Making drama out of a crisis

Out of Joint has made a success of nurturing provocative new writing. But the touring theatre company cannot continue without the subsidies that similar groups receive. Its future now lies with an apparently unsympathet ic Arts Council. By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
"It is possible to do good work within the establishment. But if you want to do something exceptional, that possibility is increased if you create your own company." Max Stafford-Clark should know. One of this country's most important theatre directors, he has done it not once, but twice.

In 1973 he, David Aukin (now head of Channel 4 Film) and the playwright David Hare co-founded Joint Stock, a uniquely collaborative company which pioneered a collective approach to the creating and performing of new writing by such major talents as Hare himself, Caryl Churchill, Barrie Keefe and Howard Brenton. Twenty years later, Stafford-Clark did it again when he left the Royal Court and co-founded Out of Joint. "I did it in a state of innocence, which is just another word for ignorance," he comments wryly. "I don't think I was quite aware of the risks."

Just three and a half years later, the company has made a lasting impact on new writing in this country, commissioning and touring new plays, several of which have gone on to international success. They have been nominated for 20 awards and walked away with 13 of them. Long-lived companies on a similar scale like Theatre de Complicite or Cheek by Jowl would be satisfied with one hit at a time, but a quick glance at this year's activities alone gives you some impression of the extraordinary scale of Out of Joint's work.

In January, New York critics were heaping hyperbolic praise upon Sebastian Barry's The Steward of Christendom. The subsequent sell-out season at Brooklyn Academy of Music, the city's most prestigious theatre, was the longest the venue had ever booked outside of Peter Brook's Mahabharata. Steward had already played London, Dublin, Brighton, Liverpool and Luxembourg, not to mention Australia and New Zealand. Back home, audiences were queuing round the block for Mark Ravenhill's first full-length play, Shopping and Fucking. Meanwhile, the company was already in rehearsal for the tour of a third party, April de Angelis's The Positive Hour.

Their annual turnover is edging towards pounds 1m. Their guaranteed annual subsidy from the Arts Council? A paltry pounds 65,000. That pays for just two salaries and a marketing strategy. What about applying to the National Lottery? The arts are swimming in money these days, aren't they? If you have a building to upgrade, the answer is probably yes, but a company committed to touring has no need for a building. Under existing rules, lottery money can be poured into bricks and mortar but cannot be spent on the real business of paying actors and writers to put on plays.

At the Arts Council's own suggestion, Out of Joint did apply for money from the much-vaunted, one-off Arts for Everyone scheme. They were turned down.

Admittedly, you have to be an optimist to work in the arts in this country, but there are limits. As far as Stafford-Clark and his producer Sonia Friedman are concerned, they've reached them. "We can't go on," she says simply. "We keep falling at the final hurdle." Her frustration is more than understandable. Theatres need to book seasons way in advance and the climate demands long-term development strategies, but with no guaranteed funding, planning and structuring commissions and productions for an independent company like this is well-nigh impossible. Their track record is a testament to their tenacity. "We've had a lot of patience from theatres but we simply cannot match the administrative support of companies like Complicite." Comparisons are, of course, invidious, but it is salutary to note that they receive about a third of Complicite's funding. The success of Steward has kept them afloat for a year but a new writing company cannot rely on commercial success for its survival. Friedman has conjured up pounds 150,000 from foundations over the years but if you're presenting challenging plays with titles like Shopping and Fucking, corporate sponsorship is out of the question.

Back in the glory days of the Seventies, Joint Stock was awarded annual funding within 18 months. When Stafford-Clark and Friedman dreamed up Out of Joint, they met the Arts Council's head of drama. Their ambition was to be fully funded within three years. Four years on, they are no nearer that goal. In the interim, they have had to go cap in hand to persuade the (separate) touring department to fund each individual play. Fortunately, that department has continually smiled upon them, hence their continued existence. Actors are contracted on the basis that the company hopes to receive money. They have an education programme running alongside each production but no money with which to pay anyone to co-ordinate or run it. This is no way to run a business.

Their other means of survival has been a series of co-production deals, whereby other theatres help finance and resource productions. They have played 54 weeks at the Royal Court, an advantageous situation which has its problems. Unlike companies with a permanent style which audiences recognise and return to, a new writing company re-invents itself to cater to each playwright it produces. Audiences have little sense of its identity or even its name, which has led many to see successive Out of Joint shows like The Libertine, The Steward of Christendom and Shopping and Fucking as Royal Court successes, which is only partly true. The last of those has just ended a West End transfer, the idea of which met with prophesies of doom from many industry insiders. At the height of the heatwave, it played to 92 per cent capacity. It then headed off for similar success at the Edinburgh festival where Out of Joint also opened Caryl Churchill's double-bill Blue Heart, picking up rave reviews and a Fringe First.

The rampant diversity of those plays in both tone and content, not to mention the difference in terms of experience of their authors, is instructive. One of the justifiable criticisms levelled at Stephen Daldry's Court is that it has focused too narrowly on new writers at the expense of more mature talent. It is, after all, easy to programme "promise". Lack of substance and/or technical skill can be dismissed with talk of possible future fulfilment. Stafford-Clark consciously balances the encouragement of raw talent with great new plays by experienced writers, "the ones which will be seen as the watermark of a generation".

He also has little patience with the tired critical complaint of the death of the "great political plays" of the Sixties onwards. "Those were black and white plays about certainties, but people are now constantly shifting through shades of grey. At the end of the Thatcher era, writers, directors and other fellow travellers involved with ideas of socialism and feminism began to question themselves. It is no longer a world of fixed ideologies. The Positive Hour is a political play, an assessment of how beneficial and rigid feminism can become." Plays are both a prisoner and a reflection of their age. Shopping could be seen as just one of a wave of works about dysfunction, kids in an urban jungle. "It ends with a moment of limited optimism but, yes, it is part of that. Our first job is to reflect an age. If our age is about a lack of confidence then that's what you reflect." To a degree, Churchill's emotionally acute, powerfully controlled Blue Heart runs on parallel (though radically dissimilar) lines.

Stafford-Clark agrees that much of his artistic vision is a continuation of his Joint Stock days. "The ethos and aesthetic are similar ... a curiosity about the world, the observation of life. That's what I learnt from Bill Gaskill, that research and study of detail does pay off in the writing and acting." He contrasts it with the New York scene. "The trouble there is that everyone's ambitious. That's fine. Everyone's talented, fine. And that's all it is. There has to be another ingredient: grit. And some purpose. If you have that then you're attempting to comment on the life you lead." Out of Joint want to tour their latest commission, Sebastian Barry's Our Lady of Sligo with Sinead Cusack, due at the National in April. They will also revive Our Country's Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker's uplifting modern classic about a group of convicts in Australia in 1789 putting on a restoration comedy. All this is in jeopardy unless realistic funding is secured. The Arts Council's drama panel meets in three day's time to consider their case. The head of drama has told them their need for long- term support is recognised but, as yet, no money has been offered. Friedman looks back at their accomplishments with an almost defiant pride. "We have very quietly reaffirmed the importance of new writing around the country. That hasn't been spotted. Outside London, theatres see us on a level with Cheek by Jowl or Shared Experience which have been going for 13 years or more. We've done it in two or three years. Bookers don't ever ask us `who's in it?' They trust out judgement."

Stafford-Clark, too, adopts a confident tone. "The definition of cynicism is when you try and arrange new work to suit the public. Neither Steward, a dangerously untheatrical work about an obscure moment in Irish history, or Shopping, a dangerously provocative play about young people doing horrible things, seemed in prospect to have their finger on the pulse of fame and popular success." He pauses, then adds, possibly nodding towards the Arts Council: "Doctor Success is a cure for all evils in the theatre but he doesn't come all the time, but that's the way of it."

`Shopping and Fucking' is on tour; `Blue Heart' is at the Royal Court Downstairs at the Duke of York's, London WC2 (0171-565 5000) from 17 Sept- 18 Oct and then tours.