“It’s theatre. That most marginal, that most negligible of art forms.”
SIMON STEPHENS: Key note speech held at The Royal Danish Theatre February 25th, 2020
Thank you Jokum and thank you all for inviting me to speak to you today.
It means a great deal to be invited to Copenhagen. I love this city. In my capacity as a Visiting Professor at the DDSKS I have visited here and Aarhus many times and fallen in love with the places and the people here and it is a great honour to be invited back.
And an even greater honour to open your conference. I love theatre makers. I love playwrights especially. I think we share certain characteristics. We share certain ironies or perspectives. Our humour is often as dark as our coffee and the shadows under our eyes. I feel like I am amongst my own people.
It feels a particularly important time for British artists to be travelling to Europe and sharing practise with our European contemporaries. The recent decision made by the British Government to leave the European Union seemed to be emblematic of something far more than an impulse to renegotiate financial trade agreements. I think very few people who voted in the referendum that led to that decision, on either side of the vote, considered or even really understood the vicissitudes of those trade agreements. It felt like a gesture of defiance made by people who had their sense of economic and social dislocation preyed on by a small group of people keen to deregulate the financial markets. And in so doing broke the hearts of a lot of people who cherish the histories and cultures of this remarkable continent.
But Britain remains a European country. As European and Norway and Switzerland. As European as any country in the continent and if that Europeanness might not be manifested in the trade agreements we make then it feels even more important to manifest it in the conversations that we have and the culture that we share.
In that sense being invited here means a great deal.
I feel like I should l tell you a few things about myself.
I’m Simon Stephens. Hello.
I’ve been writing for theatre since I was 17. Which astonishingly to me is 32 years ago.
I wrote my first play after being in a school production of the classic English animal based musical Wind in the Willows as a 16-year-old. I was playing the part of the Third Ferret in the chorus. This was a none speaking role. It was also kind of a non-singing role. Basically, it involved standing on stage at the back in a jumper. But I loved it completely. I loved it because of the communal nature of the school production. For once at my school all conventional hierarchies disappeared and regardless of whether you were a student or a teacher or a caretaker or a parent everybody was working together to make a show. That spirit of collaboration and that lack of hierarchy still defines the best theatrical work in my working life now. Realising that if I had been good at acting in plays, I would probably have been cast in a more important role than Third Ferret and having loved the imaginative exploration of writing all my life, I decided to write my first play.
I committed more fully to writing plays when I went to university. I went to York University and studied History and at York got involved in the Student Drama Society and wrote plays for a tiny 40 seat theatre called the Drama Barn. Which was precisely that. An old barn in the University grounds. It is one of the most important theatres in my working life. I wrote four plays that were produced there and took two of them to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and by the time that festival had ended the idea of NOT being a playwright and not making my life imagining stories for audiences to engage in and actors to commit to was almost unthinkable to me. I would have been so disappointed with myself! I very much didn’t want my life to be defined by disappointment and so I committed to being a playwright.
I spent five years working in a series of jobs in Edinburgh and London to pay the rent while I tried to do this. I worked as a door to door salesman, a DJ in a mobile disco company; a server in a café; a bar manager and schoolteacher before I was able to make any money at all from writing for theatre. But in that time, I wrote four more plays and staged two of them. Often to audiences of about four. And often one of those four would walk out. Not because they were shocked but because they were bored and had better things to do. I never studied playwriting in any academic sense, but I think that in those four years I learned about how to get those people to stay. I began to think about learning my craft.
I wrote BLUEBIRD, my first professionally produced play, in 1997 and it was staged at the Royal Court Theatre 1998. I wrote it when I was a bartender and it was staged when I was a schoolteacher. Since then I have written 31 other plays that have been produced in more than thirty countries and translated into more than 15 languages and published all over the world.
I’ve been Artistic Associates at the Royal Court and the Lyric Hammersmith; I’m a Fellow at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama; a Visiting professor at DDSKS and a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University. I have written about nine screenplays that haven’t been produced. I have three kids. I also own a dog. The dog might be the best bit. I could talk a lot about the dog.
But Jokum asked me not to. Instead he asked me to talk about something quite specific.
He asked me to talk about the cultural importance of drama and the cultural context in which drama is made and the conditions of work that allow dramatists to thrive and the future of those conditions with a view of galvanising the theatre culture in Denmark.
I have decided that to try and do that would be absurd. It would be absurdly arrogant and based on the absurd assumption that I understand the slightest thing about those cultures or conditions or contexts in my own country let alone be able to advise you on yours.
Sorry Jokum. So, I will instead talk about my dog.
No, I won’t.
But what I will do, rather than making generalised assessments of either theatre culture, is talk about some quite specific experiences. Four quite specific experiences that I have had. Four things that happened to me, all of them as it happens at the start of my working life, without which I wouldn’t have made the work that I’ve made. And if there is anything that it would help you to extrapolate from those experiences over the course of your conference then I am very, very happy for you to do so.
Three of these four moments took place in the Royal Court Theatre.
The Royal Court is the theatre that has most defined my sense of self. I will talk of it often in this lecture. It has been, I would argue, the most important theatre for new plays anywhere in the world for the past sixty-five years. The list of playwrights whose work has premiered there, or whose working lives have started there is simply unparalleled. From John Osbourne and Edward Bond and Wole Soyinka and Athol Fugard to Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill and Alistair MacDowell and Alice Birch. It is impossible to understand British playwriting, and I would argue world playwriting, without understanding the Royal Court.
The first moment I would like to talk about took place on the opening night of Bluebird as part of the Young Writers Festival at Royal Court in 1998 when the then Artistic Director, Ian Rickson, asked me if he could commission a new play from me.
I have to say that at the time of Ian’s offer I didn’t really know what that word meant and I was rather taken aback when he suggested that he would pay me two thousand pounds on the understanding that when I wrote my next play I showed it to him before I showed it to anybody else. And that I wouldn’t need to give the money back if he thought the play was shit.
It was, at the time, the largest cheque I’d ever received. I was a schoolteacher. My first child was in his first year of life. It was a hard play to write. I would write it every night for twenty or so minutes before I went to bed.
There are maybe two things about the moment that lead me to think that it was a moment that defined my working life. It was as important to me as it was astonishing to be paid and, fundamentally, for the payment of that commission to be structured in the way that it was. I was paid two thousand pounds in advance of writing the play. Two thousand pounds on delivery of the play. A thousand pounds if the play was accepted and a thousand pounds, recoupable against box office returns, on the play’s first day of rehearsal.
In order to structure a commission in that way, the theatre was dependent on state subsidy. The Royal Court couldn’t have been sustained without governmental support from the national government through the Arts Council and local government too.
I think it is true in the history of the arts that no artistic culture has thrived by commercial revenue, by box office takings, alone. It has depended on the patronage either of individual patrons or in British Theatre since the war, on the support of the state.
This support meant that the Court could structure a commission as an act of faith. Notice the smallest part of my advance was based on the play going into rehearsal. It also allowed the theatre to make an even greater act of faith. They had the faith to simply allow me to write my next play.
They didn’t prescribe subject. They didn’t prescribe perspective or action or image or character or actor or number of actors or tone or gesture. They just encouraged me to define and refine my own perspective and write the play that I most wished I could see on that stage without fear of losing out on my advance.
That is not only an act predicated on a level of state support that is impressive but based on a faith that has ran in the metabolism of that theatre for sixty-five years. It is based on the faith that perhaps the playwright unbound from the artistic or ideological agendas of others, of producers or directors or dramaturgs, just might have the capacity to make something remarkable. It is not the only way to make great playwriting. But the Court’s impact on playwriting is, I maintain, unique. This impact I would argue is a result of that faith as much as of that subsidy.
It took me fourteen months to write my first Court commission in between bathing and playing with my eldest son and marking books and planning lessons. It was a play called CHRISTMAS and three weeks after the theatre received the play they rejected it.
They thought it was structurally inchoate. They thought it was overly familiar. It was a bruising moment. It was also central to the second moment I want to talk about on my list. Three weeks later Ian rang me at home. He asked me to come into the theatre three days later after school. He had something he wanted to ask me. He didn’t want to tell me what it was. He rang back twenty minutes later telling me he had changed his mind. He wanted me to be the Resident Dramatist at the Court the following year. This would mean that I could leave my job. I could leave teaching. I could spend more time with my children. I could spend more time in the theatre.
I would be welcomed into the theatre every day; I could come to the Artistic Programming Meetings. I would be given three plays a week to read and asked to advise Ian as to whether he should produce those plays or not. I could attend other writers’ rehearsals. I could get free tickets to opening nights.
Of course the residency was predicated on significant state subsidy but I would draw your attention to a few other characteristics that define that theatre. If Artistic Programming Meetings are to consider five or six new plays a week then the theatre running those meetings needs to accept and handle unsolicitedscripts. I understand that the Court receives more than two thousand unsolicited scripts every year. This is of course an administrative challenge, but it is one based on the assumption that it is maybe the playwright as much as it is any other theatre worker that might redefine our dramatic world and that perhaps the most exciting playwrights are the ones the theatre haven’t been found yet.
It was, crucially I think, a residency offered to me after I had written a play that the theatre rejected. In order to do this the theatre needs to be funded to commission more plays than it can possibly produce. The state funder needs to commit not to success but to the possibility of nurturing or developing artists. And the theatre needs to make and reiterate the argument for that funding over and over and over again.
The theatre too needs to have faith not in a successful playwright but in a playwright with potential. If theatres demand success from their artists all they will be left with is nervous artists. The Royal Court, on the other hand, has enshrined the right for artists to fail in its metabolism throughout its history. I am not here arguing that one position in relation to success is innately better than another. But only one theatre I know of in the world has the legacy of playwriting that the Court has, and it is the theatre which celebrates risk and failure.
It was also residency based on the idea that playwrights thrive when they are at the heart of working theatres; when they are in meetings advising programming; when they hang out with and eat lunch with and come to understand the work of lighting designers, sound designers, stage managers, front of house staff. Rather than living in garrotted rooms or ivory towers, they are working people at the heart of a working industry.
In Britain, this idea is at fundamental to the playwrights contract when a play goes into production. In British theatre it is often a contractual agreement that the playwright will have veto over the director not the other way around. It is in the contract that the playwright is not only allowed to attend rehearsals but invited to and even paid to. At the Royal Court the playwright is also paid a rehearsal attendance even when she doesn’t attend if she and her director agree stepping away is a creatively nourishing thing to do but the playwright still needs paying.
I could not have written the plays that I’ve written if I had been kept away from rehearsal rooms or encouraged to deliver plays to theatres and then bugger off and leave them alone. I love the rehearsal room and write for it. I love directors and write for them. I love actors and write for them. I think I am a good person to have in a rehearsal room. I’m avuncular and grateful and I make the tea and bring in biscuits and buy drinks and help make sense of my plays in the manner of a creative explorer rather than insisting on interpretive fidelity in the manner of a poet. Without the experience of being in the room, not as something to be feared or somebody who might be nervous or precious about their art but as an ally, a colleague to be collaborated with I couldn’t have learned that.
It was at the residency that I came to work closely with two key figures in my working life. These encounters are the third experience I would ask you to consider. The playwright Stephen Jeffreys was the Associate Playwright at the Court for twelve years. Graham Whybrow was the Literary Manager. They read my plays with incision and clarity. They pushed and provoked me. They gave me approaches to playwriting and they gave me plays to read. But they never told me what to write, ever. They never told me what perspective to take on my world or my work or my form. They intuited what I was trying to achieve in the tectonics of my plays and equipped and inspired me to find the clearest way of realising that achievement. My residency was based on their critical thinking. Thinking that encourages and provokes and galvanizes but never corrects. This definition is something I would suggest vis worth at least considering.
The fourth moment from my working life I want to talk about was the moment in 2001 when the director Marianne Elliott came to see my play HERONS at the Royal Court and asked me to write a play for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. She loved HERONS and bounded up to me afterwards and told me to write her a play like that. But make it EPIC!
To be honest I didn’t really know what she was talking about. But I did know that the Exchange was not a thirty-seat drama barn like the Drama Barn at York or even a ninety-seat studio like the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. It was and is an 800 seat Theatre in the heart of Manchester. 800 seats! The Royal Exchange commissioned me at a time when I’d written one and a half professional plays. I knew nothing about my craft or the mechanics of how plays work and they were giving me the keys to that room.
I did my best to figure out how it was possible to write something that was bothsubstantial in size and nuanced like HERONS and so I expanded the timeline of the play and wrote a play that takes place over thirteen years. I’d never written a play with a timescale longer than five days before.
If I hadn’t been allowed to write for a theatre of that size, I don’t think I would have allowed my imagination to be so fearless. I think I may have continued to write intimate plays for studio spaces. Marianne’s provocation was a gesture based on the idea that even beginning writers might be capable of making such a leap. The play that I wrote for them, PORT has been produced throughout the world now. In 2012 it was revived in the thousand-seat Lyttleton at the National and continues to be produced some twenty years later.
I have visited countries and spoken to producers who have bemoaned the fact that their nation’s playwrights only ever write small studio plays, without the ambition or scale of British playwrights. As though it was in our genetics or our water supply! It’s really, really not. If theatres don’t have faith in their playwrights to dare to write with scale and imagination, then they WON’T write with scale of imagination. How can you blame the playwright for only writing studio plays when the only space you allow them to write for is the studio? If you allow them to write for bigger spaces, they might just be able to and they might write work that lives for decades rather than months.
It is also key that the play opened in Manchester.
London has dominated English playwriting for sixty years and in London there are four theatres exclusively committed to new plays and the most important touring theatre for new writing is based there. But over the past forty years especially there has developed a vibrant commitment from many theatres throughout the country to stage world premieres. Often, although not exclusively by local writers, considering questions perhaps of local resonance. I opened seven plays in Manchester. I also open worked in Birmingham and Sheffield and Newcastle and Bath and have played plays throughout the country. When I started my career there was a sense that only London audiences were able to commit to going to see new plays. But the continued presence of new plays by new writers on theatre programmes throughout the country has led to an audience that is less afraid of them. As unafraid as they would be of new stories by new artists in the cinema and on television.
Britain sometimes seems to me to be an entirely broken country. I would never lay claim to Britain being an exceptional place. We do few things right. We’re good at making stand-up comedians. We apparently make great gardeners and we have a tradition of playwriting that stems back five hundred years and has been the most energetic in the world over the past sixty. I think Denmark as a country can learn very little from Britain but if you people here in this room are interested in nurturing and nourishing your own playwriting culture, and I gather that this is kind of the gig here, then there may be one or two things in these four moments from my working life that are worth considering.
I have to confess that I spent some time on the morning I wrote this lecture wondering to myself why on earth any of this mattered. Why should it matter to me, or indeed to anybody not least the Producers, Managers, Directors and Cultural Politicians of Denmark, whether or not Danish theatre manages to re-imagine its relationship the playwright or the playwright is empowered in a Danish context?
It’s theatre. That most marginal, that most negligible of art forms.
In considering this question I took solace from two thinkers far more nuanced and impressive than I am.
I was fortunate enough over recent years to come to know the great English playwright Edward Bond. He spoke to me about the importance of the work of making theatre. He said to me that it’s no coincidence that the culture that first gave us Law and Democracy is also the culture that first gave us drama. What the ancient Greeks realised, he said to me, was that democracy and law, however fundamental to human government, necessarily cannot incorporate contradiction nor uncertainty. Something can’t be a bit illegal. We can’t almost vote. But to be human is to be uncertain and is to be contradictory. The Greeks realised that there needed to be a public space in which strangers could sit next to one another and engage in the public interrogation of the uncertainty and contradiction of what it is to be alive. And that this space was the theatre. Drama, the theatre, defines what it is to live in a democracy.
Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli Historian wrote something in his book Sapiens that inspires me to this day. He was talking about the difference between Human beings and other animals. He noticed that no animal other than the human being can survive in groups of more than 150. Wolves can’t. Lions can’t. Few birds flock in such numbers. But the human animal lives in groups of numbers far greater. Here tonight we make a group of a hundred or more. Copenhagen is a group of six hundred thousand. Denmark is a group of nearly six million. Europe is a group of seven hundred and forty million.
How can we do this? Well he suggests it is through our capacity to believe in things that we can’t see.
Our capacity to believe in stories. We tell each other the story of Copenhagen and it defines the place. Of Denmark. Of Europe. Of our world. Of what it is to be alive in the twenty first century.
Stories aren’t a colourful adjunct to the human experience, a diversion, a distraction. They are the essence of what it is to be human. We are defined by the stories we tell.
The work of the dramatist is to tell and re-tell and refine those stories.
It strikes me, that the conditions in which we create those stories, are the conditions in which the human animal defines itself. When those conditions are limited then the stories can go askew. The story of Europe can be skewed and hijacked by corrupt storytellers. The stories of our planet. We’re seeing it happen in the East of Europe, in Brazil, in the United States. The stories can fall into the hands of the liars.
We need to fight and kick and plead and defy to tell our stories in the best possible conditions. Conditions that are supportive and collaborative and human and that allow us to properly explore uncertainty and contradiction, truth, fearlessness and honesty.
We need to do this not just because it makes lives easier for playwrights, or makes better playwrights, or makes better plays or makes better theatre. But because it makes better democracy and makes better humanness.
When Edward Bond made that point about a thriving dramatic culture being imperative for a thriving democracy it was the summer of 2012. He suggested to me that summer that when drama fails then democracy will fail too.
I remember thinking I liked his passion, but it was 2012! London has just had the Olympics. Obama was at the start of his second term. The Paris Treaty was being drawn up. The world wasn’t perfect, and I valued a vibrant theatre but surely to suggest that democracy itself was in peril if we didn’t take our responsibilities as dramatists seriously was hyperbolic.
Its 2020. Being a dramatist that believes ideas are best forms in the words that are left unspoken I won’t tell you what I make of Edward’s fears for the future of democracy now.
Instead I wish you a quite splendid conference and hope you have a moment to reflect on the importance of the work you will do here today.
SIMON STEPHENS er britisk dramatiker (f. 1971) har været tilknyttet Royal Court i en årrække og opføres over hele Europa.