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'Playwriting is flourishing,' says the Language Union. Time for an exploration among playwrights.

On 6 December 2017, the Taalunie Toneelschrijfprijs awarded to poet, writer and playwright Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer. His piece on Bram Moszkowitcz, titled 'The lawyer', was his preferred original work among 47 submissions. According to the Taalunie, Pfeiffer's play "balances magisterially on the fine line between tragedy and comedy, realistic drama and meta-reflection, slapstick and poignancy". Constantly, the play refers to itself and its no small ambition: Pfeijffer meets Shakespeare meets Pirandello in 21st-century Holland. Nevertheless, it is not a vain text. The author shows great generosity, writes virtuosically and drags the reader into his intentions page after page. Just as can be experienced daily in reality, it turns out to be possible, with well-chosen performance and language strategies, to prove everything and nothing at the same time.

According to the Language Union Dutch playwriting flourishes. One notes current and urgent work: The jury looked forward to cross-situational theatre that leaves anecdote far behind, to plays you can keep projecting on and that jump right off the page, and to texts that, as is sometimes said in the rehearsal room, "seem to play themselves.

The work in question was originally written as a play. The only work allowed to compete for the Taalunieprijs. In addition, of course, much theatre comes about through improvisation and we know historical plays and book and/or film adaptations, without the intervention of 'real' authors.

That playwriting is flourishing in the Netherlands can be called quite extraordinary. Playwrights operate in a world where they collaborate with very many other creatives. And even in recent years, with pecunia and pegulants being scarce in the sector, the Drama Library has once again been richly stocked. As part of the General Outlook Council for Culture and the impending sector opinion, time for a decentralised exploration. Of on-demand bottlenecks and 'lessons learned', to inspiring initiatives and dreams.

Two months time to write

Almost all the attention goes to producing the performance where the text counts as preparation. It is a 'half-product' also states the writing course at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Utrecht. The time in which a text is created has dropped from 2 years to 2 months. Two years, as the desire of the autonomous artist who needs time to research and arrive at strong themes and ideation. Two months as a desire of the producer to respond to current events as well as possible. This no time-to-market comes at the expense of the quality of texts. Quality is difficult to define, but let us at least note that arriving at an original work is not the same as being display of a film script, sometimes even copied without attribution from databases abroad. Also, re-enacting the same thing is not always socially relevant.

Contracts and rules in transition

The call for faster, flexible, sharper and hotter also leaves its mark on contracting. In uncertain times, production and presentation institutions, if it is up to them, prefer to put it off until the day before the premiere. Thus, it happens that young writers are held responsible for the pre-investment. This sometimes goes up to a year and a half, while as a commission this is actually a business risk.

What does not help is that the Performing Arts Fund does not ask about the contract between institution and writer in the application process. This puts writers in an unwanted defensive position. Which is of course a great pity because texts are worked on with a great deal of attention and love. It also makes the work for unions more difficult. Other state cultural funds are much more aware of 'loopholes' in rules and thus clearly recognise the added value and quality of writers.

Substantial Work Contributions

Fortunately, since this year, there is again a work grant for playwrights. According to Martine Manten, dramaturge at The National Theatre and co-initiator of The Playwriting House, which alone is insufficiently flexible: 'The criteria of the only writing scholarship there is, the 'working contribution authors' from the Performing Arts Fund, are so standard that a plan can hardly be 'distinctive'. Do you stand a chance if you want to develop a different style or genre? What exactly is a distinctive text? It kills creativity to have to apply within these frameworks. For funds themselves, too, it then becomes a headache to make choices. Also because there are many more applications than the budget allows.

Freedom to be autonomous

Lauded playwright Lot Vekemans dreams of greater freedom for playwrights, similar to that enjoyed by literary writers. She suggests: 'Let's cut the compulsory economic ties with the audience. All that formulating who you want to reach with your work, how many people you are going to reach is not only limiting for the writer but also shortsighted on the part of the subsidiser. Everything is reduced to numbers again. There is continuous wrong-headed reasoning. Connecting does not start with what the other person wants from you, but with what you have to bring. Every creator wants an audience, every creator wants more audience and is always working on that. So the better question would be "why do we want to subsidise, what of art and why is it art?" As far as I am concerned, this is about soft values that you want to support in order to achieve quality texts. Audience research and audience orientation should not be a requirement for the autonomous playwright. They want to work free of all frameworks. First requirements are: how do you see the world, what do you want to make, what do you want to add, what do you want to research. Starting with the question "how many people are you going to reach" is at odds with the power of an autonomous work.'

Playwriting house

According to Martine Manten, The Playwriting House offers a place for this.The Playwriting House creates space and time for the playwright and the text. Writers are not people who unite easily, but there is a great need to exchange and deepen. The landscape is now set up for commissioned work and tight deadlines. There is virtually no room for experimentation and research. Especially after the cuts. We want to be there for writers to give space to their autonomous literary voices and develop new styles. Explore themes and forms they feel are necessary. Provide space for feedback sessions, facilitate expertise meetings and research.'

Facilitating Network Organisation

'TSH is networking organisation and place of expertise in one. We can also be a connector between producer and writer. We are outside any fund scheme, so we just started our first writers' table now, unpaid. Writers and dramaturges bring in their own networks to help colleagues move forward. We are starting with writers who have already developed their own voice. Eventually, we also want to support and help those who are building their signatures to find appropriate guidance and networks.

'You are sure to get good work when you put writers together on a 1.5-year trajectory. So they can hone and mature plans in peace. There are so many writers who now have nowhere to turn or don't know where to turn, with whom their writing might click. It is our dream to create a place for writers along the lines of The Royal Court in London and the Norwegian Writing House, theatres with an essential function for the playwriting climate.

As a new form of cooperation, the Playwriting House is a laudable initiative that offers playwrights continuity in the profession. The coming months are dominated by a renewed subsidy system. The Council for Culture is coming up with a sector recommendation for the theatre sector that may be as far-reaching as that for the music sector. For the performing arts, it is to be hoped that not only institutions, but also makers and especially writers will be given a proper place in it. After all, art is movement. That calls for policies that move with the waves, networks and connections.

Fleur Jansen

Fleur Jansen (1976) writes for film, television and theatre and is a compiler of collections of stories from around 1900. She wrote her first texts for Entertainment Experience, a film project led by director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Robert Alberdingk Thijm. After winning a screenplay award and the project an Emmy Award, she attended two master classes in the US. Recently, she wrote a TV miniseries with a grant and took a seat on the editorial board of Mediafonds' final festival. In her spare time, she works for the corporate world where she deploys 20 years of (international) work experience. Fleur Jansen studied Policy Studies at the UvA (1999) and occasionally writes for Cultuurpers.View Author posts

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