If the stage of the Abbey Theatre is seen as the heart of the National theatre, then its Literary Department is very much the pulse. Tucked away on the upper floors of the Abbey Street theatre, the Literary Department is very much a haven for new writers, for new stories and for new voices. Aideen Howard, Literary Director, talks to Barry Houlihan and Writing.ie about the work of the Literary Department, about supporting new plays and new playwrights and about finding that new voice in Irish theatre.
In an average year, some three hundred unsolicited scripts find their way to the Literary Department of the Abbey, each hoping to be lifted from obscurity and to see their work produced. If anyone thinks that a play is submitted, read and then magically appears on the stage in the following season, they are sorely wrong. Aideen Howard explains the mammoth task of sifting through these plays, reading, assessing and responding to each and every one and working with those few chosen for further development. She is quick to point out her work as Literary Director is a long-term investment in the Abbey’s and Irish theatre’s future. The fruits of this work may not be fully seen for a number of years to come.
Aideen Howard is Director of the Abbey Literary Department since 2006. She is responsible for overall development, commissioning and generation of new work for the Abbey and Peacock stages, while also tasked with animating the Abbey repertoire, striving to find that balance between new work and reinterpretations of past Abbey plays.
Howard set up the New Playwrights Programme (NPP) in 2008 out of frustration resulting from the high quality of the unsolicited scripts that were arriving across her desk at the Abbey, seeking to create a concrete and practical way to develop these voices. She adds “Just because that play at that point in its development is not right or ready to be produced does not mean there is a great writer at work here”.
The NPP, along with its manager Bryan Delaney and with Aideen Howard, set out to create a real development programme for new plays and new playwrights in Ireland. In recent years there had been no equivalent of an MPhil in Play-Writing in Ireland as there has been in the U.K., Europe and the U.S. The NPP is now in its third year and combines the vocational with the craft of playwriting. The Abbey welcomes these writers to be part of a busy commissioning and producing theatre environment with front-line access to dress rehearsals, opening nights, workshops and expertise all readily at hand at the Abbey and results in total immersion in the theatrical process.
As part of the NPP the selected candidates are, over the course of a year, selected to write a full length play and to get to grips with the technical aspects of production. The group meet every second Monday for workshops that cover all aspects of the play-writing craft: from the drafting process, to characterisation, plot, dialogue and also assessment of their own work, which Howard describes as something every playwright has to be able to do. Technical workshops in the skills of sound, lighting, and stage design are also provided for the apprentice playwrights. Workshops with playwrights such as Billy Roche, Tom Murphy, Marina Carr and Paul Mercier, to name but a few, have endowed their own priceless pearls of wisdom on the craft of forming the ‘perfect’ play. Last year twenty-six workshops were planned but the amount of workshops undertaken was closer to fifty. Seizing the opportunity to work with what was happening at the Abbey, Shakespeare workshops with the visiting Fiona Shaw and even yoga with Annie Ryan of Corn Exchange added a more fun element to the grind the group’s schedule.
The recently staged and excellently received Something Borrowed was a series of staged reading of plays from writers for whom it was their first association with the Abbey Theatre. This series, coupled with the New Playwrights Programme are two of the central programmes of the Literary Department. The third avenue of new play development lies in full-commissioning. Something Borrowed featured four very different voices and four very different ideas. The only criteria the writers were given was to write for two actors, 20-30 minutes in length and the guide of the working title “Something borrowed”, invoking ideas of financial or property investment, or a more gentler take on the title but what is most definitely evident is the idea of a dramatic transaction.
Those who part in Something Borrowed included David Ireland, who is currently Playwright-in Association at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast; Elizabeth Moynihan, whose play Slaughterhouse Swan was awarded ‘Best New Play’ at the 2010 Absolute Gay Theatre Festival; Robert Massey, his play Rank featured in the 2010 Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival and also Jimmy McAleavey who has worked extensively in Northern Ireland where he received the Stewert Parker New Playwright Award in 2010.
Something Borrowed. . . is following on from previous series of readings of new works, such as 20Love in 2007, which featured Belinda McKeown and Philip McMahon. The Fairer Sex followed in 2009. This event featured six twenty-minute plays from female writers which Howard outlines was orchestrated in response to the fact that female playwrights in Ireland were not just failing to gain commissions, they were failing to be recognised full stop.
Howard explains the benefits of these programmes of staged readings as being “a way of introducing new playwrights to the Abbey and to the Abbey audiences. It is their first time working with the Abbey but not their first professional reading or production. None have been commissioned by the Abbey before. The Abbey benefits by uncovering a depth of talent and new playwrights and gets to know those writers, invest heavily in the script and drafting process and focuses less on the production end as the goal is on a development-heavy influence. Only two days are spent rehearsing the reading. It is the script itself that can communicate a true sense of the play and also a sense of the playwrights themselves”
“This allows us to find out where these writers’ strengths lie and allows writers an insight into working with a major producing theatre and this process will stand to all parties down to line. We deliberately do not fully produce the works, they are commissioned readings. The rights lie with the writers to take the play and produce them later elsewhere. The Abbey will invest time, knowledge and resources in the development of the play but just to the reading stage”.
This end-product of a staged reading as opposed to a full production owes to the Literary Department’s commitment to looking to present new writers and uncover new voices while conversely trying to shield these works from the enormous scrutiny any new work staged by the Abbey is automatically exposed to. A gruelling full production be it on the Abbey or Peacock stage, does obviously present its benefits: giving a new playwright unprecedented exposure and opportunity to develop their work but it also, as Howard explains, can have detrimental effects on a young playwright. “The play or playwright might simply not be ready at that point to carry a full production. A staged reading in association with the Abbey is more rewarding process for all involved.” Howard openly talks of the cynicism she and the Abbey met in relation to staging only readings and not full productions – facing accusations of merely trying to placate writers by holding readings and not giving a full-production to emerging talents. Howard followed through with patience and showed form by going on to commission four works from that initial 20 Love series and, in the process, managed to silence many of those critics. Howard wryly says she can handle criticism, perhaps taking a lot of the flak for rushed or under-developed full productions and protecting those playwrights at a vital stage in their career.
Irish theatre audiences are quite savvy and known to be demanding. Audiences crave new stories and voices but it is no secret new plays are hard to sell. People can be slow to take the risk to see works by playwrights they know nothing about. It is also the duty of the Abbey is to remove this risk factor and encourage their audiences to support these new works, keeping in mind that today’s classics were the new voices of their day.
Howard describes as a happy challenge how she and her department must meet changing trends in theatre. As well as supporting a singular playwright and their script, they must also support more collaborative works and groups, which the Abbey has done in the recent past with the likes of THISISPOPBABY, the Company and Randolf SD. While recognising these groups are comfortable in their skills and ability and in their own forms of more non-traditional and experimental forms of theatre, the Abbey can still support by offering resources and moral support while still receiving input and guidance from the Literary Department.
Offering advice to any aspiring playwrights, Howard pleads “not to try and write ‘an Abbey play’ – no one knows what such a thing is.” While being conscious of the context as the Abbey as the National Theatre, programming is not dominated or guided by this proviso but it is still a considered factor. A final piece of advice from Howard to a playwright sending a play out into the world for the first time is simply to ensure it is as good and as ready as it can be. “Human instinct is to readily send a first draft into the post, but take a step back, let it sit for a period of time and then come back to it. After all your hard work, if you send in a play wouldn’t it be so much better for it to be as good as it could be.”
As Aideen Howard’s phone buzzes with the news that another 150-page script in development has arrived, the whole process kicks off again.
For more on the work of the Abbey Literary Department go to http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/literary