In this article, Jane Woddis, writer of Acting on Cultural Policy: Arts Practitioners, Policy-making and Civil Society (Palgrave) shares her thoughts on Playwrights and Policy.
Back in the 1990s, I was combining work as a theatre administrator with studying and researching in the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at Warwick University. With the benefit of these two perspectives, I started to wonder about the gap I saw between, on the one hand, my experiences of taking part in various Arts Council and local government consultations and, on the other, the academic literature I was reading which seemed to ignore or downgrade the idea of arts practitioners having any effective involvement in policy. I embarked on a PhD to explore what seemed to me then (and still does now) to be an essential question about policy-making. At the heart of my research was a case-study of playwriting policy in England and the work of playwrights’ organisations.
My new book, Acting on Cultural Policy: Arts Practitioners, Policy-making and Civil Society (Palgrave) brings this study up to date.
How it began
I begin the story with the setting up of the Northern Playwrights Society in January 1975. Inspired by the pioneering Scottish Society of Playwrights, NPS set out to combat the situation of the time where, in the words of one of my interviewees, an active member for many years, “there was no standard theatre writing contract […]. People were being commissioned for a couple of hundred quid to write a play in those days; and there was nothing on paper, no rights sorted out”. With a growing membership, NPS soon became an important hub for theatre writers in the region. Alongside regular members’ meetings, its activities included play-readings and reduced-price ticket arrangements with local theatres; a script copying and cataloguing scheme with Newcastle library; and funding support for playwrights through the Northern Arts Association (fore-runner of the regional Arts Council).
A growing movement
NPS was just the start of a network of playwrights’ organisations in England; a self-directed movement that combined campaigning for improvements in working conditions with activities to develop writers and their plays, alongside advocating for a larger share for contemporary drama in the theatre. Their targets were the arts funding system and theatre managements; but they were also focused on providing their own services in support of playwrights, offering the sorts of resources, advice and information that members of London Playwrights would recognise. Nationally, regionally and locally, new organisations sprang up: from the Theatre Writers Union (a national body with regional and local branches, which eventually merged with the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain) to a plethora of local and interest-based groups of writers.
What they did
The range of activities undertaken by these organisations over the years has been impressively wide. They include the markedly successful campaign by TWU and WGGB, begun in 1977, to negotiate a standard contract agreement for playwrights; applied across national, repertory and small-scale companies, it continues to be updated and improved. Playwrights’ associations created and provided multiple resources for writers, such as New Playwright’s Trust/writernet’s directory of theatres interested in new writing, and programmes and resources for particular groups of playwrights (including women, Asian, and Black writers). Regional associations such as North West Playwrights, Yorkshire Playwrights and Stagecoach! (West Midlands) also offered script-reading services, play competitions and festivals. Nationally and regionally, playwrights’ organisations carried out campaigning research, e.g. TWU’s surveys of playwrights’ earnings; and organised conferences to raise the profile of contemporary theatre writing and discuss issues of interest and concern – such as the position of women writers, the desire for new plays to be put on big stages, the need to combat ideas that new plays present a box office risk.
What can be learnt?
Firstly, that practitioners’ involvement in policy-making can be conceived as consisting of ‘invited’ and ‘uninvited’ interventions. By this, I mean that the playwrights’ organisations both took part in various reviews and consultations set up by arts funders at national, regional and local levels; and also took their own initiatives to influence policy through their research, campaigning, negotiating, conferences and showcases of writers and new writing. The co-existence and sometimes combination of these two forms of activity, both invited and uninvited, are key to playwrights (and other theatre workers) bringing influence on policy.
Secondly, the importance of collective action. This is not only about the bringing together of individuals within any given playwrights’ organisation, but also the collaborations and networks that playwrights’ groups are part of. From an early stage, these organisations saw the importance of building alliances with other groups which shared an interest in playwriting policies. These networks, often overlapping and criss-crossing, operate in a variety of modes: formal and informal; regular or occasional; long-term or one-off, and have involved a wide range of joint activities, discussions and sharing of ideas and experiences.
Such networks also cross the boundaries of policy and creative practice. Although artistic work is frequently and conventionally seen as a separate sphere from policy, in fact the two can overlap and interact, weaving together policy activity with artistic collaborations. Playwrights’ groups have, for example, been involved in new writing projects with theatres which have led to changes in theatre management approaches or have fed into Arts Council policy discussions.
These active connections increase policy influence by expanding the capacity of practitioners to make an input into policy, as it’s within such networks that channels of communication and influence can more easily be both opened and maintained.
Playwrights, and theatre more widely, are experiencing a difficult time, with the impact of public arts funding cuts and the legacy of the pandemic still being felt. The rich and active history of playwrights’ organisations provides us with the example that, by combining together and using their collective skills and invention to raise questions and propose solutions, practitioners can effect change – in their own working conditions, in theatres and theatre repertoire, and in arts and funding policies.
For more details of Jane Woddis: Acting on Cultural Policy: Arts Practitioners, Policy-making and Civil Society (Palgrave), click here. The book is also available for £16.99 as an e-book,click here. Copies of the book are also accessible to external borrowers at a number of university libraries.
Jane Woddis spoke at an online event organised by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, with director, writer and dramaturg, Aisha Khan, and playwright and past President of WGGB, David Edgar, on 27th April 2023. The recording of this event is now available at https://www.youtube.com/