Joyce McMillan: in this age of rehearsed readings and micro-dramas, what price a finished, full-length play?

The thriving scene for rehearsed readings, workshop sessions and even complete short plays belies the dearth of opportunity for new talent to get a full-length commission

Gary McNair in Locker Room Talk at the Traverse
Gary McNair in Locker Room Talk at the Traverse

It’s hard to say what tipped me over into a mood of mild exasperation, bordering on concern. It might have been the news that the National Theatre of Scotland’s new, first-ever collaboration with the Manipulate Festival of visual theatre was going to produce not a full-length show, but an evening of tiny, five-minute tasters for possible future work, even shorter than the brief Snapshots sessions Manipulate presents each year.

Or it might have been the realisation that Gary McNair’s new show Locker Room Talk – a hugely topical reflection on Donald Trump’s language about women, presented at the Traverse last month – was being shown only as a work-in-progress, not up for review; although in fact, Locker Room Talk had every reason to present itself as a first draft, since it was dreamed up by McNair and Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin only on the morning after Trump’s election in November, when they met to discuss a completely different project.

Either way, though, I began to realise just how tantalising it is to be constantly attending, or hearing about, the huge numbers of rehearsed readings, workshop sessions and other tentative forms of performance that take place in Scottish theatre now, without ever knowing when, or whether, any of these plays will ever emerge as a fully-fledged evening of theatre. The Traverse itself runs a massive development programme, ranging from masterclasses and young writers’ scratch nights to the famous short Breakfast Plays performed script-in-hand during the Edinburgh Fringe. The Tron runs a Tron 100 playwright development programme, and a hugely successful series of rehearsed readings, under the title Page To Stage.

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    Then there’s the National Theatre of Scotland’s development work, including the latest NTS emerging artists project, Starter For 10. There are initiatives outside the central belt, in the Highlands and elsewhere. There’s the massive theatre phenomenon that is A Play, A Pie And A Pint, creating 35 productions of new plays a year – ten co-produced with the Traverse – but never running over the prescribed 55 minute lunchtime length; and at the centre of it all, there’s the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland, dedicated to supporting playwrights with mentoring and development programmes at every stage of their careers.

    And it’s certainly not the case that all this development activity is producing nothing. In a study commissioned last year by Playwright’s Studio Scotland and the Scottish Society of Playwrights, the leading theatre researcher Christine Hamilton carried out a survey of 129 playwrights based in Scotland, and noted that there had been 152 new play commissions in Scotland in the year 2014-15. Ninety-eight new plays by these writers were produced in Scotland in that year; and there were also 21 new plays produced outside Scotland.

    These figures suggest, in other words, that the huge reputation for new work built up by Scottish playwrights in the 1990s, and spearheaded by the work of David Greig, David Harrower and others, is still resulting in a thriving new play culture, and in major opportunities for Scottish-based writers – albeit at a pretty modest income level.

    Yet the survey also identified some problems in this apparently thriving scene, which match my own slight sense of unease. To put it briefly, there seem to be plenty of opportunities for playwrights at starter level, up to and including a short full production at A Play, A Pie And A Pint. And at the other end of the scale, both the Citizens’ Theatre and the Lyceum now have a healthy tradition of presenting new work by established Scottish writers on their main stages; the Lyceum will stage two major new plays, by Douglas Maxwell and Linda McLean, later this season.

    What seems to have gone missing, though, is the middle range of full-length productions of new work that should prepare playwrights for that big leap onto a main stage. A decline in real-terms funding at both the Tron and the Traverse is clearly partly responsible; former Traverse artistic director Philip Howard points out that while intense development work has been going on at the Traverse since the 1990s, it attracted less attention when the theatre had the resources to create more full productions. Some touring companies which once routinely produced new plays have disappeared, or scaled down; and the Lyceum’s artistic director, David Greig, feels that the combination of standstill grants and rising production costs has created a situation in which the risks of fully staging new work are increasingly high – particularly in smaller theatres with limited box office potential – and the rewards increasingly meagre. Audiences, in particular, actually seem to enjoy tentative theatre formats, perhaps because they allow them a sense of active involvement in the creative process that’s not available in film or television drama.

    Whatever the cause, though, last year’s report is fairly brutal in its predictions for the future of Scottish playwriting, if the question of this vanishing middle range of productions is not addressed. “The gaps which are emerging,” it says. [It will] “put at risk Scotland’s reputation as a place for playwrights, and will potentially lead to a smaller, narrower group of (ageing) playwrights, with no new talent coming through.”

    The news is not all bad, of course; and since the publication of the PSS/SSP report, the whole Scottish theatre scene is fully conscious of the problem, and has a strong collective sense of the need to tackle it.

    It remains to be seen, though, whether Scottish theatre can find the resources within itself to shift the emphasis of its work, and fill that gap; or whether a wider conversation is now needed with Creative Scotland, and Scottish society in general, about whether we want Scotland to remain an outstanding place for playwrights, or are willing to let that remarkable phase of our creative history, when a whole modern nation seemed to find its voice on stage, slip away into a fondly remembered past.