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1 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights

Commissioning new work

    A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights

Jonathan Meth

2 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights



    Foreword 3

Introduction 4

Working together 6

    Finding each other 12

    Good practice guidelines 15

    Copyright and contracts 22

    Sources of funding for commissioning and producing new work 25

    Marketing 31

    Publication of new plays and further development 34

Appendixes 37

    Appendix 1: Amateur theatre the wider context 38

    Appendix 2: Competitions 39

    Appendix 3: Festivals 40

    Appendix 4: BT Biennial 43

    Appendix 5: Models of playwright/amateur theatre collaboration 46

    Appendix 6: Regional and national playwrights’ organisations 51

    Appendix 7: Key websites for locating writers 58 Appendix 8: Key organisations 60

    Appendix 9: Commissioning and agreements 64 Appendix 10: Funding 67

    Appendix 11: Audience development 72

    Appendix 12: Publishers 75

    Further reading and other useful information 83 Acknowledgements 84

3 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights


    Theatre-goers are inspired by a great performance every night of the week. For some, the inspiration will stay with them forever. The experience can be even deeper for a person taking part in a play, as actor, lighting designer or writer. This is just as true for those who tread the boards after work, as for those who try to make a living from it.

    For an increasing number of playwrights, the distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ theatre is unimportant. They realise that amateur theatre offers the opportunity to get the play on the stage, often with fewer practical restrictions on the imagination.

    Working with an amateur company can give a playwright the chance to write different kinds of plays for larger casts and new audiences. At the same time, the commissioning of new work can meet a company’s specific needs and those of

    the community they are drawn from.

    I hope this practical guide will encourage playwrights and amateur theatre companies to work together more often and discover the great benefits this can bring to everyone involved.

Nicola Thorold

    Director of Theatre

    Arts Council England

4 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights


    The English amateur theatre sector has begun to broaden its repertoire in recent years to encompass working with contemporary playwrights commissioning,

    presenting and promoting new work and has had significant successes, from

    the point of view of audiences, playwrights and theatres. Several theatres have asked for more guidance and information on commissioning new work than was currently available, given this increasing desire to work with new playwrights. For their part, many playwrights are also keen to work more with the amateur sector, and see this as providing valuable career development and new writing challenges. Arts Council England is responding to this emerging demand by producing this guide, which gives advice and information on all aspects of commissioning new work. It is intended to be useful for both theatres wishing to work with new playwrights, and for playwrights themselves.

Specifically, the guide is aimed at:

    ; the amateur theatre company wishing to work with a writer

    ; an individual within an amateur theatre company who wishes to drive change ; the writer, new or experienced, who would like to work within amateur theatre

    Amateur theatre is a highly successful art form that brings benefits to both artists and communities. That it is evolving to encompass support for new writing is an exciting new development, which this guide aims to support and encourage. However, it is not intended to be prescriptive in any way: many amateur theatres prefer to work solely within the traditional repertoire and have much success doing so. For those within the sector, however, who do wish to initiate or consolidate this form of partnership working, and for writers wishing to pursue career development opportunities, it will provide a practical and valuable source of advice and information.

Playwrights and amateur companies working together

    First of all, why new plays?

    „What‟s wrong with another production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Ghost

    Train, The Importance of Being Earnest? Well, new plays are more successful.

    The evidence suggests that theatre boards who employ artistic directors with flair and imagination men and women for whom new writing is not a burden, or a gamble, or a chore, but the beating heart of their policy: for whom the word risk is applied to the content of the play and not the columns of a balance sheet are

    actually the most successful. Look at Richard Eyre‟s Nottingham Playhouse, Peter Cheeseman‟s early years at The New Vic in Stoke, Jude Kelly‟s West

    Yorkshire Playhouse, Bolton Octagon run by Andy Hay, Ayckbourn‟s place in Scarborough, Alan Dosser at the Liverpool Everyman, Contact Theatre under Richard Williams… The best seasons of the RSC have always been the ones

5 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights

    which matched Shakespeare play for play with robust new work by a living writer…

    All of those directors understand that a play is a practical blueprint for the stage and it is their job to translate the blueprint as accurately as possible into three dimensions. They acknowledge that a theatre work is the product of a singular vision that is the creation of a solitary mind. The way to make that creation work is to unlock the secrets in the mind that created it, in other words get under the skin of the writer: question, pester, quiz, challenge, argue with the writer. They have understood the notion that there are two elements to theatre: creation and interpretation and that both these elements have equal status.

    A theatre company cannot live without one or the other, but must have both. A theatre to these directors is not a museum and neither is it simply a palace of entertainment. A theatre, when it is successful, entertains, educates, celebrates, challenges, questions, terrifies, angers, pacifies the community. It grows from within that community and is not imposed upon it.‟

    Nick Darke, playwright, from a speech given to South West Arts, 1997.

    6 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights

Working together

Key points 6

    Why should an amateur company commission new work? 7

    Ways of bringing writers and companies together 8

Key points

    ; raise your profile

    ; work in new ways

    ; develop new audiences

    ; represent the contemporary ; get your work produced

    ; enter competitions

    ; find out about festivals ; partnerships create commissions ; playwrights can become producers ; actors can become writers

7 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights

Working together

Why should an amateur company commission new work?

    There are benefits to both amateur companies and playwrights in working together.

Benefits for the amateur company include the following:

Meeting the needs of the individual company

    It is possible to meet the company’s needs in a range of different contexts: for example space, if the company is based in a building that has particular challenges or duration, if the company wishes to enter a festival and the script must not exceed 50/55 minutes.

Raising the profile of a company or venue

    Working with a chosen playwright can bring kudos and media publicity to a company, helping to raise its profile both in the community and on the wider artistic circuit. If the play is published or produced elsewhere, the company is also credited as being the commissioning producer.

Commissioning for specific ages, gender and cast size

    Rather than searching for a script that will reflect the acting talent available, the company can work with a playwright to create one.

Working in new ways

    Working with a living writer presents creative opportunities to approach work differently. It provides an opportunity for experimentation.

Extending their members’ skills

    Through working with a professional writer, the company can benefit beyond the chance to produce a new play. Many writers are very happy to be involved in the process of working with the company to help develop talent and pass on expertise.

Developing new audiences

    Attracting new audiences can help the company grow.

No waiting for amateur rights to become available

    The company can avoid the frustration of waiting for amateur performance rights to be granted.

8 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights

Representing the contemporary

    Professional writers can create stories that have relevance both to the present time and the locale.

Reflecting diversity

    Commissioning a writer can be an excellent opportunity to extend the diversity of material with which the company engages and/or to reflect the diversity of the constitution of the community.

    Many of the benefits listed above are also benefits for the playwright. Benefits for writers also include:

Writers need commissions

    Even playwrights with significant track records need writing commissions. Writing for amateur companies can provide an immediate source of income for writers, and the plays written can become a source of future earnings, through both publication and performance by other companies amateur or professional.

    Writers are given opportunities to write different kinds of plays Whether it be the appeal of a specific community context or the attraction of a large cast, writers can create work that moves them further away from the frequent restrictions of writing for a maximum of six actors in a small space.

Writers have their work produced

    The goal of all writers is to have their work produced. Particularly for those writers also working in television and film, the reality is that scripts get written, but not always produced.

For an analysis of what is understood by the term ‘amateur sector’, see Appendix

    1: Amateur theatre the wider context.

Ways of bringing writers and companies together

    There are a variety of ways in which writers and amateur companies come together to create theatre. For those who have not already experimented with what works best for them, here are some brief examples to suggest areas for further investigation.


    Competitions are an important way in which new writing is accessed by the amateur sector. They can be national, regional or local and lead to development, production and/or publication. They set writers’ deadlines and provide a clear focus as well as a pathway into the amateur sector. The People’s Theatre Playwriting competition, for example, which leads to an annual production of a play by a new writer in the North East, has been important for the professional development of playwrights such as Peter Straughan.

9 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights

For further details, see Appendix 2: Competitions.


    Festivals act as a focus for amateur activity and also an incentive to reward new play production. Examples of umbrella bodies that oversee a large number of festivals include the All England Theatre Festivals, Association of Ulster Drama Festivals and National Drama Festivals Association.

For further details, see Appendix 3: Festivals.

National initiatives

    Occasionally, national initiatives, usually sponsored by one major body seeking to raise its profile, will work with the amateur sector to create multiple productions of a new play. Working with, for example, the Little Theatre Guild, at least 60 clubs took part in the BT Biennial play Sand Castles by Bob Larbey. Other writers involved with the scheme include John Godber and Debbie Isitt. As a successor project to the BT Biennial, The World Wildlife Fund commissioned Tudor Gates to write a comedy for Global Applause 2002.

For further details, see Appendix 4: BT Biennial.


    Commissions are often the best route to take if you want something tailor-made for your needs. This could be a commission for a youth theatre, for instance, or a commission undertaken as part of a broader involvement by the playwright, such as a residency.

Further illustrations can be found in Appendix 5: Models of playwright/amateur

    theatre collaboration.


    A residency can include the type of commission outlined above, but offers the company much more scope. The writer can be involved with the community for a longer period than it takes to script a play, and may offer a range of ancillary skills to support the work of the company, the community and emerging artists within it. At the same time, the writer is able to develop his or her own work.

Playwrights as producers

    As a challenge to the professional system that sees very few playwrights in charge of theatre companies (exceptions include Alan Ayckbourn, John Godber and David Lan), some playwrights opt to oversee production of their own plays

    and those of other writers by working with an amateur company.

10 Commissioning new work A good practice guide for amateur theatre companies and playwrights

    Cloud Nine is run by writer Peter Mortimer and is an amateur theatre company in the North East of England that performs new plays by regional writers. Llanymynach Amateur Drama Society is run by two writers, Neil Rhodes and Margaret Kynaston. The group produces approximately 10 new plays a year. Over the last 10 years, they have developed an audience that is not only supportive of new writing, but also committed and involved in critical debate following each production.

Actors as writers

    Just as in the professional theatre, actors often turn their hand to playwriting (from Shakespeare to Pinter and Ayckbourn). New plays can emerge as a result of personal contacts between the emerging writer and the company with which they have been acting.

Community theatre

    Not to be confused with the community play, the community theatre is usually a space/company that is set up to serve a particular community with a range of theatre-related activity. This may operate in tandem with a professional company.

A mixture of amateur and professional companies based in the same venue

    and working effectively together can produce very useful synergies, including

    providing opportunities for writers. Live Theatre in Newcastle, for example, specialises in new writing and has an education programme called Live Lines, which consists of a youth theatre, older people’s group and young writers’ group. These amateur groups regularly perform new plays. Another example is New Venture Theatre in Brighton, founded in 1947. It is a community theatre, committed to cultivating original work, and acts as a focus for a range of Brighton-based initiatives.

Community play

    The community play is usually large in scale and features a collaboration between professional artists and local people. Although frequently produced under the aegis of a professional company, there are examples from the amateur sector.

    Where a company has an association with a building (either their own or an arts centre) this can provide a useful springboard to apply for a commission or a residency.

    Castaway Community Theatre observed the 10-year anniversary of its existence with Lucy Gough’s new play Mapping the Soul, directed by David Blumfield. The

    play mapped the mind ‘from Genesis to the genome’.

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