Journal and News

David Edgar: New Play Commission Scheme

Present tense plays

ITC, UK Theatre and the Writers’ Guild launch scheme to help companies commission 15 new plays

by David Edgar

            Theatre has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other of the performing arts – the first to be closed down, the last to reopen and still suffering. One particular casualty is invisible: the plays that weren’t commissioned and thus may never be written.

            It’s understandable that cash-strapped companies – many with a backlog of unproduced work to present – might see new commissions as an unaffordable luxury. Some building-based theatres are – again, understandably – playing safe with the old, tried and tested. No surprise that new commissions have reduced by a third. 

But these are times when the voices of playwrights need to be heard in the present tense.

            So much of importance has happened over the last two years – Covid itself, the extraordinary impact of the pandemic on how we live and think about our lives, the murder of George Floyd and all that flowed from it, and now the worst war on European soil in most of our lifetimes. This should produce an extraordinary canon of new plays. 

But will we look at theatre in a couple of years and ask where those plays are?

            Before the pandemic, we were living in a golden age of new playwriting. It would be terrible if great plays on great themes were to be lost. Hence the New Play Commission Scheme.

            Early in the pandemic, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain entered into discussions with ITC and UK Theatre about how playwrights – facing a sudden and indeterminate cut in their income – should be protected, alongside other theatre freelancers. We came up with the idea of a new scheme, to encourage companies not to cut back on commissions. After a period of fundraising – including, now, gaining a substantial grant from the Arts Council – we have announced the scheme and will be launching it next month. 

            The principle is simple: operating in partnership, a company and a writer will submit a proposal for one of 15 new commissions for a new play, at appropriate WGGB Agreement rates. For ITC companies, the scheme will pay for the treatment and the commission fee (together, 50% of the total). The company will then agree to pay the 25% delivery fee and – should the play go into production – the acceptance fee. Companies applying for the scheme will be expected to become ethical members of the ITC.

            The other risk of the current situation is that the welcome and overdue move towards diversity in playwriting might be thrown into reverse. Accordingly, the scheme has clear targets for plays by writers from under-represented groups and will ensure that 50% of the commissions will go to women, 20% to playwrights of colour, and 12% both to LGBT+ writers and disabled, D/deaf and neurodiverse writers. To redress the current imbalance between London and the rest of England, 60% of grants will go to companies outside London, and 75% to writers who have not been commissioned by their co-applicant before.

            The selection panel consists of playwrights April de Angelsis, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Tom Wentworth and Roy Williams, director and playwright Aisha Khan, producer Kate Pakinham and producer James Dacre.

            The aim is to ensure that companies are enabled to commission new writing from a diverse cohort, with an emphasis on parts of the country that have been disadvantaged in the past.

            The scheme and its application pack will be launched next month and applications will close in early June. But writers can approach companies – and companies writers – now to propose ideas and create partnerships. See the announcement for more details and check the webpage for updates:

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