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

Every Good Beginner Deserves Feedback 2: the Rumpelstiltskin method

Picture from Rumpelstiltskin
“Can I interest you in my heart-warming play of an island community?” “No!” “How about a dark comedy about social media?” “No!” “My biopic of a feminist activist?” “No!” “A satire on petty corruption?” “No! That is not what we’re looking for.”

COMMENT: It’s fine for script rooms to claim it’s not in their interests to give feedback on unsuccessful scripts. It’s a different matter to claim it’s not in the interests of the writers.

Last month I did something I haven’t done before: I wrote my first rejection e-mail for an unsolicited script. I never set out to be a reading service, but as I direct as well as write the occasional script finds itself my way, and now that I have a web page I’ve started getting contacted from abroad. I can’t say whether this script was any good, because it was an stage adaptation of an ancient text; nothing wrong with that, just not something that interests me. So I politely declined and explained that I wasn’t right person to approach with this, and gave some advice on why this sort of adaptation is hard and some tips on how to approach this challenge. Had it not been over Christmas, I might not have had the time for the latter bits. But at the very least I would have told him ancient texts weren’t my thing; I cannot see any justification to withhold something that significant, especially something that would have taken me 90 seconds max to write. And besides: I’ve already made my views clear on rejection without feedback. I have to set an example.

So this might be a good moment to return to my pate hate of rejection-free feedback, the #1 reason I rarely bother with script submissions. To repeat myself, I am not asking for the same detailed feedback the top 5% get at Writersroom – I accept they do not have the resources to do that – but a simple explanation, in one paragraph or less, as to what made you decide no. At the time I first wrote about this subject, I had no insight into why this is done, but last July I got involved in a discussion on the BBC Writersroom blog where the then-head, Paul Ashton, explained his reasons. It was a polite disagreement, and the fact that he explained his position is something I am grateful for – most places not only don’t give feedback, but also don’t explain why. As such, I do feel a little bad for singling out BBC Writersroom for criticism, but, hey, this is the world of performing arts where every public utterance is picked apart mercilessly in public. Sorry. If it’s a consolation, much of what I say here probably applies to everywhere else too.

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Every Good Beginner Deserves Feedback

COMMENT: Theatres have to reject most scripts that are sent to them – but they could at least say why.

Last week I did something I very rarely do – I submitted a script to another theatre. On a whim, I decided to enter New Writing North’s People’s Play competition (which is why I was late doing the Brighton Fringe roundup – I was working flat-out polishing up the script I wanted to send). Note my use of the words “rarely” and “on a whim”: I usually don’t bother with playwriting competitions at all. Same goes for most script calls and theatre reading departments. My reasons are many and varied, which you can read here, but the main one is that unless you are lucky enough to be picked – and let’s face it, the maths says it probably won’t be you – it’s a waste of time. If they don’t want your play, it gets binned without any explanation why.

Since I’m already biting the hand that might feed me, I will say this in defence of the People’s Theatre: they’ve got a good reputation for what they produce (and with me active in a fellow Little Theatre Guild venue I could do with building links), they don’t try to take ownership of your script, and they don’t charge submission fees. It’s the last one that I have big problems with, because I am very much opposed on principle to the idea of theatres making money from writers. A “reading fee” of around £30 is not uncommon for playwriting competitions, which, for all I know, could be little more than a glance of page one (and if you win the costs can be even more extortionate, but that’s another story). But even with a free competition with no strings attached, it takes time and money to get the play ready, print it, write the covering letter and post it. So usually I’m better off doing it myself.

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