Fresh Ink: Our response to the crisis in new writing

By 16 November 2023Fresh Ink, News

Artistic director, Paul Smith, blogs about our launch of a new writing festival, coming to Hull in summer 2024

I’m not sure I’ve ever been this excited to write, and share, a blog post.

As we grow older and enter our 13th year as a company, we are more focused than ever before on what we can meaningfully contribute to the city we live in, the industry we work in and the art form we love.

At the heart of Middle Child’s work – from our productions and development programme through to our venue, complete with a writing room and theatre library – is a dedication to new writing.

New writing, however, is under immense threat. The broader theatre industry faces some of the biggest challenges we’ve known since forming Middle Child in 2011, with the warnings from key industry voices clear.

Lyn Gardner has commented that “new writing finds itself in a precarious place where pressures on funding, concern over audiences, pressures on in-house staff and cutbacks to programming all threaten a delicate ecology. Unless we take care, the writing is on the wall.”

Meanwhile David Eldridge notes that “we must act now to save the UK’s great playwriting culture”.

These warnings are palpable in the day-to-day planning of a theatre company too. Edinburgh Fringe is becoming impossible for many companies, the future remains uncertain for London’s Vault Festival and challenges abound in finding financial deals for ‘risky new work’ that suits both touring companies and regional venues.

Even as a member of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, it is becoming harder to marry ambition with long-term sustainability, as we each contend with rising costs, reduced audience numbers in the face of covid and high competition for funds across the board.

These challenges have a direct impact on the working lives of freelancers too, with average earnings for freelancers in the industry 17.5% below the UK national average salary, as per the Freelancers Make Theatre Work’s 2023 report.

The impact of the past few years are particularly stark when looking at our home city of Hull. According to the Hull Data Observatory, employment in the arts, entertainment and recreation has fallen by 55% since the pandemic, compared to 48.6% nationally.

While these are massive, industry and country-wide challenges, we at Middle Child want to do everything we can to increase opportunity, employment and access for theatre workers in our small corner of the world.

Fresh Ink Hull Playwriting Festival

That is why, along with founding partners Wykeland and J F Brignall Charitable Trust, we’re launching Fresh Ink, an annual new playwriting festival in Hull’s Fruit Market, starting with a pilot event in summer 2024.

Fresh Ink will directly fund and support the grassroots development of new plays in Hull, bringing new ideas to the stage and inviting audience feedback on early work to shape its future.

The initial focus of our festival will be on supporting the work of those with a genuine connection to the city of Hull. This new venture is not designed to be a replacement of the international behemoth that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but instead asks if there are different ways new work can be supported within the UK theatre ecology, beyond the largest cities.

We do have major long-term ambitions to establish this festival as a permanent fixture, but are also aware that we must be clear and realistic with our aims in its infancy. Our hope and belief, then, is that investing meaningfully in both funding and developing new work in Hull will make it easier than ever before to find a home for new work in the city, and will also provide local artists with a platform from which they can more sustainably create work that can be taken to other places.

We know first-hand the impact established events such as Edinburgh Fringe can have on new work, while also recognising how much stronger and better equipped our work would have been for such stages had there been greater support structures along the way. Therefore, our hope is that Fresh Ink acts as a pathway for writers and artists of all experience levels to develop their craft and test out new ideas in a positive and nurturing environment.

All of this is only possible thanks to the incredible support of local partners Wykeland and the JF Brignall Charitable Trust who are funding the first few years of this exciting new event. Working with these brilliant partners has already been incredibly liberating as both demonstrate a genuine desire to make Hull a better place to live, work and play, and we thank them for their trust and support in making this dream a reality.

Launching a new writing festival is important to us because of our absolute belief in the power of stories, and our desire to continue fighting for writers and artists in Hull with stories that need to be heard. While we recognise theatre’s challenges go beyond just new writing, we feel that supporting new writing specifically is where Middle Child can have the most impact, in-line with our wider vision for a fair and equitable world where anyone’s story can be told and heard.

The question now becomes what type of festival we want to create.

There’s still lots to learn on this front, and we’ll be asking your help with that, but there are a few things we do know, which we are using as guiding principles to build from the ground up.

Our values

We know we want to create a festival that:

  • Gives meaningful opportunities to writers of all levels, from emerging to established, first-timers to fiftieth-timers;
  • Fosters a supportive community for writers, where they can take risks and enjoy a working environment conducive to great art;
  • Encourages people of all backgrounds to try new ideas, with free opportunities to learn and hone their craft, and creates meaningful ways for writers to receive feedback from audiences;
  • Tells unheard stories;
  • Embraces a ‘rough and ready’ energy, in a low-pressure environment that allows work to develop and grow without high expectations;
  • Gives space for people and organisations to meet each other, be it as collaborators, producers, audiences or critical friends;
  • Invites audiences behind the curtain to learn what goes into the creation of new work and gives them the chance to genuinely help shape its future;
  • Works for everyone, reducing the barriers to participation or attendance that are often associated with festivals;
  • Listens to what barriers people face and responds with meaningful action;
  • Is open to people from all walks of life, and has a direct, lasting impact on who is creating and engaging with art beyond simply who can afford to do so;
  • Pushes back against the idea that artists will be exploited or take the majority of financial risk when taking part in festivals;
  • Is not a vehicle created simply for the work of Middle Child;
  • Works in partnership with other organisations to create something special together;
  • Invites ideas from others and provides support and backing to make that happen as part of the festival. If you have an idea, a project or just a general interest in this Festival then please do reach out as outlined below and we’ll do all we can to find a way to work together.
An amphitheatre in a dry dock surrounded by new office buildings, with the set of There Should Be Unicorns in the middle

What Fresh Ink will look like

While the above hopefully gives an indication of how we want our festival to feel, we’re in no doubt that any such venture will be judged on its action and its impact. We will:

  • Commission plays for people of all experience levels. There will be at least six commissions in 2024, including two early stage 15-minute pieces, two 30-minute pieces and two commissions up to 70-minutes in length. These commissions will be performed at the festival at various stages of their development, with audiences invited to offer feedback. We know how hard it can be to secure a commission and think that first and foremost it’s vital our festival makes that more achievable.
  • Create a rep company of actors and stage managers to bring new plays to life, providing meaningful employment and involving theatre workers in the early development of new work.
  • Offer a series of micro-commissions to be performed at an evening cabaret, encouraging experimentation in form. This event will also feature an open-mic style event for artists to trial new work in a low-pressure environment.
  • Create space for low-pressure sharing of first-ever plays by young people, as well as participants on our Introduction to Playwriting Group led by Tom Wells.
  • Use the festival as an opportunity to discuss the state of new writing in the UK through a series of open discussions.
  • Offer a workshop programme as part of the festival to create a space for personal development.
  • Provide a platform, resource and infrastructure for other companies wanting to trial new work, reducing the cost of R&D’ing new plays and supporting the development of new ideas.
  • Welcome partnerships with other organisations, nationally and locally, helping to make new projects happen and providing a home for big ideas to be grown.

We are fully aware of the scale of what we are proposing, and know we have a lot to learn along the way.

That’s why our first festival in 2024 will be a pilot. We know we will learn a lot from this and will constantly re-evaluate what we are offering and how we are working, to make sure we create a festival of value and one which can last long into the future.

Meeting a need in Hull

Initially, the focus is on investing in the development of grassroots artists and activity in Hull. We have already conducted a survey with artists in Hull to gauge the value of a festival, receiving 42 responses from within our artistic community, and the results are clear:

  • 92% of respondents agreed that “it would be useful to have audience input into the generation and development of new ideas”
  • 100% of respondents agreed that “performers, creatives and other theatre workers would benefit from the opportunity to be involved in the development of new work at an earlier stage”
  • 100% of responders agreed that “writers in Hull need more meaningful opportunities to develop new ideas and new plays” and “more opportunity to show what they can do”
  • 82% of responders disagreed that “there are enough work opportunities already in Hull for theatre workers”
  • 100% of responders agreed that “an annual new writing festival in the city would be a benefit to my career” and that “an annual new writing festival would be a benefit to the city”

We also surveyed Hull audiences to gauge their appetite for seeing work at early stages. Of 181 total responses, 58% of people agreed or strongly agreed that they would like to see a work-in-progress play. This rose to 75% when looking only at audiences who have attended some new writing work by Middle Child, This is also reflected in the audiences who have come to our last three scratch events with Silent Uproar: 72% of attendees do not work in the arts.

Hull is a festival city, already served brilliantly by such local institutions as Freedom Festival, Humber Street Sesh, Big Malarkey, Humber Mouth and Hull Jazz Festival. We’re excited to add another event to the social calendar and want to add to Hull’s reputation as a city where world-class art is made and showcased. As Fresh Ink grows and more partners come on board, we hope it will become an event of national renown, where local artists rub shoulders with those from further afield – sharing ideas, knowledge and skills.

Not just our festival

We want Fresh Ink to be a festival that listens to people and takes action accordingly. With this in mind, we have created various ways of getting in touch to feed into the festival and help us to create an event for all.

First, we’d love it if you would tell us what would make your dream new writing festival. It may be a suggestion for how we can ensure it is more inclusive or accessible, it could be something you’ve always wanted to see happen at a festival, or just an idea you think would be really fun. Whatever it is, we’d love it if you could share your dream festival ideas through this online form. We can’t promise we’ll do it all, but we can promise we’ll listen to and consider everything that comes in.

Second, we’re keen to hear from local artists and companies who have work in progress they would like to share with audiences as part of the festival programme, beyond our six new commissions. Again, not everything will be possible, but we’d love to hear your ideas and see what we can do.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. We hope to be inundated with suggestions and ideas. We’ll go quiet for a bit now while we put together the programme for the first year. You’ll hear more from us in March when we will reveal the commissioned writers, then plan to go on-sale in late June, with our first pilot festival in July 2024.

Writer applications are now open

My final message is to any writers, or potential writers, reading this. We’re working hard to create a festival that celebrates stories, people and ideas while reducing barriers to participation for all. Our commissions are now open and close on 8 January, but if you need any additional support before applying please reach out to literary manager Matt.

We’re all absolutely buzzing with excitement and can’t wait to get started on creating something which we believe can have a huge impact on new writing in Hull and the UK.

We’re sure there are lots more of you out there planning ways to make a difference, so if anything in this blogpost has resonated or if you’d like a more detailed chat about it and how you can get involved please get in touch with me on

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