As Decade, Headlong’s imaginative investigation of 9/11 and its legacy, opens in London, NHB Commissioning Editor Matt Applewhite considers a play publisher’s role in documenting the theatre of our times – and why it’s worth pulling out all the stops to do so.
When, in 2009, Caryl Churchill wrote Seven Jewish Children, her short, sharp response to the situation in Gaza, the Royal Court programmed and produced the play within weeks. As Caryl’s publisher, but also as individuals similarly concerned by the crisis, we felt it was important to publish the play alongside its run. Printed copies were given free of charge to all audience members, and the play is still freely available as a PDF download on our website, enabling it to be read, studied and hotly debated around the world.
Since theatre is the art form most able to react to and explore, in imaginative ways, major world events as they happen, our responsibility as a theatre publisher is to respond likewise. Whilst the work itself might be performed for only a very short time, publication will guarantee the play an ongoing life. Bringing permanence to the essentially ephemeral is the guiding principle behind the publication of any play; when the work combines a wider but immediate significance with something of lasting artistic value, it can feel even more vital.
Headlong, Rupert Goold’s theatre company, has a track record of producing provocative, challenging theatre about urgent, contemporary issues. In their productions of Lucy Prebble’s ENRON and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, the Big Subjects of financial meltdown and climate change were respectively explored, in brilliantly theatrical and exhilarating ways. To mark ten years since 9/11, the company began work on their Decade project, commissioning twenty writers from both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond) to respond to the events of that day, and what has happened in the world since.
We all know the profound impact that 9/11 has had on international politics and global security, but the twenty plays making up Decade are all the more powerful for telling us the stories of individuals. So we see the Muslim shopkeeper who has a brick thrown through his window, the souvenir-seller at Ground Zero who seduces weeping tourists, the widows who meet up every anniversary, the passengers grounded at a unnamed airport, the young US solider and the photo which makes her infamous, and – almost comically – the person born on 11th September who must evermore share her birthday with a date remembered for all the wrong reasons. Through these stories we glimpse a bigger picture of how all our lives have changed by varying degrees in various ways.
We’d been discussing the possible publication of these plays for a few months with Headlong, but it was finally confirmed less than two weeks ago that they’d like us to publish all twenty pieces in a single volume and in time for press night. Eight working days is not a long time to get any play into print, from signing a contract to having finished copies, via the processes of typesetting, proofreading, copyediting and design, not to mention the actual printing of the book. And the challenge is all the greater when there are twenty playwrights and their agents to deal with, twenty contracts to be negotiated, twenty plays to be typeset, etc, etc. – and a book of 256 pages to be produced. Thanks to the goodwill, cooperation and hard work of a lot of people, copies were on sale to audiences at the press night.
And, after the production ends on 15th October, and the attention around the tenth anniversary of 9/11 has passed, copies of the publication will still be on sale. Just as the plays explore the legacy of a moment in history, they will have a legacy themselves.
The NHB publication of the twenty plays that make up Decade is available here. To order your copy for £10.99 with free UK P&P add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).
To see Headlong’s thrilling production of Decade running at St Katharine Docks, London, until 15th October, book via the National Theatre Box Office here.