Contemporary Playwriting and Theatre Translation Cultures in Europe: A Report on Current Systems, Conventions and Perceptions

Margherita Laera*

Commissioned by the E.U.-funded project, Fabulamundi: Playwriting Europe Beyond Borders, this report assesses current practices, perceptions and norms in the field of contemporary playwriting and the translation of contemporary plays in nine different European countries: Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain and the U.K. Mapping different national ecologies, structures and traditions enabling the production and mobility of plays through the use of questionnaires and one-to-one interviews with key stakeholders in each context, the report presents qualitative and quantitative data gathered on how each theatre culture supports living dramatists, how it organises its education system, what conventions drive the production and translation of contemporary plays and what perceptions are held by gatekeepers, theatre-makers and other cultural operators about the theatre system in which they work. Drawing on the existing network of partners, venues, playwrights, translators, directors and performers working with the Fabulamundi network, I evaluate and compare cultural practices and institutional habits in the field, and conclude with a list of best practices for a sustainable field.

Introduction

The complex and historically layered ecologies of contemporary European theatre practices—shaped by such factors as economic and social conditions, ideological discourses, taste and other professional conventions—informed local performance cultures abiding by very different written and non-written rules. While a large number of academic research within Theatre Studies have focused on national contexts within Europe, there is little research being carried out in English that programmatically approaches contemporary continental practices from a supranational perspective (see European-wide studies such as Delgado, Lease and Rebellato; Delgado and Rebellato; Ridout and Kelleher).

There is also very little qualitative research being undertaken—at least in English—around theatre practices, and even less qualitative research that aims to compare theatre cultures and traditions in Europe. Moreover, to my knowledge, an assessment of different attitudes towards, and approaches to, the translation of plays in Europe has never been attempted. As a result, resources for those wishing to navigate theatre systems across European borders are few and far between.  

The present report addresses a gap in research by focusing on contemporary playwriting and the staging of contemporary plays in their original language or in translation in Europe, taking nine countries as case studies. For the purposes of this study, I define contemporary playwriting as inclusive of both plays by living authors and plays written in the past 20–30 years. However, the focus has been on the systems and practical conventions that shape the careers of living theatre writers in each country. Driven by the desire to map and evaluate different structures and norms in support of intercultural understanding, exchange and cooperation, the report is both aimed at, and draws from the expertise of, scholars, critics, theatre-makers, translators, dramaturgs, literary managers and producers based in these countries.

This report was commissioned by the Creative Europe-funded large-scale international cooperation project, “Fabulamundi Playwriting Europe: Beyond Borders?” (2017–20), a network of European organisations supporting living playwrights and promoting the circulation of their work across European languages through a mobility programme for writers, a series of events and networking opportunities, as well as speculative translations, readings, workshops and full-blown productions.

Led by Claudia di Giacomo of PAV, a performing arts production company based in Rome, the network includes thirteen core partners in nine countries which contributed to the project budget (Wiener Worstaetten in Austria; Theatre Letí in the Czech Republic; La Mousson d’Été and Théâtre Ouvert in France; the Interkulturelles Theater Zentrum in Germany; Teatro i, Short Theatre and PAV in Italy; Teatr Dramatyczny in Poland; Teatrul Odeon and the University of Târgu-Mureș in Romania; Sala Beckett in Spain; and the Gate Theatre in the U.K.). I want to acknowledge the crucial support of my commissioners and the generosity of those who offered their time and expertise to the project. I also want to thank the project’s Research Assistant, Lianna Mark, for her work on data gathering.

The present report, nicknamed “Fabulamundi Workbook,” was conceived to empower Europe-based playwrights, playwriting institutions and organisations with concrete knowledge gathered from experts in playwriting and theatre translation practice in order to learn about and from one another.

In this report, my aim is to present a comparative evaluation of qualitative and quantitative findings for every country. More analysis of this data will appear in my upcoming monograph for Routledge, due to be published in late 2021.

Structure of the Report and Research Questions

This report is mainly based on qualitative data, that is, on the knowledge, perceptions and opinions offered by the experts who took part in this study. Despite our efforts to be representative and speaking to a variety of different voices, the findings on each country should be taken as a snapshot of what the experts we talked to have shared, rather than as statistically representative data.

This study is structured around eight national reports: one for each country, with Austria and Germany in a single report. Each national report features three key areas:

  1. Key players. We asked our respondents to name the most prestigious and influential venues and festivals working in their country to offer a map of their perceptions. For lack of space, we have had to limit the number of institutions we can present in this report to the few most consistently mentioned.
  2. Systems and practical conventions. My hypothesis is that what I call a “contemporary playwriting and theatre translation culture” is constituted by a system of interconnected practices in the theatre industry, as well as in arts funding, gatekeeping structures, education, press, publishing, audience interest/taste and so on. Conventions and norms in each of these areas will have an effect on other areas of the system.
  3. The last section included in this report is advice for foreign playwrights. Respondents provided short but specific advice for foreign playwrights wishing to have their plays staged in that country. The most useful suggestions have been included.
Partners’ fifth meeting in Rome, Nov. 7, 2019. Photo: Fabulamundi site. Accessed Nov. 12, 2020
Methodology

The project employed research methods borrowed from sociology and theoretical underpinnings from theatre studies, as well as practical knowledge of theatre-making, playwriting and theatre translation. Each survey respondent and interviewee who took part in the study gave us informed consent to quote their words anonymously. This study’s design was approved by the University of Kent’s Ethics Committee on November 16, 2019 (Ref: 0221920).

The research process was carried out in stages as follows:

  • January 2020. Questionnaires. An internet-based survey consisting of around sixty questions was devised to gather an initial set of mixed qualitative and quantitative data. Respondents included playwrights, directors, actors, translators, artistic directors, critics, academics and other roles in each country. An average of 22 responses per country were received.
  • February 2020. Interim national reports. Once the online questionnaires were returned, interim reports for each country were compiled with information gathered from respondents. The interim reports were shared with Fabulamundi partners and updated with their written and verbal feedback.
  • March 2020. Follow-up semi-structured interviews. The updated interim reports were shared with three to four additional experts per country (literary managers, playwrights, directors, critics, translators and so on), who were recruited via partners’ networks and through my own network. I carried out semi-structured interviews with experts over phone or video conferencing during the lockdown stage of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. The interim reports were edited again following conversations with these experts.
  • April 2020. Additional interviews. Additional qualitative interviews on key project research questions were carried out via video conferencing with a selection of writers (one for each country) by the project’s Research Assistant, Lianna Mark.
  • May–June 2020. Final national reports. A final version of the reports was redrafted to incorporate more qualitative and quantitative data and include complexity through quotations of interviewees’ anonymised comments.
  • June–July 2020. Peer review of Fabulamundi Workbook. The revised national reports were edited down to half their length into “national summaries,” published below, and collated into a single paper nicknamed Fabulamundi Workbook. The Workbook was sent out to three academic peer reviewers specialising in European theatre and to in-house editors at Critical Stages. Their feedback informed final revisions. The qualitative data and evidence upon which the below national summaries are based is mostly unpublished and will not be shared with third parties in order to comply with privacy and data protection regulation.
Executive Summary

This study compared systems, conventions and perceptions around contemporary playwriting and theatre translation in Austria and Germany; Czech Republic; France; Italy; Poland; Romania; Spain; the U.K. The study’s key findings can be summarised as follows:

  1. Confidence that contemporary plays in the local language(s) are valued. The country with the highest levels of confidence that venues, theatre-makers and audiences value new plays written in the local language is the U.K., followed by Spain and Poland. The country with the lowest confidence is Romania, followed by Italy and Austria. Confidence was measured via a combination of two survey questions, which asked experts in each country to evaluate whether venues “regularly” programme contemporary plays in the local language, and whether theatre-makers and audiences are “interested” in contemporary plays.
  2. Confidence that contemporary plays in translation are valued. The country with the highest confidence that venues, theatre-makers and audiences value new plays in translation is Spain, followed by Romania and Poland. The country with the lowest confidence is Austria, followed by the U.K. and Italy. This was measured via a combination of two survey questions, which asked experts in each country to evaluate whether venues “regularly” programme contemporary plays in translation, and whether theatre-makers and audiences are “interested” in contemporary plays in translation.
  3. Playwrights’ income. It was difficult to establish a meaningful comparison between playwright fee levels because of the differences in commissioning and licencing practices. However, taking into account both commissioning fees (where these are customary), fees offered for existing plays (where these are offered) and copyright percentages, we found that the countries where playwrights can hope to earn more from writing plays were the U.K. and Germany, followed at some distance by Spain and France. The country where playwrights’ earnings are lowest is Romania, followed by the Czech Republic and Poland. In some countries, however, like Poland, Romania, Spain and Italy, it is common for a playwright to receive no advance fee for writing a play that is put on stage, and only be paid through a percentage of gross box office intake when the play is staged. This practice is unsustainable because it forces playwrights to either take on major financial risks, or give up.
  4. Translators’ income. It is difficult to establish a meaningful comparison between theatre translator fee levels in each country because these wary widely even within the same country. In general, taking into account fee levels and copyright percentages, Germany and the U.K. tend to be where translators can hope to earn the most, even though in the U.K. there is a lack of opportunity for translators. The country with the lowest translator fees is Romania, followed by the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy.
  5. Distinctive traditions. Contemporary playwriting and theatre translation cultures in Europe are characterised by distinctive traditions that inform practices, perceptions and value systems. Below are some of the key aspects that inform conventions in the field:
  • Playwriting as a distinct subject in HE/Drama schools. In many countries, playwriting or writing for performance is taught as a distinct subject in Universities or Drama schools (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, U.K.). In others, dramaturgy, devising and directing are taught in ways that engage with text production and editing, but the art of writing plays itself can only be learned in informal settings or is considered a skill that can be acquired independently by writers (Czech Republic, Poland, Romania).
  • Playwrights learning alongside actors. Some training contexts tend to assume that writers, directors and actors need to learn the foundations of theatre practice together and then specialise in writing for the stage (Italy, Spain, France). Other traditions tend to expect writers to only learn alongside other writers (Austria, Germany). The U.K. offers both options.
  • Dramaturgy/literary departments. Countries can be split between those that rely on the expertise of dramaturgs and literary managers—employed by venues or companies—and those that do not envisage this particular position. Even if many differences exist between the traditional German notion of dramaturg (who is considered part of the artistic team, and who is often a playwright too) and the traditional British figure of the Literary Manager (who considered part of the management team, and who is seldom a writer), the big dividing line is between those countries that conceive of such an intermediary role between the artistic directorship and playwrights (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, U.K.), and those that function mostly without such a role (France, Italy, Romania, Spain).
  • Commissioning. The concept of “commissioning” is understood differently across Europe. Broadly speaking, in most countries where dramaturgy/literary departments exist, venues have a solid tradition of approaching writers to request that they write new plays specifically for them for a fee, effectively trusting the writer on the basis of their track record and accepting a degree of risk (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, U.K.). In others, venues/companies do not—or cannot afford to—invest in commissions and tend to only consider plays that have already been written (France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Romania), which they do not have to pay to acquire.
  • Repertoires and ensembles. State-run theatres in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Romania and Poland tend to employ ensembles of actors on a full-time, ongoing basis and programme plays on a repertoire-style rota (that is, the same play will be on once every 2–4 weeks for several months or years, depending on demand). All other countries employ actors on a freelance basis and programme plays in single-block runs of varying length, from a few days to several weeks, months or years. This practice influences the kinds of plays that are staged and the support/feedback the playwright receives in the development process.
  • Literary agencies and agents. The most significant divide we identified in this field is between those countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, U.K.) where playwrights tend to be represented by commercial agents, literary agencies or publishers—albeit with different working methods and remits—and those countries where playwrights are expected to promote their own work and negotiate contracts themselves, or where only a few commercial literary agencies exist (France, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain).
  • Exchange with other media. Countries were split between those in which dramatists generally also write for other media, such as radio, TV and film (Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain and the U.K.), and those in which this exchange was not frequent (France, Italy, Poland, Romania). Many countries reported a sense of mistrust from professionals in commercial media, such as TV and film, towards theatre writers, who tend to work in the subsidised sector.
  • Press coverage. While coverage of contemporary theatre in the printed press is perceived to be in decline in every country we surveyed, web-based criticism is generally an area of growth. Specialised theatre press that covers new plays exists in every country. The most significant difference we encountered is whether experts perceived that national newspapers take an interest in contemporary playwrights and their craft, or not. Experts in Austria, Germany, Spain and the U.K. reported that at least some national newspapers do cover contemporary playwriting, while most experts in other countries lamented the lack of coverage in national printed press.
  • Publishing. Approaches around publishing play scripts vary widely. In most countries, the majority of new plays are never published as books because of a lack of play script reading market (Romania, Czech Republic, Poland, Spain, Italy), while in other countries (Austria and Germany), publishing plays is simply not part of national conventions. In the U.K., only plays that are staged can be considered for publication, but only those that are deemed financially viable are marketed as books. In France, where the publishing industry is subsidised by the state, new plays are considered for publication by specialist publishers independently of their staging history.

Overall, the combination of these distinctive traditions, systems and perceptions shapes the field of contemporary playwriting and theatre translation in every region and country. Areas of practice that have not been investigated in this report, but would deserve further research, include: theatre and playwriting in primary and secondary education; audience development activities; relationships between subsidised and commercial theatre sectors; stage aesthetics and taste; and attitudes in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion of a broad variety of voices. These issues will be further investigated in my upcoming monograph.

National Reports
Conclusion: Best Practices

The aim of this report was to map, evaluate and compare current practices and conventions around contemporary playwriting and theatre translation practices in various European nations, and to see where the field as a whole could learn from local contexts. In this brief conclusion, I list the practices that were highlighted in my conversations with Fabulamundi partners as being essential to creating a sustainable field. These best practices can be found in some—but not all—contexts and have emerged as pivotal in creating a supportive culture where contemporary playwriting and theatre translation can thrive.

With regards to gatekeeping and support structures:

  • dedicated literary/dramaturgy departments in venues and companies, such as in the U.K., Germany and Austria, supporting the work of artistic directors with dedicated resources and expertise in selecting, establishing and cultivating relationships with writers;
  • sustained and ongoing commissioning practices whereby venues see it as their mission to nurture and develop artists, especially cultivating the work of young authors, such as in the UK and Germany;
  • established state organisations to fund, develop and support the field of theatre including playwriting, such as the French ARTCENA;
  • dedicated professional associations or commercial agencies negotiating contracts on playwrights’ and translators’ behalf, such as the German publishers or British agencies;
  • dedicated professional organisations and authors’ societies promoting the work of playwrights and translators and offering development and networking opportunities, such as the Czech Aura-Pont and Dilia or the Spanish Asociación de Autores de Teatro or the British Writers’ Guild;
  • dedicated structures, institutions or opportunities whose mission it is to select and commission speculative play translations, such as France’s reading committees and the Maison Antoine Vitez, and to encourage these to be staged by venues;
  • dedicated prizes, paid residencies and bursaries to support playwrights’ and translators’ creative periods;

In terms of funding and income opportunities:

  • sustainable length of run and/or total number of performances per production, so that energies and resources are not spent on short-term projects with no future touring opportunities to hope for;
  • sustainable fee and share of copyright levels for playwrights and theatre translators (depending on cost of life and local ticket prices), especially avoiding the model whereby playwrights take all the risk by being paid through share of box office only;
  • sustained touring opportunities for productions at national and international level, so that investments to create a production do not exhaust themselves in short runs with no future;
  • widespread opportunities for playwrights to work in TV, film and radio, fostering a culture whereby theatre, radio, film and television industries talk to one another to innovate;

In the fields of education and public engagement:

  • dedicated playwriting courses in higher education leading to qualifications in playwriting;
  • specialist literary and theatre translation courses in higher education, along with further education and further professional development opportunities with a focus on theatre translation practice;
  • playwriting and theatre translation courses and workshops for young people in primary and secondary schools;
  • theatre and playwriting practice offered as curricular or extra-curricular activity in primary and secondary schools;
  • targeted audience development activities with young people and the general public to engage the theatre-makers and theatregoers of tomorrow.

All of the above best practices concern systems of support at national level. However, many partners suggested that the field needs systems or organisations that operate transnationally. The main suggestions were the establishment of a permanent, wider network of venues and festivals, like Fabulamundi, or the creation of a dedicated European Agency for Playwriting and Theatre Translation, utilising the model of France’s Maison Antoine Vitez, in order to fund expert reading groups and support a programme of speculative translations from and into as many languages as possible.

Transnational organisations committed to supporting playwriting and theatre translation would make it easier for Europe-based theatre-makers and organisers to share stories and ways of articulating the world through theatre, actively contributing to better representation and inclusion of diverse voices across European stages. We hope that, one day, in the not so distant future, this organisation may become a reality.

Works Cited

Budapest Observatory. “Public Funding of Culture in Europe: 2004–2017,” March 2019. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Delgado, Maria, Bryce Lease, and Dan Rebellato, eds. Contemporary European Playwrights. Routledge, 2020.

Delgado, Maria, and Dan Rebellato, eds. Contemporary European Theatre Directors. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2020.

Kelleher, Joe, and Nicholas Ridout, eds. Contemporary Theatres in Europe. Routledge, 2006.

Lech, Kasia. “Jacek Sieradzki Announces the End of the Contemporary Polish Plays Problem: The 2018 Awards For Staging Contemporary Polish Plays,” TheTheatreTimes.com, 8 July 2018. Accessed 27 May 2020. 


*Margherita Laera is a Senior Lecturer in Drama and Theatre at the University of Kent, co-Director of the European Theatre Research Network and Online Editor of Theatre Journal and Theatre Topics. She is the author of Theatre and Translation (Red Globe Press, 2019) and Reaching Athens: Community, Democracy and Other Mythologies in Adaptations of Greek Tragedy (Peter Lang, 2013), and editor of Theatre and Adaptation: Return, Rewrite, Repeat (Bloomsbury, 2014). Margherita also works as a theatre translator from and into Italian and English. She won the TaPRA Early Career Research Prize for 2018.

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