I wrote my first play when I was at school. It must have shown some promise as it won a national prize. However, after uni, I was seduced by the dark side, where for ten years I worked in independent journalism. A few years ago, I experienced an epiphany and was drawn back to the theatre. In a week of feverish late nights, I wrote my ‘first’ proper play. Having edited other’s work, I knew how important it was to get fresh eyes on the work. I thought it was brilliant. But maybe it wasn’t, so I wanted to get some feedback.
The first place I went to was the internet, to search for ‘new writer schemes’ and the many theatres (at least one in every major town in the UK, and at least four in London,) which position themselves as champions of new writing. After all, I was a writer new to playwriting, so surely that would be the logical place to look. Actually, no.
With a sense of growing unease and the fear that I had ‘missed the boat’ by having a life for the past ten years, I discovered that in the majority of cases ‘new’ doesn’t actually mean new. What it actually means is young.
Do these theatres consider that it is impossible that somebody couldn’t start writing plays later in life? Do they not agree that a writer’s writing generally improves with age and experience? Do you have to decide straight from school that your chosen career is as a playwright? And if that’s the case – why are there so few university undergraduate courses in creative writing of any kind, including playwriting?
A writer does not (in the majority of cases) pop out fully formed. Most of us need time to learn how to do it, and sometimes life experience in a different field adds something that a younger writer won’t develop until they get older. There are many examples of writers continuing, or starting, to write successfully later in life, Arthur Miller, Liz Lochead, Alan Bennett to name just a few…
In other forms of writing it’s actually almost a badge of honour to have taken a while to get started. Hard-boiled Raymond Chandler didn’t start writing till he was 44. Marina Lewycka’s first book was rejected 36 times before she finally found a publisher at the age of 58. Now A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a worldwide hit.
So why is the theatre so different – with the majority of competitions and schemes for ‘new’ playwrights having a cut-off age of between 25-30?
As Nina Steiger, from one of the theatres that prides itself on working with new writers – the Soho Theatre – said, a couple of years ago, “Every theatre in this country has a young writers programme, which usually caps at 25, or 26, and there’s plenty of people who don’t start writing until they’re 30, and who are still new writers. They need the same kind of development, and support as any young writer.” Yet I’m not so sure that the money and the mouth are in the same position with many of the other new writing theatres…
There is even EU legislation in place to combat ageism in the workplace, banning age discrimination in terms of training – arguably exactly what a ‘young writer’ scheme does. But with the pressure of knowing you could be shooting yourself in the foot if you complain – I wonder how likely it is that this will ever be challenged. But until there are more ‘older writer’ opportunities, (for want of a better term,) then how can new writing really hold a mirror up to today’s (and tomorrow’s) increasingly diverse audience?
The start of a career is not defined by your age, or your first job. If it were Phillip Larkin would be known only for his knowledge of the Dewey decimal system and The Royle Family’s Liz Smith would be best known for her years in the Wrens. The great Mark Rothko would be remembered as a great newspaper salesman, or possibly an actor.
It’s great that there awards and schemes to help launch a writing career – but it’s the fact that you have to launch it by age 25-30 that is depressing. To choose to try to make a career as a writer (or make it in any creative art form,) is a brave decision at any age. Changing your career direction as an older writer, most likely means you are choosing to give up whatever financial security you have, to gamble on your own ability, so it’s these writers who need just as much support as the young ones. If not more – as they are more likely to also have families to support.
If theatre in the UK is to flourish, then theatres have to be opened up to a new audience and that’s going to take a new group of playwrights who can talk about the things the audience wants to hear, in a way they want to listen to. That means new writers from all cultures, ages and places. Theatres and theatre companies should be offering support to these brave individuals, whatever age they are – not just to a handful of sexy, and rather malleable, bright young stars.