Proposals for 18 new plays for the inaugural New Play Commission Scheme (NPCS) have been announced today by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain in partnership with HighTide theatre company, UK Theatre and the Independent Theatre Council.
Designed in response to the decline in new theatre commissions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the NPCS ensures 18 new commissions for playwrights, in partnership with a venue or producer, across England in 2022. The architect of the scheme is playwright and former WGGB President David Edgar, while the selection panel was chaired by WGGB Chair Lisa Holdsworth and consisted of writers Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Tom Wentworth and Roy Williams, writer/director Aisha Khan, writer/actor Amelia Bullmore, producer/director James Dacre and producer Kate Pakenham.
Research demonstrates that the pandemic has been devastating for playwrights, with a survey of UK Theatre members and other theatres revealing that new commissions declined by a third between 2019-20 and 2020-21. A poll of WGGB members found that 74% of playwrights lost income due to the pandemic – representing 40% of their annual earnings – and that 50% believed they would not be working in theatre in two years’ time.
The 2021 Creative Majority report for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Creative Diversity highlighted further challenges for the sector post-pandemic, in particular the chronic under-representation of women, racially minoritised people, those with a working-class background, people with a disability, and those living outside of London and the South East. As MP and Co-Chair of the APPG, Chi Onwurah states in her introduction: “Without action, we risk exacerbating inequalities further in the creative industries and an entire generation of talent – the future of the sector – could be lost.”
The New Play Commission Scheme had equity and inclusion at its heart from the very beginning and is delighted to be announcing a truly diverse list of recipients. The scheme set minimum benchmarks in terms of inclusion of writers from under-represented groups and these have all been exceeded, demonstrating the depth and breadth of diverse writing talent working in England today. The scheme is also pleased to have met its commitment to ensuring that 60% of grants go to productions outside of London and that almost 90% of grants have been awarded to new commissioning relationships.
A range of themes and subjects amongst the works in the New Play Commission Scheme shine a spotlight on theatre’s enduring ability to reflect and comment on contemporary concerns, highlighting pressing issues of the day, as well as entertaining and inspiring audiences through troubled times, such as smalltown attitudes to disability, women impacted by the Duterte regime in the Philippines, and the plight of black mothers in the UK medical and social care system, which take their place alongside “a working-class reimagining of the classical Persephone and Demeter myth” and a “lyrical, theatrical, multi-thread dive into young people’s relationship with stuff”.
The scheme provides grants equivalent to the WGGB commission minimum rate for the type of theatre and/or company commissioning the work. Playwrights were required to apply for the scheme in partnership with a venue or producer.
Initially endorsed by 317 writers, 46 venues/producers and the three major UK play publishers, the New Play Commission Scheme has been supported using public funding by Arts Council England and by the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre through the Theatre Development Trust. The scheme has also raised over £50,000 in donations from major producers, actors and writers, with play publisher Faber making a donation to the scheme as well as awarding an additional £5,000 to the best play by an unpublished playwright. HighTide Theatre has produced the scheme on behalf of WGGB.
Playwright donors include Mike Bartlett, Caryl Churchill, April de Angelis, Lee Hall, Lucy Kirkwood, Bryony Lavery, Nina Raine, Simon Stephens, Tom Stoppard, Jack Thorne and Laura Wade. Producer donors include the Mackintosh Foundation, Neal St Media and Sonia Friedman Productions.
A full list of the 18 NPCS playwrights and producing partners, plus synopses of the selected plays and photographs of the playwrights, can be found below (in alphabetical order by play). Plays that have opened or are due to open, including ticket booking details, can be found here.
Biographies of playwrights and producing partners, alongside quotes from them, can be accessed here (in alphabetical order by play).
David Edgar, award-winning playwright and architect of the scheme (left) said: “The New Play Commission Scheme was conceived early in lockdown, and designed in partnership with UK Theatre and the Independent Theatre Council. However, as the weeks turned into months, we feared that cash-strapped and backlog-burdened companies would be increasingly leery of commissioning new plays – even with help from NPCS. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Our brilliant selection panel were faced with the daunting task of whittling no less than 216 entries down to 18.
The shortlisted and selected writers included playwrights and screenwriters but also poets, novelists and spoken word artists. Unsurprisingly, many of their proposals were autobiographical, identifying and challenging discrimination and celebrating the agency of the excluded. Others combined political passion with mythology and magic realism. Many will place community research at the core of their process.
While extra fundraising and good financial housekeeping has enabled the panel to offer three more awards than we had originally planned, there remained many, many more of the plays we weren’t able to select that are deserving of production. We hope NPCS will inspire the companies which submitted them to bring them to the stage. Truly, extraordinary plays for extraordinary times.”
Sandi Toksvig OBE, WGGB President (left) said: “As our theatre industry emerges from a devastating two years, which has seen venues shuttered and new playwriting commissions dry up, it is vital for the health of the sector, and the playwrights who power it, that new plays pave the road to recovery. I am delighted that WGGB has stepped up to the bar with the New Play Commission Scheme, and what a fantastic selection of new work it is too.”
Ellie Peers, General Secretary of WGGB (left) said: “New writing is the lifeblood of our theatre sector and it is vital that in the post-pandemic world support is given to playwrights, including those from under-represented and diverse backgrounds, so that our stages truly represent our society, and careers can flourish under fair and equitable working terms.
As a trade union, we are proud of delivering just this through the New Play Commission Scheme, which shows what is possible when our activists and industry partners come together collectively.”
WGGB Chair Lisa Holdsworth, Chair of the NPCS selection panel (left) said: “I’m very proud that the WGGB responded to the post-pandemic crisis in UK theatre in such a practical and positive way. The New Play Commission Scheme is the result of a great deal of hard work by union activists, staff and partners and a fine example of what can be achieved when the industry comes together.”
Photo of Ellie Peers: Reese Lipman @ Chocolate Films; photo of Lisa Holdsworth: Emily Goldie
New Play Commission Scheme recipients
And The Earth Opened Up Under Her is a lyrical working-class reimagining of the classical Persephone and Demeter myth. Brigid runs away from Ireland with her two teenage daughters, Sky and Lark, to a ramshackle seaside town in the North of England in search of peace. But the world is full of roads leading to hell and Sky and Lark manage to find themselves lost in the dangerous underworlds that open up for teenage girls. Sky pursues a man who cruelly plays with her, and Lark starves herself to stay a child. It is up to Brigid to find her daughters and drag them back out of hell, on her Raleigh shopper bike with the help of Bede, the Irish Wolfhound. Photo: Kev Howard
Attrition is a story about climate change and coastal erosion told through a family drama, of three women in a house on a cliff edge, trying to understand each other before they are swept away. It’s a play that explores generational difference, loss and motherhood, inspired by the true stories of British coastal towns under evacuation orders, and those that have already fallen into the sea.
Bury St Edmunds, 1645. The town prepares for a witch trial. Pamphlets are circulated describing these creatures of Satan. Men take to the stand. Women wait for their fate to be decided. Beldam is about these women.
Wise women were traditionally called on for remedies and tinctures. They’d assist pregnancy, help with childbirth, even concoct love potions. Sisters Mary and Rose are in trouble when their local wise woman is accused of consorting with the devil. Witch paranoia takes off and to be an outspoken, unmarried, misfit woman was to be in mortal danger. A wild play with songs and a community chorus about the resistance of women. We know from the pamphlets what happened, but Beldam asks how. Photo: Nick Ilott Photography
A comedy about black womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood – and babyhood.
After an unexpected break up with her long-term boyfriend Dami and being beaten down by constant comparison to her married little sister, Brenda embarks on a crazed 365-day journey to become a mother.
This fast-paced, fearless and satirical comedy cross examines the pressures placed on modern women through the lens of a young Black British woman navigating the nuances of sibling rivalry and racialised healthcare systems. Brenda’s Got A Baby takes a daring dive into the world of dating, conception and modern fertility solutions; an unending series of awkward conversations, embarrassing encounters and defiant decisions.
Vic and Zara are chalk and cheese sisters from Bradford. When their father passes, they need cash quick. And so they dip their pedicured toes into the world of adult services. But is selling worn knicks really the secret to financial security? Or will stripping back the layers of fakery reveal a dirtier secret about the desperate truth of working-class ambition? Cheap as Chips is a saucy comedy drama that interrogates the question: Can we ever protect our sisters and mothers and daughters from exploitation?
Photo: Brandon Bishop
When Sabrina and Lucien, a happily married couple with two children – a five-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl – are expecting a new addition, they cannot foresee what is around the corner. Having a soured relationship with the hospital after refusing to have her first two children immunised, also worried about the standards of Black maternity care, Sabrina gives birth at home.
However, there’s immediate concern over the baby’s health from the medical professionals, but Sabrina believes it to be hyperbolic; refusing to respond to the medical professionals’ concerns, the matter is quickly escalated as a safeguarding issue.
Based on a true story, Escalate explores the systemic pillars and their procedures in relation to Black people, particularly Black women.
Calle Real, a slum community in Manila, is gearing up to its fabulous annual Gaga Ganda Gay Beauty Pageant. Pageant matron Madame Stella is summarily executed by the police under fascist rule, leaving Mimi, her young transwoman assistant, to continue the tradition of crowning the next Miss Philippines. Mimi rallies the women of Calle Real to mount the pageant with gowns, glitter and plenty of sass to defy all odds in the middle of President Duterte’s bloody ‘War on Drugs’.
Morgiana, Sinbad & the Jewel of the Lost Lagoon by Shamser Sinha (producing partner The Egg Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath)
Morgiana’s captured stealing the Sultan’s diamond. Impressed with her prowess, the Sultan promises her riches if she retrieves the jewel of the Lost Lagoon – guarded by a Kraken. But she’ll be joined by Sinbad – the only one who can sail there – and the father who abandoned her. Through their adventures, Morgiana and Sinbad will bond – or not. They’ll encounter the Mermaid Cecelia, Maya the Angry Megalodon Pup, The Cyclone-causing Cyclops Siblings, and The Kraken of A Thousand Eyes. This is a Christmas story of adventure, found families, a daughter who happens to be neurodiverse, and a father struggling with parenthood.
Theatre-maker Abi’s mum is dead and until now she hadn’t realised funerals are so expensive! Unless Abi can find money, in 30 days her mum will be given a pauper’s funeral. No guests, no flowers, placed in an overcrowded plot. Council property.
Time running out, grief taking hold, Abi’s brother can’t forgive the past. With no will, assets, life insurance – things are not looking good.
Abi decides to put on a show about it, place her real-life trauma centre stage, giving mum the send-off she deserves, but at what cost? My Mother’s Funeral: The Show is about being a benefit class artist and the approach towards our trauma stories. Asking if death is unifying, why are we all not afforded the same dignity?
Pantomime season in Croydon. Twenty-something theatre manager Benjamin finds himself looking after the fabled female impersonator Danny La Rue and his eccentric entourage. His wily dresser Annie and his ancient dog Jonty. Of course, Benjamin remembers who Danny is. Or was. His gran had been a huge fan. But now Danny’s tired and scared of the future. He decides to tell Benjamin his secret story before it’s too late. A love story from a lost time that’ll make Benjamin view his own life differently as he begins to understand why, without his precious dog, there really can be no Danny.
Peak Stuff is a lyrical, theatrical, multi-thread dive into young people’s relationship with stuff. In an age of fast fashion, planned obsolescence, NFTs, thrifting, hoarding, minimalism, retail therapy, climate crisis and click and collect – what does it actually mean to ‘own things’? When do we become consumers? How does our stuff define us? And do we know how to stop? Peak Stuff uses one performer and multiple stories to chip away at the role consumer culture has to play in coming-of-age and its impact on our sense of identity, consciousness and choices.
The Exhibition of Degenerative Art (Nazi Germany, 1937) showed work that included paintings from the neurodivergent and Schizophrenia patients from the Heidelberg Sanatorium: work collected by Dr Hans Prinzhorn. These individuals (murdered by the regime in the 1940s) inspired Jean Dubuffet’s (who saved the Prinzhorn collection after the War) Art Brut, becoming Outsider Art, which leads to the ground-breaking Turner Prize 2021. The play dramatises these marginalised and unheard artists’ story, the extraordinary times they lived in, and gives these silenced individuals the voice they were denied in their own lifetime. The play includes the wide sweep of how art changes, jumping through time periods, exploring how these individuals revolutionised art, helping it to become Art for All.
An oak tree waits outside a pub on Finchley Road. Elizabeth Bishop strides through the dreams of a man in Coventry. A man in the airport flaps his wings like a bird as he waits at passport control. Six strangers from across the world meet to write poetry, open their hearts and let their imaginations run wild.
Inspired by The Conference of the Birds, The Conference of the Trees traces the quest of a thousand-year-old Sufi poet to find utopia. From writing in car parks and community centres, to the fantastical quest of an oak tree in search of his cousin, the play meets six people determined to archive the world they have seen and imagine it otherwise.
This project explores mákina, a form of high energy dance music unique to the North East and associated with the New Monkey night club in Sunderland, where it first flourished in the late 1990s. Born out of rundown council estates and army tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, mákina – a mix of hard trance and Spanish techno – became the soundtrack to a city experiencing post-industrial trauma, with the closure of its shipyards and glass-making factories and the decline of its beloved football club. Building on stories collected from interviews with people involved in mákina, Garry Lyons will develop a music-drama for The Fire Station, Sunderland’s new 550-seater venue, that celebrates and shines a light on the mákina phenomenon.
1984, Mira and Jack meet for the first time at the opening of Hull’s New Adelphi Club and, high on the mix of 50p pints and alternative music, decide they are in love after 15 minutes. Over the course of 38 years the couple grow, struggle, and change together, but the one constant is their love of music and their love of The Adelphi. This Damp Won’t Burn celebrates the story of Hull’s most infamous anti-establishment club, which helped launch the careers of iconic bands like Oasis, Radiohead, Green Day, Pulp and The House Martins, and how it gave a home and a voice to anyone who needed it and had something to say.
Kylie recruits Leanne, Leanne recruits Nisha, Nisha recruits Sharon, Sharon recruits Iman and Iman struggles and struggles and struggles … Five women across the UK recruit each other into what appears to be a lucrative opportunity to sell cosmetics. It soon becomes clear that the system is rigged, and they are in fact each profiting off the next woman’s increasing hardship and desperation. Until it all comes tumbling down. A dark satire, set in the increasingly absurd world of Multi-Level Marketing companies. An industry that preys on women’s vulnerabilities and exploits a culture hell-bent on promoting incessant self-improvement as the only means to personal and financial success, with disastrous consequences.
Frank is holding court again. He is a central rock in the East Durham farming community, but this time it’s different. He is on a hospital ward having had a massive stroke with his backside on show through the back of his gown, as he defiantly tries to right himself. This isn’t what wife Stella bought into, son Jacob thinks it’s now time for his inheritance as he proclaims it’s over for Frank and daughter Scarlett wants to mediate everything and everyone in sight. This family, and wider village drama unfolds to reveal the smalltown mentality of special buses, special schools, and a separate special world. As old friends desert him, the sprites from the moor encourage him on to become a ‘fucker’, a mischief-maker, and to break every rule in the book of what is expected of him now
In 1992, HMP Woodhill was opened on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. Designed to protect and reform prisoners, it was supposed to be a flagship facility. Instead, what happened was the biggest scandal the UK criminal justice system has ever faced. 27 prisoners died by their own hand at Woodhill. Despite multiple death investigations and coroners’ reports, this number continues to rise.
This new verbatim play will examine life on the inside, the individual vs the state and the failings of the UK criminal justice system. This is a contemporary British story about how much this Government values a life. This is the story of families of Woodhill who continue to fight for justice.