Into the literary labyrinth
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Main: Catherine Walsh in The Passing by Paul Mercier. Photo: Derek Spiers

Middle: Aideen Howard, Literary Director, Abbey Theatre

Bottom: Don Wycherley in The East Pier by Paul Mercier. Photo: Derek Spiers

Into the literary labyrinth

With new plays from emerging as well as established writers on the Abbey Theatre's stage this spring, the national theatre's Literary Director Aideen Howard takes Jesse Weaver through the internal process, from script development, to commission, to - perhaps - full production. 

To a new playwright, it can seem impossible to find a point of entry into a large theatre like the Abbey. While Ireland’s national theatre has consistently staged new work, it seemed of late to focus on the new work of established writers such as Tom Murphy, Marina Carr and Billy Roche, to name a few. This is why, as a playwright myself, I found it particularly exciting to see two new plays by emerging writers scheduled for full runs on the Peacock stage. Indeed, a quick glance at the Abbey programme for this Spring suggests a return to the basics for the national theatre, where the introduction of new voices for the Irish stage is coupled with the staging of new work from more established writers. Paul Mercier’s ThePassing and The East Pier, two meditations on modern suburban malaise that are running in repertory, and Nancy Harris’s No Romance, are completing their runs.

Next up will be Stacey Gregg’s Perve, which is entering rehearsals for a May/June run. While this apparent surge of new work by playwrights of different levels of experience feels as if it has come out of nowhere, the Abbey's Literary Director Aideen Howard insists that the framework for the national theatre’s recommitment to introducing new work and new writers to Irish theatre was being laid quite some time ago. “It’s really good to talk about it because it’s visible now,” she says. “And yet, I would say obviously that that commitment happened in 2006. The reason we’re talking about it now is because it’s tangible.”

ITMAideenHowfinal.jpgHoward joined the Abbey in 2006 and began looking for ways that new writers could interface with the theatre, which, she admits, can seem like a monolithic entity. The Abbey, with a history and reputation that predates the state that now supports it, has long seen itself as the official mechanism by which new work for the Irish theatre is recognised and celebrated, both in Ireland and abroad. However, with a slew of Irish theatre companies that also see the development of new voices as central to their ethos, how does the Abbey differentiate itself, especially when those companies may seem more approachable than an institution like the national theatre? For Howard, that differentiation lies in the theatre’s development of long term relationships with writers from the beginning of their careers through to their emergence as established playwrights. “We’re not just interested in a first show,” she says. “We’re interested in long relationships with writers, hopefully over the course of their lives. We’re as interested in eighty year-olds as we are in twenty year-olds. And because we’re the national theatre, that’s even more important for us.”

The Abbey already had a policy of accepting and reading unsolicited scripts by Irish writers when Howard arrived in 2006, but a process by which writers who distinguished themselves among the 300- 400 yearly submissions could be introduced to the theatre in a meaningful way was problematic. In 2009, Howard and the literary department launched the New Playwrights Programme, a mechanism by which six writers who submitted unsolicited scripts that piqued the department’s interest were given access to the Abbey’s resources for developing new work.

Howard terms it a vocational programme, meant to introduce new writers to the business of writing for the theatre, and to allow them take part in fortnightly workshops conducted by writers and artists associated with the Abbey. The process, now entering its third year, culminates in the development and staged reading of a new play by each of the writers. “For us,” says Howard, “that’s an incredibly important investment in very young writers and we hope it will be a long-term project. It’s all very well investing in people who are already writing, but it’s meaningless unless that pipeline is actually complete. For me, over the past few years, it’s been about making sure that we have policies in place for every era of a writer’s development.”

Howard cites Nancy Harris’s journey from unsolicited submission to receiving a full production (No Romance) on the Peacock stage as an example of this slow but steady commitment to developing new work. Harris came to the attention of the literary department with an unsolicited script in 2006, “and although that wasn’t a play we were going to produce,” says Howard, “it was interesting enough for us to meet with her as a writer and commission her to write a short play for us to be presented as a reading.” That commission resulted in Harris’s Love in a Glass Jar, which was read as part of the Abbey’s 20:Love programme of short new work in 2008. Based on that experience, Harris was offered a full commission, along with Stacey Gregg, whose work also appeared in 20:Love.

A full commission doesn’t necessarily mean that a playwright’s work will automatically reach the Abbey or Peacock stages, however. According to Howard, the Abbey currently has twenty writers under full commission. “Often they would be commissions to writers we’ve worked with before, so we may be able in that instance to rely on a shared understanding or a shorthand already. We would always provide a workshop of some kind during the drafting process. Generally that would be at the second draft stage. That would allow a third draft to emerge, and by then I would have a very good sense of the progress of the play and the writer’s own feelings about it. Once we get what the writer and I agree is a final draft, that’s the point at which we share it with Fiach [Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey], who has the lovely, fresh pair of eyes with which to read the thing clearly and coldly.”

By that time, Howard has spent roughly two years with the writer and his or her script, and she feels it is her job to advocate to Mac Conghail on behalf of the play as he decides whether or not to programme it. But given the amount of time, energy and focus placed into that two-year process of development, what happens to plays that aren’t selected to be staged? Is there an effort on the part of the Abbey to advocate for them to other venues or producing houses? “Yes, we’ve done that in the past,” says Howard. “That goes to the heart of our understanding of ourselves of being both a commissioning and producing house. So if a play is developed here and comes to fruition in a final draft and isn’t produced here, there have often been instances where we’ve been able to promote that play to other companies and to try to see if it can get a reading or airing elsewhere.”

ITMEastPierDonsmall-(1).jpgthIn terms of the intricacies of supporting a new script in its development, Howard finds it difficult to assign a “one size fits all” dramaturgical strategy in working with writers. This is certainly the case with Paul Mercier, whose experience as both writer and director was taken into consideration as the development of his two repertory plays took place. According to Howard, the decision that Mercier would ultimately direct both pieces figured in the commissioning process: “I suppose a large part of the process with Paul Mercier is in understanding that he’s both a writer and director. In many ways that was assimilated into the thinking of how you’re going to approach [these plays], and what the follow-through in production is going to be. I find that very lively.”

Each new play, whether by a new or an established writer, presents unique challenges, and Howard believes that writers from all levels of experience are exposed equally to the rigours of the Abbey’s development process. “Actually I think that it’s a great benefit to a writer to treat each new play as a new play, and something that’s therefore emerging out of the dark, effectively. I would consider that my approach should be very similar [whether it’s a new writer or an established writer] from the beginning. Sometimes I’m very conscious that a new writer is being introduced to the business of theatre in a very different way, so that informs my thinking about how I might support the piece dramaturgically. But my hands-on engagement would be no less with an experienced writer than it would be with a less experienced writer.”

Is there ever a danger that a theatre’s dramaturgical intervention in developing a play by a new writer may - while making the play more structurally proficient - dampen the uniqueness of a writer’s voice in an effort to mitigate the potential risk of that play’s failure? Fintan O’Toole suggested as much in a recent article for the Irish Times, arguing that new writers today are well versed in dramaturgy but lacking in originality of voice. When asked about this, Howard rebuffs the suggestion. “My starting point,” she says, “would be that the process should be artist-led, so that my response and my role in that situation is to facilitate the writer in delivering the play that they want to write, and that’s incredibly important. I would describe the work a literary manager should do as being sympathetic and creative at the same time, but clearly that must be in response to an artistic impulse. And even if the process of dramaturgy or literary management is sympathetic and creative, it is responsive. Even if it’s collaborative, it’s responsive. And that would be an incredibly important principle for me, because we are interested in writers’ voices, finally.”

The risk inherent in staging new work, whether by new or established writers, will always be a present factor, concludes Howard: “I don’t think there’s any sense you can mitigate that risk by some sort of general dramaturgy, and I think you’d be foolish to try. That risk is never going to go away.”

Jesse Weaver has recently been awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.

Perve, a new play by Stacey Gregg, directed by Roisín McBrinn, opens on the Peacock stage on 31 May. www.abbeytheatre.ie 

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