Q&A: Stella Duffy, theatre-maker

“All of the arts have never really been welcoming to anyone but the middle classes”

Stella Duffy is a writer and theatremaker, and the co-director of Fun Palaces. For Alchymy 2017 she is running a workshop and appearing on the Writing For Our Time panel. Rosemary Waugh talks to her about the challenges writers of all ages face and how to address the lack of diversity in the theatre industry.

Alchymy is an entirely new project, but one the organisers want to take forward as an annual event. I wondered if you had any advice for people starting a big new project in the way that Fun Palaces once was?

Well, we didn’t mean it to be. That happened by chance. We genuinely thought that it was going to be a one off. And I certainly didn’t expect to become the producer of an annual event. So I don’t really have any advice other than that you can’t plan these things. You can’t make a choice to say: ‘Oh, it’s going to be like this’.

Particularly something like Fun Palaces, because it’s so locally lead. There were 292 Fun Palaces around the country last year. I don’t think that you can plan to create that. I think that happened because people were interested and because people want to take part in creating locally.

I think part of the problem of trying to plan stuff is it doesn’t leave space for any happy accidents. So Fun Palaces by itself is entirely a happy accident and I don’t think that you can second guess that, you have to just be free for it to be whatever it is.

In a way the only advice is not to plan anything. I think trying to stay open and be very malleable is the only advice there is because none of us know. You can’t really plan anything more than 6 months in advance in any life, if that. Don’t plan anything, would be my answer.

With the festival being focused on new writing, what do you think are the challenges for new writers trying to break into the industry at the moment?

The same challenges as there are for old writers. It’s really hard. I don’t think it makes any difference if you’re 65 and just starting out or if you’re 54 and have been doing it for decades, like me, or 25. It’s probably more use if you’re young because the writing industry – in particular for theatre – prefers younger writers to older ones.

People always get excited, they go: ‘Oh wow! It’s by a young writer!’ I personally think new writing’s exciting and I think writing by people who are new to writing is exciting, but I don’t think that being 25 is necessarily any more interesting than being 65.

However, the theatre industry does. So actually young writers tend to get their work on an awful lot more than old writers. Particularly if they’re new. It’s terribly hard for someone who is older and starting out because people aren’t interested in stories by older people. That’s dangerous because we are getting an aging population and we’re going to be having people who are retiring who are living for another 30 years and want to be creative. We need to encourage that creativity at whatever age. But the way the theatre industry is at the moment, you’re much more likely to get a play on if you’re under 30 than if you’re over 60.

That actually leads quite nicely into my next question. With a festival like Alchymy, what would you like them to be doing in the future? For instance, would something like encouraging older writers be a part of that?

Yeah. I think we need to be encouraging work for older people all the time. There’s this terrible assumption that we have in Britain at the moment that older people are well off. That they’re comfortable, that they’re well off, that they’re fine. That they’re OK and that the Baby Boomers in particular have had it all easy. Well that’s only the middle class Baby Boomers.

We’ve got an aging population of poor working class older people who had never had it OK. And that population is growing. In the same way that it’s really important to support a 16 year old who wants to be creative, we also need to be looking at supporting the 65 year olds and the 70 year olds because those people are going to be around for a good while yet.

An aging population that is disaffected and depressed costs, literally just costs, the nation more. So the more work that we can do to support older people to be creative, to support themselves to be part of community, the better it is for society.

I’m 54 and when I was a young person there was nothing that was a young persons scheme. There was nothing that was for under 25 year old writers or under 30 year old writers, there was nothing like that at all. For about the past 30 years, we’ve concentrated and it’s been really brilliant for younger people, really valuable. However, a lot of my friends when they turned 26 or 30 then went: ‘Oh my god, what is there now?’ Because they’d had so much support and after that there’s nothing.

In order to be fair and to acknowledge that many people don’t get the opportunity to be creative ever, but we do have an astonishingly large older population, we’re going to need to start supporting older people in their creativity too. It will be of benefit to society, because we are going to have this older, aging population and we need to find a way to bring them in.

What would that look like on a practical level?

I guess it would look exactly the same as it does when we do the National Youth Theatre. I mean, let’s have a national older peoples’ theatre. With NT connections programme, instead of doing theatre and just assuming we could have 15 year olds writing theatre, let’s have the 75 year olds writing – the ones who never had an opportunity to be creative in their lives.

There are hundred of thousands of those people who don’t ever get an opportunity. People are all up in arms about how we’re taking arts education out of schools – and rightly so – but arts education has only been in school for, like, the past thirty years. So there’s this huge swathe of the population that never had access to being creative at all. If we could get them involved, then that’s a great way of supporting the younger people. If you get the 75+ people supporting the under 15s then what you get is a really beautiful circle in a community, because you’re not missing out one chunk of the community. You get to involve older people in the lives of younger people, and that’s beneficial to younger people too.

You wrote an article for the Guardian in 2012 responding to statistics published then about the lack of women represented in British theatre. Since there seems to be a lot of female representation not just on the panel, but throughout the whole Alchymy programme I wondered how you thought this had changed in the past five years?

It’s not only not changed. It’s getting worse. There’s a brilliant study by Dr. Dave O’Brien about how theatre at the moment is becoming more male, more middle class, more white. But particularly more middle class. It’s to do with how we’re not letting working class people in and never have.

I grew up working class, and theatre and all of the arts have never really been welcoming to anyone but the middle classes. So if you want to do go to drama school, most of the drama schools are in London and unless your parents are in London it’s very hard for young people to go and study. It’s the same with any further education, if you’re living where a university is and your family can afford to go to university it’s fine, but that’s not the truth for most people in Britain.

Because of the lack of support for people of colour, for women, for working class people, theatre is becoming more staid. So we get some big names, some big women’s names and some younger women coming along and people go: ‘Oh it’s fine, there’s been two women on the stage at the Royal Court’. But that’s in comparison to what? In comparison to 15 men?! Basically we’re 50% of the population, but we’re treated like a minority. Women are not a minority. White middle class men are a minority but they don’t realise that.

I know you’ve spoken elsewhere about quotas. What do you think needs to be done to increase the number of women working in the industry? Would quotas be a good solution?

We need quotas across the board in everything. We need quotas on who is on Boards. Similarly, we need quotas for people of colour being on stage. If we start showing representative theatre then we’ll get representative audiences.

Playwrights need to be encouraged to write representative plays. I’m working on a new play for next year and I’ve written in it a character that has to be played by an African woman in order to enforce that it cannot be an all white cast. We have to think like this.

What have you seen recently that you’ve liked? That’s been exciting…

I saw 42nd Street last week and I bloody loved it. And everyone wasn’t white in it. I love a good musical. Musicals are great! I really enjoy dance in general, compared to theatre, it’s generally really pushing in a way that theatre isn’t and can be quite hidebound. Not all theatre, there’s some great stuff. Improbable, who I work with as a performer have done a bunch of shows at the National called Lost Without Words with older people improvising, which was great, and they’ve made a conscious choice to be working with people in their 70s and 80s.

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