Enter stage right: Meet Britain's most promising young playwrights
Sunday 17 July 2011
Despite painful arts cuts, new writing continues to flourish in British theatres. But it's not only established names who are getting plays on – from young writing schemes in regional theatres to festivals for first-timers, above-a-pub fringe spaces to career-making venues such as the Royal Court, the Bush and the Gate, brave new works by young writers are being brought to life up and down the country. On the eve of the National Theatre's 'Double Feature' season of four new plays written by and for young adults, Holly Williams talks to the leading lights of the next generation of playwrights...
Penelope Skinner, 33
Skinner followed her 2008 debut, 'Fucked', with 'Eigengrau' at the Bush in 2009. She won this year's George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright. Her new play, 'The Village Bike', is at the Royal Court until 6 August
I got into theatre because I wanted to be an actress, but I moved to London and didn't do very well. Then I went to see a play, When You Cure Me by Jack Thorne, in 2005 – it was one of those really powerful theatre experiences, literally an inspiration. I didn't really think it would become a job; I just thought I needed to write a play.
I did a year at the Oxford School of Drama, which is method – they train you in Stanislavski – and that really helped. As a writer you can work out for each character what they want and how they're going to get it.
I read the reviews of Eigengrau and swore I would never read reviews again. It's interesting, because the content was nothing that people don't see on stage all the time – I think it's about who's creating that content. I think the reason they hated the blowjob scene was because it suggested that women weren't desperately throwing themselves on their knees out of sheer love of the act – sometimes we have ulterior motives [the character was trying to make her ex-boyfriend take her back]. But it certainly wasn't meant to be provocative.
I suspect my plays are always somehow about the same thing. Gender and sexual politics are things I'm interested in – it's just that's what happens to be in my life. If the world evolved beyond those things, so would I.
Sam Holcroft, 28
Holcroft's first play, 'Cockroach', was staged at the Traverse Theatre in 2008, followed by 'While You Lie' last August. Her latest play, 'Edgar & Annabel', is part of the National Theatre's 'Double Feature', showing from tomorrow
I was acting in my student theatre group and ended up writing a play because I was so bad at acting that none of my friends would cast me in their plays any more. I studied science at Edinburgh and I was going to do a PhD, but several people in the lab were questioning their choices somy supervisor said, "Go away, do something else for a year." Within that year I had a commission from the Traverse – I'd previously been in their young writers group – and I knew that was where my heart lay.
I have no desire to direct my own work; I want someone else to come in, take on the script and have their own vision for it. I have no problem with the fact that when you write a play, essentially you give it away.
It's really important to me to get to know the form and to understand what makes theatre work. What is it about theatre that is magic? Why write for it? Could it be that interplay between what's real and what's not?
The brief for Double Feature was to write for our age group. Edgar & Annabel hopefully will play with theatrical form; it has a similar structure to some of my other plays, which open in a place you recognise, then slowly pull the rug out from under you. For a while I wrote real people in a real room, until I realised I wanted to go into other worlds and push those boundaries.
James Graham, 28
Graham won the Catherine Johnson Award for Best Play in 2007 for 'Eden's Empire'. 'Tory Boyz', his play for the National Youth Theatre, had a run at the Soho Theatre in 2008, and last year 'The Whisky Taster' was at the Bush
I grew up in Mansfield, where there was absolutely no theatre. My interest in the writing side of it came from studying English literature – I remember doing a Pinter play and an Alan Bennett play – I thought they were incredible. I started writing at university; I studied drama at Hull. I took my first play, Coal Not Dole, to the Edinburgh Festival. It was about the miners' strikes, based on testimonies from people in my local village.
After I finished university, I went home and wrote a play which I sent off to the Finborough Theatre in London and they produced it. I've been writer-in-residence there since. Without the Finborough, I don't think I would have been a writer. I don't know who else would have picked up on me – I didn't burst on to the stage with an amazingly well-received youthful play; I did geeky historical, political stuff.
I hate the idea of a "young playwright's play" – that you have to write about teenagers or angst or hating your parents. I was 22 when I wrote Albert's Boy, about Einstein's guilt over the atomic bomb. I think young playwrights now are being encouraged to think bigger, or to comment on the times, rather than just writing their own personal experiences. But whatever I write, I want it to offer a really entertaining, good night out.
Tom Wells, 26
Wells's debut, 'Me, As a Penguin', came in 2009. He is an associate playwright at the Bush, where he collaborated with Alan Ayckbourn on 'Where's My Seat?'. His new play, 'The Kitchen Sink', opens at the Bush in November
I did some writing workshops at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2007 – all you had to do to get involved was write a letter and tell them about yourself. I'd finished studying English at Oxford the year before and was working in my mum's café, washing up. I was never involved in drama at university; I sat on my own and read Chaucer and ate biscuits – it needed a bit more gumption than I had at the time! Just having to write a letter, it's a lot easier...
They picked a few of us to write a full-length play at the end of the course, and that was how I came to write Me, As a Penguin. I used it as a sending-off script, which got me an attachment with [touring company] Paines Plough. At any point, having a "next step" is just lovely.
My dad was a farmer and I grew up in a village outside Hull. It's really near a faded seaside town called Withernsea, and I love writing about it – there's an unusual comic charm, a bit scruffy but quite warm.
There's usually quite a lot of me in things I write, and I'm quite a people-watcher: I just find people funny. A bit of heart, a bit of mischief, some words – and that's a play.
Directors and actors I've worked with generally know a lot more than I do. By the time a play has an audience, it belongs to everyone, it's a collective thing. So it's a lot less exposing even though it's right in front of people.
Nick Payne, 27
Payne won the George Devine Award in 2009 for 'If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet'. 'Wanderlust' played at the Royal Court in 2010; his latest play, 'When We Were Young', will tour with Paines Plough in October
When I was at university at York there was a drama society, and I co-directed a play I'd written, which became my sending-out script. I moved to London and did bar jobs; I was broke and living in a terrible flat, so joining the Royal Court's young writers programme was invaluable.
Writing is a strange thing to do – some days I think, 'This isn't really work!' Because I write mostly character-driven stuff, the more I know about a character, the more scope I feel I have, dramatically and formally. Of course, you're just making it up and it's all a bit silly to talk about, but I do like to write them biographies. You figure out what works and what doesn't as soon as it's in front of someone – if they're bored, they are palpably bored.
I'm up for being as involved as a director wants me to be. Rehearsals are really fun – I love it, and I really love changing stuff. I'm happy to let it go.
In Wanderlust, I was interested in how you dramatise naked bodies on stage. It's funny how we get a bit uncomfortable if someone is having consensual sex on stage and they're naked, but when someone is stabbed or kicked to death we're fine with it.
I don't feel a responsibility to write about my age group. For some reason I'm more interested in grown-ups – and I don't really feel like a grown-up yet.
Ella Hickson, 26
Hickson's debut play, 'Eight', won the Carol Tambor Award (presented annually to the best theatre piece at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) in 2008; she followed it up with 'Precious Little Talent' and 'Hot Mess'. Hickson is the Pearson playwright in residence at the Lyric Hammersmith and is writing a play for Headlong
I studied English at university in Edinburgh. There's a scheme where you can apply to do a show at the Fringe for free, which I got – then I had about six weeks during my finals to write the thing!
When I came to write the second one, I felt a "second album" pressure that perhaps wasn't there. There was an anxiety that Eight had done well very quickly. I read a lot and tried a lot, and got a bit hooked on the engineering project that lies behind dialogue. There's a real sense of method there, a British tradition of realism.
I have a mental pinboard – it's a process of cultural collection, lines from plays or books or songs or pictures or things your friend said. Suddenly out of that, you realise that you have a consistent preoccupation, something that rises to the top quite naturally.
I've always written plays with a view that I'd direct them but at the moment I'm writing a play for Headlong called Boys without the idea of directing it – it's somebody else's problem! There's going to have to be a bit of magic between here and the stage that I don't understand – it's very exciting.
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