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, 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 ( 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.]

No comments: