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Any successful athlete will tell you that investment in talented people early in their careers is vital if their full potential is to be realised; and it is quite clear that a country?s success in the international arena depends not only on the size of its population but also its commitment to encouraging raw talent. Barbara Matthews explains why the same is true of playwriting.
The Royal Court has existed since 1956 to promote and stage contemporary plays. Inherent in this aim is a desire to seek out and develop new writers who will be able to give voice to their generation. There are lots of young people who take playwriting very seriously but who lack confidence, networks and/or money. There are more still who might never consider writing a play without initial encouragement. Unless we find them and invest in their talent, in years to come there will be no use for a theatre such as the Royal Court.

This Autumn our programme includes Caryl Churchill?s A Number; a black comedy by Anthony Neilson; an Edinburgh Fringe transfer from the Traverse; a first play by a Royal Court actor; and our Young Writers Festival which features the work of nine young playwrights between the ages of 14 and 26. All except the transfer from The Traverse are world premieres.

A unique challenge

It?s this vibrant mix of totally new work by writers at different stages in their careers that makes the Royal Court unique. One of our greatest challenges is to find writers that help to define our time ? John Osborne, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane. The beauty of theatre is that it can be spontaneous, that it can live in the present tense and respond to current situations. It can challenge our prejudices and shape our beliefs. A playwright can help us understand and be understood.

So if we want writers, directors and actors to flourish how do we create the conditions for them to do so? It seems to me that this is the essence of what the Royal Court is actually here to do. Principally it?s about building relationships and creating opportunities. Those relationships are of two main sorts. Relationships with funders, sponsors and benefactors so that we can support people financially as well as emotionally and creatively, and relationships with creative people at all stages of their career.

A creative environment

We have structures in place for traineeships, interns, resident writers, writers groups, assistant directors, student schemes etc. All of these have the merit of bringing large numbers of people into the building and creating a buzz that encourages confidence and creativity.

It?s also about creating space. Space in which ideas have room to grow. If a writer wants help with a play before it is ready to be delivered to us, then we are able to work with them in they way that suits them best. If a writer takes 6 years over a commission ? then so be it. We are able to give work professional readings and workshops and audiences.

It?s about creating opportunities for ideas and practices to be shared and developed. The bar that we were able to create as part of our redevelopment plays an important part in this. It is open all day and serves as a venue in which to toss ideas around, to meet others similarly interested and where a chance encounter may result in a project previously undreamed of.

The work of our Young Writers and International Programmes provide a seedbed for writers in this country and abroad. Eighteen writers and directors from far flung places such as China, India, Israel, Australia, Germany and the USA have just flown home after spending a month at the Court, developing scripts and ideas. We are soon to welcome nine young playwrights who have had their work selected from over 350 scripts to be produced in this year?s Young Writers Festival, IMPRINT. This platform has launched the careers of writers such as Jonathan Harvey (Gimme Gimme Gimme, Beautiful Thing), Rebecca Prichard (winner ?98 Critic?s Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright), Leo Butler (winner of the George Devine Award 2001), Michael Wynne, Nick Grosso and Simon Stephens.

Steadfast support

To provide these opportunities and support, the right kind of funding is crucial. There is always resistance towards financing unknown quantities as there is never a guarantee of critical or public acclaim. Also, the Royal Court operates on a very short programming lead time so we can respond quickly to work which is immediate; addressing the problems and possibilities of our time. This can create obvious obstacles to support from companies or trusts and foundations that plan their arts funding programmes well in advance.

We are extraordinarily lucky to have a core group of risk-taking donors, who understand the importance of long-term investment in the work whilst giving us the freedom to make our own artistic choices. The Jerwood Charitable Foundation has steadfastly backed the production of plays by often unknown or controversial new writers for the past ten years. The Genesis Foundation has made a crucial, long-term commitment to launching young artists from around the world through its support of both our International Season and Young Writers Festival. Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre Projects is dedicated to best practice in working with writers and for nearly a decade has generously enabled Royal Court playwrights to experiment with their work and hone their voices before the pressure of public performances. Bloomberg ensures that all of the new work on our stages is seen by a wide, vibrant audience by subsidising our ticket prices on Monday nights. Our relationships with these allies are founded on a mutual belief that the cultural contribution of the Royal Court is far greater than the fifteen plays it puts on stage each year.

Serving the writer

The key that lies behind all these schemes and structures is always to remember that we exist to develop writers and to stage their plays. Bureaucracy and management as ends to themselves need to be resisted. However persuasive the latest management theory is or however vocal the funding bodies become we need to ensure that our modus operandi always serves the writer. We try to be as flexible as we can be so that each artist can be given the environment that best supports them whilst being businesslike and entrepreneurial.

That is not to suggest that we should be over indulgent or that we ignore our audience. Looking after and developing our audience is a vital part of what we do in order to support the art of playwriting. Without an audience there is no theatre.

So I guess it is our job to ensure that all these different strands come together so that we can genuinely commit ourselves to nurturing new talent. In order to be effective we have to balance the work that appears on our stages with our developmental and outreach work and financial realities. We do our best to ensure that those involved in artistic activities and support functions at the Royal Court fully understand and support the work that each other is doing. Without full commitment from both areas, the right environment and the opportunities for nurturing young talent will not exist.

Barbara Matthews is Executive Director of the Royal Court Theatre. This year?s Young Writers Festival, IMPRINT, runs in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs from October 18 to November 23 and is a combination of full length productions, shorts and rehearsed readings. For further details t: 020 7565 5000
w: http://www.royalcourttheatre.com