Open Court: did it change the face of new writing?

Not every piece had polish – but there was a Royal Court debut every day. Matt Trueman looks back on a kaleidoscopic, riotous festival of new work

It was either going to be a perfect marriage or a Valentine's Day massacre. On 14 February this year, 80 leading playwrights gathered at the Royal Court at the invitation of incoming artistic director Vicky Featherstone. Martin Crimp, Caryl Churchill, Nick Payne and Lucy Kirkwood were just a few of those present. "Put it this way," says David Eldridge, another Royal Court regular in attendance. "You didn't want a gas explosion in Sloane Square."

The date was fitting. Playwrights love the Royal Court like no other theatre, and the feeling's mutual. It has always insisted on the writer's centrality, that – as Anthony Neilson puts it – "without a writer of some sort, nothing else happens". Featherstone's first move was to make them more central than ever, asking them to collectively programme her first season. The result was Open Court, a kaleidoscopic festival of new writing in all shapes and sizes that finished last week.

It included debut plays, experimental collaborations and formal innovation. Dramatists, storytellers, verbatim playwrights and poets presented monologues, lectures, readings and audio plays. Writers ranged from eight to 88; there was a Royal Court debut almost every day. Even those pieces that could readily be described as "plays" were fantastically varied. New writing felt up for grabs in a way it hasn't for years.

Most of all, perhaps, Open Court forced us to reconsider our understanding of a playwright as someone who write plays. Mark Ravenhill penned a lecture drawn from verbatim interviews with other writers, part of a "surprise" stand that invited audiences to buy a ticket without knowing what the show would be. Rachel De-lahay and Bola Agbaje, leading a writing team, created a staged soap opera set and performed in Peckham, south London. Others used devising techniques and curating events.

Of course much have this has been happening for a while. Writers such as Tim Crouch and Chris Goode have never quite fitted the mould, and playwrights such as Lucy Kirkwood and Elinor Cook have written for more experiential forms including site-specific work and audiotours. Last year another new-writing specialist, London's Bush theatre, changed its literary policy to admit a wider range of work. However, for this attitude to emerge at the Royal Court – the home of writers such as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Churchill and for long regarded as the UK's flagship new-writing venue – still seems like a surprise.

On the face of it, new writing is having a golden age. Since 2000, according to critic Aleks Sierz's 2011 book Rewriting the Nation, the number of new plays has doubled, box office reached almost 70% and more than 350 playwrights have had their first play staged. The Royal Court has been at the forefront of these trends. In the last five years, it's had six West End transfers and two Broadway runs. Its plays have been produced all around the world, 10 getting major American premieres and others reaching Germany, Australia, Singapore and the prestigious Avignon festival. The theatre's development schemes involve 150 emerging writers a year and many have gone on to establish themselves at the very highest level; most recently Nick Payne, Lucy Kirkwood and James Graham.

But writer Roy Williams, for one, argues that all this itself isn't enough. "I'm waiting for another Shopping and Fucking or another Saved," he says. "Something that's going to make a noise; someone to make their mark. I don't want this theatre to be seen as a conveyor belt to the West End. That's not what the Royal Court's about: it's about taking risks and telling stories about now."

Williams' concern is by no means unusual. Most of the playwrights I spoke to during Open Court concurred. Eldridge warned against "a grey blob of homogeneity". London Road writer Alecky Blythe hopes "the changing of the guard will shake things up". Neilson spoke about "a culture of timidity", whereby "new plays by younger writers are becoming successes – they're good pieces – but they're fitting some established form".

Even emerging playwrights such as Alistair McDowall, 25, express frustrations. "I'd like to see less well-crafted, well-acted plays and more theatrical defiance," he says. "Plays that might be an absolute mess, but aren't boring for a second."

Consensus puts these concerns down to an inflexible approach to development across the theatre industry that feeds every new play through the same process of readings and redraftings. Inevitably, the tendency is towards conformity: plays that adhere to the same principles, techniques and formal structures. "I see a lot of plays that get the life rewritten out of them," says Neilson. "We've fallen into a pattern where the writer's relationship to a play has become very mediated … As long as that system exists, you've got to question how cosmetic the notion of a writer being at the heart of something is."

Simultaneously, a surge in the number of playwrights has increased competition for productions. "The idea is that it's a race that not everyone will finish," explains Penelope Skinner, whose hugely successful Royal Court debut The Village Bike will get its US premiere this autumn. "There's a sense that you get culled as you go along, and whether or not you get culled depends on those first couple of productions." That means the temptation is to play it safe and stay in the race.

However, Eldridge reckons that risk aversion goes against most writers' natural instincts. "There's this idea that's persisted for a long time that writers are formally conservative. That's always been bollocks in my view. The writers I know are interested in making work in different ways, in moving their own work forwards and in moving theatre forwards.

"It's a mistake to assume that playwrights only see and enjoy new plays that are quite like the one's they've written themselves. We've all been to the Young Vic. We've all seen work by Shunt, Chris Goode and others," he says. "Theatres are beginning to appreciate that if you can open up the process for a writer in all sorts of different ways, there's the potential to make really interesting work."

Neilson believes that the standard development model has allowed writers to forget that they're writing first and foremost for a live event. "There's this idea of polish and honing something, which sounds wonderful, but it's not really the point. It's a bit like going to see a band that play perfect reproductions of their album. Theatre's a live art and it should be repositioned as such, rather than as a branch of literature."

Neilson himself employs a particular process that involves writing in between workshops with his cast. His scripts emerge out of and evolve over a six-week rehearsal process. He spent part of the Open Court season introducing a number of young playwrights to the technique. "It's an alternative model of play development and it should be on the menu," he argues. Eldridge has been in the rehearsal room too: writing a play that caters to a particular leading actor. It means he now starts with a week of exploratory, free-form workshops, getting to know the actor's range and style.

As Williams points out, such methods won't work for every writer: having a range of options is the thing. "The worry of any system is when it becomes fixed, rather than engaging on a one-to-one basis to find out what an individual writer needs. If they need a reading, give them a reading. If they need a production, give them a production."

That's exactly what happened, Williams explains, to his first play, The No Boys Cricket Club. Having submitted the script to Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1996, "three months later, they programmed it. You don't hear of that any more. If a theatre reads a script and they're blown away by it, they need to take a chance."

But therein lies the issue: risk. Squeeze funding, and new writing is especially vulnerable. "Theatres have to survive to do anything," Neilson points out, "so if you cut funding, the first thing that suffers is the unknown: the new writer. Faced with doing three productions instead of four, there's no theatre on earth that's going to give those slots to new writing."

Open Court has demonstrated an alternative model; one that ensures new writing makes it to the stage, albeit in a more ad hoc fashion than usual. Inevitably shows lacked the polish and nuance of a fully fledged production – which might do some types of play a disservice – but more often than not, they gained a sense of presence and the electricity of uncertainty. These plays became events, not literature in three dimensions.

Ensuring the flexibility of the development process, allowing writers extra resources and seeking out new voices all require investment. As Fin Kennedy's In Battalions report, published back in February, has already shown, cuts to arts funding are impacting on new writing, with productions, commissions and development models being scaled back across the country. The danger is clear: just as British new writing looks set to reinvent itself, it could find the rug pulled out from underneath its feet.


Matt Trueman

The GuardianTramp

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