What's age got to do with it?

Birmingham Rep is embarking on a marathon staging of 16 plays by new writers aged between 12 and 25. Can this really be any more than a patronising act of lip service to fashionable ideas of access and education?

Carl Miller
Wednesday 12 July 2000 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


What on earth is the point of a young writers' festival, I wonder? Does this sort of thing really do anyone any good? Isn't it just social work in drag? Can you really call it art?

What on earth is the point of a young writers' festival, I wonder? Does this sort of thing really do anyone any good? Isn't it just social work in drag? Can you really call it art?

Last October I met for the first time a group of young people whose writing Birmingham Rep's literary department considered "promising". That's a word that has dragged a few careers to premature extinction in itself. With fellow writers Noel Greig and Maya Chowdhry, the brief was to find a way to "develop" the writers' work. "Development" is a term theatre has rather over-enthusiastically borrowed from movies.

In both media it describes broadly the same thing - an illusion of activity which allows a script to hang around in various tinkered-with forms for years and years until either the writers or the producers crack and confess that they've completely lost interest in it. Would this be any different?

Obviously playwrights do develop. Ibsen's Lady Inger of ÿstraat would have qualified him for the 1854 Bergen Young Playwright's Festival, but no one's gasping to see it again today. And only the most perverse Shakespearean would describe Henry VI Part Two as a career highlight.

But can you make writers develop by meeting them every other Saturday? Mr Blair might have preferred young Euan to be grappling with dramatic structure as a hobby rather than glugging alcopops, but is a writers' group any more than childminding plus Biros?

As it happens, groups of playwrights both formal (as at the Royal Court since the English Stage Company began in the Fifties) and informal (Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson bickering over the royalties) have always been significant. And nothing helps playwrights of any age understand their craft more than hanging round theatres.

Isn't this just more plebeian culture, however? Why, when we already have Ibsen and Shakespeare, do we need Kimberley Andrews and Takbir Uddin as well (two of the 16 writers in this Transmissions festival)? It may be a good thing that they are writing plays rather than lying paralytic in Leicester Square, but what does that have to do with art?

Funding constraints make it harder and harder to put masterpieces of world drama on the stage of theatres like the Birmingham Rep. So why on earth put public money into encouraging the merely "promising" to write who knows what?

I've sat through enough excruciating new plays to convince me that self-expression through drama is, in some people, a creative outlet best boarded up immediately. "Is it any good?" may be a value-loaded question to ask of a young writer's play (of any writer's play). But it is one which young writer's festivals owe it to their audiences to ask. In fact, the Transmissions group is suspicious of any kind of pat-on-the-head aspect to the project.

Kate Starr, whose play Home ambitiously tells two stories at once, weaving them together to allow the audience to find the connection, is uncompromising: "I don't want them to come in and say: 'Ah, it's good because they're young'." "That's the worst thing you can say," agrees Chris Rivers, the writer of Daysleeper. "We should shoot them." Patronise them at your peril.

Which means rehearsals are sometimes tough for these young playwrights. Public performance will test their writing ruthlessly. No matter how personally useful the writers' journeys may have been, none of that will be visible to the audience. The playwrights now find themselves challenged with tough decisions about cutting and rewriting, just as old playwrights often are.

The focus of the project has broadened - the fortnightly groups could concentrate on what would benefit the young writers. Now we all have to think about how to give their audience a worthwhile night at the theatre.

And even a modestly good night out costs money. Actors, set, costume, sound, lights all need to be squeezed out of the budget. At the Rep, Caroline Jester from the literary department, and stage manager Lou Bann work miracles with intricate schedules and pulled-in favours. Rehearsals will dovetail - there is one well-appointed rehearsal room, but the festival demands all other available spaces.

These include a mysterious facility called the Training Suite, an underground bunker whose only plausible other use could be in the event of nuclear attack. Writers and directors huddle over rewrites in the bar, while still more rehearsals take place in a room above an exhibition about Anne Frank, with loops of Nazi rally music filtering in as background sound. Dodgy soundproofing means that a full staff meeting takes place against the accompaniment of a screaming row between two gay men over a bowl of peanuts... a scene from Phil Minnithorpe's The Substitute.

Ten actors have contracted to play over 100 different characters; props and costumes are imaginatively recycled by designer Matt Lloyd. There's no point putting on a new play festival in a half-hearted way (although people do, heaven knows). Yet even if we are full every night, we can't hope to match the cost of such an ambitious festival from box office receipts alone. By the end of last week, Noel Greig and I were sweeping the stage and setting props so that Lou could be up in the gallery doubling up as the sound operator we couldn't afford to hire for the performance.

Hold on, business-minded readers will be thinking. Are you really saying that this project is so naively uncommercial that even if it sells out, it loses money? Isn't this the worst sort of arty extravagance? Whatever happened to at least making an attempt to pay your own way? (I'll keep silent on my enthusiasm for lowering the ticket prices.) How can theatres argue for public money if they insist on throwing it away so recklessly?

The truth is that research and development are costly in any industry, and the entertainment one is no exception. There are plenty of playwrights whose work first got an airing through festivals like this. Most are also working in film and television, but it's rare for the debt to be paid back by those media. You could underwrite this whole festival with the sandwich bill for a feature film - even a British one.

After nine months of working on Transmissions the writers pile into the theatre with easy familiarity. Before they started, most had the same ideas about the theatre which keep their friends away. "I thought it'd be a bit uptight," says Chris Rivers. "I thought theatre people would be all polo necks, vodka and roll-ups." Is this another fatal flaw in such projects?

If young people don't even want to go to the theatre, what's the point of encouraging them to write plays? Even for those who knew about Birmingham Rep, its image was that of a place for old masters, not the kind of new talent that the theatre's literary manger, Ben Payne, has fostered there over the last two years. "I thought it was all Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw," admits Amy Beeson. Now it is her work being performed there as well, with a domestic epic called The Happiest Day of My Life?

So what is the point of it all? Matt Lloyd and lighting and sound designers Gareth Chell and Dean Whiskens have come up with one answer. The environment they've created for the festival is a warehouse eccentrically festooned with lampshades and fairy lights. It makes the presentations excitingly theatrical - qualities often absent from play readings, an often snooze-inducing type of performance.

Sitting in the theatre among a packed and excited audience that's more like a movie crowd, another reason presents itself. This audience - young and old, Asian, black and white - actually reflects the range of people on the street outside.

And that's because the range of writers presented also reflects that reality. This isn't just about new writers. It's about a new audience too. And when that new audience cheers and whistles a group of new writers onto the stage at the end of the evening it's abundantly clear that these things have a point after all.

'Transmissions' is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre to 19 July (0121-236 4455)

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