Like many people with a blog and numerous hobbies, I sometimes like to convince myself that my opinions are interesting and, in some way, matter. I like to imagine what I’d say if someone asked me what I thought about something, and try to work out if what I’d say would be any different to what anyone else would say. I saw recently that the splendid Van Badham had written some advice for new playwrights, and I returned to my common daydream of ‘what will I say when a Prestigious Academic Institution invites me to speak to a new generation of bushy-eyed writers?’.
And then, of course, I realised that it doesn’t matter that I’ll never be asked to do anything of the sort: I have a blog! I can just scream my opinions out into the void of The Internet and pretend that someone’s listening! So, in no particular order, here are my own pieces of advice for newish playwrights. I’d like to imagine that it’s advice you may not be told on one of the ubiquitous writing courses…
1. Get a job.
Statistically, the number of people who define themselves as ‘A Playwright’ and who make a living from writing plays is so small that it might as well be zero. It follows that you’re very unlikely to be one of those people. Find something you can cope with1, and that allows you enough time and space to write.
2. Take the work seriously.
Work at it. Don’t say ‘Oh, that’ll do’. If what you’re writing ever gets anywhere, it’ll be judged on the same scale as the most successful shows there are- if you don’t take it seriously, who will?
3. Don’t take yourself seriously.
You want to spend the only life you’ll ever have making up stories. Have some perspective.
4. Avoid oxides of metals.
By and large, metal oxides are pretty toxic; it’s a good idea to avoid them if at all possible. If it isn’t, be sure to wear relevant protective safety gear when handling them.
5. Don’t have a process.
If you have A Way Of Doing Things, it’ll be very easy to make minor variations on The Same Thing every time you sit down to write something new. The assumption here, of course, is that you want to write something new each time…
6. Suit your medium.
Be sure that the thing you want to write about should be a piece of theatre. Maybe it’s just a story that would work better as a novella, or a short story, or a secret little dance you do in front of your girlfriend2.
The thing about defining yourself as A Playwright is that you’re confronted with a classic problem: if all you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail. I suspect there’s a strong impulse to say to yourself ‘I find this particular Thing I Saw On The News interesting; I will write An Important Play about it’, while not considering what it is about live performance that particularly suits what you’re trying to do.
I would also add that it’s a good idea to have some perspective about what theatre can do. Andrew Haydon put it very nicely in his Postcards from the Gods blog:
…there was a repeated strain of question which seemed to be formulated thus: “How can Theatre block the flow of a river in a steep valley, thereby storing all the water in a reservoir, which can then be used for hydro-electricity or irrigation?”
To which the sensible answer is: You want a dam for that, not theatre.
7. Go to see some plays. But not too many.
Let’s be honest, most plays are rubbish. Not just plays, of course: plays, films, paintings, albums, novels, dances, drawings- most of them are rubbish. If you go to see too many plays, you may well see too many terrible things, and become disillusioned with the whole medium, which would be sad. Moderate your theatre intake.
8. Network. A bit.
This is a horrible thing for me to write as I hate it, both in principle and practice. Nevertheless, meeting people is A Good Way to get people interested in what you do. I find that very few directors and producers pop round to my house to see what I’m up to, so leaving the house seems the only option. I recommend you do the same; but, once again, moderate it. You need to leave some time for video games and general procrastination, after all.
9. Know your tools.
I have been called a snob for wanting writers to construct a decent sentence, with properly spelt words and even some punctuation in the right place.
If I see a carpenter trying to use a slotted screwdriver on a posidrive screw, I’m going to be a little sceptical about his ability to put up a sturdy shelf; if I see a script with ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ used interchangeably, or paragraphs of text without a comma or a semicolon to break it up, I’m going to be sceptical about the writer’s ability in other areas.
Likewise clumsy metaphors, ham-fisted emotionally-manipulative dialogue, characters so clichéd they could have been culled from 90210, lazy pop references, all that jazz. If you care about writing, you should care about imagery, sonority, grammar, allegory, form, structure, spelling, all the good stuff they teach you in English literature.
10. And finally.
When the first day of rehearsals comes round, and you meet the actors, and the director, and the sound designer, and the wardrobe mistress, remember this:
You have not written A Play.
You’ve written A Script.
And if you really need the difference explained, you should probably reconsider how you’re spending your time.