International Playwriting Residency at the Royal Court Theatre
Tuesday, 25 July 2006
Elyse Dodgson talks about the special plans for the Residency this summer, 2006, at London’s Royal Court Theatre and also looks ahead with some plans for the future.
This year the annual International Playwriting Residency is happening between mid-July and mid-August. This is the 18th year! Because it is also part of the 50th anniversary celebrations we decided we have to do something a bit special. We usually have 15 to 18 writers coming but I find this is not ideal because we could give more intensive experiences to a smaller group.
So my trial for this year was to choose only ten writers. On 8 August we are doing a public showing of all 11 writers. I say 11 because there was a young writer from Malaysia who was added in. 11 writers and as many different countries will be represented – including Malaysia, Mexico, Cuba, Russia, Rumania – all countries we work in. New countries include Chile. We also have Sweden India, and others. What pleases us the most is the clear cross-fertilization of people from all these countries. Whatever we can give them in terms of the workshops and experiences of theatre and meeting important playwrights and directors, the big thing is to meet each other and to work together and collaborate.
Some very important international collaborations have come out of our residences and workshops in the past. A Mexican writer has been commissioned by a Swedish theatre. An Argentinian has been commissioned by a German theatre. All this happens because of the relationships they make here.
BBC World Service
We also have a new departure that I find extremely exciting. We’re doing a project with the BBC World Service. We’ve never done that before. Why didn’t anyone ever think of it before because we have access to a huge number of international writers, which is just what the BBC needs for its world service. We can even provide them with plays in the original languages if they want.
And as part of the anniversary we are commissioning 11 writers from 11 different countries each to write a ten minute play. All of them have participated in one of our international residences over the last 18 years, so we are going back to some of the first people we ever helped.
Many early writers on the residency programme have made a big success in their own countries by now. We have commissioned from each a short play for radio and also for the Royal Court on the subject of how their own personal experience in their local environment is impacted by larger events in the world. We have writers from Iran and Syria and Germany and Russia and the Ukraine and Mexico.
Our young Indian writer came on the residency in 1999, and she is writing a play about people in her own province. They are growing cotton but are forced to compete with China and were forced to stop using fertilizer and grow GM cotton. Now they have lost everything because it didn’t work there as it did in China. And now they are committing suicide because there is a grant for families if someone commits suicide. It’s a phenomenon in this province with the cotton growers who are going bankrupt. This is the kind of work, social issues, we feel our work is about – using theatre to tell us about things that are going on in the world that really affect us all and which we might otherwise not really attend to. Plays make you feel the situation. Our Indian playwright is a wonderful dramatic writer and that is an example of the kind of work we can elicit.
We will do that one on stage in the Royal Court in November and it will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on 11 November. We are doing all 11 plays here and the BBC will chose five of these ten minute plays and there will be a whole programme with links. It has a great reach and will be heard by hundreds of thousands of people. So that’s another anniversary project for us.
As well as Mexico, there is also a very strong Latin American project in Cuba, one that is very hard to let go of. We have just finished our second round of workshops there. There’s a national theatre prize in Cuba that has been given for ages, but in the last four years each of the winners is someone who has attended one of our workshops because the plays that have emerged from our workshops have been so powerful.
The government gives the award and supports the writers and has never censored a word of some very critical plays. It’s been a very enlightening experience for all of us.
This project and all our other international work could not happen without the Genesis Foundation. All our work is paid for and supported by Genesis, though we also have some involvement from the British Council who look after me in kind in these countries. That’s very limited, though, compared to the budgets that Genesis funds. So everything for this work has truly come in large part from the Genesis Foundation.
And the impact it makes on writers abroad is truly astonishing. My experience in Cuba has made me feel that the most important work we do is in those countries where writers may be marginalized, where there are certainly hardships involved in creating theatre and where resources are very few. The Cuban project has taught me, after four years of doing the work – and it has to be that length of time – that you can really make changes. But you have to commit time and let the process grow slowly.
We are also finding that our reputation is beginning to bring opportunities to us that we never would have expected.
I’ve been approached by the British Council in Spain because a lot of the people who have worked over the years in the International Programme for the Royal Court have become very prominent in Spanish theatre. They got together and wanted to do something to mark that and I said, “Well, 2007 marks ten years of our work in Spain.”
But of course, it is also the ten years that we have received support from John Studzinski and then his Genesis Foundation. So then I thought, well, we should be celebrating that as well. Let’s do something special. Because ten years is a real marker and what we do is also about the number of years it takes to build up the momentum, to lay the foundations and really start to achieve things. I feel strongly about that because the results are starting to come through in some major and gratifying ways now.
The Middle East
Our aim is to continue working in countries that really need to get their voices out, and we have started to work in Syria lately. The playwright David Greig went on a one-off initiative to Syria that the British Council sent him on. And then he said, “no, this isn’t right that it should just be one off” and made a proposal that would link the Royal Court to this project; and so there is a group of Syrian writers that will be coming to Royal Court in January 2007 and see British theatre and really get to work some things out. The Syrian project will be the start of a very specific process. As a result of that, the Middle Eastern region in the British Council wants more of this work. So I will go over for a look at five Middle Eastern countries to try to bring Arabic writers together to look at how they feel as young Arabs living in the Middle East and about their relationship with the West.
In fact, as we speak here I am preparing to go in a few days to Nigeria because I felt that we began in Africa, in Uganda, and we should be rolling out more programmes where we began. That was something I inherited from Stephen Daldry who had a particular interest in working there. We worked five years in Uganda and made significant changes in new work and approaches to dramaturgy there. It seemed sad to me that we weren’t getting the writers through from other African countries; but now with this opportunity we should. I am going to Nigeria to meet theatre practitioners and playwrights. I’ll be accompanied again by writers from Nigeria who were on earlier international residencies. I will be able to make a proposal for work in Nigeria in the near future.