“Tree” highlights the need for Credit Arbitration for playwrights

An insight prompted by a Mark Brown article in The Guardian: Writers claim being excluded after creating Idris Elba’s play

I read with interest The Guardian article by Mark Brown. The short version of the story is that Ms Allen-Martin and Ms Henley were removed from a theatre production after four years of work. “Tree” now claims it was created by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba, and has failed to acknowledge both women for their contribution.

You should also read the Medium article Tree. A Story of Gender and Power in Theatre. Both Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin explain in their own words what happened.

What strikes me after reading this article is how weak Allen-Martin and Henley were made to feel, and how little power they had to have their claims recognised. Basically if you don’t have huge reserves of cash to litigate, there’s not much you can do.

Anyone who knows anything about screenwriting knows that writers are frequently replaced. A new writer is brought in to do a rewrite, or polish, punch up the dialogue, fix this hole in the plot; the list goes on. When this all goes tits-up, and there is a dispute over credit, screenwriters can turn to the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Credit Arbitration service for help. The aim of the service is to ensure “that each writer’s contribution to the shooting script is properly valued and rewarded with the correct credit.” I can find no such service for playwrights. If I’m wrong let me know. It’s probably one of those things, it feels like something the Guild should get into, but for some arcane reason they can’t.

I wish nothing but good fortune to Ms Allen-Martin and Ms Henley. They’re not alone, we’ve all felt the same weight, frustration, and disappointment, at one time in our life.

Spyware is used to target dissidents: How would this be a movie?

An answer prompted by a Jon Swaine and Stephanie Kirchgaessner article in The Guardian: UK rights advocate co-owns firm whose spyware is ‘used to target dissidents’

This article is full to the brim with all kinds political intrigue, hypocrisy, big money, hacking, terrorism, repressive governments, dissidents, and the glamour of the art world.

There are a dozen ways to build a plot around what’s on offer. There’s the journalist uncovering a conspiracy version. I have in mind something like The Parallax View (1974) or State of Play (2003). There’s an innocent accused of a crime version. Think Enemy of the State (1998) or The Pelican Brief (1993). There’s a version from inside law enforcement. Something like The International (2009) or Serpico (1973). It could easily be part of the plot for a spy film like Casino Royal (2006) or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011).

My initial thoughts have the husband of an imprisoned dissident kidnap a wealthy art dealer Jill, and hold her hostage. The kidnapper starts to make demands of the art dealer’s husband, Jack. Conspiring with each new demand to expose his corrupt activity. As the plot drips through it becomes apparent it’s actually Jill’s spyware being used to hack Jack’s phone. All kinds of his secrets are exposed to the world. The kidnapper holds one last secret about Jill’s husband. When the two men finally meet to exchange their partners, Jill demands to know the final secret. When the kidnapper finally has his wife, he reveals Jack’s last secret to Jill. The news is so devastating to her, she kills Jack. We are left wondering, never knowing, his secret.

Why do I write? Part 1.

An answer prompted by a Katie Heaney article in The Cut: Why Does Writing Suck?

The first thing to say is that when I talk about writing, I mean screenwriting. I write other stuff, the kind of thing you’re reading now, but for me writing is screenwriting.

I know most of what I write sits unread. All of the screenplays I’ve written get; how is it best to say this? They get silence. Zero acknowledgement that they’ve even been opened.

That makes me feel as if it’s 1977 and I’m eight years old, standing toe to concrete with the Berlin Wall. I’m looking up at this huge expanse of grey, topped with a baffle of weather-worn pipe. It’s big, bigger than big. The kind of big that makes me feel small. So small I’m scared. Overwhelmed because, I was told this by my dad, if I ever climbed to the top, I’d be shot by the tower guards on the other side. Writing is like climbing that wall, only to find an entire squad of marksmen ignoring me.

I started writing because I wanted to direct features. I was trying to take control of my career, making choices for myself. I set off toward a place I want to live the rest of my life. I watch films, a lot of films, and I thought that was knowledge enough to let me write a screenplay. Perhaps I understood how to visualise a story, maybe, but not to create one with meaning. I know it’s possible to tell a story by presenting a series of random images. Our brains are hardwired to make connections, tell a story from what we see. Art school taught me that. But to organise a thought, and to express it dramatically, is a wall-high challenge.

A screenplay at its core is funding document. It’s the anatomy of a film, on paper, designed to raise money. The screenplay lets everyone involved know where they’re going, before they start. It has a very specific form, with certain standards, and is heavy with expectations. It has to be a compelling read, that offers insight and emotion, and inspire readers. Otherwise why would anyone invest in the film. The form is easy to master, the execution is not. To keep going, I’ve strung together things I’ve read, mixing ingredients as if baking bread. I tell myself that if I just keep writing, put in the time mastering the craft, I’ll eventually get good. When I’m good enough, I’ll be able to break through the Wall, walk past the guards, and continue my journey. I’ll get paid to write.

How likely is that? Who knows? But the space created by the answers, lets wheel after ever-rolling-tyre-of-self-doubt roll over me. The internal voice that tells me, the works not good enough. You’re an idiot. You can’t spell. You’re too slow. No one wants to hear what you have to say. Your characters are flat. The plot’s weak. You’re confusing the reader. I am forever a child, standing toe to concrete with the Berlin Wall. It doesn’t matter which way I turn, all I see is wall! I’ve written on the concrete, left evidence I was there, that I’m here, but those marks are just hand prints on the wall of a cave. It’s not a filmed piece of writing.

What’s the point? Why bother? What’s on the other side of the wall anyway? In 1977 it was the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, in all of its Cold War drab. A harsh life captured by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his 2006 film, The Lives of Others. Is that really what I want? That kind of paranoia? The pressure to conform? The logic of my metaphor has me standing in West Berlin, toe to concrete with the Wall, trying to write my way into a repressive regime. I must be mad. A sane person would just turn and walk the other way. The ambitious person might follow the Wall until they find a checkpoint. If all of their papers are in order, they’ll be allowed to enter, won’t they?

For some reason, this idea of the ambitious person makes me think of the journalist, speaking truth to power. I’m reminded of the time Noam Chomsky schooled Andrew Marr about journalists, and their grand illusion, or should that be collusion? Chomsky makes the point that unless the individual journalist shares the views of the ruling classes, they’ll never be allowed to progress within the industry. Nonconformity is weeded out. They’re only there, at the top of their profession, because their thinking aligns with the needs of the powerful. Is that what I have to do? Is that where I’m going wrong? Am I a nonconformist? Have I mistaken nonconformity for originality?

I’ve spent the weekend trying to fathom that question. The “look up” function on my Mac tells me that nonconformity is a “failure or refusal to conform to a prevailing rule or practice.” When I think back to my days at art school, nonconformity was prized, the fulcrum of originality. It’s where most artists function, rejecting the old in search of the new. Art galleries are full of people who lived their entire creative life in the antithesis stage of the Hegelian dialectic. Famous artist are defined by the way their work deviated from the practice of their predecessors. The more radicle the shift the more highly they are regarded. Is that true?

Is nonconformity all about context? Does the art-world prizes a sort of radical creativity journalism does not? Could the function of journalism be governed by a different set of rules? I think the answer to all three of these questions is yes. Which prompts my next question is, do they share anything? Where do the two disciplines overlap? Could they both favour the notion of the heroic individual? Artist as the tortured genius. Journalist as the crusader speaking truth to power. Is that the connection?

Most screenplays tell the story of an heroic individual. A protagonist battling their antagonist, overcoming impossible odds, making heroic sacrifices to change their world. Things may end badly for them, but they were tested, and rose to the challenge. If I were to play the protagonist in my own story, am I battling conformity? I live in a world full of people who prize individualism. People who live their best life without realising, their best life looks just like all the other best lives. Drive around Clapham Common on a sunny Saturday afternoon and you’ll see what I mean. Small groups collected on one patch of green, shoulder by foot with hundreds of similar groups. Is that what’s waiting for me beyond the Wall, the kind of individualism that encourages people to ignore fields of empty common?

If the antagonist in my story is conformity, I want to walk the two miles to find an empty stretch of beach. Plough my own furrow, not seed someone else’s. I don’t hate people. I just don’t own the need to be near them all the time, to play team sports, or drink beer on Friday night, or play Frisbee. Has it hindered my progress, stunted my growth, got in the way? I think probably yes. It wouldn’t be my antagonist if it hadn’t. So I must battle on, force my way past the fields of conformist souls.

None of this answers the question, why do I write? I writer to organise my thoughts. To quiet the continuous monologue that runs through my mind. To explain myself to anyone who will listen. To make a contribution. Change the world. Plot my own story. Find a way past that bloody wall.