This is a follow-on from my Edinburgh Fringe roundup. I’ve already listed what was good about what I saw about the Fringe. Unfortunately, there was also quite a lot of stuff that was bad. I’m not going to name and shame individual productions – that’s not what this blog is for – but I do need to start listing what goes wrong, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere, in the hope that this stops someone doing the same in the future.
First thing’s first. I do not claim to be an expert on playwriting. Indeed, some of these mistakes I’ve done myself. At present, I have written a number of one-act and full-length plays, had a few of my one-acts done on stage, made it to the finals of two playwriting competitions, and been selected for Live Theatre’s 2011 writers’ group. Not bad, but not spectacular either. What I do have is a vast number of plays I’ve seen – at least 60 plays per year lately – from small fringe productions to big-budget West End productions. I have also considered scripts of plays from Samuel French texts to unperformed unpublished works. In both cases, they range from outstanding to abominable.
The thing is, I never see a play because I expect it to be bad. Usually the description of the play was promising – it just failed to live up to its potential. And when it fails, it is down to the same mistakes being made over and over again. So here is my list of the most common easy ways that beginners spoil plays (and established professionals too, but beginners do this more often), together with some not-so-easy ways on how you can avoid this.
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.