10 common mistakes in playwriting from people who should know better

I never guessed this when I first posted this in the first year of my blog, but 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting is by far the most read post on this blog. Since then I had advanced a lot further and learnt a lot more, but it’s interesting to discover that I haven’t changed my mind about any of these. It’s frequently linked as a resource by  schools, and Papatango even once named this one of their resources for their playwriting competition.

But … am I pointing the finger at the easy targets? I want to help, but there’s always the nagging doubt that the real audience of the post is people who are familiar with writing plays exchanging knowing laughs about people who aren’t. Well, if that’s you, it’s time to stop smirking. My biggest frustration in the last few years isn’t from the people who don’t know any better, but the people who should. I can understand why novices would keep making the same mistakes, but I’m increasingly noticing that there’s another set of repeat mistakes made by established artists. People who ought to have learned by now.

So here’s comes my less popular companion article: 10 common mistakes in playwriting  from people who should know better. Unlike beginners’ mistakes, not everything here will get your script binned in the reading room – on the contrary, some people think any or all the things listed here are a plus. If you want a commissions performed in front of a praiseful clique, ignore everything I say. But if your goal if for people to look back at your play years or decades later and say “wasn’t that good?” – and I hope this is what you’re aspiring to – you should take heed. I’m listing this in ascending order of controversy – I’m expecting the last one to piss quite a few people off – but all of these things are inspired by plays I’ve seen. I won’t say which ones*, because I don’t want to personalise this, but if you think it’s you, please consider this my hint to change tack.

[*: And no, I’m not going to tell you, so don’t ask.]

Without further ado, here we go.

1: Set piece overkill

This one is a giveaway of recent drama school graduates. I’m not knocking drama schools here: whilst there some damned good performances from people with no training, in my experience the biggest strength of professional training is versatility. (Good amateurs are great at playing variants of their real selves – with professional training you can do a lot more.) Another asset of drama schools is learning every trick in the book to put together a great performance. After seen enough plays, you learn to spot the “set pieces”. Things that wow regular theatregoers are known by more experienced viewers to be quite easy if you know how. Which is fine – you should be trying to impress the 95% of the audience who just want to enjoy this, not the 5% who know enough about the craft to judge your skills. Continue reading

If I didn’t like your play …

This is an article I’ve been thinking of writing for some time, but with a few comments lately about the ethics of reviewing, it’s spurred me into action. This is primarily aimed at my own reviews – however, most of what I say will will usually apply to other reviews too.

When I started this blog off, I never expected bad reviews to be an issue. Being a performer myself, I wasn’t comfortable with badmouthing fellow performers, so I used the tagline “review of stuff that’s good” and adopted a principle of only reviewing things I liked, similar to FringeReview’s policy (who, incidentally, also prefer reviewers to be performers themselves). However, what was a simple policy in theory has turned out to be more complicated in practice, especially after I started getting invited to reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. One thing I quickly learned is that most people prefer a middling review to no review at all – some people like constructive feedback, some people want reviews on the record as evidence that they’re out there. And when you’ve got a ticket for free, it’s harder to justify writing nothing in return.

So the principle I operate on now is that I write a review if I can either say something good or say something helpful, or both. Only a small number of plays I see are neither of those. Nevertheless, there is the old saying of “There’s nothing so damning as faint praise”, and if a review showing mild enthusiasm for certain aspects is next to a review praising another play in every way possible, I can see why it might be a disappointment. The only way I can see of avoiding this would be to be equally positive about everything I see. But I don’t think I would be doing anybody any favours if I did this. Once people cotton on to fact you say everything is awesome, praise becomes worthless, whether or not it was earned.

It’s never easy to predict how people will react – some people have been thankful over reviews I thought was only lukewarm, and other people have seemed disappointed even when I thought my review was quite good. But whatever your reason is, if my review was less than you were hoping for, this article is for you. This article is also for anyone who gets a less-than-enthusiastic review from anybody else. The short answer often given is that it’s only one person’s opinion, and that is correct. But looking a bit deeper, what does that mean for you? Continue reading

12 questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking of doing the Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe has barely been put to bed, but already people are thinking about what to do on the fringe circuit next year. And amongst these will be a lot of people who have never done this before. If you’re new to this, there are a lot of guides out there that will cover the practicalities of doing the fringe – I’ve indulged a little in this myself, but there are other more comprehensive guides out there. But this isn’t about how to do a fringe show. This is about a question I don’t think gets asked enough: should you do the fringe at all?

Performing on the fringe circuit is a great experience: it can bring you opportunities you can’t get anywhere else, and best of all, there’s no gatekeepers telling us who is and isn’t allowed to be given a chance. But even so – and I say this as one of the strongest advocates of open fringes – that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everyone. Far too often, the opportunities are over-sold, and the risks are downplayed. Even if you’re lucky enough to have no worries about money, a fringe venture that backfires is a huge setback, far worse than a local venture that flops.

The biggest danger of the Fringe, though, is how much people want to do it. I think I can speak for pretty much everyone to say that there’s nothing like the buzz of being part of it. It’s dangerous, because when you want to do something this badly, it’s very easy to make an optimistic assumption here and overlook a problem there, until you’re convinced it’s a good idea long after alarm bells should be ringing. So, in my effort to avert disasters in the making, I am putting together a list of questions you should ask yourself first. These should always precede a decision to take part at all. Only then should you proceed with deciding how to actually do it. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

The Fringe alone: what I’ve learned

Right, with my third of three consecutive plays finally finally finally out of the way, I can now look back at the first one. And although it may seem like a distant memory now, earlier this year I did the Buxton Fringe again. I’ve already written about my experiences last year at the Buxton Fringe, but, hey, what the hell, let’s do another post along these lines. And this year, it may not have been my first year taking part in a fringe environment, but it was the first year I went on my own.

Now, when I talk about doing the Fringe alone, I’m not talking about plays where you are bringing along an actor to do a solo play for you. That’s what I did last year (okay, it was a solo play plus one non-speaking and one cameo, but you get the idea), but I learnt this year the experience of producing a solo play is a very different to one where you’re also the actor. You might be doing someone else’s play, you might have a director back home refining your performance, but you’re the one dealing with the venue, publicising the play, and travelling to the fringe on your own.

I’ll start as frank as I mean to go on. Doing a solo performance at a fringe without support is a big challenge. The personal stakes are high: the play’s success or failure will be entirely attributed to you. Such are the challenges of a solo fringe that I would urge anyone considering doing this to think very carefully about whether you really want to do it, especially if your main reason for doing it is because you think it’s easier than a bigger play. But it can be done – provided you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

Continue reading

13 questions to ask yourself before you enter a playwriting competition

This is going to sound ungrateful of me, seeing that I was a finalist of 2012’s People’s Play (and frequently mention this fact to make myself look good), but I’m not terribly enthusiastic about playwriting competitions. I’ve got a number of gripes over them (read on to see what), but the main thing is that I’m not really interested in seeking someone else’s approval for my script. I want to take responsibility for what I show an audience and let them be the judge. I just don’t have much patience with the hoops you have to jump through in reading departments.

Nevertheless, for the majority of aspiring writers, the fact remains that script submissions such as playwriting competitions are your only chance of getting your work out there. And, of course, if you can produce your own plays, it’s not an either/or choice – you can produce your own work and enter competitions at the same time. The odds of winning are bound to be low, but it’s not a bad deal if you prevail: typically you can expect a four-figure cash prize, a performance of your work, and a leg up with your career now that you call sell yourself as “winner of the X prize/competition”.

Approaches to competitions vary. Some people set their mind on going for one particular competition, whilst others are happy to go for a scattergun approach and submit to as many competitions as possible. Either approach can work and has worked. But based on my occasional foray into these kinds of competitions – and my habit of reading the fine print first – I think it’s a good idea to use some discretion over where you send your work. There is more at stake than a few postage stamps here.

Continue reading

Beware of locality bias

Angel of the North + Newcastle United Shirt + six bottle of Brown Ale
A good formula for a Tyneside-based play? Not as much as you think.

So, the Fringe season has begun. In Brighton, Edinburgh and the smaller fringes, hundreds of groups will be showing the world what they have to offer, without any vetting committees dictating what you can and can’t perform. That’s how it should be, but one effect of this is that some of these shows will be turkeys.

And this raises an obvious question: why do so many people take poor productions to the fringe? Similarly, why are so many performers expecting their big break with something that’s only average? The easy answer is to say that these groups didn’t bother with hard work, should have known how bad it was, and brought it on themselves. But I think that’s a lazy answer. With the exception of some student productions (who can treat the Fringe as a holiday), do you really think these groups willingly gamble thousands of pounds without thinking very carefully if it’s going to pay off? Of course not. In which case, how are so many groups getting this wrong?

Well, after a long time watching others in action and a short time having a go myself, I’ve come up with a theory I call “locality bias”. There’s a lot of variations of this, but the basic principle works as follows: All other things being equal, the more local your audience is to your play, the more favourable their reaction will be. This theory also applies to reviewers and script readers. One extreme example is that a school puts on Grease to a mediocre standard, even compared to other schools, but the audience dominated by doting parents still think it’s wonderful. But there’s no way that audience would be so complimentary if it was another school in another town.

Locality bias isn’t always a bad thing, and sometimes it can work to your advantage. But when it goes wrong, it can go very badly wrong. So here is a list of things to beware of, and what you can do about it. Continue reading