- Making New Theatre TogetherThe First Writers' Group at the Royal Court Theatre and Its Legacy within the Young Writers' Programme
The reconstruction of the Royal Court between 1996 and 2000 saw the theatre relocated to the heart of London's West End. The Court's delayed return to Sloane Square, along with the arrival of Ian Rickson as the theatre's new artistic director (1998–2006), allowed for a period of reflection and adjustment as the theatre approached the new millennium. Under Stephen Daldry's leadership (1992–1998), the Royal Court enjoyed one of the most successful periods in its history, with new plays by exciting young playwrights such as Sarah Kane, Joe Penhall, Mark Ravenhill, and Rebecca Prichard all contributing to what was hailed as the "renaissance of new writing."1
Through Rickson's appointment, the Royal Court returned to Sloane Square with new intentions that rejected the "stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap" 1990s paradigm, which saw around fifty new plays produced for short runs in the Court's Theatre Upstairs between 1994 and 1997. Rickson's administration replaced it with a more considered culture of growth and development for new playwrights at the theatre.2 The rebranding of the Court's long-standing Young Peoples' Theatre as the Young Writers' Programme (YWP) and the subsequent relocation of that initiative to a building adjacent to the Royal Court known as the Site proved to be an early sign of Rickson's aspirations for a more unified theatre. Launched in 1998, the Young Writers' Programme sought to focus the Court's work with young people on playwriting, and this implemented what Catherine Love calls a "culture of development" that, importantly, aligned with the Court's identity as a writers' theatre.3 In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Young Writers' [End Page 248] Programme provided the foundation to the careers of playwrights such as Lucy Prebble, Duncan Macmillan, Polly Stenham, and Mike Bartlett, and those writers, in turn, featured regularly on the stages of the Royal Court and in British theatre more widely. The inception of the Young Writers' Programme, therefore, went on to provide an unsurpassed model of success for the Court that has since proved invaluable to the theatre's production of new plays by new writers.
The achievements of the writers who have emerged out of the Royal Court's Young Writers' Programme can be measured through the production of their plays in the United Kingdom, the United States, and across Europe. In addition, the work of the Court's International department, headed by Elyse Dodgson, has ensured that the theatre's work with writers has become a truly international endeavor. But in spite of the YWP's significant accomplishments in its fourteen-year history, academic engagement within this area of the Court remains limited. Indeed, it is only Love's 2015 article that has looked to bring some much-needed focus and scholarly analysis to what she describes as the "overwhelmingly successful" structure of the Royal Court's Young Writers' Programme.4 But the YWP is not the Royal Court's first attempt to provide an infrastructure that would offer support for a new generation of playwrights at the theatre. Such ambitions can be traced back to 1958, two years after the English Stage Company first began its residency of the Royal Court, where a writers' group was first established by George Devine in an attempt to further relationships between the Royal Court and a number of aspiring young playwrights of the time. In contrast to the Young Writers' Programme, whose history, as I have noted above, is in the early stages of academic analysis, the purpose, practice, and impact of the first Writers' Group at the Royal Court can be largely comprehended from the recollections of that time in the autobiographies of the group's members and through many of the publications on the history of the Royal Court.5
It is the purpose of this article, therefore, to revisit what should be regarded as the first attempt to bring a new generation of young playwrights to the Royal Court, through the Writers' Group in 1958, and...