Is Britain best for new playwrights?
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.
She 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.
Jeremy 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?