13 tips for writing a soapbox play (from the soapbox plays’ harshest critic)

Production shot from Geoff Dead, Disco for Sale
Fiona Evans’s Geoff Dead, Disco for Sale, was probably the last good soapbox play I saw. That was seven years ago.

So, now that Edinburgh Fringe is over, it’s that month where I do my roundup, covering everything I’ve seen in detail, together with detailed analysis of how they did with other reviews, plus a look at some plays I wasn’t able to see. And that’s going to take absolutely fricking ages to write. So, in an effort to put this off to another day, I’m going to procrastinate with a tips article I’ve been meaning to do for some time. Ever since my surprisingly popular 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting thee years ago, I’ve wanted to expand on the individual entries, and for some time I expected the first I’d do would be the dreaded “trying to be clever”. But lately, I’ve found the thing which disappoints me the most is the “opinion play”, or as I’m increasingly referring to it, the soapbox play.

Don’t get me wrong – I like soapbox plays if they’re done well. I try my hardest to disregard my own opinions on the subject when I see this kind of play. But roughly speaking, for every soapbox play I see that I enjoyed, there’s another five I found disappointing, a bit like devised theatre. There is, however, a difference between the two: devised theatre is hard. Usually the people who produce disappointing devised theatre are inexperienced groups who end up out of their depth. But disappointing soapbox theatre, on the other hand, is frequently produced by people who should know better. And, most frustratingly, it’s often writers who I have a lot of respect for who are clearly capable of doing something better. How does it go so wrong so often?

When I refer to a “soapbox play”, I mean a play whose primary purpose is to express some sort of opinion to the audience. However, regular plays often have something somewhere that makes a social or political statement somehow, and what I say broadly still applies. Either way, people generally don’t like having opinions rammed down their throats. Especially me. But fear not. I’m here to list all the ways you can do a soapbox play wrong in the hope you don’t repeat these mistakes.

The very first question

Before you begin even thinking about a soapbox play, there is a very important decision you have to make as soon as possible. Quite simply: What do you hope to achieve from this play? There is no single correct answer to this question, but answer this you must. The wrong answer is to plough on ahead and worry about it later.

There are a lot of things you can achieve from soapbox theatre. You can raise awareness of an issue that no-one thinks about, try to win people over on a well-known divisive issue, tell people more about an obscure issue haven’t given much thought to, place a human face to an issue people are overlooking, or urge people to do more about an issue they’re too apathetic about. Or you could simply seek to write an interesting story that happens to cover an issue you care about. Any of these aims are fine and whatever you choose could be the foundations of a great play. But you be aware that you can only do a finite number of things in one play. and the more things you try to achieve, the harder a task you’ll set yourself.

Now, if you are an established writer with an existing following, you have an easy option open to you. If you are content to aim your play at your fanbase to express an opinion that your fanbase will agree with, you are pretty much guaranteed a hit. Your fans will express approval of your play as their way of expressing approval for the cause you all support, irrespective of whether it has any actual merit as a play. So if that’s what you want to do, you can safely ignore the rest of this article. But if you want to achieve more than that – and I hope you’ve set your sights higher than preaching to the converted – read on …

12 tips on what not to do

So, assuming you’re not going for the easy option and just writing a play that panders to the pre-existing views of your pre-existing fanbase, what can you do to write a decent soapbox play? Sadly. I have very few tips on what to do, but a lot to say on what not to do. And this list is heavily based on my own frustrations watching the same mistakes being made again and again.

And with a list this long, you might think I’m a tad cynical about soapbox plays – and you’ll be right. But look on the bright side: I’m the harshest critic of this type of play you’re likely to find. If you can please me, you can please anyone. So without further ado, let’s look at all the things you can do wrong.

1: Resist the temptation to be “current”

An easy source of inspiration for a soapbox play is to react to something currently in the news. That’s not a problem in itself, but an easy mistake to make is to overestimate the value of this method. When you’re so pleased you’ve got an idea that’s in the public eye right here right now now, you might think it’s a surefire success. In practice, however, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to think the idea through, construct a plot, write the script, re-draft the script, find someone to produce it, get it cast, rehearse it and only then perform it. You’re looking at a timescale of at least two years (if you’re lucky), by which time it’s highly likely your chosen subject will be old hat. (There is an exception for the well-established writers who are lucky enough to know not only if but also when their play will be performed, but they are rare.)

This does not mean you shouldn’t write a play based on something in the news. Some topics, of course, rumble on for years or even decades. Sometimes a play can serve as a reminder of what was happening at the time the play was written. But really, the best chance of a play like this succeeding is for the script to be strong enough to stand up on its own long after the news that inspired it is forgotten. Base a play on current events if you like – but don’t think it’s a short cut to success.

2: Beware of bandwagons

Standing ovation
A standing ovation for a popular cause – but how many minds have you actually changed?

Maybe only a cynic like me observes this – but one thing that makes me weary is the narrow list of subjects used in soapbox theatre. With a few honourable exceptions, it’s usually a political cause with plenty of popular backing at this moment in time. The supposedly daring play might be critical of what the government’s doing, but since when was attacking the government a minority pursuit?

Another thing to be aware of, particularly in fringe and subsidised theatre, is that performers and audiences tend to be more left-wing than usual. What might feel like subversive radicalism to your average Joe probably won’t bat an eyelid amongst your peers. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how many writers and performers think that by leaping on to mainstream left-of-centre bandwagons, they’re being brave, outspoken and individual. If you really want to be brave, outspoken and individual, pick an unpopular issue. Yes, you heard me: an unpopular issue. Nobody changes the world shouting messages everyone already agrees with, but winning people over to the underdog’s side is more of an achievement. (Although if you want to write Honestly, I don’t see what all this fuss is over austerity, good luck, you’re on your own.)

Of course, you can’t choose what your views are, and if the issues you care about are nice easy popular ones, then you’ll have to write a play about a nice easy popular issue. So be it. Just be aware that you’ll have to work harder to produce something memorable.

3: Don’t be harrowing just for the sake of it

Shock value is so last season. Audiences are desensitised to this nowadays. Yeah, we get it: rape bad, murder bad, genocide bad. But we don’t need a stock harrowing scene to work that out. Neither to harrowing scenes do much on their own to win people over to your cause. If your play is trying to explain how taking mortgages from MacBastards GreedCorp promotes the arms industry, and I’m not convinced over the link, depicting a graphic massacre in a refugee camp won’t change my mind.

Personally, I’m sceptical that it ever pays to start off thinking “I think I shall write a harrowing play in order to raise awareness about X”. Better, I think, to decide on a story first and see where it goes. If something disturbing is the natural destination for the story, then you might have something powerful. It will have far more impact if your audience have been with the characters from the start, getting to know them as humans before it comes. But even if your #1 goal when writing a play is to write something harrowing about an issue you care about, there has to be a point to the harrowing content. Simply showing the world how bad a bad thing is doesn’t cut it.

4: Avoid trying to be clever

Still from Worker and Parasite
Worker and Parasite: a hard-hitting message about something but I’m not sure what

Everything I listed in my 10 common mistakes article applies to soapbox plays, but one thing that seems to go hand-in-hand with a soapbox play is the mistake of trying to be clever. I’m not sure why so many soapbox plays are let down this way, but they are. Maybe these writers, buoyed by their support for their campaign against, say, third world debt, get overconfident and decide to write something “clever”. Or maybe they try to do something different in order to be different from all the other plays about third world debt or whatever. Whatever the reason, when I see these plays, I usually find I cannot comment whether I agree with the message of the play simply because I haven’t a clue what the message is meant to be. There are so many ways that trying to be clever ruins a play, I’d be here until Christmas if I tried to list them all.

Regardless of what you’re trying to do, you should not lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve. Ask yourself honestly: will your audience still understand your message if you do this clever thing you have in mind? If in doubt, you probably want to give it a miss. And remember: it is your responsibility as the writer to make sure the audience understands your play. Blaming the audience for not concentrating hard enough is no excuse – and besides, blaming your audience is hardly going to win them over, is it?

5: Avoid hyperbole

This is a variant of trying to be clever, and it might sound like an odd tip, but I’ve seen this happen surprisingly often. What usually happens is that the writer is so determined to demonstrate how bad a bad thing is, the play goes into tenuous over-analysis to hammer the point home. And – most frustratingly – this level of exaggeration is usually unnecessary. More often than not, the issue is something where most people would agree the bad thing is bad anyway.

The most tenuous practice that some writers seem dead set on is to re-defining words used for serious crimes to include the thing they’re writing about. One way or another, the play will have to explain why zero hour contracts are violence, why cat-calling is rape, why tax returns are slavery, why hedge funds are genocide, or why speeding points are war crimes. (I only made some of those up.) But – seriously guys – no-one changes their minds based on a brand new and exciting interpretation of an entry in a dictionary. Arguments based on substance might sway people, but hyperbole won’t.

6: You can only have a finite number of opinions per play

This may seem obvious enough, but some writers, I swear, seem determined to use their soapbox play to list every single grievance they have with the world, from global inequality to race discrimination via hypocrisy in politics and Miley Cyrus. It’s quite easy spot this mistake, because it’s when I find myself thinking “For God’s sake, stop rattling off opinions and get on with the story.”

This is especially frustrating on two counts: firstly, this often happens is plays that would otherwise be good; and secondly, it’s a very easy problem to remedy. Yes, strange as it may seem, you do not have to squeeze every opinion of yours into one play. If you’ve that much to say, spread it out over two plays, or three, or five, or ten. Trust me, they’ll be better plays.

7: Remember that how your characters behave must be plausible

This is another tip that applies to all plays and not just soapbox ones – but it’s a particular relevance to soapbox plays. You can take a lot of liberties plays, but the one thing that must always be believable is what your characters say and do. If you are making your characters do implausible things in order meet the requirements of the plot – or worse, set up a gag – you are doing something wrong.

In soapbox plays, however, what most often goes wrong is characters saying implausible things in order raise an issue the author wants raising. Especially if the author’s made the above mistake into trying to cram too many opinions into one play. So many times topical subjects are brought up at the least believable of moments: bankers’ bonuses during the birth of your first child, immigration control during a penalty shootout of the World Cup Final, arts funding during a nuclear apocalypse, you name it. (Okay, all of these examples are made up ones, but the real examples I’ve seen are almost as stupid as those.)

If your characters have to do or say contrived things in order to cover the topic you want to cover, something has to change. You’ll either have to rework the plot to find a more plausible solution, or forget about that topic entirely. There’s always another play on another day.

8: If you depict the opposing point of view, do it accurately

You are not the BBC. Unless you have an arts grants with a very specific remit, you are under no obligation to write a balanced piece with both sides represented equally. You are welcome to be balanced if you wish, but you’re equally welcome to write a one-sided piece that advances one point of view. It’s your call.

But if there’s one thing to be frowned upon, it’s depicting the opposing point of view inaccurately. If you’re going to depict the other side’s argument, it’s got to be what they’re actually saying, not what you’d like to believe they say. Like it or not, people who supported the Iraq war didn’t want the towel-heads put in their place, Millie Tant’s views are not representative of feminism, and trade unions are not hell-bent on setting up a Stalinist state. Nor are a long list of other stupid generalisations true. If you attack your enemies for saying things they never said, we will see through that very easily.

The worst manifestation I’ve seen of this what I call “the contrived argument”. This involves the “hero” character arguing the writer’s point of view against a “villain” character who represents the opposing point of view – or rather, what the writer wants us to believe is the opposing point of view. And of course, with the writer being in control, the writer’s argument wins, to the cheers of everyone in the audience who already agreed with that. But you’ll look small in the eyes of everyone else. We’re not stupid, we know what you did.

9: Don’t demonise your enemies

Cartoon evil banker
Pretty much the standard portrayal for all bankers=evil plays.

The other fact-free technique frequently used to invalidate the opposing argument is to portray them all as utter bastards. Often it will be applying the lazy stereotype of that political group to all the “baddies” in that play – such as the UKIP members being foaming racists or the Greens being smelly hippies – but it sometimes goes further. Why stop as lazy political stereotypers when you can also make your villain a philanderer, or a corrupt politican who fiddles expenses, or the dodgy geezer who pervs on young ladies in the changing rooms, or a evil sadist who drowns kittens every Thursday? Or all at once? Yes, then your audience will see everyone who disagrees with you as a corrupt philandering pervy kitten-drowner! Ha! That’ll show then!

This practice never impresses me. It pretty much amounts to forgetting about winning an argument on its merits and instead resorting to insults. It’s a good way of getting raptuous applause from anyone who shares your political prejudices (of which there’s quite a lot), but if you’re hoping of winning anyone over – forget it. No-one reacts kindly to people with their views being vilified this way.

(This was possibly the only weakness with Geoff Dead, Disco for Sale, pictured above. There was a scene where a soldier sympathising with the army argued with the family of a Deepcut victim. The writer tried her hardest to represent his views fairly and accurately – and overall did a good job of that – but the scene was slightly cheapened by making him drunk and rude. An unfortunate let-down in what was otherwise a good soapbox play.)

10: Don’t idealise your allies

This is a more forgiveable mistake than lazy stereotypes of your enemies. Pretty much every political party and pressure group will describe their supporters as flawless selfless idealists. I’ve yet to see a politician make a speech that describes that party’s own supporters as lazy slobs who spend all day of the X Box. Even if they are.

But you are not writing a political speech, you are writing a play, and plays are supposed to reflect real life. And in real life, no-one is a flawless selfless idealist. However good one’s intentions may be, everyone has their weaknesses. Everyone succumbs to temptations they’re not proud of once in a while. But that doesn’t stop them having their heart in the right place. If you’re worried your message will be weakened because your hero isn’t perfect, you are underestimating your audience.

11: Never idealise yourself

If there’s one thing worse than creating absurdly idealised supporters of your cause, it’s an absurdly idealised version of yourself. Writing a character based on yourself is always a risky thing to do, but it’s doubly risky in a soapbox play. One technique is to create a character that shares your views but otherwise has some flaw that makes them more human: perhaps a drink problem, maybe can’t control temper, maybe something more self-destructive. That can work provided you don’t fall foul of another no-no (such as opinion overkill described above).

But please please please don’t create an idealised version of yourself on stage who always wins every argument and is always proven right in the end. That is going straight out of soapbox play territory and right into ego-trip land. An idealised version of yourself on stage is never advisable, but do that in a soapbox play and you’ll probably end up looking like a sad individual using a play to settle some real-life scores.

12: The apathetic hero who’s inspired to fight back. Oh please.

Actually, there’s is something worse than the idealised character based on yourself who’s perfect in every way. It works like this: yes, the hero does have a weakness. He/she has perfect political convictions (i.e. exactly the same opinions as the author), but he/she doesn’t stand up for his/her beliefs. The plot typically works as: a) hero is resigned and apathetic because the bastard government always gets away with [insert list of writer’s past grievances]; b) aforementioned bastard government commits [insert latest writer’s grievance]; c) hero is suddenly inspired to take a stand; d) everybody rallies to the cause. Oh puh-lease.

In this kind of plot, it seems (well it’s bleeding obvious) that what the writer really objects to is an insufficient number of people being as angry with the writer’s pet peeve, and wants the play to spell out how angry they should be, dammit! But sadly, plays like this are unlikely to make much difference. The brutal reality is that the apathetic masses out there are most likely apathetic because they’ve heard these arguments before and either 1) don’t agree with your views, or 2) they don’t consider it that important and have better things to do, such as watch The X Factor. (Oh, and no, writing about how the oppressive government distracts the masses with ploys such as The X Factor won’t win anyone over either.)

If my description of this sounds rather contemptuous, it’s because of the old saying: familiarity breeds contempt. I am so used to this format it gets so so so predictable. I suspect there’s a lot of plays that use this format because it’s a good way of selling tickets to like-minded people (who are equally hopeful your play is going to inspire the brainwashed masses out of apathy and into revolt). But will your play actually inspire anyone who’s not already on your side? Dream on.

And now: one tip on what you should do

As you may have noticed, the tone of this article up to now has been a bit negative. So apologies for the snarky tone, but that’s because I’ve seen too many plays that got me snarky. I’ll now try to redress the balance with one positive tip.

13: Remember your play has to have a story!

An easy thing to forget about soapbox plays is that, well, it’s a play. And this play needs a storyline just as much as any other play. And don’t feel obliged to spend every moment of the play delivering the chosen message. In real life people have lots of different things going on in their lives. Not all of them will be directly associated to the cause the play champions. That is fine. Most good plays have more than one story thread, and just because your main thread is a political doesn’t mean all the others have to be as well. There’s nothing wrong a apolitical content in a political play.

If might even be that the story you develop might be so strong it might cause the soapbox message – the one you originally wrote the play for – to be relegated to a subplot. Again, that is fine, and that might even be a good thing. Plays that overtly give out a political message tend to be a turn-off to anyone who’s indifferent to it. But draw them in with a good story – a story that would grab the interest of anyone – then you might get people listening who would otherwise ignore you.

The “too long didn’t read” summary

If I’ve waffled on far too long, I can probably summarise everything I’ve written in a two sentences. They are:

Good soapbox theatre makes people think. Bad soapbox theatre tells people what to think.

I can’t put it any more simply than that. Whatever subject you feel stronger about, whichever side you choose to take, people don’t like having opinions rammed down their throat. Nor do they like being lectured. If I want to be lectured, I’ll go to a lecture.

But you are not writing a lecture, you are writing a play. And – unless your sole interest is a completely one-sided piece aimed at people who already agree with what you’re writing, which is a bit of a cop-out – all the normal rules of writing a play apply here. Characters have the be believable, what they say must be plausible, your play must be understandable to the audience, and it rarely pays to write about whatever’s topical this week.

In order to do this, you may have to spend a lot of time time not talking about the issue you care about. But, take it from me, in the few chances you have left to get on the soapbox, I promise we’ll be listening to what you have to say.

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