These are strange times for UK theatre. It feels like we’re being hit from every direction at the moment: the pandemic, rising costs, falling audiences, venues closing, funding cuts. The industry is constantly on the cusp of crisis and we’re all in survival mode. At times like this, freelance artists are at the sharp end of the stick and playwrights, in particular, find themselves up against it. There’s less money to go around to invest in new talent and new plays are perceived as risky.
As a result, there has been a significant fall in commissions and new plays on our stages. In a recent survey of Writers Guild of Great Britain members, over half said the current landscape was severely impacting their ability to sustain a writing career – with over 70% earning less than £18,000pa from their writing. In the face of such a challenging environment, we risk losing a generation of playwrights and especially writers from under-represented backgrounds.
Faced with such a bleak outlook, how do we combat the doom and gloom? Firstly, by celebrating the huge wealth of talent out there and offering pathways and opportunities. Back in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Box of Tricks launched the PlayMakers Network for Northern playwrights to connect, collaborate and create. With over 650 members, PlayMakers is an ever-growing creative home offering workshops, conversations, groups, commissions and events. We’ve beefed up our literary team – working with four brilliant dramaturgs who are writers themselves – to deliver a blueprint for the future: various touchpoints for writers at every stage of their development.
By offering a smorgasbord of support, we want to forge meaningful pathways that respond to writers’ needs. For those that have never written a play, we’re launching an Introduction to Playwriting course led by Bruntwood Prize-winning playwright Paddy Hughes. Beginning its fifth cohort, 60 playwrights have been supported by our Pen Pals exchange programme which pairs Northern playwrights to write a new play over the course of six months through peer-led collaboration. Four seasons of online Masterclasses has offered free/PWYD sessions on a range of skills and topics. For early-career North West playwrights, we have our PlayBox programme supporting four writers for a twelve-month programme where they develop a brand new play through a small seed-commission with our support through dramaturgy, workshopping and a public rehearsed reading at HOME Mcr. Our Blood Beats Writers’ Group meet monthly to offer a space for LGBTQ+ writers in and around Manchester.
Playwrights need to have their plays produced and see their work in front of an audience. New Tricks is Box of Tricks’ commissioning model to develop new plays – with work-in-progress sharings – for future seasons in partnership with leading Northern venues. All developed through New Tricks, these plays go on to full production including recent shows: THE LAST QUIZ NIGHT ON EARTH by Alison Carr (Guardian’s Best of Culture 2020 & Readers’ Favourite Theatre of the Year), NARVIK by Lizzie Nunnery (Best New Play at the UK Theatre Awards 2017) and SPARKPLUG by David Judge (Finalist for Alfred Fagon Award Best New Play; broadcast on Sky Arts in May 2021). Our current production, TOO MUCH WORLD AT ONCE by Billie Collins, started life as part of our PlayBox programme and went on to be developed through New Tricks supported by Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough before touring nationally this Spring.
For us, there is a real power in giving Northern playwrights a collective home and amplifying those voices to drive positive change. But we can’t do this alone. Speaking to playwrights across the North, it’s clear there’s a need for a more joined-up approach to writer development. As an industry, we need to join forces for the collective good of nurturing new talent. For us, this means connecting with other new writing theatre companies and literary departments of theatres to work collectively to better champion new writing talent. Beyond that, we’re building bridges between theatre and TV/radio. Our Screen/Play Award, in partnership with Sky Studios, championed two Northern writers from underrepresented backgrounds with a £10,250 bursary each to write a new play and a screenplay inspired by an original idea. Similarly, our recent BoxFresh initiative gave PlayMakers an opportunity to showcase scripts-in-development at HOME Mcr and forge a creative relationship with local production company Rope Ladder Fiction. In an era where its nigh-on impossible to earn a living from playwriting alone, tangible routes into writing for TV are an invaluable avenue for a long-term, sustainable career as a writer.
Underpinning all of this, is our ambition to address the historic imbalance of opportunity within theatre and to make space for diverse voices. Our Positive Action programme turns this ambition into action. Following our recent callout for PlayBox – our early-career programme for North West playwrights – we had 220+ submissions and committed to 80+ follow-up one-on-one positive action meetings to talk about what each of those writers needs to support their development. This approach is increasing representation across our work. From the 12 writers commissioned last year, data shows progress so far: 8 women, 50% from low socio-economic backgrounds, 5 LGBTQ+ writers (inc. 1 trans non-binary writer), 4 writers of colour, 2 disabled/neurodivergent writers.
Playwrights are at the core of our mission as a company: “New plays are the lifeblood of theatre and playwrights its beating heart”. By bringing PlayMakers together, and laying the foundations for positive change, we hope that we can collectively overcome the challenges ahead and ensure that new writing talent in the North not only survives but thrives – now and in the future.
For more information on the work of Box Of Tricks visit: https://boxoftrickstheatre.co.uk/