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...
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