6 playwriting tips the pros don’t tell you (and 6 from the pros that you should ignore)

Been ages since I’ve done a tips article, do time for another one of these. This, however, is specifically designed to go against the grain. There is a lot of advise out there that I wholeheartedly endorse, but I’ve been over that before. However, there are times when I think the theatre industry doesn’t tell aspiring writers things they ought to know. There are even times when popular advice is counter-productive.

I have no intention of getting into arguments with other people on what is and isn’t good advice, so I will as far as possible refrain from pushing my own preferred techniques as the “right” way to do it. Much of this advice is how to navigate the world of playwriting rather than simply writing the play. And where I do talk about playwriting, it’s mostly to tell you which rules you don’t have to follow if you don’t want to. Here we go. All controversial, I sincerely hope.

6 tips the pros don’t tell you

Most advice on becoming a playwright comes from the theatre industry. And what they say is mostly good. But you must remember that what they are saying is in their interests to follow, not necessarily yours. And what’s convenient to them doesn’t always do you good. Here are six ways I believe it is in your interests to do what the pros in theatre rarely mention.

Experience beats feedback hands down.

I’ve already gone into this in a lot more detail in my post about national playwriting competitions, but it’s worth repeating here. It is becoming increasingly difficult for aspiring playwrights to get feedback. Most competitions are unable to (or, more accurately, unwilling to) give feedback on losing entries. Script reading services that used to be the staple of every new writing theatre have been massively cut back. Some places do still give feedback – be grateful for what you can get. A lot more places believe that they’re doing you a favour by keeping you in the dark as to what you did wrong.

But, to be honest, the debate of feedback versus no feedback is a bit of a red herring. What is unbeatable is seeing for yourself how your words work on stage. There’s no shortage of books and courses that will tell you the importance of things such as letting dialogue flow naturally, keeping a suitable pace and ramping up the tension as the play go on – and whilst all of this is correct, actually explaining how to do it is a bugger. It’s much more effective to get some people to go through the words you have written and find out how well dialogue flows, pace progress, tension ramps, and a whole load of other things that can only really be learned through seeing it on stage.

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One off: history repeating

Skip to: Noughts and Crosses

Ric Renton’s own story about his time in Durham prison is insightful, nuanced, raises awareness of an issue few people in the north east know about – and firmly marks Jack McNamara’s stamp as Live Theatre’s new artistic director.

Jack McNamara got off to a good start with We Are The Best back in June, but whilst the debut may have been a safe bet with an uplifting crowd-pleaser, this follow-up is a lot darker. And – if the pattern on the fringe circuit is anything like the rest of theatre – heavy going is considerably riskier in terms of audience numbers. And yet, this play is getting good audiences, and for good reasons too. This is a co-production with Paines Plough, and Ric Renton stars in his own play about his experiences of Durham Prison. There was a time when prison dramas were full of brutality, either from guards or other inmates. Now it’s a bit more complicated.

oneoff_lowres-59First, a lesson in recent local history. I must confess, I had no idea Durham Prison was such a controversial subject. The last I heard, it was a prison with reluctant guests included Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. When it came to public attention there was a high rate of suicide, the high-security women’s wing was closed it it became a men-only prison. One might have thought the authorities would have also actually tried to stop the stupidly high suicide rate – instead, it appears they just shrugged. Usual word of caution for any creative writing based on a true story: there is little to stop a theatre depicting a one-sided account without allowing those under fire their side of the story. However, Ric Renton’s account is consistent with the publicly available information about Durham Prison – and considering that this prison has recently been changed completely from a category A Prison to a reception prison – I suspect those in charge of the prison today will accept this was fair.

Ric (named “Shepherd” in the play) is in a cell between Brown and Knox. The one thing you quickly notice that these three have in common is that none of them should really be in the same prison as the most hardened criminals in the country. Yes, they have all done enough to earn themselves a stretch, but it seems the people who most need protecting from these three are themselves. Especially Brown. He seems so lost in the outside world he commits crime after inept crime on the expectation he’ll be going back. He claims to be building matchstick models of Durham Cathedral that probably only exist in his mind – and when we finally do hear his back story, it’s of someone who didn’t stand a chance in life.

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Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2022

REVIEWS: Skip to: Beast in the Jungle, Animal Farm, Nyctophilia, Miss Nobodies, Runny Honey, Report: an inquiry into the enquiries, Support your local library, The Glummer Twins, Forthinghay, Harp-Guitar

Apologies for those of you I saw at Buxton still waiting for a review. There is an anomaly in my coverage, as whilst I do live updates on Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe and get most reviews out within days, for various reasons I save Buxton reviews for the roundups. As usual, I meant to get roundups out of the way by September at the latest but didn’t. Maybe next year. Anyway, let’s go.

The most notable thing about this roundup is that I don’t have much to say in the way of a preamble. Which, in this case, is a good thing. I had a lot to write about the various shitstorms going on in Brighton Fringe, and I’ve got another load of shitstorms to summarise for Edinburgh. Buxton, by contrast, seems to be largely back to normal. The registrations seems to have made it back to the 170-mark, which was the typical size for most of the last decade. And you could look around Buxton in July and see something that looks similar to any July from before times. However, when you look under the surface, it’s not quite back to business as usual. There are two things I noticed that were different, that aren’t immediately clear from looking at the listings.

Firstly, it’s the same root problem that’s affecting Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes: participation numbers are recovering well, audience numbers not so much. The ‘rona is the obvious thing to blame, and anecdotally I’ve heard of some people who used to loads of events who are still not going out because they’re worried about catching the damn thing again. In that respect, Buxton is particularly vulnerable because of its older-than-average audience age. However, there are other possible factors in play too, not least a cost of living crisis that was putting the willies up people even before this winter closed in.

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Odds and Sods: October 2022

Time for another odds and sods. One thing I have still not mentioned is the Chris Goode shitshow that blew up this month. Rest assured, I am well aware of this – I will be talking about this separately, because there’s a lot to cover there.

Stuff that happened in October

Having started off mentioning the really depressing news, I’ll carry on doing this in order. I’ll move on to the next least cheery development, and finish with some good news.

Edinburgh Film Festival under threat?

I’m starting with the most concerning news this time, so read on for the cheerier stuff. This has only really been on the Edinburgh cultural radar, but in the worst case scenario the rest of us will be noticing the fall-out very soon.

film_festival_logoSo, the news that has rocked Edinburgh is that the Centre for the Moving Image has gone into administration, with trading ceasing immediately and all staff being made redundant. Truth be told, I’d never heard of this organisation until I saw it was in this much trouble. It runs two arthouse cinemas in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, both with strong local followings. However, there is a more significant part to this that runs wider: they also operate the Edinburgh International Film Festival. That has been running as long as the Edinburgh Fringe, and is one of the festivals under the Edinburgh Festival banner. There is a long-running theory that the powers that be in Edinburgh would never allow one of its flagship festivals to disappear – but that it about to be put to the test. And if we’re wrong, which other festivals would they allow to go bust? The tattoo? The international festival? The Edinburgh Fringe itself?


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