COMMENT: The arts industry does aspiring writers no favours by implying script submission is the only route into play writing. There’s a far better way to hone your craft than waiting for the thumbs up of the reading room.
Today, the Bruntwood prize revealed its longlist. And out of the 1890 entrants, 1760 of you got the news you’re not on it. And, worse, you have no information of what you did wrong. They did of course congratulate you on your achievement of writing a play and getting it out there. But that is little consolation, and when “sending it out into the world to be experienced by other people” can mean “having it read once then put in the bin” it’s a bit of a platitude. “There’s always next time” is the usual upbeat message – but how are your prospects next time supposed to be any better? What have you learned from this?
To be fair to the Bruntwood Prize and all of the other major competitions, they are aware of the questions of whether they are there for everyone or the lucky few. In the case of the Bruntwood Prize, they publish a series of “toolkit” articles from various writers on how to make your scripts better. But you have probably already read those, and you still lost. You have also probably been on playwriting courses for beginners, read books about playwriting and searched for tips on the internet – and you’re still getting nowhere. What are you meant to do now?
Well, I’ve been there. I found a way forward. And it wasn’t by playing the game of submit-reject-sumbit-reject-submit ad infinitum. I do not claim to be an authority on how to write a good play, but this year I got my first nomination for new writing award on the fringe circuit and my first professional writing commission has just been produced, so I think my experience counts for something. Nevertheless, I have something to say that many of you aren’t going to like, and I don’t think the Bruntwood will like either. I have a lot of nuance and caveats to add to this message, so please try not to take this at face value, but there’s no getting round the fact this is an unpopular thing to say:
To put it bluntly … if you have never had anything of your performed and you are seeking your first break, you were probably wasting your time by entering. Sorry. My solution isn’t going to be much help to most of you either. What worked for me will be impossible for many of you. But it is possible for some. If what I did is an option for you, for God’s sake do it, and definitely don’t listen to the people who’d have you believe you shouldn’t. And for the rest of you who don’t have this option … well, I’ll come back this this later.
But before we get to that, there are some misconceptions about script submissions that need putting straight.
Myth one: the big break
(Hats off to Ishy Din for teaching me this lesson.)
It doesn’t help that programmes like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are based on this very premise – but it is very rare for the romanticised “big break story” story – where an artist living in obscurity is catapulted into stardom – to happen in real life. When you hear this fable, nine times out of ten the supposed big break was just the final step in a very long journey. Nobody reports on the saga that went on before that point: the bands who slowly go from tiny gigs to bigger venues; the visual artists who started off with endless small exhibitions only attended by the hardcore fans; the comedian struggling along the Free Fringe in Edinburgh building up a following. We only talk about the signing on to the big label, or the contemporary artists wowing the critics, or new comedian taking Edinburgh Fringe by storm. However much it is drilled into you that these success stories come out of nowhere, that’s almost never what happened.
Play writing competitions are no exception. The big competitions give themselves away every time they write to bios of the winners for marketing. You will notice the winner is almost always someone who has an extensive previous career in theatre – usually writing, sometimes a job in production. Same goes for the finalists on the shortlist. The romanticised stories of nobodies making it big are similarly overplayed. I remember a Lyn Gardner article praising Papatango for opening a theatrical closed shop to Samuel Bailey (whose writing I can attest is bloody brilliant), but even he’d been on a few writers’ groups of prestigious theatres before. Certainly dozens of steps ahead of all the beginners trying their luck in the competition. None of this news should surprise you; experience seeing how what you’ve written is acted out beats everything else hands down. The script readers can only judge what’s in front of them, and anyone who has first hand experience of seeing which of their words do and don’t work on stage is at a huge advantage over someone who hasn’t.
What this means for you is that if you do not have experience of getting your writing on stage, you do not stand a realistic chance of winning a major competition such as Bruntwood or Verity Bargate or Papatango. Think you have a 1 in 2,000 chance if there are 2,000 entries? Forget it, if you’re a beginner I’m afraid your odds are more like 1 in 2,000,000. You also don’t have a realistic chance of being a finalist or getting to the shortlist, and if you make it to the longlist you are very very lucky. When I talk about wasting your time, this is what I mean. The brutal reality is that you may well have pinned all your efforts and hopes on an opportunity where your chances were zero all along. (And yes, you might have had practice writing a script, but you could have done that with or without a competition to enter.)
These competition are not worthless. Where I have seen winning and shortlisted plays, they’ve been excellent. As anyone in the business knows, simply being a good writer isn’t enough – in almost all regional theatre, you need a good working relationship with the theatre as well. In that respect, anonymised playwriting competitions are the great equaliser, because experienced writers who don’t have a working relationship with a theatre get a fair chance against experienced writers who do. But if you’re not an experienced writer, forget it. The closed shop is being opened up, but not to you.
Now that I’ve painted such a bleak picture of your prospects, let’s make it even bleaker.
Myth two: learning from rejection
This myth, however, is the really unhealthy misconception about script submissions. And whilst I have not seen any of the big playwriting competitions or other script submission organisations say this directly, I’ve heard it from their readers – and the big organisations do little to counter it. In the inevitable arguments that happen after every round of rejection emails, people ask “Won’t you at least tell me what I did wrong?” The usual response is not just that the don’t have time to give feedback, but it is not in your interests to have feedback. Without a detailed reader report you might get the wrong idea of how to fix the problems and make your script worse, so it’s kinder that you don’t get any feedback at all.
Yes, you heard that correctly. Some people think by keeping you in the dark, they are doing you a favour. “Don’t get bitter, get better”. As far as I can tell, the honestly believe by getting a explanation-free no, you will understand something is wrong with it, and learn for next time. How exactly you are supposed to learn when you have no idea what is wrong is never explained. Any pushback, and they revert to the argument on how bad it is for you to hear what’s wrong without a fix – and no, you don’t get a say in what’s best for you. My view is that this is all bollocks. Anyone who has ever received criticism from reviewers or even regular audience members knows that it’s perfectly normal to hear what people didn’t like your play without saying how to fix it. 75% of the job of improving a play is knowing what the flaws are, but it’s common practice to give playwrights the space to decide on their own fixes.
However, you’ve got a feedback-free rejection, and they’re not going to change their minds. What other options do you have? Some script submission processes have, in lieu of individual feedback, so-called “general feedback” giving the trends of where scripts went wrong. However, my experience of this is that it’s near-impossible to tell whether or not these trends apply to you. (I remember the rejection of, I quote “plays without substance”. What the hell does that mean? You might know what you meant, your team of readers might know what you meant, but the rest of us don’t.) There’s also all the other tips these organisations publish about writing plays, books you can write, courses you can sign up for – but the problem with all of these is that they are written and delivered by people who have experience in writing stage plays, for an audience who don’t. It’s not that easy to read through a list of common mistakes in writing a play and knowing if that applies to you. Maybe someday someone will devise a way of doing “general feedback” that actually works, but I have never found anything useful from general feedback. Not once. Not ever.
The final problem with the concept of learning from rejection is that you don’t even know if you did something wrong. Now, nobody gets it right first time. If this was your first play chances are it’s not the masterpiece you think it is, and something somewhere want wrong. But even experienced playwrights get feedback-free rejections, and – more tellingly – can have the same play shortlisted by one competition and rejected at first sift by another. Bottom line is that a rejection tells you nothing. It might be a good play but other scripts were better. Or it might be a good play but not to the tastes of the reader. Or it might be terrible. Or a whole multitude of other possibilities. But they’ll be damned if they tell you what it is.
Footnote 1: what about publishing?
In the interests of balance, it is only fair that I look at the equivalent barrier to getting a novel published. For aspiring novelists, the hurdle many need to cross is getting an agent (most big publishers won’t consider you without one), and the process is to send a manuscript, hope for the best – and usually get a feedback-free rejection. The agents would argue that they are businesses that make money from people who’ve learned how to write novels, not a public service for those who are learning. In some respects that’s a fair argument, in other respects it’s exclusionary, but that’s way too much of a digression to go into here.
Regardless, the process of submit-reject-sumbit-reject-etc does sometimes lead to success for aspiring novelists. It might be that without a production process to worry about and the simplicity of just reading the words and see where it takes you, it’s easier to learn to write without hands-on experience. But I can’t think of a single contemporary playwright who made it this way.
There’s hope for the aspiring novelist, but not for the aspiring playwright. It’s as bleak a picture as can be. It’s a vicious circle. How do you get out of it?
Plan A: Do it yourself
So, as you might have noticed, the theme that keeps recurring is experience. The people who do well in these competitions have experience staging their plays. Staging your plays is also how you get better at competitions. But how do you clear this first hurdle of submitting a play without experience and getting someone to like it enough to put it on for you? It’s a game you have next to no chance of winning. The solution: don’t play that game. Play a different one.
If you have the means to put on the play yourself, or have it done by someone you know and trust, do it. Don’t wait for the approval of somebody in a reading room, because it may never come. Create your own opportunities to gain experience, because that’s all you can count on. Honestly, experience of staging your play – that’s staging, not just writing – beats everything else hands down. Introduction to playwriting courses, books, feedback, they all have their uses, but nothing comes close to seeing your own words spoken on stage, and finding out for yourself what does and doesn’t work the way you thought it would.
It doesn’t have to be a fully-rehearsed production either. A hastily-rehearsed script-in-hand performance or even a rehearsed reading is a massive help if you are starting off. It might read well on paper, but how does it sound spoken? Is the pace so slow it drags, so fast it doesn’t make sense, or something in the middle? Does the play look too static, does the movement cease to make sense, or is this something that works? All this and more you can learn for yourself far better than someone halfway across the country reading your script.
As how for how you do it yourself … well, that’s the hard bit. My own route I got started on was amateur dramatics. Now, I could write extensively about producing your own writing within amateur dramatics and all the amateur dramatics politics you have to navigate, and one day I probably will. However, I won’t for now because there’s plenty of different ways of getting started and I don’t know all of them. You might already have a job in theatre and connections needed to get started. You might have a group of friends willing to do this for fun. You might lead a youth drama group and have plenty of discretion over what gets performed. Or you might have something different completely. Take whatever chances you can and work with whatever you have available, because that’s the best you’re going to get.
I will warn you straight off, however, that this option might be better than endless submissions and rejections, but it’s far from an easy option. It’s much harder work getting a play on stage than it is to write it. You will almost certain certainly start off reliant on friends and colleagues willing to help you out for free, so keeping this fun and keeping people on board is just as much a challenge as the writing and directing. A play that bombs on stage is a much bigger psychological blow than a script that bombs in the reading room. Do you think you can pick yourself up after that happens? I hope so, because you’re doomed if you can’t. (This is doubly important if you are writing for something to act yourself. That is how many an actor gets started, but there’s really nowhere to hide if it goes down badly. Make sure you really know what you’re letting yourself in.)
On the plus side, for those people who go down this route, there is a lot of support and camaraderie. You may start off only having a tiny audience of family and friends, but those who turn up tend to be the people who like to back the underdogs. They will will be quick to praise you when you do things right, or even for getting on a play at all. They will also forgive your mistakes a lot more easily. If you take part in any of the fringes, you can also expect support from people in the same position as you. Try to make this support mutual. Trust me, support to others in the early days will pay off later. (One exception: if you are unlucky, you may end up in a toxic environment where people thing that they are the greatest and prefer to tear each other down. I gather student drama festivals sometimes go that way. If you realise you are in one of those environments, you are welcome to get yourself out.)
There is a down-side: if you’re not careful, the easy praise you earn can make you over-estimate your ability. I’ve seen countless plays go to the Edinburgh Fringe on the back of a positive reception locally, only to fall flat in this more competitive environment. In fact, don’t go to the Edinburgh Fringe at all until you’ve considered the alternatives. If your object is to learn and improve, Edinburgh Fringe may help you do that, but you can probably achieve the same for much less expense at one of the smaller fringes. (For a list of suggestions of how to handle local enthusiasm, see Beware of locality bias.)
It is better to have lots of small achievable goals than one big ambitious one. Edinburgh Fringe is a good example of the latter. It is very difficult to have a successful Edinburgh Fringe run if you’re new to play writing. But if you’ve previously set yourself a series of little goals before then – a rehearsed reading, a local performance, a trip to a local drama festival, Buxton Fringe, Brighton Fringe – if might be doable. This is only one example: Edinburgh Fringe might not be your big goal, you might have different intermediates, but find your own path. Achieving one little goal after another will do a lot more for your confidence than successive failed/aborted attempts at the big goal. Who knows, maybe as you progress you’ll change your mind of what your big goals are; that is fine.
And I could go on. There’s lots of little things I’ve learned. It’s a endless process of three steps forward, two steps back. If you get anywhere, it will probably take over your life. Ultimately, for those who can go down this path, it comes down to one thing: does this appeal to you? If you see small-scale productions where you take on the bulk of the work as a poor substitute for the real thing – forget it. You are going to hate everything about this, you will be constantly thinking “If only my script had been picked up by the Bruntwood this would be so much better”. Before too long you are going find this too much work for not enough reward. But if you see this taking over your life as a good thing; if you get fired up every time you take something of yours to the stage; if you take joy in every breakthrough, however small: go for it. You may never make the mark you were hoping to make – but you can a lot of fun trying anyway. And good luck.
Footnote 2: What about reading services?
There is one other option to develop your writing skills. I’ve seen this argument frequently made in response to complaints of not getting any feedback: there are paid reading services you can use. Often, the argument further goes that feedback had to be earned – but you didn’t earn it, so you gotta pay for it. But let’s ignore the debate over whether this ethos is fair and ask instead: does this actually work? I’ve not gone down this route so I can’t say myself – but, I have to say, I am sceptical.
Script reading services are costly. Some say it’s a rip-off. An argument made in their favour is that script reading services depend on people coming back to them, and they wouldn’t come back if the service is shit – and that’s a good argument. Indeed, some people who use this service swear by it. But might a script reader also be keeping business by massaging the ego of budding writers rather than saying anything constructive? (I don’t believe most script reading services would do this, but you have no way of knowing if that’s happening to you.)
Regardless, you must be aware that it will take more than one script report to make you into a decent writer. A script reader can only make a finite number of improvements from one report, and you can only make a finite amount of improvement for your own ability. Also, a script reader is only one person’s opinion. You have no way of knowing if a different script reader would say the same thing, other than sending to same script to another reader and doubling your costs. It’s frequently argued that anyone can find the money to pay for a script reader, but can you afford to do this again, and again, and again?
True, producing your own work isn’t cheap either, especially if you’re going to Edinburgh or Brighton Fringe, but I’m of the view that you learn a lot more once your words are off the page. Seeing for yourself how your script works turns out on stage tells you a lot more than a script reader speculating on how it might work out. Audience feedback is unlikely to be anywhere near as detailed as a script report, but it will give you a much better idea of consensus.
My main reason to be sceptical, however, is what we have to show for it. I do know of people who started at the bottom producing their own work who got better and better and went on to great things. But the people who use script reading services who go on to great things are already reasonably established writers, making good scripts better. I can’t think of a single writer who made it sending one unperformed play after another to script reading services for feedback.
If you know of a success story I don’t, by all means tell me. If you’re comfortable with this method and think it works for you, I’m not going to tell you to stop. But if you’re stuck in a cycle of feedback-free rejections, I wouldn’t recommend this as the way out. And I can’t help feeling that those who do recommend this are looking for a convenient excuse to maintain the status quo.
Plan B: If you can’t self produce …
So, I swear by self-production, I’m not enthusiastic about script reading services. But I’m fully aware I’m talking from a position of privilege here. I am fortunate enough to sufficient spare cash to embark on my own projects, an employer who is flexible about juggling this with a day job, and no major family commitments that eat up my spare time. Lots of people don’t have my good fortune. What if self-production isn’t for you? What other options do you have?
Precious few, I’m afraid. The best I can suggest is concentrating your efforts on those script submission opportunities that are less competitive. Regional playwriting competitions are less competitive than national ones, and it is possible to win a regional one without anything of yours previously make it to the stage. A scratch night that takes 10-minutes scripts is a lot easier to get into than something that takes full-length plays. Most of these opportunities don’t give feedback either, but you can sometimes mitigate this by turning up to these theatres and seeing what sort of plays are in their tastes. (One important addition: if a theatre has a main space and a studio space, look at what they’re doing in the studio space. The main space is often commercially safe stuff that theatres have to do, with the studio programme more likely to be what they want to do.)
You must be aware, however, that the odds are still heavily against you. Some people with no experience of production can and do get plays performed this way, but far far more don’t. For those who do, it’s just as much down to being to the tastes of that theatre’s particular reading rooms as anything; that largely comes down to luck, connections, and plenty of other things out of your hands. There is very little you can do to give yourself a fair chance against those who do. If we are ever to have a situation where the haves make some room for the have nots, it’s the arts industry that’s going to have to change, not you.
And when I say the arts industry, I don’t mean just the playwriting competitions. Yes, I would love it if the Bruntwood and Verity Bargate adopted the ethos of Papatango and gave feedback to everyone (and what Papatango does is realistically as far as any competition could go), but between them we’re looking at one paragraph of feedback every 8 months – useful, but still not a lot. No, if aspiring writers are to be given a fair chance to realise this potential, we need a collective solution across theatre. At the moment, we have a revolving door system where thousands of aspiring playwrights go on to introduction to playwriting competitions – and that’s it. They are told to go off, submit scripts, and most of these playwrights swiftly discover that what you were taught on this course is nowhere near enough to get past the reading rooms.
Sadly, the current evidence is that most theatres don’t consider this a problem. If anything, the situation has got worse. There was a time when most new writing theatres gave feedback to everyone who submitted a script. Sure, script reports aren’t everything, but it made it a lot easier to learn what individual theatres do and don’t like. When post-2010 austerity hit, this was pretty much the first thing to go – but unlike other cuts that caused (justified) outrage, there was barely a peep of protest that this lifeline was gone for so many writers seeking a first break. Maybe the New Writing theatres will argue it’s not their job to be coaching dozens of writers whose work they have no interest in producing. But then, whose job is it? Who is responsible for an equitable system where everybody who wants to write gets the best possible chance with the potential they have? How many would-be fantastic playwrights do we never discover because no-one took responsibility for getting past the loop of submit-reject-submit-reject?
What is most frustrating is that most theatres are so wedded to the submit-reject-submit-reject model they don’t even acknowledge the alternatives that already exist. For those who can self-produce, you might think that if you succeed they will beat a path down to your door, and yet (and I would dearly love to be proven wrong here) most theatres don’t seem to be interested, no matter how much you’ve proven your worth. A harsh conclusion to draw here is that the new writing theatres want to be cultural gatekeepers. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism: a lot more of this has to do with theatres wanting to be involved in developing work from the outset. But the end result is that those who produce great stuff off their own backs get overlooked. Whether or not that’s what they intended, there is a big gatekeeping problem which no-one seems willing to address.
This leads me to a bleak conclusion. If you are stuck in a cycle of submission and rejection, Plan A is to produce your own work and learn on the job. If, however, Plan A is not an option for you, I’m afraid I don’t have a Plan B to offer you. And neither, it seems, does the arts industry. All you can do is keep on persisting with a process that has given you nothing, and maybe never will. Or decide it’s a waste of time. If someone has a better idea, I’d like to hear it. But I’m out of ideas.
The new writing model in theatre is broken. And if aspiring writers trapped into the cycle of submission and rejection understood just how much the cards are stacked against them, I believe they would be very angry.
The root problem is that the route playwriting hopefuls are told to go down – of writing, submitting, and hoping for the best – is not nearly as good as it’s made out to be. The arts industry over-promises and under-delivers. The winners of the big competitions are rarely writers on the bottom rung but people who are already established. The mythical big breaks are just myths. Rejections without feedback are passed off as doing you a favour. But learning from rejection is another myth. Nobody I know has succeeded in the guessing game of what the reader didn’t like about your last script.
None of this, I must add, I think is deliberate. There is no conspiracy to keep budding writers in their place. But there is a tendency to pick easy and ineffectual solutions over difficult and worthwhile ones. The end product is that script submissions – if you have no production experience and no connections with the theatre industry – is a game where you have little chance of winning. So don’t play if you don’t have to.
Take whatever opportunity you can to produce your own work. Even if it’s a rehearsed reading with a few friends. Your efforts may well be shrugged off by those who think that that don’t get past the script readers is not good enough for performance, but that’s not the point. You are not doing it for them, you are doing it for yourself. Learning on the job gives a far better idea of what you’re doing right and wrong than any standard rejection email. You can use what you’ve learned to put on better plays or submit better scripts. Or both.
The losers, however, are the people who can’t self-produce. “Don’t get bitter, get better”, people say – but how are you supposed to get better? The dominant mindset seems to be that people who can’t get past the first sift of a reading room can be written off as doomed to achieve nothing and therefore not worth helping. But we know from the people who can self-produce that this is often not the case. How many gifted writers are we writing off before we had the chance to get started?
I maintain anyone can learn to write a play if they’re determined to learn – but only if you can see your work performed. That is a privilege not available to all. People like me who created their own opportunities out of sheer bloody-mindedness have enough spare time and spare money to make this possible. But it embarrasses me to hear of people who never escape the vicious circle of submission and rejection. Could they have made it? Could they have gone on to write something better than I can? We will never know.
It’s not fair to blame the Bruntwood Prize for this, or any of the major competitions. It’s too deep a problem for them to solve alone. No, the fault lies with a collective failure across the arts industry. They could do far more to make the most of the untapped writing talent that’s out there, but they don’t. They are subscribed to the mindset that script submissions are the only valid way to go. Worst of all, it dissuades writers from helping themselves. You get no support or encouragement for doing the thing that actually helps, with all the cheering going into submission after failed submission after futile submission. Little things such as “good luck” and “well done” to the people who go their own way cost nothing and would mean so much.
But you can’t wait for the arts industry to change. If you want to see your work in stage, do whatever you can to make this happen yourself. Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on competitions and submission widows unless you really have no alternative. And if you really have no alternative – well, I’m not the person who can help you.