December 11, 2009

Who should develop plays and playwrights?

John Smythe      posted 1 Dec 2009, 12:28 PM / edited 1 Dec 2009, 12:42 PM

Recently Oliver Driver – in an excellent interview with Lynn Freeman on Arts on Sunday about Silo’s plans – suggested theatres should take over responsibility for developing homegrown plays and playwrights, in place of Playmarket.

To hear the full interview go to and click on Boutique Theatre.  See also the news item on Theatreview.

Last Sunday Mark Amery, the outgoing director of Playmarket, responded. This interview begins with the relevant comments from Oliver.  Go to and click on Playmarket.

I sent the following email, which Lynn read out a little later in the show:

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Bravo to Mark Amery – I concur with all he says.

I am also delighted that Silo Theatre wants to take a development role but I am perturbed that they want to take funding away from Playmarket in order to achieve it. This is an echo of the lobbying that saw Downstage funding drastically cut.

What is needed is more arts funding that finds its way to the front line for the core purpose of producing NZ work.

If theatres took on script and production development responsibilities for work they felt suited their target audiences, that would free Playmarket up to support writers to get their work ready to offer to a range of appropriate theatres.

It does not have to be either / or – we need the freedoms and flexibilities of both models.

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What do others think?

Stuart Grant       posted 1 Dec 2009, 02:09 PM / edited 1 Dec 2009, 02:21 PM

We contract many playwrights, the majority of whom receive (very good) agency support from Playmarket. This is a useful support organisation for its members. As a producing theatre company, we invest a good deal in the development process of new works. This process may begin with an approach to a writer or a discussion with a range of artists around a collaboration concept. Alternatively, the process could begin with our acceptance of a first draft script.

In all cases, the commissioned development is undertaken on a very robust, staged cycle over 2-3 years, involving a work-specific artistic assessment panel and a workshopping process which at its second stage involves a range of audiences. By the time a work goes to a performance season, it has received considerable development investment.

The current model seems to be that Playmarket supports the writer to the point of having a work of sufficient quality to sell as a viable script, where the Theatre (Company, Collective etc) then picks up the mantle and produces the work. This (forgive the pun) siloed approach to theatremaking is very linear and restricting. It seems far more constructive to work together to utilise the expertise that’s out there to grow our sector.

There is room for Playmarket to be involved with this process, particularly with its access to dramaturgical expertise, but unless Playmarket becomes an investing agent, at the end of the day, it is the producer taking all the risk, and literally paying for the privilege of managing the process. If we focus on the outcomes of actually producing (for audiences) the best new works we can, then the platform becomes less adversarial and more collaborative. To this end, producers should be encouraged to access and effectively utilise all of the resources available to them. I would suggest the following:

    Once a client has been commissioned, or interest is expressed in a client script, Playmarket work with the producer to mutually agree dramaturgical support (ie, they have funding available to help cover producers’ dramaturgical costs, and artistic assessment processes)

    For new works, Playmarket and producers negotiate and develop a Producer Royalty Agreement which resides with the work (either in perpetuity or for a fixed period of time)

    CNZ explores a parallel funding model where producers can access a development funding pool for a work concept (based on CNZ’s own criteria) while working with agencies (Playmarket) and artists to find the right creative team to realise the work

This perspective not new or particularly unique, but it may aid organisations to recognise that they don’t need to be all things, and that a little specialisation goes a long way, if we are willing to share it…..

Jean Betts            posted 7 Dec 2009, 12:33 PM / edited 7 Dec 2009, 12:58 PM

This might be a good time to emphasise the point that Playmarket represents the interests of playwrights first, not theatres or producers.  It would be great if there were no conflict, but there often is – the plays the playwrights want to write frequently don’t tally with the plays the theatres say or think they want.

An important part of Playmarket’s job is to encourage writers to be true to themselves, and not contort their work to fit some imagined set of industry rules – and every theatre and producer has a different set of these. If existing theatres won’t adapt to present the work the writers are writing, then other venues emerge which will; a natural, exciting process, to be encouraged.

It’s great to see theatres supporting development of new scripts, but too often their workshops are, understandably, theatre-driven, director-driven, production ‘concept’ driven – even actor-driven;  I have seen far too many distressing examples of playwrights’ wishes being completely ignored, and even of the playwright being banished from the process entirely. 

Too often the ‘workshop’ culture, giving equal weight to the input of all participants (the legacy of its cheerful 1970s ‘collective’ philosophy) completely undermines the playwright’s rightful authority over their work. Everyone else has great fun but the playwright can be left distraught – but in their desperation to get their work staged, biting their lips and enduring all manner of insult.

Playmarket’s script support on the other hand is entirely playwright-driven, and this is what makes it so extremely valuable; the only agenda is to ensure that the playwright feels they are being helped to write the play they set out to write. We offer advice and make suggestions of course, but the playwright drives the choice of director, cast and crew, and the ‘culture’ of the reading/workshop – i.e. how it’s managed, whether there is discussion or ‘feedback’, whether there is an invited audience. Nothing is imposed.  Playwrights are indicating that a couple of private readings, and/or maybe a few hours here and there chatting with a script advisor (of their choice) is the most useful sort of support we can offer. 

What’s more it can be arranged very quickly, within a day of the request, if necessary – we are not fans of ‘development hell’!  Many of NZ’s best scripts go through no development process at all –  other than a good rehearsal period and premiere production – and I worry sometimes that playwrights are being encouraged to think that lengthy ‘development’ is a necessary stage of playwriting, when it isn’t at all.  Getting that first production is the best development of all.

John Smythe      posted 11 Dec 2009, 10:18 AM

This is worth a look: PLAYMARKET CLIENT SURVEY 2008-09: REPORT AUGUST 2009 

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