramatist in 1993, has come in not as the study of anti-Semitic groups in France that you were expecting, but as a preternaturally prolonged look at the playwright's own tangled erotic life and personal pain. Or, more tricky, a piece, originally commissioned in 1989, from a dramatist whose block about this (for him) clearly crucial project is fouling up the rest of his writing life. The latest draft was polished off in three and a half weeks. It has definite talent (lots of achieved voices, etc.), but he's written the back history of the play and not the play itself. How, if at all, do you move things forward?

Even in two weeks, you begin to notice recurring preoccupations. There seems to be quite a craze for writing plays about people who are trapped, literally and symbolically (a girl chained to a radiator by parents who don't want her to go the way of her murdered brother; a woman stuck like a moose's head in the front room wall of her estranged mother, etc.). There's also (perhaps in the wake of Blasted) a Bosnia-bursts-into-our- back-garden school.

To be alert, fast and responsive to everything coming in must be hard. It can't be easy either to set aside preconceived notions of what makes good drama and remain open to the surprise of work that's struggling to articulate new patterns of feeling. Get too glib or blase about categories, and you could miss the fact that the 110th treatment of a currently popular subject constitutes the genuine breakthrough. If you expect plays to have plot development, say, you may not pick up on the subtlety with which a Nick Grosso dramatises drift among the young in London's pub and club land. If you apply too doctrinaire a feminism, you'll undervalue the abrasing honesty with which a Judy Upton explores, say, female complicity in violence.

I was impressed by how rarely the panel - which included the laconic director James Macdonald and the astute playwright and literary associate Stephen Jeffreys - resorted to phrases like "not the play I was looking for" or invoked a morality which the work in question had pushed beyond. Avoiding these temptations is quite an art. It all seemed very much the reverse of script development in TV where an idea can be hijacked and carted off in a completely different direction from that envisaged by the author. The concern here, with writers who make it beyond the first stage of the process, is how to help them realise their intentions better. On this question, I sensed a shift away from methods that create a dependency on a director or which offer the writer a substitute for a production rather than the real thing. Workshops and rehearsed readings were talked of as tools, not as consolation prizes.

The script meeting has an advisory function as Stephen Daldry jokily reminded us after one of the plays on the Grid had been unanimously trashed. "We'll cross that one off then... and you'll be hearing about the casting next week." But it's no small power to have a role in shaping a repertoire that history books will see as the way a generation has defined itself. I don't know how they felt about having a newspaper reviewer in their midst and I hope there is no clue in one of the plays I was given to read and report on - an off-Broadway hit in which an emotionally bankrupt theatre critic and moral malaise on a global scale are viewed as virtually synonymous.