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Is Britain best for new playwrights?

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Will Gompertz | 13:31 UK time, Friday, 26 March 2010

Katori Hall couldn't get it on in America. That's why she left and came to London. It worked out. On Sunday night she won the Best New Play at the Olivier Awards for Mountaintop, her two-hander about the last night of Martin Luther King's life.

Katori HallShe came here, she said, because America was too conservative. Theatre there relied on formula and revivals and established writers. But in the UK it is "about pushing boundaries and welcoming new voices."

"You guys," she said, "are so embracing of new, young writers." She's right: we are.

Lots of British theatres run writers' workshops and support the development of new work "from page to stage". The process is not straightforward and it's not easy. It's not quick, either. Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's play that was shortlisted in the same new play category as Mountaintop, was in development for several years. Enron, also shortlisted, took years too.

But if you are OK with some unpaid grafting, there are places that will help put on your play. Like The Royal Court in London's Sloane Square. It produced both Enron and Jerusalem. And it discovered Polly Stenham, who had a big hit with her first play That Face. She was an alumnus of its Young Writers Programme.

The people at the Royal Court took her on because she had sent in a script on spec that they felt demonstrated talent. I asked Jeremy Herrin, who developed and directed her play, what had stood out and what he was looking for.

He said the most important thing was a new voice. Katori Hall said that too, so that must be the thing. And the subject matter should be important to the writer. That makes sense: who wants to listen to a story that the storyteller doesn't t care about? He told me that Dominic Cooke, the artistic director of the Royal Court, says the mark of a good play is what it has new to say about the world and what it has new to say about the form.

What did Jerusalem have new to say about the form? He said that the play had shifted the balance away from a group of actors to a single, really strong protagonist. And that not many parts are currently being written for major leading roles. That was an interesting point.

Richard PryorJeremy also directed The Priory at the Royal Court which won the best new comedy award at the Oliviers. He likes comedy and thinks it is critically under-rated. We talked about comedy and what makes funny. I mentioned an article I had seen a few years ago in the Guardian. It was a Q&A with Richard Pryor whose response to a question about whether he wrote to be truthful or funny was, "be truthful, always truthful. And funny will come." I think that was the point Jeremy was making.

Richard Pryor also talks a lot about "voice". He thinks it took him fifteen years to find his. No matter: when he got there, it was good and true and funny. Katori Hall has already found hers and she's only 28 years old. As the Royal Court says, it's not about age, it's about having something to say and a new way of saying it.

And if you can crack that, then as Katori Hall has said, there's no place better than Britain right now to see your words performed in a professional theatre. Maybe see you at the Oliviers some time?


  • Comment number 1.

    Congratulations to Ms Hall.

    Let's also note the progressive immigration laws that allowed her to come over and 'get it on' in an environment more receptive to her talents - and compare it to those of the US, where work permits are thin on the ground for those for Brits yet to achieve success or without a concrete job offer for a job a native can't do.

    Perhaps that's why their arts scene is less vibrant, and not sufficiently developed to recognise her work?

  • Comment number 2.

    One more example of why our country is just a great place to come from.
    Proud to be British !

  • Comment number 3.

    She failed with this play in the US because the US is 'too conservative'?


    US theatre has reflected a very strong left-wing perspective for half a century. This is especially true in New York. There is no such thing as 'conservative theatre' in the US, and I find it hard to believe this is not known in Britain.

    Her claim is beyond absurd. Yet it appears that the author of this post accepted this nonsense as absolute truth, and even congratulates himself and Britain for its 'open mindedness', etc, etc.

    It appears to me that you have been taken in, hornswoggled, bamboozled, or words to that effect.

    But after all, as David Hannum, said - there is one born every minute.

  • Comment number 4.

    #3, I'm fairly sure 'conservative' wasn't meant in the sense of political ideology.

  • Comment number 5.

    Congratulations to Ms Hall. The trail abroad for many of America’s artists is a long and a well traveled one, especially for black Americans.

    I too took that route in the ‘90’s, leaving America for a period in London to learn all that I could about the “black box” of the stage, because I felt that my opportunities to fully gain that information here, would be constrained to a field of writing appropriate to a market it would be presumed that I would best appeal to; that being a black one.

    As a playwright, who is black, my interest was in learning about writing -period. I wanted to speak in the broadest palette of characterizations, expression, wit and subject matter. Though there may have been some few companies which would nurture such endeavor, by and large, the marketing of writers in America then, as well as now, is one based on the sell [classification] of ethnicity, which chutes work into a designated strata of type.

    England, and London specifically, not only respects the written word but has always welcomed writers who have a unique voice, and an appetite to sharpen that tool to the benefit of a theatre audience.

    What is most interesting to me about the article is that it refrained from openly mentioning race as a possible contributing factor to Ms Hall’s leaving America to have her work considered and performed –though the article certainly has a perfume of the subtext.

    Tom Minter

  • Comment number 6.

    "Let's also note the progressive immigration laws that allowed her to come over and 'get it on' in an environment more receptive to her talents - and compare it to those of the US, where work permits are thin on the ground for those for Brits yet to achieve success or without a concrete job offer for a job a native can't do."

    EXCUSE ME??? Britain has VERY restrictive immigration laws, especially when it comes to artists. I got a masters degree from Edinburgh University and applied for the post-study work visa and the process was nothing but obstruction and frustration. Parts of my application were intentionally mis-read (or lazily looked at) in order to deny acceptance, in spite of my providing all the proper documentation and proof of the ability to support myself. A fellow student spent a year going through appeal after appeal before finally being accepted, except by then she'd spent all her savings on the appeals process.

    I applaud Ms. Hall's success, but she is hardly a neophyte coming out of nowhere. She had a play produced at the Cherry Lane Theatre in NYC, a prestigious off-Broadway house which is not an easy nut to crack. Plus she has had success as a performer and belongs to all the proper unions. I'm not aware she actually moved to the UK long-term. She could stay for six months on a tourist visa. Or perhaps she was sponsored by someone in the UK? Read up on the immigration laws in the UK. You cannot come to the UK to work as a performer unless you have had previous, documented success or you have a specific job offer or sponsorship. And even then you can only work on that one job and then must leave the country. UK immigration laws are NOT progressive.

  • Comment number 7.

    "couldn't get it on"?? Mr Gomp's use of such language somehow evokes the same feeling as watching one's own father dancing at a party.


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