The Force Behind Playwrights Studio

‘Playwrights Studio is here to help playwrights complete their work but also to help theatre organisations get the best plays possible onstage so that the theatre experience of people in Scotland is better.’  So says creative director, Julie Ellen.

The story behind the Playwrights Studio begins with the highly regarded Tom McGrath.  ‘Tom was someone who made things happen,’ says Ellen.  ‘He had the idea of a place where writers could come and hang out and get support without a producing context.’  After receiving much support through committees and the Scottish Arts Council, the project finally got a green light, but only after McGrath had suffered a stroke.  Looking for a new leader, a steering company chose Ellen.  ‘It was curious.  They appointed me to a job that didn’t exist, and I didn’t realise this until I was sitting up in bed on the first day and thinking “Hum, Playwrights Studio.  What do I need?  Oh yes, register a company, open a bank account, find an office.  Oh, this is actually very complicated.”  But it was really good fun.’

Ellen herself had a great deal of experience.  Having started out as an actor, she turned to arts management administration while trying to create work for herself in London.  She took a post grad course and worked with a number of schools and companies before returning to Scotland to work as a producer for Suspect Culture.  ‘The first six months [of the Studio] were definitely about setting up an organisation, which is a particular job in itself.  I guess that’s how come they got a producer and not a playwright to start it off.’  That was back in 2004, and since then the organisation has not only grown but has become a well-regarded component within the arts community.

However, Ellen has seen a growing trend within theatres.  ‘There’s been a reduction in the amount of new plays produced because there’s been a reduction in the amount of producing companies.’  The loss of such notable organisations like 7:84 and Borderline, companies that used new scripts, has had a noticeable knock-on effect.  Financial constraints are also a major problem.  But Ellen is also quick to point out other companies that still use new work, including the Traverse, A Play, A Pie and a Pint and the National Theatre of Scotland.

When asked if Ellen thinks there’s a bit of competition between these theatres and the Playwrights Studio, she is quite adamant.  ‘We are not in competition because we do not produce.  That’s the bedrock principal of the organisation: we will not produce.  And that gives a different engagement with the playwrights and myself and the rest of the Studio’s team because, if you’re a playwright, you want your plays ON!  If you are in a situation and you are sitting before a person who can put your play on, that’s a different engagement than the one with me where we can talk about the writing and the piece and we can start to free up the thinking from that.  We have this fantastic artistic independence.’

In speaking about new written work, Ellen poses a good question.  ‘What is a script, and what is a play?’  Pointing to the rise in creative marketing, story-based video games and new uses of multi-media, Ellen adds that it is important for any idea to have ‘an imaginative idea that captures people. You get scripts in all sorts of contexts.  But what is a play?  I want it in the present with dramatic conflict.  I’m old-fashioned in my take on a play.  All I know is that, when I’m sitting in the audience, it has to feel immediate, and it has to have a sense of place and time in the writing.  Something that is properly structured so that you’re taking me on a journey somewhere.’

In finding ways of helping artists create such a journey, the Studio has not only worked with emerging writers but has also assisted well-established writers and other practitioners in ways of improving their scripts.  They give them the ability to stand back and actually look at and analyse their text and find better ways of getting an impact out of their actual words.  In speaking about the many devising companies working in Scotland, Ellen says ‘We have lots of great creationist theatre makers in Scotland that are making fantastic work but always, just that feeling, that the script was just a little bit too thin.’

Ellen has seen firsthand the trials of writing for the stage.  ‘One of the hardest things for an emerging playwright is to have written three plays that you’re satisfied with and there is no glimmer of interesting from anyone.  You have to keep writing.  If you invest too much in your plays getting produced, you can get tied in a big knot and lose the will to write drama.’

Not only have many writers lost the will, but many who have managed to get their foot in a door with a theatre company have done so not to have their play produced but to have them commissioned to write a fresh new play.  As Ellen says, many theatre producers don’t want a writer’s new play but want ‘a writer’s new NEW play.’

And in her six years at the Playwrights Studio, what has she learned about the writing process?  ‘Just how painful of a process it really is.  What a lonely, agonising place being the writer can be.  And I re-learn that all the time.  And what a delicate process it is, and how you have to flirt on the edge of madness to allow an imagined world to completely occupy your head in order to be able to then shape that into a really strong piece of dramatic writing.  And I have such admiration, such respect.  And it’s good that I keep re-learning it, because I forget just what a challenge it is to do that and how difficult it is to be a good writer.  It must be so frustrating.’

But then she adds with equal determination.  ‘We don’t know who or where the next playwright is, but we do know we want to make it easy for them if they come in.’

Written for The Skinny’s Venue of the Month feature for April.

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