Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'm a co-signatory of a letter to the Guardian today from Artists of the Resistance, a newly-formed group that is part of Coalition of Resistance, a national body that is really gaining momentum. They've edited it a bit, so I reproduce the full version below.

You can read more about Artists of the Resistance, and find out how to sign up, here.

Artists of the Resistance

Len McCluskey calls for a "broad strike movement" to stop the coalition's "explicitly ideological" programme of cuts. (‘Unions Warn of Massive Wave of Strikes’, Guardian 19 December 2010) This will happen. Government cuts are decimating education, welfare, health, sports and the arts. We are told that they are as inevitable as the rain; that the only choice we have is between music classes for our kids or care for our elderly. We need both and do not accept that jobs, services and the quality of life have to be jettisoned for the greed of those who are asked to sacrifice nothing. Cutbacks in the arts mean that access will be limited to those who have the money to pay while many who work in the arts will lose their jobs. The closing of public libraries is the most obvious example. They are where literature, art and culture are available to everyone without charge. Some authorities are already selling them off, others are offering them to the ‘consumer’ on the principle of ‘if you want them buy them’. Massive increases in education fees and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance are part of the same philosophy. Everything that is not immediately of use to the corporate agenda is to be placed on a ‘pay as you go’ principle. Meanwhile funding for theatre, film, music, dance and other arts projects is to return to the Victorian notion of finding patrons, drawn from the people and corporations who have their own agendas of how to define the arts. In the face of those who choose to exercise their power to destroy, we need to create. We urge all those who work in the arts to join us at 'Artists of the Resistance' in opposing the cuts.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hello again, remember me?

It's been a while hasn't it. I'm a bit older now, so you might not recognise me at first, but I'm still that writer whose blog you used to read. Thanks for popping back. Sorry if you're feeling neglected.

What news? Well, quite a bit actually.

The main project of the past few months has been working on the first two drafts of How Are You Feeling? a huge and crazily ambitious new site specific play for the Brighton Festival, to be performed in a disused hospital. I'm still in the middle of that, but after a large chunk of funding fell through you won't be seeing it now until the 2012 Festival (it was going to be next year.) The silver lining is that it'll be tons better for the extra time, and it might also mean we can set up some sort of afterlife for it outside of Brighton (if anyone knows of any not-too-derelict disused hospitals in their area, please let me know.)

I'm also about to embark on a really exciting project for Birmingham Rep, a co-commission with two other writers. I can't say too much about it at this stage, but suffice to say they are setting the three of us up as 'investigative playwrights' to research a fascinating and controversial area of recent news and formulate a creative response. More on that in due course...

What else? I'm talking to Half Moon Young People's Theatre, who produced Locked In and We Are Shadows, my first two plays for teenagers, about developing a third in the new year. There are also big plans afoot at Mulberry School, where I work as writer-in-residence. Building work is about to begin on their own brand new, on-site studio theatre, scheduled for opening in January 2012. After winning a Scotsman Fringe First with them for 2009's The Unravelling, and getting all four of our plays published this year by Nick Hern Books, we're debating what's next for the company. It's looking like 2011 will involve working towards a spectacular opening season for the new space, possibly involving opening the school up to a whole range of writers... watch this space.

Finally, the extraordinary (and unlikely) journey of How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found continues around the world with news that its third professional US production is going to take place next May, this time in Los Angeles! Most exciting is the news that the visionary director Nancy Keystone will be at the helm. Long-time readers will recall that I got terribly excited by her production of Apollo at Portland Center Stage in 2009, when How To Disappear played in PCS's studio. Well, we've stayed in touch ever since and it's looking like we might finally get to work together, and on her home turf.

I also recently helped judge this year's Adopt-A-Playwright award for Sofie Mason of OffWestEnd.com, for whom we appointed a very exciting winner. I'm not sure it's been announced though so better not say. I love that award though, it's going from strength to strength and becoming a unique annual feature on the theatre calendar. Sofie has also launched the Offies, the first ever set of awards for Off West End shows, which is such a brilliant and obvious idea everyone is wondering why it hasn't been done before.

Lots of other ideas and collaborations bubbling away in the background, but those are the ones I can share for now. I was hoping 2011 might be a bit quieter! Not a chance. (And I'm so used to this sort of pace now, it would probably do my head in if it wasn't like this. Here's hoping it doesn't kill me though.)

In the meantime, here's an interesting thing. I was recently approached by a website offering careers advice, to answer some questions about Playwrighting as a career. Some of them made me laugh because it was things like 'How far is it possible to progress within the organization?' and 'What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry you must attend to?' - questions clearly written for 'normal/proper' jobs. But it was interesting to try and answer them in the context of writing for the theatre, so I reproduce them here. Let me know if you think I've missed anything.

What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?
It started as an interest in acting at school and in youth theatres, then became an interest in directing, before finally realising that the playwright is the person with whom it all begins, and who has the main creative vision. I’ve always loved language and stories, but in particular I love the messiness and idiosyncrasies of spoken language, and seeing a story played out live by real human beings in the same room, rather than reading a story off the page. I love theatre’s collaborative nature and the fact that even in this technological age it is still flourishing as one of the last remaining arenas where the British public comes together en masse to consider the big issues of the day and experience lives different to their own. I wanted to be a part of that. As my career has evolved I’ve also come to appreciate the freedom, flexibility and variety of a freelance creative working life. I love the opportunity to take part in a national debate, I love getting to investigate and research unfamiliar worlds, and meet new people who have had experiences I haven’t. I also teach playwriting and really enjoy training up younger generations of artists. And I don’t have to wear a tie or work in an office, that’s a real bonus.

Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise'?
Every writer is different, but when I’m on deadline for a commissioned play script, I get up with the rest of the world and treat my writing day as a regular 9 to 5 shift, Monday to Friday. I have a spare room at home which doubles as a study, but in the early days I’d just write wherever there was a desk – in the kitchen or living room. I need quiet and can’t write anywhere public, though some writers seem to be able to. I structure my stories very thoroughly before writing a word of dialogue, so i will often spend some time putting together prose treatments and scene plans which i then pin to the wall above my desk to follow like a map for the story as I’m going along. It’s easy to get distracted working at home so you do have to be very strict with yourself, switch off your phone, don’t look at emails, have set break times which you stick to, things like that. If anything, when you work for yourself you can find you’re stricter with yourself than a normal boss, and it can be hard to switch off at the end of the day. Fear of missing a deadline and letting a company down, or of producing a sub-standard script which isn’t selected for production are great motivating factors!

However it isn’t all working at home. Quite often you’ll be out for meetings with Literary Managers or Artistic Directors of theatre companies (or Producers in TV or radio) discussing new ideas, chasing commissions, or discussing re-writes of existing scripts. Sometimes you’ll find yourself doing workshops on your play with actors for a day or two, to see how it stands up when performed, to help you decide what changes to make in the next draft. When you have a play in production then you might spend several days or even weeks in the rehearsal room with the director and actors, watching it all come together and giving notes or making last minute changes as appropriate. Other tasks might include proofing the publisher’s copy of your script before it goes to press, giving interviews to journalists in the build-up to your play opening, or even writing articles about it yourself. I also teach a lot and spend anything up to two days a week doing that, in schools and universities. It isn’t unusual to have two or three commissions and a couple of teaching jobs on the go at the same time, so you have to manage your time carefully and be a good multi-tasker.

What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry you must attend to?
Most problems in this line of work arise within the world of a play you are developing, for example structural problems with a story. Sometimes there can be disagreement with a commissioning company about the direction a play has taken but these are thankfully rare – most theatre companies trust and support their writer’s decisions, though in TV they are more likely to interfere. If you get conflicting sets of advice about a play it is sometimes hard to know which is the right one to follow. The trick is to stick to your vision for the play and the story you most want to tell. Audiences have very acute bullshit detectors so your stories must always have human truth at the heart of them.

What do you like most about the job?
I like the freedom to write about whatever i like, and that I’m using my creativity and imagination all day every day. I love the world of the theatre and going to see plays all the time, as well as seeing my own plays come together in the rehearsal room and what incredible depth and insight actors can bring as they take a play off the page and bring it to life. I love sitting in the audience anonymously and sensing how something I’ve written is being received by those around me. I love stage images and metaphor, and the power they have to move an audience and make them see the world differently, or walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I love how political theatre can be, and its ability to illuminate the great issues of the day through the prism of human stories. I love the variety of the work and the places the research can take me. I have a great hunger to know about the world and working as a playwright really feeds that.

What do you like least about the job?
Contrary to popular belief, playwriting is very badly paid. The Writer’s Guild recommended minimum for a full-length stage play (70+ minutes) is around £6,500. That might sound like a lot but when you bear in mind that might represent 6-12 months work then you quickly realise that you can’t really live on commissions alone. You’d need to take on four a year to even make the national average salary, which is an impossible workload for most writers. There’s also nothing legally enforceable about that amount so many theatres pay less. (TV does pay a lot more but the trade-off is that you aren’t trusted to write your own dramas without doing many years of hack work churning out soap opera episodes. Even then, TV writers give up a huge amount of creative control to producers, and can be replaced even on an idea which they had come up with.)

Playwrights also often aren’t treated with a great deal of loyalty by some theatre companies; too often companies are looking for the next ‘hot young discovery’ and don’t support existing writers through their second, third or fourth plays. That’s great when you are indeed that hot young thing, but that won’t last, and it can be very difficult to sustain a career after your first play. It also isn’t unheard of for companies to commission a play then decide not to produce it, which can be heartbreaking when you’ve put in all that work.

There’s also a trend nowadays towards ‘development culture’, which can involve endless meetings, workshops and rehearsed readings of a play. While these can be useful tools, they can sometimes be a way of throwing writers a bone – ie. a consolation prize for theatres to feel like they have fulfilled their obligations to you when in fact they should be giving you a full production. All these things are a product of playwriting being over-subscribed; there are simply more plays and playwrights than production slots available. It’s incredibly competitive and the sheer amount of writers vying to get their plays on means some places can get away with not treating us as well as they should.

What are the key responsibilities?
You must work to deadlines and deliver good quality, original dramatic scripts. You have to do a lot of re-writes and be open to various people’s critical feedback on your creative ideas, from dramaturgs (sometimes called ‘script editors’) to directors, to actors. These negotiations sometimes require a degree of diplomacy and knowing when to stand your ground and when to concede a point. Unlike novel writing, theatre is a collaborative medium and the end product is a three-dimensional production – what you write is essentially a ‘map’ for actors to follow, like an architect’s blueprint for a house; the house is the end product not the drawing of it. The same with a play – you are ‘wrighting’ action (ie. making it, giving it a real-world form) rather than ‘writing’ words. So you have to be open enough to working in these groups without getting too precious or defensive about your work and the ways it can change as it makes that transition. That said, you also have a responsibility to your own creative vision and voice, and not to compromise that too far. It’s what will make you stand out after all, plus it’s your name all over the posters and flyers.

I’d say there’s also a responsibility to know what other plays are out there, both currently and historically, and to keep up with current affairs so that you can locate your work within the culture in which you are operating, and hopefully contribute to that culture in some way.

But perhaps the most important responsibility is to your audience. You must have something interesting to say, say it in a unique way, and never, ever, bore them.

What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg- A Levels?
There’s no formal career path into playwriting, no ads in the back of newspapers, no job interviews and no formal qualifications required. The page is a great leveller – you can either write or you can’t. Most playwrights start off writing in their spare time for no pay and sending their work out until they are called in for a meeting at a theatre. In this sense your main qualification is simply the ability to put in the time to learn, usually through trial and error. You have to write good dialogue, tell a well-structured story, and develop an understanding of the possibilities of theatre as an artistic form. Obviously, formal qualifications don’t hurt, especially in Drama or English. A good grasp of modern and historical plays can be very useful for knowing what has been done before (it also helps to show you’ve read around when you do finally get those meetings with a Literary Manager or Artistic Director.) But this is equally something you could pick up from the theatre section of your local library, and regular playgoing. Some experience of performing, even amateur, can also provide some important insights. But the best training I ever did was probably working for a number of different theatres in their box offices, or front of house departments, or backstage. You get to see tons of theatre for free, but also how it’s all put together, and what sort of shows get produced and why.

Who is the longest serving member in your team/division?
Playwrights rarely work in teams (though this is more common in TV) but in theory it is possible to sustain a career for your entire adult life. The late, great Harold Pinter was working almost up until his death at the age of 78. Writing isn’t physically demanding, so as long as you retain your faculties and your work stays in vogue (that bit’s not as easy as it sounds, of which more later) there’s no reason why you couldn’t sustain a career over 50 or 60 years.

What is the starting salary and how does this increase over time with promotion?
See the question earlier for how badly paid playwriting is. You can count on maybe two hands how many UK playwrights make a living from playwriting alone (Alan Bennett, David Hare, etc.) The rest of us all do something else too. I personally make only about £10-12k a year from commissions, but nearer to £20k from a wide portfolio of teaching and lecturing, including working as a writer-in-residence in a London secondary school. But it’s taken years of hard work, knockbacks and tenacity to get to that stage and build up even the modest profile that I now enjoy. While it’s true that commission fees do go up when you move into the higher echelons of the profession, or you get incredibly lucky and get a West End or Broadway transfer, this applies to maybe 5% of playwrights. The rest scrape a living rather than make a living. You have to be incredibly proactive and entrepreneurial about chasing work, and also at fundraising to produce your own plays, or for a smaller theatre to commission you. Getting to grips with Arts Council funding applications, or leveraging research and development money out of private trusts and foundations is a big part of the job if you want to be regularly produced. You have to create your own opportunities. No-one goes into playwriting for the money, I’m afraid.

If you left this position, what else would you consider/prefer doing?
I’d probably be a university Drama tutor and arts journalist.

How far is it possible to progress within the organization?
The ‘organisation’ in this context I guess would be the theatre industry as a whole, because the freelance nature of our work means that playwrights will work with many different theatre companies over the course of their careers. Some writers are phenomenally successful and get several high profile productions a year, including abroad, while some will spend their entire careers making a lower profile living in smaller venues, community settings, or working outside London, or in a specialised field like writing plays for children. Some writers move abroad, or into TV, or academia. Some have another ‘main’ job and only occasionally write plays. A lot of it depends on where your priorities lie, and the sort of work you want to make, and for whom. Sometimes though, it is to do with the politics of the industry, or the vagaries of the funding and commissioning system, as much as it is to do with talent. Sometimes it’s about luck and who is in post at the point at which your script gets read, and whether or not you appeal to their tastes or fit in with their particular agenda. Some writers have a big hit and are never heard from again. Writers do go in and out of fashion, and the reasons why are often a mystery, even to the writers themselves. The only thing that’s certain is the uncertainty of it all!

What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
See as much theatre and read as many play scripts as is humanly possible. Keep writing, no matter what. Develop an absolutely unshakeable belief in the quality and importance of your own work. Don’t fixate on the Big Five new writing venues in London (Royal Court, National, Soho, Hampstead, the Bush) – there are many more companies across the country that will produce your work, and often will take better care of you by entering into long-term relationships with writers they get on with. Research these companies and get in touch with them, it isn’t all about the glamour of the big London stages. Be proactive about creating your own opportunities. Make friends with some directors and actors and get them to read your work aloud while you listen. Apply for funding to put your own work on in a fringe theatre or found space – or cajole your unemployed actor friends to do it for free. If it’s good you might get noticed and asked to do something else. Look beyond yourself and your own lived experience for subject matter, especially after your first play. Enter every playwriting competition going (I was plucked from obscurity by the John Whiting Award for a play that most theatres had turned down.) Make use of the free script reading service offered by Soho Theatre and others. Get in touch with your local theatre and see what jobs they have going – even part-time shift work will get you in on a network where you’ll meet theatre professionals and hear about other opportunities. Keep up with theatre industry news (buy The Stage.) Read the Guardian theatre section online. Read my blog (www.finkennedy.blogspot.com). Acquire a patient and understanding spouse, preferably with their own income. Put off having kids. Get qualified in something else you can fall back on during the tough times. You’ll need it.

What are the most important qualities an applicant must should possess?
An ear for dialogue, a deep understanding of the human heart, and a very thick skin. And don’t take yourself or your work too seriously – if you can make an audience laugh they’ll listen to anything you have to say.

Any closing comments/thoughts?
Theatre doesn’t just take place in theatres any more, and many other organisations are starting to employ dramatic writers, particularly schools. See this blog post for more on these ‘invisible’ opportunities.

Good luck!

[NB: You can see this interview in its original context here.]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Just heard the BBC are giving another airing to my 2008 radio play Caesar Price Our Lord. Those of you who missed it last time around can catch it this Bank Holiday Monday at 2.15pm on Radio 4, or for a week on iPlayer after that.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Those lovely people at Guardian Unlimited have kindly commissioned a piece from me about community theatre, in the build-up to Silkworks. Have a look here.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Direct from the Mulberry School paper this term:
Behind the scenes of the Silkworks

2010 marks the fourth anniversary of Mulberry achieving its School Specialism in the Arts. As Mulberry Theatre Company, Mulberry Films and Mulberry Radio prepare for the Silkworks festival at Southwark Playhouse, London, the school’s playwright-in-residence Fin Kennedy caught up with some of the students and staff involved in putting on this unique event.

“It was amazing, it’s just like – wow. Everyone’s just so over the top!” Rebekah Yasmin smiles and laughs as she remembers her experiences of Edinburgh’s famously exuberant Fringe Festival. “I was 15 at the time, so it was a pretty big deal.”

Rebekah was part of the original cast of Mehndi Night, the first show Mulberry took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. She’s 18 now, confident and articulate, and a far fry from the shy 15 year old I remember. “I was quite quiet, but you had to communicate with loads of people, not just on stage but out on the street flyering. It definitely made me come out of my shell a bit more.”

Rebekah’s hard at work studying for her A-levels now, and aside from the confidence I think I can also detect a quiet politicisation. She talks about Mehndi Night with pride, and a sense of how unusual it was in the context of a festival like Edinburgh. “People that go [to the Edinburgh Fringe]may not know everything about our culture, so it was cool to get to go and represent ourselves, and how we see it as well, not how the media see it. It was true to life, an Asian show by Asian people.”

Mulberry Theatre Company (MTC) made a point of doing very different shows each year. So while Mehndi Night was very firmly set among the Bengali women of Tower Hamlets, 2008’s Stolen Secrets was inspired by East London’s landscape and the secrets it contained. Last year, The Unravelling used a local fabric shop as a way into a fantastical world, and won MTC a prestigious Scotsman Fringe First award. Suhena Begum, 18, tells me more about the process of putting it together.

“We did a lot of work with fabrics in groups, and what you could make out of just fabrics on stage. That was really interesting. The one where we made the shape of the trees in Epping Forest, that was one we came up with by ourselves which made it into the final show. Camille [Cettina, the show’s director] really helped us but we also did a lot ourselves.”

Suhena remembers the strict schedule required to pull off such an ambitious production. “I remember having to wake up early! I just remember, like, long rehearsals – having fun, but also very tiring. It was so much hard work, not exactly stressful, but just doing the same thing over and over again to get it right.”

Being away from home for so long is also not without its challenges. As Suhena tells me, “I got really homesick, I was crying a lot. At that time I was so embarrassed because I was one of the eldest! I got over it after a couple of days, and overall it was great, but it made me realise how much I love my family. I missed them so much.”

Suhena talks glowingly me about how the rest of the cast stepped in as a substitute family during those tougher moments. “We all got on really well and really relied on each other, definitely. I think that was one of the reasons we were able to do so well in the final show.”

But it wasn’t all about acting. An important aspect of any production is the backstage jobs, such as stage management and design. Nowshim Sharmeli Prenom, now 16, worked closely with The Unravelling’s designer Barbara Fuchs, whose team was key to the success of the show.

She tells me “I was behind the scenes making sure all the props were in the right position, so that everything would happen on time. In the last bit of the play, we had to come out with shadow puppets, so timing was very important.”

Nowshin was also involved in the design and making of the set and costumes. “I learned how to cut the fabric for the dresses that we made. I was good at cutting, and I really liked working with Barbara and learning about dress-making.” As the title might suggest, there was a huge amount of fabric involved in the show. “I worked mostly on the big zombie fabric, I had to stitch furs onto it. It was really hard work because it was such a massive fabric, eight metres. I think I broke the needle of the machine several times!”

But in the end it all paid off, and might even have influenced Nowshin’s future. “I’m thinking of taking design further as a career. In the summer holidays I’m looking forward to doing a fashion course at Summer University and I might get a job in an architecture company for two weeks.”

Both Mehndi Night and The Unravelling are being revived for Silkworks, the school’s own festival it is holding at Southwark Playhouse this year. Nowshin, Tamanna and Suhena can't wait. “I’m looking forward to rehearsals and seeing all the cast again,” Suhena tells me, “Also getting into my character – playing the Mother again.” Performing closer to home also gives her the chance to put together her own invite list, which seems to be growing by the day, “I want to invite my Mum, and my brother. My sister’s seen it at least twice already so I think she’s bored of it. I’m gonna invite a couple of cousins. My friends, definitely…”

But this festival will give the school the chance to show off more than just its successes in theatre – Mulberry Films, Mulberry Radio and the school’s art and catering departments will all be contributing. I caught up with Tanya Singh, head of Mulberry Films to hear more about what they’re planning.

“One of the groups that I’ve been working with all year are making a new piece especially for the festival, showing on a loop on video monitors in the foyer area. We’ve started looking at some surrealist films and thinking about dream imagery. Personally this is something I’ve been wanting to do with them for a while, think about installations, so it’s a great opportunity.”

There will also be daily screenings of Mulberry Films’ very own documentary of last year’s Edinburgh success, filmed and edited by the students themselves.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mulberry Films will also be involved in developing the multimedia aspects of this year’s brand new stage play The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping. “We’re working to create some film as part of the overall design of a play, rather than a separate standalone piece.”

Urban Girl, as the new play has come to be known, is yet another new approach for MTC. Developed with a dedicated committee of Mulberry alumni, former students now in their 20s, meetings took place over 6 months to try out various ideas and storylines.

Chaired by MTC’s director Luke Kernaghan, these meetings were by turns lively, heated, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. “It felt as if we were one big family,” remembers Dipa Khatun, 20, “sitting around a table during dinner, discussing what's been going on in our lives.” Shunita Rahman, also 20, agrees, “All the stories and ideas were like little mosaic pieces. Each week we'd be eager to know how they were going to be arranged, it was very exciting.”

The play that came out of it is about four old friends from school who go on a camping trip during the University holidays. But they become lost in the middle of the forest, and a burning secret comes out which threatens to destroy their friendship forever.

Committee member Najiba Sultana, 21, says “The play represents Asian girls without it being derogatory to our culture in any way. It emphasises that we are a part of a larger community and that affected by similar things as other people in different cultures.” Nasima Begum, 23 agrees. “It challenges certain stereotypes that people have about the Bangladeshi community.”

What was interesting about working in this way was that the meetings were also a weekly space to carve out time to reflect, in the midst of the committee members’ busy modern lives. “It made me realise that there are some things in my life I take for granted,” Shunita tells me, “But that actually I'm so blessed with what I have, and more importantly, I'm happy with the person I am.” She continues, “I also realised that I'm much more confident than I thought I was and sharing personal experiences can help others reflect on their own lives.”

And that, perhaps, is the point of the arts themselves. In an increasingly isolated modern world, where most of our time is spent in front of a computer screen, coming together to share in one another’s lives is a rare and precious thing. It is the nearest thing we have to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Rebekah Yasmin’s advice for this year’s new cast of Mehndi Night sums it up: “Give it your all and don’t be shy. Some of the characters, like ShulĂ© the nosy neighbour who I played, they’re the characters you love to hate, but you have to portray them in a way that makes people hate you but love you at the same time. Because they’re still human, and they are like they are for a reason. A good play can show you why.”

Mehndi Night, The Unravelling and The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping play as part of the SILKWORKS Festival at Southwark Playhouse, 14-17 July 2010

Box office: 020 7407 0234 / www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Join the SILKWORKS Facebook event page here.

All the plays will be published in July by Nick Hern Books as part of the forthcoming volume The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping and other plays

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Find out what has been keeping me so preoccupied all year... Tickets are now on sale to the SILKWORKS Festival at Southwark Playhouse, 14-17 July.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ok, so this is a bit of a cheat, but it's something I've been meaning to publish for a while.

Lately, I've been approached quite regularly by new (and new-ish) playwrights, seeking some advice on how to make ends meet betwen commissions, and how to generate the sort of teaching and community work which I do quite a lot of. In particular, there seems to be a growing mass of new playwrights who have done all the right things - the young writers schemes and attachments, the meetings with literary managers, the pitches, the first and second drafts written at evenings and weekends, the fringe shorts nights, the Arvon weeks away - but who are stuck waiting for their first proper break, and becoming increasingly frustrated at being unable to use their creative skills while they wait.

In fact, there is a wealth of proactive things which playwrights can do to make a living, which doesn't involve waiting tables, and which will not only generate some cash, but will get them 'out there' engaging with the world in new and exciting ways that will almost certainly challenge and stretch them as artists (and people), and generate a tonne of material for new plays. Regular readers will know all about my work at Mulberry School. For me, this sort of work not only pays the bills (though the creative freedom in not having to chase commissions 24/7 is not to be overlooked) but it also provides me with an extraordinary 'nursery' of new ideas, in which to try out new dramatic forms, and to get to know and develop characters who are totally unlike me or any circles in which I move. But the ways in which you can get into this work are at best opaque, or accidental, and at worst completely hidden and inaccessible.

This weekend I was asked to speak as part of a panel at a Spread The Word event at Deptford Albany on precisely this subject: How To Make A Living As A Writer. It was an important subject to address, but one which gets discussed all too seldom, and on which it seems strangely difficult to find any practical nuts-and-bolts advice.

To that end, and because I knew a 90-minute panel wouldn't be nearly enough time to say everything I wanted to, I put together a detailed handout for the writers to take away. I'm reproducing it here because I hope it will be of interest, and useful, for some of you in the position described above. (And, selfishly, because if I stick it up here then I will have an online page with everything I know on this subject to which I can direct all the writers who keep contacting me, which will save me having to write it out afresh every time...)

So, here it is. If you want to add any advice or experiences of your own it would be interesting to hear about it in the comments box. Together we might be able to produce something really comprehensive which will help writers take control of their incomes and careers.

Making A Living As A Playwright
Advice from Fin Kennedy

Playwriting is notoriously badly paid. At the time of writing, the Writer’s Guild ITC minimum fee for a full-length play stands at just over £6,500. This is the minimum recommended rate, though there is nothing legally enforceable about this and many theatres pay less. (They also tend to assume ‘minimum’ means ‘standard’.) Given that you’re looking at anything from 12 months to three years between concept and production, you’ll quickly see that this isn’t any sort of way to make a living. So what can you do in the meantime to use your skills to make ends meet?

There are a number of options – though the advice contained here is by no means exhaustive, and it may well spark off your own, better, ideas. I hope so. It also tends to look at the community and education sectors simply because that is where my experience lies. There are undoubtedly opportunities to be had (or created) in the commercial and private spheres, but I have never had them, so can't really advise. Drop me a line if you come across any though, I’d be interested to hear about them.
This handout also assumes you have proactively made use of all the existing and well publicised opportunities on offer by theatre companies in London and elsewhere – in particular new writer’s courses and free script reading services. Soho Theatre and the Royal Court have tended to pioneer these, but many theatres now, even fairly small ones, have something similar on offer. Get in touch with your nearest one and see what they have going on in this respect.

I’m also assuming you’ve sent your most current work to all the usual suspects – the Bush, Soho, the Court, the National, Hampstead – if not, what are you waiting for?

However, it’s an unfortunate (and rather cruel) side effect of the success of the new writing scene, and some years of half-decent funding, that there are now more playwrights that have had some sort of training than there are production slots available, with result that lots of people like you are in a ‘holding pattern’ having had readings and short or fringe plays on and everyone having made the right noises but no big commission yet. It’s a tough one. More often than not it comes down to luck, and the right ‘gatekeeper’ being in place at the time you send in your script (ie. someone who shares your tastes or ‘gets’ what you are trying to do.) So the first piece of advice is ‘keep trying’ – remember the Beatles got turned down by 23 record companies. But keep writing too, it won’t do you any good to pin all your hopes on one play, and theatres will want to see that you’re turning out new material and not a one-trick pony.

That said, there are some other, less obvious things you can do to improve your chances and make yourself proactive rather than waiting for theatres to get back to you. In no particular order I would recommend:

Raising your own funds to write a play
Ring up your local Arts Council office (www.artscouncil.org.uk - they’re organised by region) and ask for an appointment with a Theatre Officer, to talk through your position and what funds you might apply for (Grants for the Arts is the usual one). Theatre Officers are there to give away government money to artists and it’s their job to advise you on how best to get your hands on it, so make use of them! Even if they can’t help you right now they can advise you on what to do to get into a position where you are eligible. One good way of upping your chances is to make friends with a literary manager (or literary associate/assistant) in a theatre company in a position to commission you, even a small one, and ask them to back you ‘on paper’ or ‘in principle’ in an ACE bid to raise a fee for yourself for some research and development money. This doesn’t cost a theatre anything either in terms of money or time, as you’ll be doing all the legwork.

There’s also the Peggy Ramsay Foundation (www.peggyramsayfoundation.org) a private trust which exists exclusively to give money away to playwrights – read their website for more. They are also very approachable and you can ring up the main man Lawrence Harbottle for an informal chat about applying – though they will probably also want to see evidence that you are working with a company who might end up producing it. Anything like this you can do to raise your own fee but keep a company on board without it costing them anything will help get you into a good position. Then once you’ve got some funding you suddenly have a play that someone has invested in already which in turn makes it more attractive to a theatre company to produce... and on it goes. It’s about getting the ball rolling yourself.

If you’re trying to initiate funds for a community or education project then it might be worth investing in a CD-ROM copy of Funderfinder (www.funderfinder.org.uk). This is a searchable database of all the current private trusts and foundations operating in the UK and what they fund – with a brilliant questionnaire interface at the start in which you fill in details of your project in order to bring up a shortlist of the applicable trusts. It costs about £120 but if you’re working with an organisation they might cover this for you. It’s worth noting that it’s a lot easier to raise your fee as a writer through making it part of a community or education project than it is to raise a fee to go away and write a play on your own. Writing a successful funding application is another skill in itself of course, but if you go down this route God knows you’ll have enough chances to practice. Remember to always ask for feedback on unsuccessful bids so you can learn where you are going wrong.

Finally, if you or the group you want to work with have any sort of minority status don’t be afraid to play on it in these applications. Sorry to be cynical about it but it will increase your chances of attracting funding. There are various pots of public money, and private trusts, set up to encourage various minority groups into arts activities, be it on the basis of ethnicity, disability, youth, deprivation, region etc. If you live in a deprived inner city area (or want to work in one) - mention it. Equally if you’re out in the sticks in an area overlooked for arts activities – mention that too. Even being over 26 years old can be considered as being at a disadvantage these days as you’re beyond the cut-off age to be eligible for most new writer’s attachment schemes at theatres! Be imaginative (but don’t take the piss or it will undermine your application.)

Research schools in your area
At the end of this document are some links to a few different organisations and the sorts of projects they do. Some are small (like All Change) and some huge (like Artists Taking The Lead – a cultural Olympiad project), while some are education wings of theatre companies (like Almeida Projects). It depends on the scale of what you want to take on and how much prior experience you have.

But don’t just look for organisations actively seeking out artists – with a bit of research you can always approach some ‘on spec’ with a project outline that might interest them. For example, I am currently part-time writer in residence at a state school in Tower Hamlets with a Specialism in arts and media. Specialist Schools and Academies is a government scheme where schools get extra money to spend on practising professionals from that field to work alongside kids and their teachers. Specialism exists in Arts and Media, Science, Sport and various other subjects. Obviously Arts and Media ones are your best bet, but be imaginative about what you could pitch. I once taught Evolution and Natural Selection to a Year 11 Science class by getting them to write a play about Darwin’s life and all the arguments he had with religious people. To write the play they had to get to grips with detail of the arguments.

Check the full list here to see if there's a Specialist School in your area:

If there is, call them to ask who is head of School Specialism then drop them a line. With schools you will have to link your project to the curriculum in some way, and especially the literacy agenda. If you can find out what exam boards your local school uses then you can read the curriculum and try and make it fit in with that, especially if you can find out which plays or novels your local school uses in its English classes. With schools everything has to be shown to be linked to raising students' grades, they aren't big on 'soft outcomes' (such as increasing self confidence) though you might get lucky.

If you’d feel safer doing all this under the umbrella of an organisation, there is an interesting outfit called Creative Partnerships (www.creative-partnerships.com) which brokers relationships and initiates projects between artists and schools.

Other areas of the public sector
I once ran a ten-week playmaking project with kids in care for Hampshire Social Services. It was ostensibly all about careers and preparing them for leaving care by introducing them to the arts as a potential employer (they didn’t just have to act, there were technical and design opportunities too.) I did have a personal 'in' as my mother is a social worker, but it ought to be possible to pitch ideas to your local authority independently so long as you research the right name to present an approach to. That said, each Local Authority is differently structured so will have its own names for the various job titles I'm about to quote you, so you'll need to develop a nose (or a charming phone manner) to find out which one applies in your area.

First of all it isn't social services any more but “Children's Services" and the 'Area Director' (or similar title) will hold the budget for projects. However, individual care homes can commission projects directly, and where I worked in Hampshire there was even a 'Participation Officer' for children looked after (CLAs) who ran a youth theatre club and various other artsy projects for kids in the care system. The head of your local fostering team might also have funds to spend on that sort of thing. With social services you'd need to aim your pitch less at literacy etc and more at 'empowerment' of young people, increasing confidence/articulacy etc, and in particular to helping them take part in decisions that affect their lives. Soft outcomes are much more of a goer here. But be prepared to meet some vulnerable and disturbed young people – be sure that the social services team supports you at every stage and has a presence in the room. They shouldn’t treat your class/rehearsal as a dumping ground while they have an hour off (the same goes for schools too.) I’d advise doing projects like this with one or more other artists (I usually do mine with a trained actor/director with some workshop experience.) You should also factor in lots of planning time with the school or social work department to develop your workshop ideas – they will have the expert eye and know the kids, and are well placed to advise you what will and won't work. Don’t be afraid to suggest a modest charge for your time for planning meetings like this, they can really add up over time.

Beyond social services local councils often have a 'Youth Arts Officer' or similar who can advise you about community or young people’s arts activities in your borough and may even be able to help you in applying for funding to get something off the ground. Go onto your local council website and look for a department called something like 'Recreation and Heritage' or 'Community and Culture', it ought to come under them. Tower Hamlets council even has a page on their website listing trusts and foundations with a stated interest in funding projects in east London. Browse your local council’s website or give them a call to see if they offer similar advice.

You'd be surprised how much discretion councils have to commission artists, but they hardly ever advertise the fact. Ask for an informal meeting to talk through some ideas (be proactive in devising some – they will be looking to you as the creative in these situations.) But pretty much any public sector organisation might consider an arts project if you assess their needs and what would interest them. I recently heard about a poet who had a residency in a hospital, because research showed that keeping people's minds active helped them recover quicker. Elderly care homes might think the same. Prisons too often have very active workshop programmes to re-skill and rehabilitate inmates (though I've never done this - if anyone has a link to a relevant organisation do leave it in the comments box.)

Finally, remember that all public sector workers are overworked and underpaid so keep your letter brief and only send longer details if they request it or call you in for a meeting. You might also have to chase them for a response to your initial approach, even if they're interested it's the sort of thing that will get forgotten about in a school or social work department where the main thing is crisis management! Send a letter, call, call again, before you give up.

Education departments of theatres
Many professional theatre companies have education departments these days to encourage younger audiences and do follow up workshops in schools on plays the students have seen. The staff in these departments are usually workshop leaders with years of experience and good links to their local communities. If you can get in with them you’ll have a ready-made network of opportunities. If you have no experience in this area you might have to offer to tag along as an observer (for free I’m afraid) for a few sessions, but if you’re genuine and they think you’ll be safe to unleash onto the kids then it might be sooner than you think before you’re added to the pool of workshop leaders and getting a few paid hours (all the more so if you’re a playwright with these skills, you’ll more often find actors in this role for obvious reasons, but playwrights can bring expertise in lyricism, structure and storytelling which can really appeal.)

Remember that these departments usually do workshops related to whatever is playing on their main stage at the time, so before approaching them make sure you’ve seen plenty of their work and can talk knowledgably about it when you meet them. Theatre education departments will also produce ‘Education packs’ which are guides for teachers containing classroom exercises and other practical ideas for running workshops with their students on a particular play in the theatre’s repertoire. You can ring up and ask to be sent these, or they are often available to download for free on the theatre’s website. You’ll quickly get a sense of the education team’s work, and pick up ideas for your own workshops. (An example of an Education Pack can be found here.)

Education departments do brilliant work in their own right and will often train you up from scratch, plus they’re an excellent ‘back door’ into the biggest companies. You may well end up writing stuff for the kids, either in schools or as part of a youth theatre they run, which could get seen by the artistic director and lead to further work.

Develop a talent for writing for teenagers
It doesn’t have to be all workshop leading and jumping about being a fish. If you can develop an ear for writing teenage dialogue you may well find yourself in demand. Write a short play at first, polish it a bit, then send it in to a young people’s theatre company near you (this is different to a youth theatre – young people’s theatre companies are usually publicly funded and staffed by full-time professionals, though many will have youth theatres – made up of local kids putting on plays for fun - as one part of their work.) In east London Half Moon and Theatre Centre are examples, though there are many such organisations around the country.

These companies not only run attachment schemes for writers, but commission and tour work all over the country, plus they do a whole ton of ‘invisible’ work in schools and youth theatres which you can get in on. Working for them as a workshop leader will often lead onto an attachment to develop a new play, once you have a bit of experience of the kids they’re looking to target. If you don’t have anything specifically for teenagers then write something short and send it in. You could ask them to send you copies of previous teenage plays they have produced so you can have a read (plays for teenagers are rarely published – though Methuen’s Six Ensemble Plays for Young Actors is worth a look - and not just cos I've got a play in it...though there is that obviously.)

Remember that with any project working with vulnerable groups you'll need to have an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check - though the organisation commissioning you to work with them should cover the cost if you don't already have one. You’ll have to ‘fess up to any criminal convictions I’m afraid, though minor ones in the distant past are sometimes negotiable at the organisation’s discretion.

The other thing is that they're likely to want to see some sort of track record and references. If you have any teaching experience at all, even voluntary or classroom assisting, it will stand you in good stead but if you keep getting knocked back it may be a case of finding an organisation that does the sort of work you want to do and offering to volunteer as an (unpaid) assistant on an existing project for a while, before you'll be let loose on your own. It's a pain but consider it a loss-leader on future work, you'll meet tons of contacts that way.

Work as a script reader
Offer to work as a script reader for theatres you admire (or even for ones you don’t). This involves reading the many unsolicited plays they get sent and writing a short report, sometimes for the theatre, sometimes as advice for the writer. If you have no experience you might have to do it for free for a while (and even when it pays the pay is low) but the point is it’s a great link with a literary department who will get to know you, plus you will meet all sorts of other people on the up, from directors to actors and producers, all of whom you might be able to hook up with. You will read some truly awful plays but this too is a learning experience and is the first step to learning how to teach playwriting (as well, of course, as learning how to avoid making those mistakes yourself).

Enter every playwriting competition going
I was plucked from obscurity by unexpectedly winning the John Whiting Award in 2006. The winner usually gets it after being produced, but I read the small print and realised that this didn’t have to be the case, so I nominated myself and applied. Other competitions to look out for are the Meyer-Whitworth award, the Bruntwood prize and the Verity Bargate Award – though there are others (invest in a copy of The Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook for full listings, as well as advice on agents and producers.)

There is a writer and theatre academic based at Exeter University called David Lane who runs a free email mailing list which lists opportunities like this that come his way – including calls for plays by fringe theatres and student groups (usually unpaid but not always). I won't publish his email address on here as he'll get inundated with spam, but drop me a line if you want it.

Visit BBC Writersroom
If you know anything about script writing you’ll probably already have done this but just in case: www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom It’s the entry point for writers for the entire BBC, there’s tons of advice for new writers as well as ways to submit your script. I’d personally recommend targeting BBC Radio – they are the single biggest producer of new plays in the entire country, and they are all very nice supportive people (unlike in TV). If you can make a personal connection with a radio producer it can last a lifetime. Obviously you need to start listening to some radio plays so check out the Radio 4 afternoon play (on iplayer if you miss it, or it’s on around 2pm) or ask the writersroom to send you some on CD. The money’s not fab but the possibilities of what you can do on radio are incredibly exciting.

Keep an eye on the musical chairs
Buy The Stage, the theatre industry newspaper, and keep an eye on which artistic directors and literary managers come and go in which theatres. People new in their posts are useful because they might want to make their mark on a new job or company by taking a risk on a new or untried writer. Pay attention to any pronouncements they make about what sort of work they’re looking for (e.g. Dominic Cooke made a speech about looking for plays about the middle classes when he came in at the Court, while Nick Hytner at the National is on record as saying he wants a decent play about Islam, especially by a woman.) Might any of your work fit in with these stated interests – or can you write something in response? Drop them a line personally, congratulating them on their new appointment and asking if they want to take a look at this play you’ve got knocking around...

International connections?
Do exploit any international connections you have, especially if you speak another language. You might be able to get into the UK theatre through the back door if you can get produced abroad and show that your play is a success. Don’t be afraid to approach theatre companies yourself if you have links to that country, you might be surprised how keen they are. The British Council also do a lot of work with UK artists and tour UK work abroad. Check them out.

Sign up and publish your plays on line for free - www.bushgreen.org – a great new initiative from the Bush Theatre with a lot of interest from the wider industry.

Don’t give up
I know all the new writing courses are aimed at young writers but don’t worry about getting too old – the older the better to write plays, in my opinion. It’s about life experience and there are too many flawed first plays by 21 year olds out there. Plus if you have a day job and aren’t about to go bankrupt then what’s the hurry? That said, do keep churning out ideas – each idea will be better than the last and it will show potential producers you’re not stuck flogging one or two plays which are past their sell-by date.

Finally, a word of warning...
Remember that you are a writer first and a teacher of writing second. It is easy to get sucked into teaching, there’s always work to be had and every year brings a new cohort of students, eager to benefit from your wisdom. And you do get used to the regular money. But remember you are only a teacher of playwriting, or a playwriting mentor, or a writer-in-residence if you are also being professionally produced. They are two sides of the same coin, and can complement each other wonderfully, but if the balance starts to creep beyond 50-50and the teaching starts to eat into your time to write, then you need to look again at your portfolio and reconsider how you’re dividing your time...

That’s kind of it. Best of luck with it all. With the community stuff in particular, if you can make it work it's one of the most rewarding things you will ever do, and it will make you a better artist and fully in touch with the world. I see it as getting out there and meeting characters for future stories…

Keep me posted about how you get on, I’d be interested to see if any of this advice bears fruit.

All Change Arts - An example of a cross-arts organisation producing small to medium scale community arts projects.

Almeida Projects - Education wing of the Almeida Theatre, though most theatres will have one.

Artists Taking the Lead - Although this fund is now closed, it's a good example of the sort of large scale project funds being made available around the build up to he 2012 Olympics. Hey, I hate the Olympics too, but if the money's on offer you may as well do something with it (though I entered this fund and didn't get anywhere...but then I do slag the Olympics off on here now and then so maybe they heard?)

Other useful organisations
Literaturetraining.com - does what it says on the tin
Awards For All - Small grants for community arts organisations
Grants for the Arts - grants for individual artists to do their thing
NAWE - National Association of Writers in Education
Artsjobs - Jobs and opportunities

Good luck!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Frigging hell, I've now got busy again!!

But 37 is quite enough for me, bless you all for dinging my doorbell so many times. I feel like a hapless suburban householder during a local outbreak of knock-and-run. All I need you to do now is form a picket line outside my house for a few days to prevent all emails, teaching deadlines and writing deadlines from getting through for a while...

I will blog properly soon, I promise. But as you know I don't do throwaway posts (well, apart from this one) so it takes a bit of time to formulate my thoughts into the structured narrative of wisdom which you, my 37 blessed disciples, undoubtedly expect and deserve.

Watch this space.

Monday, February 01, 2010

I'm BACK!!!!!!! But the real question is: Is anyone still there?

My site stats say I'm still in double figures, but after the comment on my previous post linking to that Chinese arse site I have to wonder whether that figure isn't somewhat inflated by those people that have been hacking into Google.

Anyway, I could tell you about all sorts of stuff, but it would be a bit of a waste of time if no-one was there. But in the past, when I've put out a call asking my readers to make themselves known, and for your suggestions for what you'd like to see me blog about, then the tumbleweed has whistled through my comments box. It must be because you're all very shy. (It can't possibly be because I don't have any readers.)

So I've had an idea.

See that poll function thing on the right? I've finally decided how to use it. If enough of you click Yes then that's how I'll know it's worth bothering to write an extended post. (I haven't decided how many is enough, but to be honest, I'll be amazed if it gets above 10.) Think of it as a doorbell. If enough people ding it I might just come out.

By the way, if it rockets up to 30 or 40 within a day or two then I'll know it's you, Mother, pressing it repeatedly.

Right then. I'm going back to bed.