Ivan Cutting has been at the helm of Eastern Angles since its inception 33 years ago. During that time, the company have been prolific in commissioning writers to produce new plays for rural touring across East Anglia. For some writers, though, the idea of accepting a commission goes against their idea of creative freedom. At this year’s HighTide Festival, Ivan will be hosting a debate on the pros and cons of writing to commission. He talks to Glen Pearce about the debate and the current state of new writing.
You’re hosting a debate at HighTide called Getting Out Of The Garret, what’s the idea behind it?
I suppose it’s trying to get away from the Harold Pinter idea that the writer goes into a garret, philosophises over every single bit of punctuation and then comes down to the rest of the world proclaiming his work of art in his hand and giving it to us to be performed.
It’s about working to commission, whether that be a commission to write for children, for rural touring or to write for a specific project and to start a discussion on how does the writer respond to the kind of commission where they can’t just go and write whatever they want to write.
How do you still find your freedom within that, to find the freedom to do what you want to do and for an organisation to be assured that what you’re paying the writer to do is going to suit your audience.
It’s not so much a talk, more a question and answer session. I’ll be joined by writers Brendan Murray and Kenneth Emson as well as Claudia West from the Arts Council, whose responsibility is public engagement and audiences.
So is there reluctance from writers taking on a commission, tied to a fear about losing their freedom?
I think there’s a kind of idealistic notion on a lot of new writing courses and at places like the Royal Court where they talk very much about nurturing the writer and about trying to serve the writer at all times. There comes a feeling sometimes that a commission is kind of a slightly filthy lucre, but talking to writers they will say you’ve got to have a mix. OK, there’s always the one play in the back of your mind that you want to write, and you want to be able to sell simply on its own merits, but most of the time you’re looking for commissions rather than writing the play that’s just in your back pocket but which you know never gets beyond the slush pile.
When commissioning for a specific audience do you think the writer needs to be from that community to be authentic?
No, I don’t, I mean we don’t we don’t only commission East Anglian writers in fact, Alastair Cording, who has been very successful for us, is Scottish. But again I think he’s very used to writing for a community.
Are there tougher commercial challenges for writing for a specific audience?
For us, some of the commercial challenges are helped by the fact that we are funded by the Arts Council to do some of this work. Basically, that money goes into getting the show on. I’d like to think that once the show is on the road that it pays its way. So we’re not doing anything so abstruse that it kind of needs subsidy while it’s actually touring. You still got to come up with stuff that is going to appeal to your audiences. Bigger audiences accrue on certain hot topics, but we don’t try and make every year the hot topic, otherwise we would be find ourselves a bit restricted.
In commissioned work is it important to have the writer involved in the rehearsal and production process?
Yes, but that’s more about it just being new work. If you’re commissioning then you want to have an engagement with the writer and to be talking to each other all along the way. It’s good to have writers in rehearsal for at least some of the time, although I have been known to say to the actors you know the writer is not God. There’s a tendency sometimes for actors to think that because the writer is there that the writer knows everything but actually the writer doesn’t know everything. I don’t mean they don’t know it, I mean the best productions are where the actors come up with things that the writer hasn’t even thought of.
A lot of the emerging writers support schemes tend to be targeted at the under 25 age group. Do you think that risks missing writers who only discover their voice later in life?
I think that’s very true and it’s kind of frustrating sometimes. I can kind of see why they do it because it’s easier to justify and a lot of the grant-making schemes that fund these things are targeted to youngsters. I think it’s also easier for them as there is a natural reaction to want to get to people before they get all of their bad habits and a certain sort of ingrained look at the world becomes too ingrained. But I think you do have to open these things up, but it becomes more and more difficult. There’s sometimes a tendency with older ‘new’ writers to come with ideas and stuff that they picked up on telly and it’s hard sometimes to get them thinking anew about something.
In the beginning, you mentioned the concept of being in the garret. What’s your advice for writers to get out and network?
There’s no doubt the best thing is just to go and see lots of theatre. That can be a problem sometimes for new writers, especially if they’re out in a rural area or they’re out in a small or even big town. Just to see the variety of stuff that they ought to be getting to see, to see people coping with problems or doing subjects that they wouldn’t have thought about. Even reading scripts is good, but that’s not easy. There are lots of scripts sold on the door as programmes for only a fiver, but as soon as you start looking in the bookshops they are about a tenner each. I think it’d be great if some of these scripts could have a wider dissemination.
Eastern Angles is based in Ipswich and HighTide is taking place just along the Suffolk coast. Why do you think that East Anglia is such a hotbed of creativity?
When we started Eastern Angles we realised there’s a gap in the market here. I think we’ve been successful partly because there is a sense in East Anglia of wanting something for itself and it is a recognizable region and often doesn’t get credit for being a recognizable region.
Actually most of the time it’s a problem for East Anglia because most of the kinds of writers groups that exist around the rest of the country tend to be in the big metropolitan centre and the East of England suffers from the fact that it doesn’t have one big metropolitan centre. You’ve got lots of different things happening and they don’t quite kind of add up together. I think in a way HighTide coming along has in sense provided the equivalent of what’s been happening in the metropolitan centres.
So is there a lack of joined up approach to new writing in the region?
There isn’t one obvious place to centre it. There isn’t one big successful theatre that’s so successful that it can then afford to spend time in the studio doing one-offs and giving people a chance. So the lack of capacity is always production really.
One of the other problems of the rise of interest in new writing is it has been more successful than anyone ever imagined. You have a massive amount of stuff being written and people being encouraged to go into this but the actual opportunities for full production are very small.
So is it possible for a writer to become a full-time playwright now?
One of our writers, who in a sense is a full-time playwright, actually spends most of his time doing treatments or running workshops or getting involved in development stuff. All the development work that’s going on is amazing but most people still need another job whether it’s teaching or a bit lecturing or something.
Getting Out Of The Garret will take place at the ninth HighTide Festival on 17 September 2015.
For more information visit www.hightide.org.uk