Room for one more at the keyboard?

From 'Decade' to 'Sixty-Six Books', co-authored drama is all the rage. Holly Williams talks to playwrights about collaboration and conflict

'Inevitably, it will be tapas rather than a single meal." So says Rupert Goold, artistic director of theatre company Headlong, of its latest project, Decade – not a play about 10 years of eating Spanish food, but a serious, ambitious beast exploring our reaction to 9/11 as we approach its 10th anniversary.

That tapas comparison is apt because this production takes an innovative approach to authorship: Headlong has asked several writers to contribute short scenes or mini-plays – a "mosaic of responses".

Despite theatre often being trumpeted as the most collaborative of artforms, when it comes to authorship we seem rather in thrall to the idea of the individual writer. And while we're used a TV show or film with a bunch of writing credits, we expect theatre programmes to boast a single name. Goold himself insists he was sceptical about plays with multiple authors – before he started to work on a 9/11 project. "It is such a huge, complicated subject. [People would] always say, 'You've got to have a Muslim voice, an American voice, a London voice...'. And people always disagree about it – its significance, its impact. It has a Babel-like quality."

The production will reflect this; the list of contributing authors so far includes Mike Bartlett, Abi Morgan and Alecky Blythe. Bartlett echoes Goold, suggesting "you've got to have a really good reason to have lots of writers and voices on a project – and if ever there was a good subject for lots of different points of view, it's 9/11. It affected everyone in some way."

Goold is not the only director using multiple voices to deal with a big topic this autumn. Sixty-six writers are involved with the Bush Theatre's celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, from Carol Ann Duffy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Billy Bragg and Wole Soyinka. Sixty-Six Books is curated by the Bush's artistic director, Josie Rourke: "It's a celebration of one of the great works in the English language – the King James Bible, which is a co-authored work itself: one of the greatest things ever written by committee, as they say."

Sixty-Six Books is perhaps more polyphonic performance cycle than co-authored play. "We didn't sit in a room writing together, with Billy Bragg and the Archbishop of Canterbury – though that would be ridiculously fun," says Jack Thorne, who has penned a response to the Book of Daniel. He was also one of four writers on the National Theatre's climate-change drama Greenland, in February. He, Moira Buffini, Matt Charman and Penelope Skinner wrote separately; their sections were intertwined by director Bijan Sheibani and dramaturg Ben Power. Climate change is a subject so big that multiple perspectives was surely a sound idea, even if, as Thorne posits, the show "didn't totally work". "By the end," he says, "we were able to talk very honestly – if we hadn't been so scared of it earlier, that would have helped the play. We were slightly too wary of people's egos."

A rare recent example of critically acclaimed co-authorship is the 2010 play A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, by Robert Holman, Simon Stephens and David Eldridge. Although the play deals with the end of the world, they approached it through the microcosm of one family. "We like the way a galactic event refracted the smallness of what it is to be a human," says Stephens.

Holman explains that they wanted to avoid following in the footsteps of Howard Brenton and David Hare, whose collaborations in the Seventies and Eighties, such as Labour Party drama Brassneck, or Pravda (about a Murdoch-esque media baron – surely due a revival), were political, issue-led, public plays. Instead, they began by daring each other to write the most personal scene they'd ever produced. There followed years of writing together and editing each other's work. But Holman insists it "wasn't a love-in", and it was quite tough if someone said: "That's rubbish."

Holman was something of a hero, and certainly an influence on Stephens and Eldridge; by the end, he was a friend too. And their solution for making sure egos didn't get the better of the play? Going to the pub.

Stephens recalls that "by the time we started rehearsals, no one could recall who had written which bits – all 30 fingerprints were on every page." But how do you create a unity of narrative, structure, tone? How do you use the voices of many without it becoming a cacophony?

This was a problem facing RSC director Gregory Doran when he decided to stage Cardenio this summer. It's got, as he puts it, "more writers than a Hollywood blockbuster". His script uses Double Falsehood, an 18th-century adaptation of a lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, which itself was based on – and here supplemented by – a translation of Cervantes' Don Quixote by Thomas Shelton, along with snippets from other Fletcher plays. Nonetheless, Doran's ultimate aim was "a sense of consistency ... you have to think of the final piece as the most important thing".

Shakespeare also worked with Fletcher on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and with other writers on Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens and Pericles. Despite an academic tradition that has been resistant to the notion of Shakespeare as anything other than a solitary genius, it should come as no real surprise: Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights loved to collaborate. It is thought as many as half of the plays put on between 1590 and 1642 were the work of more than one hand. As Professor Sir Brian Vickers writes in Shakespeare, Co-Author: "Given that ... every major and most minor dramatists shared in the writing of plays, it would have been highly unusual if Shakespeare had not...".

Vickers explains: "Collaboration was a normal way of sharing the burden of composition, producing a script more quickly." While Doran suggests that, with 30 or 40 shows on in one season, "it was like writing for telly, for soap operas", although he is quick to point out that collaborations could also be artistically beneficial. Likewise, Vickers concludes "some extant masterpieces were produced by two or more co-authors".

Today we tend to prize the single authorial voice. Yet whether it's because a topic is too big, or because writing with another can be inspiring and challenging, sometimes one voice isn't enough. It might just be time to tuck into some theatrical tapas.

'Decade' (020-7452 3000) to 15 Oct; 'Sixty-Six Books' (020-8743 5050) to 29 Oct; 'Cardenio' (0844 800 1110) to 6 Oct

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee