In true fashion, now that I finally have some time to catch up on my massive backlog of reviews, what better way to spend it than procrastinate with something completely different instead? But it’s been ages since I’ve done a tips article, and I’ve been meaning to write something like this for some time.
My all-time smash hit in the tips category was 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting, which has been picked up by numerous professional organisations and this year is my most viewed article of all. Interestingly, even though this is one of my earliest articles, I haven’t changed my views on any of these. However, although these were views I formed of my own accord, almost all of this is conventional wisdom held throughout the theatre world.
This time, I am going off-message. These tips are opinions I’ve formed of my own accord, with few or no people to back me up. Some things I will say here are at odds with conventional wisdom – others are issues where few people express an opinion either way. Also, unlike my smash hit blog post where I stuck to the writing itself, this list covers a wider range of topics, including getting it produced and being a writer in general. Some tips are based on mistakes I’ve seen other people make; many tips, however, I’ve learned from bitter experience. There is going to be a lot of theatre politics; apologies for anyone who finds this boring, but don’t think you can be immune to theatre politics. At least know the rules before you break them.
I also have no idea whether this is going to be greeted with widespread support or division and controversy. But this is something you can expect with someone who treats the whole industry with a healthy amount of scepticism. So without further ado, here we go:
1: Be prepared for this to take over your life.
If there’s one thing I wish we would tell aspiring playwrights before they get started, it’s this. One of the many bones I have to pick with professional theatres’ introductions to playwriting and the like is that they over-sell the benefits of becoming a playwright. You will often hear the success stories of writers who started off on these courses and went on to great things. You rarely hear what happens to everybody else. In reality, you can expect the vast majority to be inspired by the course and get writing – and then see everything they submit rejected, rejected and rejected again. Until they lose heart and give up the whole idea.
In a way, they are the lucky ones. After a series of disappointments based on over-hyped expectations, they get to carry on with their lives. A different fate awaits the few who actually get somewhere. If you’re one of those people, you can expect, for better or worse, that theatre takes your life over.
Do not underestimate this. It won’t happen straight away, but if you get as far as showing your work on stage to the wider world, it eventually will. Why? Well, the one common thing you will see from everybody who’s anybody in playwriting – from the safest mainstream to the most pretentious fringe works – is that they all deeply care about what they do. And when you’re that emotionally involved in your work, you can expect to give it all. It’s quite normal to spend every waking moment thinking about your play, spend ten or more consecutive evenings busy with theatre stuff, and take the success or failure of a play more personally than anything else in your life. Expect mundane socialising with mates to take a back seat with your priorities. Expect relationships to succeed or fail based on whether your prospective other half understands your devotion. Expect major life decisions to be influenced by how it affects the thing you love doing the most.
There is no halfway house here. It’s not a hobby to take up a few hours each week; it’s all or nothing. If you’re not prepared to eventually give it all, you may as well stop now. So if you’re thinking of getting started, ask yourself now. Do you really want to do this? Do you understand and accept what you’re letting yourself in for?
If the answer to either of those questions is no, there’s no shame in stopping right now. If you’ve heeded this warning and still wish to embark on this journey, read on.
2: Keep some sort of day job.
There is one very important caveat to what I’ve just said. Yes, theatre will take over your life, but that does not mean you should give up your job.
One things that’s surprised (i.e. horrified) me at playwriting courses is the number of people who’ve said that they’ve quit their jobs to “become a writer”* – something that, I suspect, wouldn’t be happening nearly so much if theatres didn’t keep over-promising what these courses do. Don’t do it, and definitely don’t think you can suddenly make money from writing instead. Unless you are very very lucky, it will be years before you can hope for any sort of income. Yes, it is tough work making theatre on top of a full-time job, but it can be done. Going part-time is safer, provided you can face living on the part-time income. But quitting your job completely to devote all your time to writing? That’s too big a sacrifice.
* (Okay, this sounds a little hypocritical coming from me seeing as I actually quit a job during a writing course, but there was a good reason for that.)
However, financial security isn’t the only reason why quitting your job is a bad idea. If you want to be any kind of successful artist, you need some sort of interaction with real life. Full-time professional writers can do this because their jobs involve interaction with real people, such as directors and actors. You cannot do this by sitting in your room for 12 hours every day waiting for inspiration to arrive. By quitting your job, you are cutting yourself from what’s porbably your most important connection with the outside world.
One exception: if your job is a living hell and you want out anyway*, that’s as good a reason as any to go, as long your plans involving finding another job eventually. If you are a “theatre practitioner” whose involvement stretches beyond writing and into writing and directing and so forth, that is also fine. But don’t think that “being a writer” means doing nothing but writing. That rarely pays off.
* (That one.)
3: Think about gender balance sooner rather than later
Since my cynicism is already ramping up, I’m going to take a break from snarkiness with a couple of uncontentious tips. There aren’t many tips on script-writing itself here, because most of my advice is the same as what everyone else is saying. However, there’s a couple of things I’ve come to decide on my own accord which I think are worth sharing, and the first one ought to be greeted with polite applause.
One thing that’s been all the rage in the last few years in the Bechdel test. I have some reservations about the way it is applied – it’s was only ever meant as a guide, you need to use some common sense too – but it does hit the nail on the head as to the problem: that too often, scripts are written as “male by default”, when the only function of a female character is someone’s mother, sister, daughter or, most often, love interest. I get the impression that this is an easy mistake amongst beginners in playwriting, not because they have anything against good female roles, but because they write too many characters based on themselves. In the case of male writers it means mostly male roles.* This is a forgivable mistake if you’re a novice (the woefully uninspired scriptwriters in Hollywood, of course do not have that excuse), but it’s a mistake that needs putting right.
* (Female writers: don’t think you’re off the hook. Lazy gender stereotypes in the favour of men is bad writing. Lazy gender stereotypes in the favour of women is still bad writing. No-one gets a free pass here.)
For what it’s worth, I’ve found the best way to write a character of the opposite sex is to just go ahead and do it. I remember in one the early plays I wrote, I’d based events very closely on things going on in my own life. I wasn’t ready to share that fact to the world back then, so I decided to make the main character female to disguise this. To my surprise, I found I got a lot of praise for writing a female character so convincingly, even though the character was basically me. The moral of the story is that writing a good character of a different gender to your own is actually quite easy.
However, I’ve come to the view that these sorts of decisions have to be made early. Once you first envisage which sex your characters are going to be, ask yourself if it’s predictable or unimaginative – but you should do that straight away. The more the plot begins to take shape in your head, the more likely it is that the ideas in your head will stick – and if you’ve been uncreative with your choice of gender roles, chances are that will stick too. That’s not to say changing a main character’s gender late in the day is impossible, but it depends a lot of what sort of story you’ve written – in many cases, a gender-swap will mean a completely different story.
Gendered roles in an individual play isn’t a hanging offence – indeed, in some plays there are good reasons why it has to be that way – but it gets a bit tedious if you’re doing this in play after play, and it cuts down your options for creativity. Avoid it if you can. And the earlier you giver this thought in your play’s development, the better.
4: Never force an idea that isn’t working out.
The other things is something you don’t hear often but most people would agree with. I was late in the day to figure this out, and have I realised it sooner it might have stopped me writing some absolute crap (nothing that saw the slight of day, thank God). One of the easiest errors of judgement made by inexperienced writers is to come up with a seemingly brilliant idea, and assuming a brilliant play will follow. Sadly, reality is not so kind to brilliant ideas, and what seemed perfect in your head can fall apart when you actually try to get it down on paper. To borrow an Ayckbourn quote, you can have the greatest play ever sitting in your head – and then you spoil it by writing it.
There are two things you need to do if your idea isn’t going to work. The first thing to do is recognise this as soon as possible. Easier said than done. Experience may help, but there’s no knowing when you’ll discover your idea is doomed to fail – it could as early as planning scenes and characters, it could be whilst you’re writing it, or even after. Irrespective of when you discover this unpleasant truth, once this happens, you have to do the second, harder, thing: throw it away. If you’re going to have to resort to bodging the play with implausible character traits or forced plot points in order to keep the idea going, give it up now. Don’t carry on flogging the dead horse, you are only postponing the inevitable.
Of course, the longer it takes you to realise your idea is doomed, the more painful it is to let it go. Especially if you’re already completed one or more drafts. But you must.* The alternative is to delude yourself that, oh, well the problem’s not that bad, and it’s something you can fix – but you will only set your up for a fall later. The most positive thing I can say is that the sooner you give it up, the sooner you can put your energy into another idea. Who knows, maybe the next one will come to something.
* (One obvious exception: if you’ve already started rehearsing the play, it’s probably too late to turn back. All you can do in go into damage control mode, get the performance out the way, and learn lessons for next time. But if you got into this nightmare scenario in the first place, there’s a high chance it’s because you were in denial when the problems surfaced sooner.)
Right, that was tame. Let’s get back to pissing people off.
5: Final Draft is a total rip-off. Steer clear.
There are two ways the arts industry makes money from writing. The first way, the desirable way, is to commission/programme a writer’s work and make a cut from the sales. The other way is to make money from the writers themselves. That is a far shadier business. It somewhat reminds me of the days of the gold rush. Legend has it the people who got rich quick were rarely the prospectors; rather, it was the people who sold the shovels at inflated prices – all you had to do was exploit the idea that they need to buy your stuff to strike gold. In a similar respect, there’s a whole industry built around selling goods and services to writers. Whether these goods or services actually help is only optional – the trick is to convince writers they need to buy your stuff to strike literary gold.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between fair sales and rip-offs. A hire fee for a venue is probably legit. Vanity publishers (who want money upfront to publish your book) are probably money-grabbing scumbags. Marketing expensive laptops to aspiring writers is at best questionable – you don’t need a top-of-the-range laptop, a second-hand one running Libreoffice will do the job. I’m keeping an open verdict on paid script-reading services. The argument I hear in favour is that customers must find them useful if they keep coming back to use these services. But could that instead be down to ego-massaging in the feedback?
But the most widespread myth I hear by far is that you’ve got to buy Final Draft to be a proper writer. It’s the industry standard, don’t you know? You don’t want to be out of line with the industry standard, do you? Well worth the £200 … The cynic in me (and The Daily Mash) suggests that the target customer is one who thinks that Final Draft saves them the bother of writing any of the other drafts. In fairness to Final Draft, I can see why you’d want to use it if you’re an industry professional in film or TV. In these environments, scripts are usually highly collaborative works, and tools to keep track of character appearances and plot points have obvious uses. But if you’re writing this on your own, you don’t need anything more sophisticated than a notebook.
The big red flag, however, is the myth that you need your scripts formatted to industry standard to be seriously considered, and Final Draft does that for you. That is utter bollocks on both counts. I have read theatre scripts from all sorts of sources, and I can categorically tell you there is no standard format. Some scripts mimic the style used in film and television, others do something different. I’m not aware of a single script-reader who pays any attention to script format as long as it’s readable. But even if you must write to a standard format, you do NOT need Final Draft to do that. There are far cheaper alternatives that do this, and even a standard word processor will do the job with a little technical knowledge. But still the fiction persists that it’s Final Draft or the rejection pile, and whilst it’s far to say that Final Draft do not directly peddle this fallacy, at best they make no attempt to correct this convenient myth, and at worst they help it along. It’s a similar tactic to the one that Microsoft uses to sell Publisher and Visio – it’s maybe worth the money if you’re using the advanced features, but don’t tell that to the hordes of customers who could have done the job in Powerpoint.
You should be deeply suspicious of anyone who wants you to believe you’ve got the spend big to make it big. And Final Draft is the worst offender. Unless you’re doing a highly collaborative project in film or TV, don’t even think of buying it.
6: Listen to what professional theatres say – with caution.
Righty-ho, that controversial tip was just a warm-up. Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet. brace yourself.
There’s no shortage of advice given by professional theatres on play writing. They obviously do so in courses, but you also frequently hear a lot of advice in the run-up to script submission windows and playwriting competition deadlines. It is in their interests as well as yours that the standard of scripts being submitted is as high as possible. So most of the time, the advice is good and worth heeding. Most of the time.
But not all of the time. Sometimes, what they encourage you to do suits them a lot more than it suits you. I’m suspicious, for instance, for the motives behind pushing every man and his dog to enter playwriting competitions. “Go for it”, they say. “This is what could happen to you!” But in national competitions of any standing, you only have to look that the bios of the finalists to see that virtually all of them were already established in the arts industry, either because they had a job there, or because they’ve had experience seeing their work produced. If you’re not one of these people, your chance of success is tiny. (“But there’s still a chance,” they say, a similar tactic to that used for the National Lottery – which, in all probability, you won’t win either.) So why are hundreds of people with virtually no chance encouraged to enter? The cynic in me suggests the real motive it that more entries is good for the prestige of the competition. But not you.
(Sure, there’s no harm is entering all these competitions on top of doing something else to improve your writing, but the problem is that most theatres solely encourage aspiring writers to submit scripts. If only they would also give encouragement to those of us who actually produce our work to see what is and isn’t working. One can but dream.)
Sorry if this sounds cynical, but you’d better get use to this because this is going to be the theme for a lot of the tips. Quite a lot of things coming up are examples where I suspect the advice given from the pros puts their interests first and your interests second. In general, you can take most of the advice you’re given in good faith – but take nothing as gospel. Their goals are not the same as yours.
7: You’re on your own. Get used to it.
Apart from theatre taking over your life, there’s other thing you ought to realise you’re letting yourself in for: you can expect very little help. The multitude of introduction to playwriting courses may well give you the impression that it’s all like this, being guided every step of the way. Well, no. After your introduction, you are best off assuming that there’s is only one person who will make any effort to help you on your way. And that’s you.
Here’s the thing: mass participation events such as introductions to playwriting are generally good to attend, but it’s is a quick win for the theatre hosting it: good for the reputation and relatively easy to do. Once aspiring playwrights progress to the next stage of actually trying to write something, however, support plunges to roughly zero. To be honest, if I was in their shoes I probably wouldn’t be keen to help either. No writer gets it right the first time, and in most cases, they won’t get it right the second, third, fourth or fifth time either. So supporting these beginners is now a far less glamorous job of making their early crap scripts less crap. No-one gets kudos from that kind of slog. And if they do succeed in helping a play along to a successful production, the playwright gets the credit first,and the people who helped develop the script a long way second. So it’s not too surprising that after all these introduction to playwriting events, there’s next to no help – at least, not until your plays are good enough for theatres to want to develop and produce themselves. But how are you supposed to get to that point? Not through endless script submissions and endless rejections, I can say that much.
The sad part if that it’s only recently it got this bad. As I understand it, not so long ago it was the case that National Portfolio theatres were given heavy incentives to provide free script-reading services. That was great service for aspiring writers, and it was also a handy way for theatres to spot new talent. Then came the cuts to arts and that was one of the first things to go, missed by no-one except the people who need it the most. But that’s the way it is. Bottom line is that when you get started, you should work to the expectation that you will be offered no opportunities. No opportunities to get constructive feedback, no opportunities to see it acted out. Instead, you are going to have to create your own opportunities. And it will be a lot of hard work. Get used to this now.
8: Try to have an idea about what your play will look like on stage.
Talk to anybody who’s anyone in theatre and they’ll tell you to leave out stage directions from the script and leave that up to the director. There again, talk to anybody who’s anyone in theatre and they’ll tell you how lucky you are to have to chance to enter all these playwriting competitions. Have we been over that one yet?
There is some truth in this advice about stage directions. It’s never a good idea to micromanage the whole play in the script. You will often hear that the stage directions you see in published scripts came in after the play was first produce; and in some scripts, older plays in particular, they have a point. They go into a ridiculous amount of detail in the stage directions, such as listing every item of furniture and telling where on stage the actors have to move – things that don’t make sense other than on the stage where it was produced. Seriously, don’t write to micromanage. Even if you a very detailed idea how the play will look in your head, the transition from page to stage is an unpredictable business. Don’t tie the hands of your future director that way.
However, the current conventional wisdom you hear from most theatres goes to the other extreme, which is very close to saying you should not write any stage directions at all. You’re the writer, they say, you should leave that up to the director. Again, this advice is something I suspect suits them a lot more than it suits you. Stage direction-free scripts are good for theatres because that makes it easier to put their own take on the play and claim credit for it. I do have some sympathy for the position they’re in, because if you don’t put your own creative stamp on it, the credit goes to the writer first and the producing theatre last. But where does that leave writers? Countless scripts are binned for being unstageable, and if the reader missed the point, that’s your fault for not explaining how it’s meant to be done. But how are you meant to explain how your own play can be staged if you’re not allowed to write stage directions? It feels like a game you can’t win.
If you are lucky enough to have your play performed without having to go through a reading department and don’t have to jump through the hoops they set, I recommend ignoring this advice and visualise the play as you write it, using whatever stage directions are necessary. As I said, don’t micromanage the play in the stage directions, but write whatever is needed to explain the play visually and no more. When it comes to production, your director may have a better idea for how to do it. That is fine. But it doesn’t pay to give no thought to how the play looks on stage on the assumption that the director will sort that out. It’s hard work for a director to change a static script into something watchable on stage. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s a lot easier if the writer thought about staging the play when writing the lines.
If you are submitting scripts, then you are pretty much in the catch-22 situation I just mentioned. For what it’s worth, I have a slightly devious idea – don’t know whether it works, but give it a try if you like. The object of the game is to drop just enough hints over how the play’s meant to look of stage so that the readers and prospective directors can visualise it themselves – but still think it was their idea. If you can work the hints into the lines themselves, do that (which is difficult but good practice regardless if you can do it). If you use stage directions, say as much as possible with as few as possible. But the entire script-reading process is a black box where few people on the outside understand its workings. This suggestion is only a guess. Do this at your own risk.
9: If you can produce your own plays, do it.
So, as the previous tip has already hinted, script submission is not the only option open to you. If you have the means to produce your own play yourself, or there is someone who you know and trust to do it for you, go for it. I cannot begin to stress how useful it is to see your play acted out for real and discover this way what works on stage and what doesn’t. Compare this to the likely outcome of sending your play to script submissions windows and competitions – a rejection with no explanation of what they did and didn’t lie – and there’s no contest. You can of course do both, but if I had to choose between one or the other, self-production wins hands down.
That’s not to say you should dive in and produce the very first play you write. You’re probably best off starting with a read-through, to identify and fix basic problems – such as clumsy dialogue, readers not understanding what’s going on, and the play running the twice the length you intended. Later on you might want to look at a script-in-hand performance (maybe your first play with improvements but more likely a newer better one), to see how it looks on stage, and from there, you can look at a fully-rehearsed performance. Whatever stage you get to, manage your expectations: your audience is unlikely to be anything more than friends and family to start with. But you will learn a hell of a lot more about what you’re getting right and wrong than just posting your scripts far and wide.
If you get good at self-production, you might even decide to dispense with script submissions completely. If you are lucky enough for you play to be chosen, there’s always the risk that your idea will be spoilt by producers with their own interests (such as what happened to the idea show), so one might think that if you can do it yourself and it succeeds, they will beat a path down to your door and queue up to programme your play in every top venue. However, there is a catch. Most theatres, I’ve noticed, openly prefer to programme things they’ve had a hand in supporting. So if you’ve managed to produce something great off your own back, the fact you did it without anybody’s help may count against you instead of for you. The best thing I can suggest – and again, I’m making guesses about something I know little about – is to seek from a theatre support such as rehearsal room space, or research and development. They get the credit they need for developing your play, but you stay in control of the play and keep the power to say no. But that’s s another bit of speculation from me that you can heed at your own risk.
10: Beware of local enthusiasm.
Much as I swear by self-production as great way of developing your skills, there are a couple of major pitfalls to this technique that you must avoid.
This is something I’ve written about before, under a similar term I coined of “locality bias“. In summary: the closer to home your audience is, the more likely they are to give you a good reception. A performance that goes down well in the upstairs room of a pub with your mates might not fare so well at a scratch nights with performers from around the region. That in turn can expect a more favourable reception than the Edinburgh Fringe. Local enthusiasm isn’t entirely a bad thing – if you’re starting off, a good-willed supportive audience is good for the confidence of you and your cast. But it is very dangerous if you mistake a rapturous reception from an audience of friends and family for evidence you’ve written something good. Especially if you go on to book a bigger and more expensive venue and learn the hard way what the wider public really makes of your play.
Even if you’ve wised up to this, there’s another reason why local enthusiasm is a bloody nuisance. Loyal supportive audiences are great for morale but next to useless for getting constructive criticism. How can you find out what the weak areas were that need improvement if everyone’s telling you the whole thing was awesome? It might be worth asking people what they liked – that might give you some clues as to what the strong areas are, even if it doesn’t highlight the weaknesses – but you are probably going to rely on your own critical eye. Marking your own homework is never a great option, but if it’s that’s or believing everyone saying you’re brilliant, that’s what you’ve got to do.
11: If you direct you own work, direct other people’s too.
It’s widely said that you should never direct your own plays. Ignore that. The argument normally used is that the writer is too close to the story and you need a fresh pair of eyes when you bring it to life on the stage. But there’s an equally good counter-argument that a writer who truly has a vision for the play will understand how to get it on to stage better than a new person who he or she has to explain it to. Whatever ever their merits, I’ve seen no evidence to support either theory. I’ve seen fantastic productions directed by the writer and I’ve seen fantastic productions directed by someone else and awful plays directed by the writer and awful plays directed by someone else. If you can direct, then do whatever works best for you.
But there is one practice I highly advise against, and that is directing nothing but your own work. Regardless of how you want to get your work on stage, you need to be familiar with a lot of plays of other people’s if you want to be any good yourself. You wouldn’t claim to be an expert in driving without seeing anyone else drive a car, so why think you can master play writing without seeing other plays? It’s bad enough if you read no-one’s plays other than your won, but directing no-one’s plays but your own is especially dangerous. That’s a surefire way to adopt an insular mindset of what a good play looks like – how can you know you’re doing it well if you’ve never directed anything from anyone else? In my experience, people who direct their own plays and nothing else are bad at learning from their mistakes, with the same problems appearing in play after play – without anything to compare it to, they don’t know any better.
Knowing how to direct is, I believe, one of the most useful skills you can have under your belt for playwriting, whether or not you choose to direct your own work. What better way is there to see for yourself what does and doesn’t work on stage? But this huge strength turns into a huge weakness if it’s just your own play. Don’t make this mistake.
12: If you submit scripts, prioritise places that give feedback.
Now let’s return to my favourite bugbear of feedback-free rejections. I’ve written about this before, and at some point I will probably write my updated thoughts on it, but my core belief hasn’t changed: if you don’t like a play, the least you can do is say why.
Script readers are a funny bunch, I’ve found. In discussions I’ve witnessed between writers who’ve had their scripts rejected and readers defending the process, readers tend to fall into two camps. One camp seems to be uncomfortably contemptuous of writers in general. Who do these writers think they are? We are doing them a huge favour by allowing anyone to submit regardless of standard, and then they waste our time with scripts of a poor standard. And NOW they have the temerity to ask what they’re doing wrong?* The other camp seem a lot more supportive of everyone’s efforts and sometimes seem embarrassed they have to say no to so many scripts. But they’re still generally lousy at telling writers trying to clear this first hurdle what they’re supposed to do. Some of them, when pressed on the matter, will encourage writers to create their own opportunities if they can (which is good but would be even better if they said this more clearly). Others just fall back on the comforting but useless platitude of “keep writing”, or the equally useless “general feedback” that comments of the scripts as a whole (which are useless because you have no idea which common mistake, if any, applies to your script).
* (The worst thing I heard from a script reader was an assertion that 80% of scripts submitted come from writers who aren’t worth helping because they won’t ever produce anything worthwhile. In effect, that’s a claim that you the enlightened script-reader can tell from reading the first 10 pages that not only that the rest script no good, not only that the script will never be any good, but that nothing else the writer does in the future will ever be any good, ever. That is why I am deeply suspicious of any script reader who claims to know what’s best for the writers they reject.)
I’m not going to revisit all the arguments here. Script readers say they do not have the resources to give detailed feedback to everyone who enters, which is fine, no-one disputes that. What people are asking is simply to be told what it was the reader didn’t like. And the usual argument made against that is that that kind of feedback isn’t very helpful, raising more questions than answers, therefore it’s better for you to be told nothing. Further questioning of this stance that they’re doing you in a favour by keeping you in the dark tends to be met with responses heavily justified with “We know because we’re industry professionals and you’re not.” Luckily, there is a major competition called Papatango who do exactly the thing we ask. It’s hard work, but they can do it, and – guess what? – lots of people who get this feedback thank them for how useful their help was. You should always be suspicious of any argument that’s solely backed up on claims of authoritative expertise (“If you did what we’d do you’d agree with us”), but when other people with equal claims of authoritative expertise do the opposite, that argument falls flat.
Anyway, enough re-running of old arguments, let’s get back to the tip. As you may have already guess, my first tip is that if you’re going to enter one national award, enter Papatango (and also read 13 questions to ask yourself before you enter a playwriting competition). Unlike the others, you will get something useful out of this no matter what happens. If you find any other script submissions that do the same, prioritise those too. You must be aware, however, that the feedback you get will be brief. It may tell you what they did and didn’t like about the play, but it will tell you little or nothing about how to fix it. It’s up to you to work out your own solution – and that’s the way it should be. That’s the way it is when you hear audience feedback, and it beggars belief that so many people think writers – even novice writers – are incapable of addressing criticisms without detailed guidance on how to put it right. Sure, maybe some aspiring playwrights can’t deal with criticism – perhaps it hurts their feelings too much, perhaps they’re incapable to fix it without hand-holding. But if you’re either of those, you may as well give up writing now. You’re doomed anyway.
Oops, sorry there, went back to argument over my bugbear. Back to advice. There’s one other thing to bear in mind, which applies to all feedback: remember that it’s one person’s opinion. There is no easy way to tell whether that verdict is widespread consensus or against the grain. On rare occasions, if you believe the reader has misunderstood the play, you are better off ignoring the feedback and sticking to your guns. That is a very tough call to make. Acting on feedback is never as simple as doing what the feedback form says; some day I may write about this further. But you didn’t think any of this would be simple, did you?
13: The Edinburgh Fringe isn’t a shortcut to stardom.
So, with me banging on about how much better it is to go ahead of produce your own plays rather than submit scripts and hope it gets someone else’s approval, you might think the the logical answer is the Edinburgh Fringe. In spite of the number of people who gloss this over, word gets round that anyone can go to the Edinburgh Fringe, and anything there can be the next big hit. Now, I am a big supporter of this format, and if the Edinburgh Fringe ever did away with this rule, I would stop going. But just because you can go to the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t mean you should. Far too many people, I beleive, take a show to Edinburgh without thinking through what they are doing.
Look at is this way. If regional professional theatres are the Premier League of new writing, where only a top tier gets to take part, the Edinburgh Fringe is the FA Cup, where giants and minnows are all in the same competition. That might sound great, until you remember what usually happens to a non-league club up against a Premier League one. And at this point, the analogy breaks down. The aforementioned club might have lost 8-0, but they still come home laughing all the way to the bank. A play that bombs against its professional competitors, however, is more likely to leave someone in thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of pounds worth of debt. There are ways of keeping costs under control, but competing with other acts with more experience and more resources than you is harder.
If you are thinking of doing the Edinburgh Fringe, there’s two key questions to ask yourself. The first question is what you want to achieve at Edinburgh. If you’re after the joy of taking part, you’re prepared to pay, and you consider good review or ticket sales an optional bonus, go ahead. But if the answer is anything else, you should also consider the second question: is Edinburgh the best choice of a fringe for you? If you’re after exposure or critical feedback, Brighton might be a better choice (although it’s still pretty competitive). If you simply want to learn how to put on a play in a fringe environment, consider a small fringe like Buxton.
There is one notable exception to this. If you are a student production, Edinburgh become a better choice. Brighton and many other fringes are out of the question if you have exams in May, foregoing a month’s worth of income in August is less likely to be an issue, and it’s more affordable if there’s several of you who will share the cost. Likewise, if you’ve weighed up the pros and cons of the different fringes and still think Edinburgh is your best bet, then good luck, go for it. But under no circumstance go to Edinburgh under the idea that you’ll get rich quick or get famous quick. The harsh truth is that your play is almost certainly not as competitive as you think it is. Edinburgh is a very costly way to find that out.
14: If you write political theatre, don’t expect to change the world.
Blog regulars will be aware that I’m generally unenthusiastic about political theatre. This is not because I’m against the concept of it, but because rare that I see political theatre that’s any good, but because it’s rare for me to see political theatre that’s any good. If by “good” you mean a play that tells a decent story, then yes, a lot of political theatre sacrifices decent stories to get a message through. But maybe that’s not important – maybe your idea of “good” political theatre is how much it makes the world a better place. Sadly, that’s even worse.
Look, I don’t care what message you want to give. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter whether your play is called Fuck You Donald Trump or What’s Wrong With Hard Brexit Anyway? But the big problem I’ve found with political theatre is that it’s too easy to get an audience along who already agrees with what you’re going to say. I’ve written about these problems before in more detail, but the short version is that the arguments used in political theatre – including causes I agree with – are often shit, or incomprehensible, or both. But the rapturous applause from an audience expressing their approval disguises this.
Even if you avoid these mistakes, however, there’s more problems down the line that are harder to solve. Let’s suppose you write something with a good persuasive argument and is a decent story in its own right. But what good does that do if you’re only showing this to people who already think that way? And should you manage to find a way of reaching beyond the echo chamber, there’s another problem: theatre is a niche interest compare to film and television. Even if you wrote a play turned the entire theatre-going public round to a particular point of view, if would still only be a small difference to wider public opinion.
The cold reality is that if you want to change the world, theatre is the wrong battleground to fight. The cultural wars in theatre have already been won. If you want to produce theatre and you see giving a message to people as a bonus, then fine, keep at it. But if it’s about making the world a better place, you’re fighting on the wrong front. If you want to use art for political causes, I recommend you fight your battles online. A persuasive 10-minute video that goes viral stands to win over far more people than an hour-long play ever will.
15: Be prepared for the long haul
So, most of my tips so far come across as a rather bleak picture of being a playwright, and this last one doesn’t seem much cheerier, but this is meant to be something positive. Bear with me a moment.
To make even a little bit of progress, unless you are extremely lucky to be picked out as a theatre company as the next big thing, you have long hard slog ahead of you. And once you’ve made that little bit of progress, it’s another long hard slog to get any further. Things that you are convinced would be decisive breakthroughs can amount to much less than you think. Won a proflific playwriting competition? Returned from the Edinburgh Fringe with a haul of four- and five-star reviews? Great, but don’t expect the offers to suddenly roll in. Even writers commissioned into major new writing theatres aren’t necessarily home and dry. I’ve seen writers in those situations going on to greater things, but I’ve also seen them come to a standstill or even vanish without trace.
So why is this a positive tip? Because everything you’ve managed to do is an achievement. And if you’ve done this without support or encouragement from the bigger theatres, that’s an even bigger achievement. It’s best to think of this as a journey that’s always three steps forwards, two steps back. You can expect to have nearly as many setbacks as advancements, but throughout all of this, you can expect to learn from experience, slowly improving your skill, increasing your reputation, building your confidence, getting new contacts. All of this stands to count in your favour in the long run. Major achievements might help you a lot less than you expected; but little things that you never expect to come to anything may help you in ways you never expected. A lot of it may come down to luck, but the more persistent you are, the more likely it is you can make your own luck.
In short, keep at it, but keep at it on your own terms. The normal industry-approve definition of “keep at it” means sending off endless scripts, and if that works for you, do so, but if you think you’re better off producing it yourself, or you any other plan, do that instead. Of course, you need to have the discipline to not over-estimate your abilities based on feedback of friends and not shutter yourself away from the rest of the theatre world, and many other things. But as long as you have this discipline, there is a reward for persistence. Bear that in mind the next time you’re wondering what the point of it is.
This may be one of the more controversial posts I’ve written. I’m bracing myself for an angry letter just in case Final Draft decide to send a team of big scary lawyers on me. But it’s a lot more likely that I’ll end up pissing off some people in regional subsidised theatre. Given all the song and dance they make about how great it is to write plays and how much they’re here to help, I can’t think they’ll be terribly thrilled with this account on how much support I think there really is.
I did not take this decision lightly. But it is not just me who has these frustrations over lack of support. I know other people with similar frustrations, and whilst I don’t claim to speak for them, there is a common gripe: theatres are eager to help with introductory courses to playwriting, but it’s the next stage that is the problem. Advice for that stage is little more than a list of places to send scripts to. The likely outcome of this is rejection letters with no explanation, and no opportunity to learn what you did wrong and what you could do better. How do you break this vicious circle? Not by sending off more scripts, that’s for sure. But that’s as far as the help goes, if I’m right.
But I could be wrong. In fact, I would love to be proven wrong. If there is help out there after you’ve done one of the introductory playwriting courses, something other than submitting scripts and hoping for the best, I’d love to know what it is. Heck, even if you have a clever way of using feedback-free rejections to your advantage, I’m happy to hear that.
However, I’m not the person you should be telling. You should be saying this to everyone. There’s no point in having a simple and effective way of going from an introductory course to next stage if nobody knows what it is. Tell the world, and do it proactively, and not just in response to queries of what you’re supposed to do with one rejection after another. If I’m painting a bleak picture, it’s because I believe people have a right to know what they’re letting themselves in for. I’d much rather give something more positive. Whether I can ever do this is really up to you.