The write stuff

The last time David Edgar hosted a conference on new writing, he called it 'All Passion Spent'.
When I saw Shopping and Fucking - Mark Ravenhill's shock-fest of nudity, sodomy and rimming - at the Royal Court, I sat just behind a black down-and-out who, making the most of the 10p standing tickets, was sheltering from the cold January night. During the play, the tramp's bemused glances at the mainly white middle-class audience seemed to be asking: what are these nice people doing watching these horrors? And, just to prove that new writing can keep a new audience, he came back after the interval.

Ravenhill's debut is a reminder of the vitality of British drama: Cool Britannia is not just about Brit pop and Brit films. It's also a good example of how plays that are about now are usually about blokes. And not merely about blokedom, but blokedom in crisis. Just when you thought that laddism was confined to TV and the tabloids, it boots its way centre stage. For masculinity, says veteran playwright David Edgar, is "the big subject of the 1990s".

While in the 1980s, it was plays by women that spear-headed new writing, now it's the turn of what Edgar - citing such West End hits as Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice, Tim Firth's Neville's Island or Kevin Elyot's all-male gay play My Night with Reg - dubs the "boy's own play". So if you're into poker, outward-bound courses or male bonding, head for the theatre.

One variant of the boy's play, says Edgar, is "the girl-in-the-boys'- gang play, where one woman holds a male milieu together". Trainspotting and Shopping and Fucking are good examples. But if men in the 1990s are looking at a crisis in masculinity, the news from the frontline of the sex war is not very good: when the boys find themselves up against the wall, they always need a woman to help out.

As Edgar's postgrad course in playwriting studies at Birmingham University gears up to host its eighth annual conference, the author of Destiny, Maydays and Pentecost is upbeat about its theme - new writing. "Clearly," he says, "over the past three or four years, there has been an immense growth in exciting new writing by people under 30." What a contrast to four years ago, when the conference explored the same theme under the pessimistic title "All Passion Spent".

Now theatre is hip again, with young writers such as Jez Butterworth (Mojo), Sarah Kane (Blasted) and Ayub Khan-Din (East Is East) stamping their mark on the cultural renaissance of Brit drama. With talent like this about, theatres are readier to risk staging new plays: between 1985 and 1990 new work dropped to 7 per cent of the mainhouse repertory nationwide; the figure is now around the 20 per cent mark.

As always, the powerhouse is London - thanks, Edgar points out, to sympathetic artistic directors such as Stephen Daldry at the Royal Court. "The good news is that Daldry took over at the Court at a point when it was committed to promoting new writing in a bold and imaginative way, and that he refused to accept that this was a high-risk strategy."

The current new wave of in-yer-face drama also owes much to American models. "To me," says Edgar, "the two texts that really turned things around were Angels in America and Oleanna in 1993. They reminded British theatre of the sort of play we used to do so well. A lot of people sensed that if American writers could write seriously and imaginatively about today's issues, then so could younger British writers."

The National under Richard Eyre also set an example. "New work by old hands such as David Hare and Alan Bennett proved to young writers that the obituaries for new writing were very much exaggerated - they demonstrated that here was something that really could be thrilling and central."

Also crucial, according to Edgar, has been "the self-help movement among younger writers - the North-West Playwrights Workshop, Stagecoach in Birmingham and a myriad other writers' workshops." At least a third of the 90 graduates produced by Edgar's MA course since it began in 1989 are now "professional playwrights" - names include Sarah Kane, Clare Bayley, Rod Dungate and Ben Brown - while many others work in the field as teachers. "But what's really needed," says Edgar, "is more institutional help for writers" - allowing them to develop when they're no longer "flavour of the month".

There are other problems too. New plays are more expensive to put on - not, Edgar hastens to make clear, "because they do badly at the box- office - that's a myth - but because they inevitably need more rehearsal". Indeed, much new work, he adds, is actually developed during the process of production, with early rehearsals as "a voyage of discovery which has already been undertaken by classics such as Hamlet". And more rehearsal time costs more money.

So why can't the lottery help out? "The trouble with the lottery," says Edgar, "is that it's piecemeal; what we need is a coherent policy." The lottery is also at risk from a populist backlash. "One can imagine what the Sun would have done to Sarah Kane's Blasted - with its scenes of rape, masturbation, defecation and cannibalism - if it had been directly financed by the workers' pennies. Lottery projects are very vulnerable to moral panics."

Although Edgar says he has no desire "to return to the arts paternalism of the 1950s and 1960s", he does think that "there are certain overall policies which it is legitimate to expect publicly funded bodies to follow - like an interest in education, equal opportunities and opening up access." With Labour pledged to review Arts Council policies, there may be reasons to be cheerful after 1 May. But don't break open the champagne just yet - Jack Cunningham, shadow Heritage Minister, has signed up to Labour's two-year freeze on public spending.

Meanwhile, new plays by twentysomethings are everywhere to be seen. "What's striking now is how mature the younger writers - such as Martin McDonagh, Rebecca Pritchard or David Eldridge - are in terms of their craft," says Edgar. "Their writing has got both vitality and good craftsmanship."

But isn't it all a bit too naturalistic? "Well, a lot of new writing is certainly conservative in form," Edgar concedes. "But this just doesn't apply to the content. And, although most new work is naturalistic, accessible and domestic, there are exceptions - such as Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life."

OK, but what about politics? Aren't too many new plays just too apolitical? "In a sense, yes. But when there's a core of writers for whom politics is not in the foreground, it raises the question of what political theatre is any more," says Edgar. "After all, although Shopping and Fucking, Blasted or Trainspotting may not be state-of-the-nation plays, they certainly do analyse a social milieu that's in crisis, and that's a political statement."

One reason why the "big political play" is not now being written by people under the age of 30 might be geopolitical. "In the 1970s," says Edgar, "we knew what we thought. We had the optimism of the 1960s; we felt we were taking over. After the collapse of Communism, it's surely no surprise that alternatives to our present set-up are hard to find. And so political drama is no longer centre stage."

Isn't he worried, though, that the Young Turks of new writing might soon drift into TV and film? "Not at all. It's old-fashioned to view theatre as art and television as commerce. One of the great things about Britain is that you can have a career in both."

But don't let's all start to pat ourselves on the back too soon. "The bad side of the current boom in new work," says Edgar, "is the element of fashion, which leads some people to think that last year the in-thing was smack, and this year it's sodomy. This can lead to dangerous mannerism." And while new playwrights are good at crafting plays, they'll still need financial help. Otherwise the risk is that the whole new wave will dry up as fast as it arrivedn

'About Now', the Eighth Birmingham Theatre Conference, runs from Friday to Sunday. Details from Amanda Cadman: 0121-689 5398