New writing returns to the Stephen Joseph Theatre

Picture of Stephen Joseph Theatre

For anyone who is waiting for my Edinburgh Fringe roundup, please bear with me. I’m having a manic week at work and I don’t yet have the energy to write up what’s going to be a monster of an article. Hopefully this weekend.

But before then, a bit of news back in the north-east. The Stephen Joseph Theatre recently appointed a new associate director, Henry Bell. Normally, this sort of appointment is extremely boring and this doesn’t seem to have made it into the news anywhere. But it’s actually a very significant development, because part of his remit is new writing. Which means that after a long period on hold, script submissions are now open again. It’s using a submission window system, and the first window is open now and closes on September 30th. Sadly no sign they’ll break the habit throughout most of theatreland and bother saying why scripts are being rejected, but you can’t have everything. (I will be coming back to this another day.)

The Stephen Joseph Theatre is, of course, most famous for discovering Alan Ayckbourn, and consequently most lion’s share of new writing goes to Ayckbourn. No complaints here, he’s earned it, people want to see it, and he’s one of the writers I have the most respect for. But away from Ayckbourn, the list grows thin, and most new plays are from writers who are already established. The only recent plays I can think of where the writer was a sort-of newcomer were from Fiona Evans, who did Geordie Sinatra and The Price of Everything. And this gives rise to a paradox: the theatre that discovered Alan Ayckbourn seems to have lost its ability to discover another Alan Ayckbourn.

(And, this it where the pedantic amongst you will point out that Alan Ayckbourn wasn’t discovered through a script submission, he was an acting member of the company first and wrote plays for them later. But you get the idea.)

There is one other cause for interest. I have seen plays produced by a lot of companies who do script calls. Some are quite good, some are dreary, but my brutally honest observation is the lack of stylistic variety. Almost all of them have large backstories and are relatively light on plot, the tension usually reserved for dramatic monologue or dialogue. But the one thing that is avoided like the plague is comedy, or comedy with serious moment, or even serious plays with a comedic element – only serious plays with a serious slant will do. Apart from wry observations about the local area. The only people I’ve seen break away from this mould are new writers with a professional play or two under their belt who can afford to be different. There still seems to heavy mindset in the world of new writing that comedy is inferior to drama.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre could be quite different. Heck, Alan Ayckbourn made a career out of mixing comedy and drama. If any theatre is going to reject the notion that comedy is the poor cousin of drama, it’s them. (Okay, they get more box office takings from comedy so there is a financial incentive too – they try to bill everything as a comedy; they would probably bill The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a comedy if they ever staged it.)

It’s too early to tell if they can catch up with theatre like Live who have a reputation for new writing, but it looks like we will be in for something refreshingly different.

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