Crucial Conversations are a series of discussions created by disabled artist Vici Wreford-Sinnott to provide spaces to discuss important issues for disabled artists. There is an absence of these disabled-led spaces and we’d like to see more of them. We acknowledge the work of other disabled artists and disabled-led organisations also having similar conversations – we’d love to be able to collaborate and unify our voices in a continued show of strength to bring about change. These conversations are beginnings, are not endings, are not definitive and are not exhaustive – there are many, many voices which need to be heard. It is an honour to have been joined by those who could make it along on these occasions but there is also more to be done.
This conversation – Disabled Playwrights’ Legacy in Print - Where Is It? - took place as the result of a twitter exchange last year between Vici Wreford-Sinnott and legendary playwright Mark Ravenhill.
Mark put a call out for plays he could recommend to a colleague, and Vici suggested ensuring that plays by disabled playwrights were added to the list. And then began the search for published disabled playwrights. And whilst we were able to pull together a small list of fantastic works after twitter call outs, the sheer volume of work which has been written, performed, and toured but remains unpublished and therefore without the same legacy as our peers, hit home.
Where are the published works young disabled people can see themselves reflected in, the plays which tell the stories of our lives, the authentic protagonists who excite, engage, taking us on either fantastical journeys or into gritty realities. And the ones which are published, do they all sit together somewhere as part of the canon, visible and celebrated?
This conversation aimed to begin examining why our work doesn’t get published, and what we want to do about it as a community of writers. There had been suggestions in advance of publishing retrospectives in anthology form, talking to publishers, creating a script depository so that the unpublished scripts are available to read and potentially be performed by others.
From the outset it was imp0ortant to be clear that this is a beginning, with none of those creating the space, in a position to resource a final outcome. We knew that actions may arise from the meeting but equally they may not. It was entirely dependent on who attended, what was discussed and whether people feel they have capacity to move things forward.
You can still get involved
This conversation is just a beginning and if you couldn’t make it along to the session it doesn’t mean you can’t contribute or get involved. You are invited to contribute responses to the questions asked during the zoom. There is more information on this here
Playwrights in Attendance
Huge thanks to the incredible playwrights who came along to share their views and experiences - Tanya Akrofi, Leanna Benjamin, Paula Brett, Laurence Clark, Robbie Curran, Daneka Etchells, Amy Evans, Matthew Gabrielli, Cheryl Martin, Ali McLean, JulieMc McNamara, Josh Merrit, Yaz Nin, Tom Ryalls, Fatima Serghini, Simon Startin, Jess Thom, Tom Wentworth, and Naomi Westerman.
(No-one knowlingly left off this list and further names to be added as other contributions come in!)
Introduction to the meeting
Welcoming people to the meeting were Vici Wreford-Sinnott (writer, director, AD Little Cog) and Mark Ravenhill (playwright, AD King’s Head Theatre). Vici gave an overview of the meeting aims, what would happen and provided access information. She thanked Mark Ravenhill for his support of the conversation and introduced him.
Mark Ravenhill, Playwright and Artistic Director and Joint CEO of The King’s Head Theatre
Mark said it was an honour to have been invited to co-host and was pleased to have been able to support it with setting it up through the King’s Head Team. He thanked the team for their work. Mark talked about his early career as a playwright, how his very first couple of plays weren’t published and that he’s probably glad of that fact, feeling better about more developed works being published. Methuen published his first major play Shopping and Fucking and have published all plays since. Musicals and operas are different. He doesn’t doubt the transformative impact on a career that publishing can have and is aware that, while all publishers have slightly different criteria, publication is usually attached to a production and that most sales take place during the run of the play. The good news about this country is that more plays are published here than any other country and has been the case for about 35 years. The life and legacy of your play is totally transformed when your play is published, bookshops, libraries, schools, and Vici is spot on to see that the life of unpublished work is totally different. I’m aware that being published has made awareness of my work very different. Mark said that he was mainly here to listen and learn and looked forward to hearing the discussion.
We introduced our guests Matt Applewhite from Nick Hern Books and Katherine Murphy from Playography, a digital online resource, at the Irish Theatre Institute. They were here to give us an overview of their work and offer possible thoughts and reflections on the conversations. All of our guests’ work has real relevance to our conversation.
Matt Applewhite – Managing Director and Commissioning Editor, Nick Hern Books.
Matt started by thanking everyone for the invitation to come along to the conversation and acknowledged what a challenging few years we have all had. He said he was keen to listen to everyone’s thoughts and added that it feels like a time of opportunities for change on issues which affect the industry.
NHB was established 34 years ago and have published about 1000 plays which are in print at the moment, and books about theatre written by and for practitioners. In a good year, NHB publish 80 to 100 plays. The main criteria is that the play is getting a professional production (a run of minimum 3 or 4 weeks). This is because it feels that partly through development, rehearsals and production the play is being activated by actors, directors, designers etc and so it becomes something that is ready to commit to the published page. With a published play, NHB is looking to create something to be read, performed and done so in quantities that make it feasible for them, given that play sales are small.
Matt noted that a lot of things are trying to be balanced - artistic merit, long-term list building, a responsibility in building a canon of work. It means to some extent publishing is fairly reactive and reflective of what is on the stage. NHB hopes not to carry an unconscious bias about work being performed and over the last few years, there has been a focus on voices that have been marginalised. Theatres have also become more diverse.
Matt said that they feel the responsibility to shape what dramatic work can be. And have had various discussions about an anthology of deaf and disabled writers and he mentioned publication of Crip Tales and the fact that Tom Wentworth, one of the writers, was present at this conversation. Matt said that there is more to do, work to be done and that he was looking forward to hearing all ideas from the conversation.
Katherine Murphy - Playography Editor, Irish Theatre Institute
Katherine thanked everyone for the invitation Vici and Mark for organising the event and gave an overview of how Playography works. It was developed and is managed by the Irish Theatre Institute and was set up around 20 years ago and is an online searchable dash database with two strands: Irish plays written and produced in English language and plays which are written and produced in Irish language. Each play contains name of playwright, synopsis, cast size and there are currently over 4,300 entries.
Information is taken from the programme of opening night to keep the database consistent. Where this is not possible, information is taken from other sources such as a publisher or press cuttings etc.
Pieces are gathered by a team of two who do the day to day running of the database. Then there is oversight from a board of co-directors, an expert advisory panel which engages with topics like what gets included on the data base and they help to consider whether a play is regarded as ‘professional’ and look at how to include digital theatre. The Advisory Panel changes every 5 years and tends to have playwrights, directors or academics on the panel. The parameters of the model and its management were set up 20 years ago.
Digital e-plays are available for sale, with over 120 plays included. Where authors haven’t been published in traditional way, the work is available in a PDF and can be purchased for around 20Euro with 11.5E going to the playwright. This is a flagship program of the Irish Theatre Institute. The foundation of the project is to ensure plays can be discovered in the future, read and performed again. The database provides information about where to purchase a play (sometimes this is done via an email to a playwright or company), information about rights (both professional and amateur) and to allow for future performance opportunities.
Katherine concluded by saying that, as we might guess, there are challenges in maintaining an extensive online play depository. The organisation has a lot to do in the way of accessibility and this discussion is happening already so they are looking forward to more discussion around this.
We had 8 break out rooms considering four questions during the meeting, of which we have a longer set of notes. Each group was asked to bring three main points back to the collective.
Question 1 - Given the low numbers of published works by disabled playwrights compared to what both what we know has been produced and what has been published by non-disabled peers, what do you think is behind this? What is our experience of submitting/not submitting work? Have we submitted our work and's not been accepted or have we not submitted work because we didn't think it was worth it?
Question 2 - For context, sometimes as playwrights, we work in different worlds of theatre – independently with a self-created company of colleagues, project funded perhaps, sometimes writing in isolation with a view to submitting to venues, companies and competitions, or we may have been commissioned by an established venues or company. Are we being supported to write – how and by who? And where do we get good critical feedback on the work?
Question 3 - Are there suggestions we could make to publishers about the unpublished body of work that already exists?
1. Conventional scripts aren’t always the best format – often we write performance texts, or challenge and push form.
2. We need informed disabled leadership in the publishing houses – people who get the value and relevance of work which has been missing. It would need really good marketing but could be done.
3. Photographs/ scripts/ plans/ recordings need to be disabled artist led
Question 4 - What other methods are there of raising the profile of the work and sharing it? A centralised library of published works? Pros and cons of a script depository for access to unpublished scripts.
We veered between the two questions.
Conclusion to the meeting
Matt Applewhite’s Concluding Comments and Advice.
“It's just been really fascinating and fantastic, and a really important conversation. I hope it's just the start of it. As you said right at the start, Vici, 90 minutes was not going to seem like long enough time and it hasn't.
I would just say that, you know, I was hearing about the barriers that there are to publishing which I would very much like to feel that we can play our part in dismantling. I mean I can only speak for ourselves, and we have a long way to go. I know that we're sometimes slow, with the best will in the world, we can't publish everything we get sent.
We don't go out and solicit scripts often enough, but we do want to assure everyone here, and beyond, when you digest all the information from this meeting, that we want to read and respond to as much work as we possibly can. We need that to be in advance of the production, so that we can consider a publication alongside, but I was really interested by the ideas about ways we should think differently and market our work differently. And the idea that the published text isn't necessarily the best format for all sorts of work.
There's just been so much food for thought for this which I'm going to take back to the team. Just to reiterate my door is always open – my email can be circulated to everyone when we send out notes and I’m happy for people to be able to contact me by email or by Zoom or phone or whatever means of communication is best for you. But finally, please keep writing. We need your stories, we need your voices. And thank you very much for everyone's contribution for having me along. Thank you.”
Katherine Murphy’s Concluding Comments and Advice.
“I'd just respond to a few bits and pieces in relation to a digital repository - the first was about the comment of not making the work available for free, which I totally and utterly understand and am on board with. And the copyright question, to address that from how it works at Playography. The information that's available online on Playography is only that kind of basic information available when you're advertising a play, with the addition of for example, extra members of the technical team, etc, and the information about the performance dates. There's no other copyrighted immaterial publicly available online. You have to purchase any play in order to physically get it and when you get an e-play there is a note about copyright included on every single script that goes out.
In terms of subsidy, I absolutely think that is something worth exploring. I think in terms of developing a resource - a phased approach is probably best. I'm brought to mind of that old saying ‘how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time’. We broke down essentially the last 100 years into three phases, [and this was of all playwriting in the Republic of Ireland] - the first phase of research which covered about 50 years or so did take two and a half years to complete. So realistic time frames are crucial. The other thing is about the script possibly not always being the best model and the approach for published work is really interesting to include texts where you might find that otherwise they get lost in a moment in time. To preserve them.
And the last thing I want to say and it's something I didn’t mention at the start but probably should have, is that one thing that in the founding of Playography, is that it's enabled to us look numerically at the canon and we have produced a number of findings reports now based on this, on things like writing in the Irish language, things like theatre for young audiences - one on disability is largely overdue and we will need to look ourselves at how we go forward with that. But I suppose it’s just to think about if you are looking back to kind of look forward, as it were, about measurement and about those figures, because when you have the facts and figures in front of you, it makes your case a lot stronger, and we have found that in the past. So that’s just a quick response anyway to a lot of great points raised and thank you so much for having me here today. I have really, really enjoyed hearing all of this and feel very invigorated going forward, so thank you.”
Taking Things Forward
It might be a good idea to arrange another couple of meetings to discuss if there is a will to move things forward, discussing main themes of an exploratory phase and flag up some potential partners. With a view to a very tangible outcome and avoiding becoming an ongoing series of talking shops. We’d be mindful of everyone’s time and capacity. Please confirm to email@example.com if you’d like to attend a further chat.
Acknowledgements – specials thanks again to all the playwrights, and to Mark, Matt and Katherine.
The conversation took place online on 13 March supported by Little Cog, King’s Head Theatre and ARC Stockton. Thank you to Arts Council England the funding from which covered access costs for the meeting.