Category Archives: Tips

15 (mainly off-message) tips about playwriting

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. Continue reading

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Buxton to Brighton: what I’ve learned

So, it’s been six months since my Brighton Fringe escapades. This blog isn’t the place where I promote my own work – the short version is that I got my first four-star review but I had abysmal ticket sales. Still, it appears to have helped my efforts along back in the north-east, albeit in different ways to what I expected. If you really want to read all the cherry-picked ego-inflating quotes I’m using, you can read it here. But this post isn’t about promoting my work, it’s a list of lessons I’ve learned that might have other people.

As with my first two “What I’ve learned” posts, this isn’t a comprehensive list of tips for taking part in a fringe, but rather a list of things I found in in the process of taking a show to Brighton, having previously only had experience of Buxton. Some things scaled up as expected, some things worked out differently. For anyone else trying this, your unexpected experiences will probably be different. Without further ado, here we go. Continue reading

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10 rules to make sense of reviews at the fringe

All the different fringe publications logos

Edinburgh Fringe is getting underway, which means that reviews of shows are starting to come in. And if you’re new to all of this, this might seem like an easy way of sorting out the good shows from the dross. After all, if you’re doing this properly you should know that – in theory at least – anyone who wants to take part in the fringe can do so. Inevitably, some of them are going to be good and some of them are going to be crap. Surely the reviews can ensure you see the good stuff and avoid the turkeys?

Not quite. Making sense of star ratings and reviews is a lot more complicated than most people realise. A play you loved might be getting two-star reviews, and a play you hate might be getting four- and five-star reviews; that’s happened to me on many occasions. Performers and venues, meanwhile, naturally do their utmost to promote the good reviews and bury the bad ones. Such are the intricacies of reviews, one might be tempted to give up on using them altogether and go back to guessing. But there are ways of making the most of reviews; some are difficult to master, but others are tips every novice should know. Continue reading

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5 tips for performing at a Fringe (which no-one ever follows)

The wait is nearly over, fringe season is nearly here, and if you are intending to take part, you are probably well underway getting your show ready. So this is the time of year when theatre bloggers like me give you some handy tips of what to do whether you want them or not.

But this time, I think I’m going to do something different. Plenty of people want to share with you their gems of wisdom that would make every show a success if only people listened to them. Instead, I’m going to give a series of uncontentious pieces of advice which I doubt anyone will dispute – except that I don’t expect anyone to actually do this. And if anyone claims they do any of these things, I refuse you believe you until I’ve strapped you to my high-voltage lie detector machine.

Remember folks, just because it’s sensible doesn’t mean you’ll do the sensible thing. Here are five sensible things I expect you to ignore.

1: Don’t obsess over your ticket sales

Screenshot of Performers' Area page of Underground Venues, showing Sales Reports section.

Damn you Underground Venues, this is all your fault

This is a recent phenomenon. In the old days, in order to find out how the ticket sales were doing, you had to turn up to the box office and ask. That safely limited you to two or three times a day, after which the box office staff would helpfully tell you to stop being this obsessive. Nowadays, however, many venues provide live online sales information to performers. And with the advent of smartphones, this now means you can check your ticket sales every five minutes if you want to. And yes, you want to check your ticket sales every five minutes, don’t you? Stop trying to deny it. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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How to choose a show at the Edinburgh Fringe

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing various tips for punters, mainly on how to make the most of the various festival fringes. This year, I’ve not done a new article for the Edinburgh Fringe because there isn’t much that needs updating. So instead, I’m going to concentrate on a specific dilemma that punters face: how do you choose what you want to see at the Edinburgh Fringe?

Anywhere else, it’s quite straightforward. You look through the programme, pick out plays that are on at a time and place suitable to you, are affordable, and sounds like your sort of thing. Then you can pick out something from this list. You might go for the play/author/company/venue you like the best, which one has the best reviews, which one is best value for money, or whatever you choose. Regardless of what’s important to you, you make a choice. And this simple method works for Brighton Fringe, Buxton Fringe, any other Fringe, or pretty much any regional theatre scene out of fringe season. But in Edinburgh? Not a chance. Even if you want to see a play in, say, late afternoon somewhere in the city centre, you have gazillions of plays to choose from. In the time it takes you to list them all and narrow them down to the one you want to see the most, you could have seen the damn play. Which means instead you have to make hasty decisions which you may bitterly regret later. Who’d have thought choosing a play could be so complicated?

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How to make the most of the Buxton Fringe (fringe newbie edition)

Picture of Buxton Pavillion Gardens

Continuing my series of fringe guides, I’m going to do the same for Buxton as I did for Brighton and do a guide for the Buxton Fringe for fringe newbies. This will differ from last year’s guide that was aimed it Edinburgh Fringe veterans who want to know how Buxton differs from the big on. If you are such a Edfringe veteran and the phrase “Unboring” drives you round the bend, stop reading this and start reading the other guide. If, however, you’re new to this festival fringe thing, this is just the place for you.

This is not about which shows are the best ones to see (that will come in my next blog post), but rather what to expect of the festival fringe as a whole. Some of this will be a copy-paste from other articles. I’m in a hurry so that’s what you’re getting. Without further ado, let’s go: Continue reading

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