The U.K. has one of the most established and supportive playwriting cultures among the countries we surveyed. Despite English-language authors being among the most translated in every other country, British theatre does quite badly at making space for foreign-language authors.
One of the key strengths of the U.K. system on the international stage is the sheer influence and prestige associated with its cultural products. This cultural and symbolic capital supports the sector by attracting tourist audiences to U.K. theatres, creating demand for U.K. plays in translation and international tours of U.K. productions. Despite the U.K.’s cultural spending and subsidies for the theatre being low compared to other countries such as France and Germany, playwriting has remained a viable business—at least before the coronavirus pandemic hit—because venues can count on relatively high ticket revenues.
100% of respondents were confident that U.K. theatres “regularly” or at least “sometimes” programme contemporary plays: the U.K. had the highest percentage of confidence in the popularity of the field out of all the countries we surveyed. Just over half of respondents believe that “most” U.K. audiences and makers are interested in contemporary plays written in English, and nearly all remaining respondents think at least “some” are. With regard to contemporary plays in translation, respondents are split equally between two large groups (35% each) affirming either that “some” audiences and makers are interested, or that “generally they are not.”
1. Key Players
The main centres for contemporary playwriting in England are located in London and a few other big cities, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle and Stratford-upon-Avon. In Scotland, the main centres are Edinburgh and Glasgow. Cardiff and Belfast are the main centres in Wales and Northern Ireland. In London, several venues are almost exclusively dedicated to new plays: the Royal Court Theatre, the Bush Theatre, Theatre503 and the Hampstead Theatre.
Besides this, virtually all major subsidised venues and some commercial venues programme contemporary playwriting, including: the National Theatre, the Almeida, the Young Vic, the Old Vic, the Yard, the Arcola, the Gate, the Kiln, the Finborough, the Donmar Warehouse, the Lyric Hammersmith, the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Soho Theatre, the Globe, the Bridge Theatre and the Orange Tree Theatre. The Unicorn also programmes some new plays but only for young people.
Other significant venues around the country are the Traverse (Edinburgh), the Tron and the Citizens Theatre (Glasgow), the Royal Exchange (Manchester), the Birmingham Rep, Sheffield Theatre (The Crucible), the Bristol Old Vic, Plymouth Theatre Royal, the Lyric Theatre (Belfast) and Sherman Theatre (Cardiff). The Edinburgh Festival, Chichester Festival, Brighton Festival, London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) and Vault Festival in London all showcase new plays.
2. Systems and Practical Conventions
2.1 Funding and Income Opportunities
State theatre funding. In the past fifteen years, the U.K. has spent less than France and Germany on culture, both proportionally as a share of GDP and in absolute terms, despite having the second largest GDP in Europe after Germany (Budapest Observatory 11). This is because the arts are expected to be run like businesses in a market economy—and theatre is no exception. As a result of high customer demand and offer, competition between venues is stark. According to the majority of our respondents, the most established playwrights in the U.K. can sustain themselves through playwriting alone, but most tend to have second jobs.
Commissioning practices and playwright fees. The U.K. has an established commissioning and sourcing system for new plays, with most venues and companies having a “literary department.” British literary managers are similar to German resident dramaturgs, in that they evaluate and select plays and establish relationships with writers and directors, but in the U.K. literary managers are less involved in practice and rehearsals than German dramaturgs). The wealthiest and most established theatres will allocate a share of their annual budget to commissioning new plays from the authors they are interested in, and which they think better suit their audiences’ tastes and needs. It is understood that only a fraction of all commissions will actually be selected for full productions, but the commissioning fees—ranging from £5,000 to £20,000 depending on context—constitute a sizeable proportion of a professional writer’s income. For a new play that has not been commissioned, fees range between £6,000 and £8,000. If commissioned plays turn out to be inappropriate for the commissioning venue, they can be sold or passed on to other venues.
Translator fees. Translator fees in the U.K. vary widely, and it is difficult to generalise. However, it is possible to generalise for three tiers: fringe productions, the subsidised sector and the commercial sector. For fringe productions, translators can earn between £0 and £1,000, plus a share of 10% of copyright split with the author at a ratio of 30/70, 40/60 or—very rarely—50/50. For major subsidised productions, our experts told us that translators can expect to be paid between £1,500–£5,000 to author the version of a script that will form the basis of rehearsals for a production, plus about 10% of gross box office split with the original author.
Some U.K. theatres commission “literal” translations of foreign plays that form the basis for further creative work by an adaptor (usually a local playwright who does not speak the foreign language). When a “literal” is commissioned, the translator is offered a small fee, usually around £1,000, which includes a copyright buyout. For commercial productions, translators can earn between £5,000 and £10,000. If a new production happens to be a new translation of a classic or of a new play, this will be paid up to £10,000 by the most established subsidised and commercial theatres.
Length of runs and touring. Royalties at 10% of box office income provide substantial additional income as most new plays stay on for an average of 4 weeks, with the most successful ones being eligible for so-called “West End transfers,” whereby a subsidised production extends its run in a for-profit venue in London’s commercial theatre district, the West End, though often with different casts. These extended runs can go on for months and even years (for instance, Lucy Prebble’s Enron and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem were seen in the West End for several years). Occasionally, after West End transfers, productions of plays by local living playwrights go on tour within the U.K. (for instance, Enron toured nationally), and the most successful new plays can tour internationally (for instance, Enron toured to New York and then to Australia; Arinzé Kene’s Misty toured the U.S.).
Exchange with other media. Many if not most established British playwrights also write for other media, such as TV, film or radio, and an exchange between media among writers and actors is the norm—less so for designers, directors and producers. Contemporary radio plays, especially written for this medium, are often programmed on U.K. stations, such as BBC Radio 4, which has an extensive programme of commissions.
Bursaries and residencies. Bursaries are made available—mostly to local playwrights, rarely to international writers—by a wide array of charitable and state organisations, such as the Arts Councils, and from venues themselves—it is impossible to list them all. The most prestigious residencies are run by the Royal Court Theatre and have recently included the International Residency and the International Climate Crisis Residency (which are not held regularly, but as and when funding becomes available). The Court also offers fellowships, awards, writers’ groups and mentorship opportunities for first-time, young and emerging U.K.-based writers.
2.2 Gatekeeping and Support Structures
Gatekeepers. Most British theatres have dedicated literary departments, or at least literary managers, who consider new plays by British or English-speaking authors—and sometimes by foreign-language writers too. Literary managers (or literary teams) work with artistic directors to select new plays for each season and match them with directors. As such, literary departments and artistic directors have joint power to decide which writers to promote.
Agents and professional organisations. U.K. playwrights are generally represented by agents, who negotiate writers’ contracts and have a key role in promoting their clients with organisations looking for new work of a particular kind—yet the primary relationship remains that of the playwright with the venue, director or company. Most agents and many theatres also operate an open submissions policy, whereby unsolicited scripts from writers are encouraged, but these do not have a very high success rate. Some of the most prestigious agencies, for both local and foreign playwrights, are Casarotto Ramsay, Curtis Brown, United Agents, The Agency, Judy Daish, Rochelle Stevens, Berlin Associates, David Higham Associates, Brennan Artists, Julia Tyrell, Independent Talent, Felicity Blunt and JTM. However, it is possible for a playwright to have a career in theatre, particularly at the beginning, without an agent. The Writers’ Guild is also an important organisation in the U.K., functioning as a union representing the rights of the playwriting profession.
Prizes. The U.K. boasts an innumerable selection of prizes available for playwrights. The most prestigious theatre awards for play productions in the U.K. are the Olivier Awards, which include a category for Best New Play. Other prestigious awards for new play productions include the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and the Offies—where productions of translated plays are also eligible. There are also prizes for plays that have not yet received a production, the most highly regarded of which is the Bruntwood Prize, which offers a first prize of £16,000 and has a section for international playwrights from Canada, the U.S. and Australia.
Other prizes each come with their own eligibility rules, such as the Papatango New Writing Prize, the Playwrights’ Studio’s New Playwrights Awards, the Soho Theatre’s Verity Bargate Award, Theatre503 International Playwriting Award, the Nicke Darke Award and the Alfred Fagon Award. The only competitions that are open to writers working in foreign languages are the BBC World Service/British Council International Radio Playwriting Competition (which results in a BBC radio commission), the Theatre503’s International Playwriting Award (which offers a production at the tiny, yet hugely influential fringe theatre) and the EuroDram selection (which only offers a recommendation for production and publication). Very few prizes exist for translated plays, and they tend to be literary translation prizes rather than theatre prizes.
2.3 Education, Publishing and Press
Higher education. At higher education level, practical playwriting courses leading to a qualification are available in drama schools and universities. For instance, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, a conservatoire attached to the University of London, offers a practical BA Writing for Performance (not just traditional “plays”) and an MA/MFA Writing for Theatre and Broadcast Media; the Drama Centre at Central Saint Martin’s, attached to the University of the Arts London, offers an MA in Dramatic Writing which also focuses on various media, such as theatre, screen and radio. Other University departments, such as those at Goldsmiths, University of East Anglia, Edinburgh and Bristol, offer practical MA courses in dramaturgy, playwriting or creative writing with a performance pathway, that are highly regarded by the industry. The Universities of Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh Napier, St. Andrews, Bristol and York also offer practical playwriting courses.
Publishing. Plays are often published as books or programme texts, especially if the run is long enough to guarantee enough sales. There is a relatively sizeable market for contemporary scripts in the U.K., given the cultural custom to buy the script when seeing a production and the widespread habit of reading and collecting plays among theatre-makers, students and some audiences. Dedicated independent publishers specialising in theatre and play script publications are rapidly disappearing, but one of the last to stand is Nick Hern Books, who also manage copyright for some plays.
Prestigious general publishers that also do plays are Faber & Faber and Bloomsbury (through the prestigious Methuen Drama imprint, and the recently acquired Oberon Books), while Aurora Metro Books are much smaller and publish some unperformed translated drama. Most new plays presented in subsidized theatres are published and sold at the venue from the premiere for the entire run. Very few plays by foreign playwrights are published in the U.K., and these tend to coincide with those foreign plays that are staged professionally in prestigious theatres.
Press. Reviews and features about contemporary plays are regularly published in the general press, such as national newspapers, though space and frequency are rapidly diminishing, due to smaller budgets for theatre reviewers. National newspapers covering contemporary playwriting include The Guardian, The Times, The Evening Standard, The Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Scotsman, The Herald and The Observer.
Contemporary plays feature regularly in theatre-focused publications, such as culture and theatre magazines and webzines, such as Time Out, The Stage, and webzines Exeunt, WhatsOnStage, British Theatre Guide, Critics of Colour, Disability Arts Online, The Theatre Times and A Younger Theatre, as well as more generally culture-focused online publications with a section devoted to theatre, such as The Arts Desk. Audience development, education and public engagement activities are high on the agenda of most theatre organisations.
3. Advice for Foreign Playwrights
“Do your research: don’t try and sell a painting to a butcher’s shop!”
“Send your script, translated into English, to the Royal Court or the Gate Theatre.”
“Contact your cultural attaché in London.”
“Have your script translated by a professional theatre translator who knows the theatre system in the U.K. If the translation is bad, it will have less than zero chance against those written by English-language playwrights.”