I was privileged to hear Mel Kenyon, legendary theatre agent, speak about her career and the theatre. These are a few notes from her chat
The early part of her career involved a fair dose of serendipity along with talent, hard work and charisma. Knowledge of Rock Follies had Mel singing in one of her final interviews to be an agent. Her training in secretarial (and legal) skills landed Mel her first job at the Royal Court as secretary assistant to Max Stafford-Clark.
With the outrageous, courageous arrogance of youth, Mel announced to Casarotto she wouldn’t make them any money for seven years, but she would create a stable of the finest writers of her generation. Mel proceeded to do exactly that.
A few notes:
Come to a play on its own terms – every play is like a little person – all different – there are no set rules, but you can’t paint a dog green when it is brown.
If you don’t approach a play on its own terms and try to understand what the play is then you can miss plays which might seem radical or ill-formed at the time (she cited Woyzeck, but in more recent memory, I’d invoke Sarah Kane’s Blasted).
Giving notes, reading plays – it’s an act of love and best done with a subsumed ego where possible. There is a reciprocity in the best note giving, a risk and giving for both writer and reader. The sharpest writers – if they are listening – can tell a good note from a duff note, and while many notes might be duff, a sharp note can be valuable.
Mel expressed a view that the best playwrights are innate dramatists, although acknowledged there are others who disagree with this view (cf David Edgar).
Some qualities she finds in plays and writers she likes:
A play which is not static – not a static telling of a story – but one full of dramatic action – a play where every scene has dramatic movement.
Linguistically – a fascinating rhythm, not a plodding rhythm, it may not be poetry or heightened, but it won’t be dull
A play which is somehow bigger than the sum of its parts and (personal to her) one which has no moral vacuum. She knows admirable plays, where she senses a moral vacuum and those are unappealing. So much better for a play to tackle a metaphysical question of the universe, no?
Plays are often visceral and image structure is often important to her (small images building up over the play to produce a synergistic effect)
Some thoughts for writers:
It’s very tough (not impossible) for older writers coming late to theatre writing
Don’t second guess people, things, institutions etc (stay true to yourself)
Open yourself to conversation with trusted people (on understanding you will know a good note from a poor note, if you let yourself listen)
If you have a conversation with an agent, producer and you think they are an idiot – try not to go with them.
Some times, you are wrong. (refers to writers and herself)
Some thoughts on theatre:
Problems with underrepresentation of black artists, women artists and gender pay gap stem from years and years of neglect and underinvestment (I would cite this under many other industries as well). Artistic Directors can’t magic up fully formed artists of colour from nowhere.
On seeing (David Hare’s) Stuff Happens, and triggering a re-evaluation of older generations of playwrights (stretching back to Coward, Rattigan) and some discussion on the intergenerational debate between young and older playwrights.
On Blasted (and in contrast to Killer Joe) and how at its heart, its morality and vision, is in direct contrast to Killer Joe. Yet, Blasted at the time – was mis-understood (due to its surface story). [Interestingly, a critic like Michael Billington has come to a position that both Killer Joe and Blasted are worthy works, where as Mel’s view (along with some other critics) would be Killer Joe has a moral vacuum]. I’d also note Blasted was a very influential play for me (and I think many other young writers at the time, I think we understood much more the deeper levels and the context of what was happening at the time, not only “in-yer-face” but also movements we had seen in fine art).
Mel views TV skeptically. She can’t protect her writers there, and she views the TV process as often stripping down a writer, not nurturing. Plus the courage needed for theatre is often greater. It’s a rare playwright who can easily do both TV and theatre, but they do occur.
I’m glad there are people like Mel around fighting for theatre writers. If you are the next Caryl Churchill you can contact Mel through Casarotto Ramsey agency.