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Response to Scottish Government's draft Culture Strategy

1. Introduction

This response has been gathered from a group of 22 freelance playwrights at different career stages and from different geographical areas, all currently working in Scotland. 

The playwrights were invited by the Scottish Society of Playwrights and Playwrights' Studio, Scotland to a Gathering in August 2018, and were joined by staff members of the latter organisation.

The Scottish Society of Playwrights (SSP) is a membership organisation representing the interests of professional playwrights in Scotland.  The SSP is affiliated with the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

Playwrights' Studio, Scotland is the nation's only arts organisation exclusively dedicated to the long-term support, development and promotion of Scotland's playwrights. Playwrights' Studio works actively and creatively with playwrights, connecting them with audiences and organisations, for the ultimate enrichment and enjoyment of the people of Scotland and beyond.

The playwrights met to discuss the draft Culture Strategy for Scotland, and to offer the following reflections:

These reflections are underpinned by the findings of the biennial Survey of Playwrights commissioned by the SSP and Playwrights' Studio, which is referred to as 'the research' throughout this document.  We also refer to a previous submission made to the Scottish Government as part of the engagement phase of the Culture Strategy, following a Playwrights Gathering in December 2017.  This focused mainly on the conditions which contributed to the current strength and profile of Scottish playwriting.

This response is written unashamedly from a playwright perspective, as understood by the particular group who attended the Gathering. 

However, we are fully aware that other freelance artists and communities share many of the same issues.  In particular, we are impressed by the SCAN/Scottish Artists Union Visual Art Manifesto and the principles enshrined within it, and the dance/live art community's 'Cultural Blether' hosted by The Work Room and Nick Anderson (Amplifier/Buzzcut) in December 2017. 

2.  Positive reflections on the draft Strategy

We welcome the scope and breadth of the draft Strategy and its intention to include and respect culture in its widest sense, and involve all of Scotland's citizens.

We commend its recognition of the importance and value of culture to Scotland (both historic and contemporary), and its attempt to integrate this across and within other policy areas. 

We admire the interconnectedness of the draft Strategy and its intention to recognise the different impact culture can make, for example, social, economic, on health and wellbeing, and in assisting international diplomacy.

3.  Challenges of the draft Strategy

We respect that, as a high level document, the draft Strategy has been written to be as broad and comprehensive as possible.  As a result, it lacks explicit detail about how its commendable vision and aims will filter down to different communities or art form sectors.

Distinct art forms have distinctive needs.  Whilst one size does not fit all, the support and funding needed to sustain different art forms should be equitable.

4.  Specific reflections on the draft Strategy

The themes of our discussion in August can be summarised as:

  • The value of playwrights and playwriting in Scotland
  • Leadership and the nature of freelance culture
  • Funding systems, strengthening the current infrastructure, new models

4.1     The value of playwrights and playwriting in Scotland

4.1.1 Context

Playwriting in Scotland is flourishing, evidenced by its significant domination of the producing repertoire.  New plays outstrip productions of traditional plays by more than 3:1. New plays are produced by many different organisations at different scales across the length and breadth of Scotland.  

Scotland's reputation internationally as a centre of excellence in playwriting remains strong and vibrant.  Plays by Scotland's playwrights have been recently produced in Brazil, Canada, China, India, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad, the United States, Zimbabwe amongst others.  

Scotland's playwrights are a group of highly-skilled, influential artists whose work is translated into many different languages and is regularly published.  They are entrepreneurial, working in many different roles and settings as well as playwriting. 

Scotland's playwrights have long taken a leading, public role in civic Scotland with their engagement in wider political discourse.  They are a well-organised, coherent and articulate community of artists and, arguably, are an under-used resource in the cultural life of Scotland.

It is important to note that there were certain conditions that led to the current positive, yet fragile, situation:

  • There were policies that explicitly prioritised new writing and playwrights, underpinned by vision, will and funding

New writing was recognised by the Scottish Arts Council as a strategic priority. For example, from 2002-2007 and immediately prior to the founding of Creative Scotland, one of the key aims of the drama strategy was, to "provide a national support structure for new writing."

In 2004, three things emerged, two of which were direct results of this strategy - the National Theatre of Scotland and Playwrights' Studio, Scotland - and A Play, A Pie and A Pint.

  • There were earmarked funds to support the commissioning and development of new plays

The drama strategy was supported by a specific fund, which allowed organisations to apply for funding to commission new plays or to contribute to the development of new plays or projects. 

  • There were agreed rates for commissioning playwrights and a clear understanding of what constitutes a commission

The guidelines for the Commissioning Fund actively promoted the existence and use of the agreed SSP/Federation of Scottish Theatre contract and commissioning fee.

  • There was an infrastructure of different producing theatre companies - some in receipt of regular funding, others who could access project funds.  These companies commissioned playwrights at different scales. This may have been smaller than it is today, but it was arguably more stable.
  • There was a comparatively healthy touring sector where, for example, companies were paid fees as well as box office splits
  • There was a focus on development of the skills of playwrights and their plays, coupled with production output
  • There was a strong union of playwrights, the Scottish Society of Playwrights (SSP), and independent dramaturgical support through the role of Associate Literary Manager for Scotland, succeeded by Playwrights' Studio, Scotland

Unfortunately, whilst playwriting in Scotland today is a success story, there is a simultaneous fragility in the system.

This is evidenced by the: 

  • Ability to earn a living from playwriting alone.  The average playwright earns between £5000 - £9999 per annum.  The most recent research indicates that this is falling towards the lower end of the spectrum. 
  • Limited opportunities to create new work at the middle-scale.  This affects playwrights at all career stages, but is a particular issue for mid-career playwrights who have limited opportunities to progress their skills by writing for larger stages 
  • Significant gap between 'scratch' performances or small-scale work and fully commissioned and fully realised productions 
  • Limited access to a professional network of agents, producers, international promoters and publishers to maximise opportunities and exploit work 
  • Relationship between certain demographics and availability of opportunities.  This particularly affects female playwrights, disabled playwrights, playwrights from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, those who are based beyond the central belt of Scotland, and those writing in Gaelic or Scots.

 4.1.2  Options for the future

Within the discussion there was a suggestion that playwriting in Scotland becomes recognised and supported as a strategic priority, national asset or protected sector. 

This was based on the fact that playwriting in Scotland is already achieving many of the aims and delivering the actions and outcomes described within the draft Strategy. 

The work of playwrights cuts across the vision and aims of the draft Strategy - Transforming, Empowering and Sustaining.  For example, playwrights work consistently in local communities and environments such as schools, universities, for youth, elderly and community organisations and in prisons. 

Theatre by definition is about community.  Playwriting, rather than being a niche activity, is a democratic and popular art form, with increasing demand from local communities for participation within it.  Examples of this include Playwrights' Studio, Scotland's Born to Write Programme which works in communities traditionally excluded from theatre, the Citizens' Theatre's community company and Learn Department, the National Theatre of Scotland's educational activity and Five Minute Theatre projects, the Traverse Theatre's Class Act programme.  Very recent initiatives include Wildfire Theatre and Witsherface, working with women in working class communities through playwriting and comedy.

Playwrights are specialists who have the current and future skills necessary to lead the growth and integration described within the current draft Strategy.  This suggests that playwrights are uniquely placed to contribute to the achievement of the eventual Culture Strategy. 

4.2      Leadership and the nature of freelance culture

The draft Strategy was commended for its focus on supporting the freelance cultural workforce as freelance work, arguably, becomes the dominant pattern for work, both in Scotland and globally.

The particular issue of the value placed on the freelance artist within the cultural ecosystem was discussed, with calls for more leadership from playwrights/artists and less reliance on historical 'gatekeeper' models.

This is a particular issue for female playwrights, disabled playwrights, playwrights from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, those who are based beyond the central belt of Scotland, and those writing in Gaelic or Scots. 

If theatre is to be more diverse, not just representing but exemplifying all of its communities, diverse voices need to be supported from page to stage.

The draft Strategy presents an opportunity for freelance artists to work differently, having the potential to lead rather than follow. 

As well as challenging existing funding models as discussed below, examples of good practice and interesting models include:

Playwright-led companies in the UK and Scotland including Unlimited Theatre (Clare Duffy, Chris Thorpe), Fire Exit (David Leddy), Bijli (Mariem Omari), and initiatives such as the Village Pub Theatre (James Ley, Sophie Good and others) and The Workers Theatre (Sara Shaarawi).

Lubimovka New Plays Festival in Moscow where playwrights explore each other's work, leading to commissions and a translation exchange with a leading playwright development organisation in the USA

Playwrights employed in leadership positions within higher education, e.g. Nicola McCartney leading the MSc in Playwriting at Edinburgh University and Professor Zinnie Harris leading the MFA in Playwriting at the University of St Andrews.

The work of CABN - Creative Arts Business Network - was recognised for its dedicated support for the creative arts sector in the Scottish Borders.

4.3      Funding systems, strengthening the current infrastructure, new models

We discussed the inherent risk to new writing as a sector if it is not underpinned by similar, futureproofed versions of the conditions which led to its current success.  The problems of existing funding systems are well documented for both playwrights and theatres/production companies.  New thinking is needed about options for ring-fencing funding or even looking at new models for how funding is distributed. 

It was felt that structures needed to change to remove the necessity for playwrights to rely entirely on theatre companies.  It was recognised that these companies may also be struggling financially to deliver their overall aims and ambitions, to support artists, diversify the work on their stages and develop audiences.

Examples of solutions included:

  • The recognition of new writing as a specific sector within theatre
  • An explicit policy for its sustainability and growth, including ring-fenced funding for commissioning
  • A dedicated creative hub for new writing which could distribute funding through a central resource, in a 'triangular' model connecting writers with organisations. 

For example, the New Play Network in the USA or scaled-up versions of Playwrights' Studio, Scotland or CABN with a specific role of distributing funding, publishing or other aspects of playwriting which are not currently fulfilling their potential.

5.  Future actions

There was support for the creation of a set of long-range guiding principles for new writing in Scotland, in a similar vein to the SSP's calls for a new writing strategy.  These could be signed up to by anyone committed to writing, creating, developing, producing and promoting new plays in Scotland, in all of their many forms.

This would recognise the distinct roles played by the different partners, but work towards a common understanding of the needs, aspirations and possibilities of new playwriting in Scotland.

We would see this as being connected to the delivery of the Strategy but at a specific art form level.

 

Scottish Society of Playwrights

Playwrights' Studio, Scotland

19th September 2018

 

If you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact Fiona Sturgeon Shea, Creative Director, Playwrights' Studio, Scotland - fiona@playwrightsstudio.co.uk

 

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