Down Stage Write is a theatre company dedicated to creating development and production opportunities for playwrights in Devon and Cornwall. Founded by playwrights Jon Nash and Sam Parker in 2018, in response to the scaling back of literary departments in theatres across the South West. In just five short years the organisation has gone from hosting it’s evening of short plays, to receiving over fifty thousand pounds in Arts Council support to create a series of new writing projects across the region.
They have supported the emerging careers of dozens of new writers, with many of their alumni writing and touring work which began at a Down Stage Write workshop. Just a few of these examples include Exeter based playwright Hattie Collins, who brought her most recent play to London’s Vaults festival and has now received ACE funding to tour regionally, as well as Fringe First award winning playwright and Plymouth Laureate of words Laura Horton, whose most recent play Breathless is now touring internationally.
BIPC Devon speaks to their co-artistic director Sam Parker, about the realities of building a new writing company in today’s current funding climate, exploring the highs, the lows and everything in between.
For those that don’t know, what is Downstage Write and how did you start up?
“We started in 2018. It was set up by myself and John Nash. We were both playwrights, but not really doing any writing! So we decided to put Downstage Write together, in the hope of providing a bit of the new writing infrastructure that we felt was lacking in Devon and Cornwall.
It wasn’t a slight on pre-existing venues or companies. But I think they they just had slightly different priorities at that time. So we felt there was a space that we could fill.
Once we’d done our first event, it provided the model for the way we wanted to work going forward.
John, and I like to think of our programme of work being a bit of a ladder, so essentially having opportunities that writers can engage with, on their terms, or whatever level of experience or skill they’re at. That can be anything from our ‘playwrights to hire’ evening, where people pay a quid to a playwright to write them a mini play and then get it read out at the end of an event- which also works as a way of reaching out to members of the public that might not know or have engaged with new writing at all. All the way up to supporting writers who are on the cusp of, or are already working professionally and everything in between.
The only thing we’re yet to do- which is just a question of resources and time- is full production and tour. But apart from that it’s a case of churning out new opportunities, and the ones that work we repeat.”
We’re trying to demystify how to make a living within the creative industries- are you able to talk about your funding streams and how you are able to make a living from Downstage Write?
“We’ve been running for nearly five years and in the last year have converted to a Community Interest Company.
I think it’s fair and probably right to say that we do not make our living from our work with Downstage Write. Whilst we’ve been able to secure funding from various projects, which we’ve able to use to pay ourselves for the work we do, we also do a lot of free work for Down Stage Write.
As freelancers who are working in other capacities, we have the flexibility and latitude necessary to do what we want with Downstage, which is really quite nice, actually. Essentially we do what we think is best for the company and for the writers around there.
Our core programme is our monthly Playwrights Cafe’s in Exeter, Plymouth and Bodmin, our Playwrights Hangouts and masterclasses. All of which are sustained by ticket prices- we don’t usually pay ourselves for those, but it’s money for the company.
We’ve gone for three Arts Council England bids and we’ve got two of them so far. We had a small bid of around six thousand pounds for a project called ‘Aston 100’, where we got playwrights to respond to the 100th anniversary of Nancy Astor taking her seat in Parliament.
Outside of this we do work with external partners such as With Flying Colours (a project which pairs schools with theatre practitioners to give young people the opportunity to co-create work with industry professionals) which is funded by a mix of partners including the Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Plymouth City Council.
In addition, John is a brilliant gay identifying playwright. So he’s done some amazing work with our Write Out Loud Programme, which is, essentially working with queer writers across a number of different strands – we’ve recently partnered with The Old Queeriosity Shop in Plymouth to create little Zine project. We’re also working with these crazy designers, essentially pairing writers up with them to create a zine, which members of the public can engage with.”
Every small businesses face challenges, could you talk about those challenges and how you’ve overcome them?
“The biggest challenge for Jon and I, is the tension between our other work and maintaining the Downstage work, when we’ve not got funding. When we’ve got funding, it’s brilliant, because we can pay ourselves.
And sometimes that can be quite difficult. If you know, if I am teaching a module at the university, which are being paid like pretty healthily for, it’s quite difficult to then go and do three hours of work in the evening for free. We do it, because we love doing it, but that’s often the most difficult tension as we have our careers as freelancers as well as building this fledgling company.
The funding landscape is brutal at the minute. It’s really brutal, you get a lot of ‘no’s.
I also am a Pathways producer for Doorstep Arts in Torbay, which is, also a CIC, but a far more established NPO lead by a beautifully held and established leadership team. And I think think at one point they had seven rejections in a row, which is , it’s unheard of given, given how fundable Torbay is seen as being. So even that, like where you’re relying on to get your money is sort of challenging.”
What makes it worth it? When faced with such a challenging climate?
“Generally speaking, the work is a joy- we really love what we do. It’s amazing to see writers that we’ve worked with have their success, like Hattie Collins who’s new play Fissure is touring, and Laura Horton who’s play Breathless won a Fringe First last summer – both of whom have created work with Downstage Write programmes. We’re getting to the point where organisations and theatres locally are coming to us to strike up partnerships, who have facilities and infrastructure which is particularly useful because it means we can do so much more for the writers we’re working with.”
Have you got anything coming up that our audiences can check out and attend?
We’ve got our monthly playwrights Cafe’s in Exeter, Bodmin and Plymouth. In addition to this, we’ve got a Masterclass coming up with Clive Judge and he’s essentially going to talk people through the draft of the play that won the prize in comparison to the draft, anyone interested can find out more about us on our social media, or follow us on Eventbrite.
Feeling inspired by the Downstage Write Story?
Why not check out our 2022 Art of Business programme! Watch all the recorded sessions through our website and learn how to make a living in the creative industries from artists, filmmakers, sculptors, authors and publishers!