Royal Court Literary Department

Chris Campbell and Louise Stephens

Chris Campbell – Former Literary Manager
Louise Stephens – Former Deputy Literary Manager

Dowsing the culture

PC: What is the potential of theatre?

CC: Theatre completely changed my life, so if it can change my life then it can definitely change other people’s lives. So the potential of theatre is to change the world, one person at a time.

LS: I believe much the same I guess. Theatre is a sort of political and imaginative tool for delivering delight and empathy probably in some kind of mix of the two. That thing of being able to move one person hugely – what television does brilliantly is move millions of people a little bit but what theatre can do is move a much smaller number of people a bigger distance I think.  And I mean like all writing it is also a way of spreading an idea, but also what I love about theatre is the ability to code space into a text and then pass it on to someone else like a weird virus; that is kind of magic in itself.

CC: One of the reasons theatre is so important in this country is that our other means of public discourse are so impoverished. In England we don’t have a tradition of political argument as a social activity in the way that, for example, they do in France. One place we still talk about these things is the theatre and it always has been. It is our tradition of public engagement – a society discussing itself. We need that badly now because we have so few spaces where that happens without an agenda.

It is interesting to me how often writers anticipate what’s happening in society. For example, Gundog by Simon Longman is a play about rural poverty and, to some extent, it is about what led to Brexit, but he started writing it before anyone had heard the word Brexit. Like all really good plays it is written a year or two ahead of it’s moment. That sense of anticipation, a sort of dowsing the culture is very interesting.

PC: To a certain extent your role is about dowsing the culture, deciding what will be relevant. How do you communicate with your team of play readers what they are looking for?

LS: Everyone’s got a lens that they are coming at things from. How do we get readers? We get people with interesting lenses. Of course, readers need to be able to process and interpret theatre particularly in terms of how space is coded into a text. They have to be able to imagine a piece of text as a piece of theatre. So obviously a lot of our readers work in the theatre industry in some way. We then make up a panel of interesting people with interesting lenses who understand the project of this theatre. If everything is working properly a reader delivers a report saying that a play is interesting and the person reading the report will think: I better read it too.

Reading for what theatre could be

PC: Plays at the Royal Court are strongly framed by its cultural, historical and social context. How do you use that to your advantage in the selection of plays?

CC: Our geographical location is one that comes up from time to time and it does occasionally influence our programming. We are more than usually aware of the danger of presenting a kind of ‘poverty porn’ in one of the richest square miles in the world. Very few people walk here from their homes but it is a London audience nonetheless. We are very conscious of the meaning of putting certain lives on stage here. In our programming meetings we say, “How would this look?” In the most basic terms: would our audience sympathize with these characters or would they laugh at them?

We also take practical steps to try and diversify our audience and to do work elsewhere. Beyond the Court is our three year residency project in Tottenham and Pimlico.

LS: What we’re always fighting against is the idea that there is ‘a Royal Court play’. At the same time we hope our readers recognise the project of the theatre enough to go yes this is something of interest. Something that we go back to often is one of the letters that George Devine wrote where he set out the idea of the Royal Court. There are two things in it that have stayed with me. One is that this theatre will take time with the promising writer – I think that is the phrase. The other is about being in advance of public taste which links into the thing that Chris was saying. I think that writers working here very often plumb something that we haven’t quite got to yet both in content and form.

What I ask of people reading plays for us is to read, not for the rules of theatre as it is at the moment, but for what it could be. We’re not trying to assess a play based on how theatre works now but on how it could work or what its possibilities are. I always think of this thing, you know if 4:48 Psychosis lands on your desk or Beckett or something, people often ask would it get any further and I think if we keep that in mind, that you’re not trying to assess a play based on how theatre works now but on how it could work or what it’s possibilities are then hopefully you don’t go too far wrong in recognising the potential at least.

We don’t need theatre to pretend to be real life

PC: Chris, you have recommended young playwrights read nineteenth century plays because they offer models of what not to do. What elements of nineteenth century plays could young playwrights learn from?

CC: We’re all so much quicker at picking up narrative clues nowadays. There is no nineteenth century play where with half an hour to go the whole audience isn’t begging for release going: “We know, we get it! We see where you’re going!” We have evolved as audiences and those tricks, those ironies of narrative don’t work anymore. We’re way ahead of them: we can intuit and pick things up much more quickly. Although we can still occasionally make some quite effective productions out of them.

Television and film pretend to be real life much better so we absolutely don’t need theatre to pretend to be real life. There was a period – visual art was the same – when theatre tried to present itself as an unfiltered reproduction of reality, a kind of extreme naturalism. That kind of absolutely unrelieved beat to beat naturalism is just not needed any more. We didn’t need it before: Shakespeare doesn’t do that.

If you read plays that are dated you can see how ideas of what’s funny, significant or thought-provoking change. But above all it is the solidity in the form of those nineteenth century plays that no longer appeals.

There is no magic formula

PC: How do the writers’ groups work?

LS: There are two types of groups that we run: one is Introduction to Playwriting where anyone can apply with ten pages of writing for the stage and a little statement about why you want to do it. I love the intro groups, partly because all that you’re reading for is potential. That potential maybe something in the voice or the way someone has constructed dialogue or the flavour and word choices or turn of phrase. The other groups are for invited writers and those invitations are put out in response to seeing a lot of work and reading a lot of plays.

PC: What characterises a group that is really working?

LS: An invited group is working when at the end of it you can go: “Look at these six amazing plays, let’s put them all on!”

For the intro groups, where people are naturally at an earlier point in their careers, they have worked when people go away saying: “You have given me loads to think about.” It is about what comes out of them really.

CC: The group I always think about is the one that had Nick Payne, Evie Crowe, and Penelope Skinner in it. They met doing that group and they will be professional friends for the rest of their careers. But there are other groups that never really cohere and are a bit fractious: the peer-to-peer feedback – which is a feature of the groups – just isn’t very healthy or helpful. It is not an infallible process!

LS: It’s not like we have access to some magic formula that no one else does.

CC: Exactly and that is so important to say. Some writers come to us and they think we have a secret. They think that we have an arcane piece of knowledge that we are keeping from them. It is really hard to convince some people that that is not true because on the most basic level we would be writing all the plays if we did!

Creating space to discuss the writer’s artistry

PC: Do you find yourself returning to a certain language or shorthand when you are communicating with writers?

CC: My general rule is to assume they know what they are doing, so my mode of communication with a writer is to seek clarification. What I am often trying to do is to establish what they think they’re doing. I ask questions about intention and the effect it is having and whether that effect is intended. I then tell them where I think that isn’t actually working. The most frustrating conversation you can have with a writer is the one where you keep saying, “I’m not finding ‘A’ in the play.” And they keep saying, “But that’s what it’s all about, it’s full of ‘A’!” That’s a tricky discussion because you have to say, “You’re going to have to trust me now, you know, as somebody who is wishing you well and is used to talking to playwrights, there is no ‘A’ in this play.”

LS: As a dramaturg, or whatever you want to describe us as, the only thing that you have to use is yourself: the way you look at the world and the ideas you’ve encountered. I try and talk honestly, using the vocabulary that feels natural to me. It often ends up that I start talking about trees a lot, but that is just the way my mind works. I think about a play as a tree: if the playwright is growing a walnut tree and you’re making suggestions thinking that it’s a lemon tree, you’re going to graft the wrong things on to it. You have to know what the intention is because if you don’t you’ll end up giving the wrong advice. I tend to stay away from: “I think if you did X and Y it will make your play better.”

CC: Some writers really want that and you have to resist giving it to them because it won’t help.

LS: Something that isn’t organic to what the plays trying to do is only going to take them in a wrong direction. A lot of the stuff we do with the young people’s script panel is about getting them to trust their own developing vocabulary about how they want to talk about plays. Whatever vocabulary you use, people will get it if you say it in a coherent way hopefully.

CC: It’s also important to say that we use different language depending on who we’re talking to. That isn’t dishonest, we just adapt to people’s different needs.

PC: How do you engender a relaxation and confidence in the people you are talking to so they can embrace their own vocabulary?

CC: My view is that you do that by communicating the reality of the situation: we both want your play to be programmed here ideally, but if not here then somewhere else. It is really important for people to understand the extent to which our professional lives revolve around finding good plays and getting them on. We do not take pleasure in rejecting plays! If you can establish early that there is nothing that would give us more pleasure than to produce your play then everything is okay because we’re on the same side. 

LS: I feel like a lot of a writer’s energy is put into trying to negotiate the industry and trying to work out what they can do that would have ‘better’ results. I hope that part of what we are doing when we are having a conversation with a writer is providing a space where they can actually just talk about their artistry and their artistic intention with someone who’s read their play and will take them seriously.

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