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Detangling power, money and privilege: finding your path as a playwright

In this guest post, writer Naomi Westerman discusses problems with privilege within the theatre industry and how becoming a playwright isn’t a simple as picking up a pen.  

The first time I stepped foot in the Royal Court Theatre was five years ago. That was the same year I met Simon Stephens, which was the first time I’d met a working playwright, making it the first time I’d realised ‘playwright’ was a job people could do for a living, despite it not being the 16th century.

Better writers than me have spoken out recently about the difficulties of earning a living from theatre, and the dirty secret that most ‘successful’ playwrights have alternative sources of income. It’s important stuff, but the debate about privilege has to go further.

When I wrote my first play, Tortoise, I had no ambition to be a playwright and limited experience of theatre. I wrote it simply because I had a burning need to tell that particular story, about the experiences of being a woman in the NHS mental health care system.

I sent the first draft to a small regional theatre, and to my naive amazement they rang me up and offered actual cash money to produce it as part of a festival. I promptly went onto google and invited every theatre I could find (I guess I did have some hidden ambition after all), to a flood of replies saying, “Lovely… let us know if it comes to London.”

So I self-financed a one-off showcase in London, and stepped out from behind the curtain (hey I was self-funding; I had to save on actor fees) to find a completely packed house.

The next day I woke to over 20 emails and voicemails from literary managers and agents, offering meetings, places on writer’s groups, rehearsed readings, showcases, scratches, “development opportunities”, chances to get to know them… everything, in short, except for actual production offers.

Though I was thrilled to have a sell-out show, making money is sadly still no a guarantee. And even now several productions and years later, when a major theatre asked me to extend a short play I’d written to full-length, they expressed this with a keen but non-contractual and unpaid interest.

With these productions behind me, I’m definitely not a new writer anymore. In fact, as someone who didn’t start writing professionally till 30, I’m practically an OAP in an industry obsessed with youth and newness.

Theatre’s obsession with youth only seems to be growing…

And it’s this obsession for newness and discovering ‘raw talent’ that’s made finding my path as a playwright more difficult. I was surprised when someone asked if I’d sent Tortoise to the Royal Court. I assumed any major theatre would laugh at the hubris of an inexperienced wannabe assuming their first script might be Major Theatre-worthy.

I was raised to work hard, study hard, and work my way up from the bottom. This meant I decided to write small plays and put them on at fringe festivals, so I could learn to walk before I tried to run.

Four years later and I’ve still never submitted a script to the Court nor any other major theatre. Maybe it’s low self-esteem but I just don’t think I’m ready.

Not long ago I was in a meeting with the literary manager of a major theatre, who told me, “The ideal X Theatre play is a brilliant play by someone who’s never written a word before, and maybe never been to the theatre.”

Half of me thinks, God I wish I’d known that. I wish I hadn’t wasted my newness. But the other half thinks, bollocks to that! We’ve been indoctrinated by Mozart documentaries and TV talent shows into thinking genius springs unbidden from an underground source, and that passion and the right sob story trump hard work and dedication.

I’m not denying that writing talent exists, but regardless of any innate gift, only watching and learning and DOING will teach you the skills of structure and stagecraft.

And more than anything writers have to find their own path and that takes time and the space to make mistakes – something that the ‘newness’ obsession often prevents.

I’ve seen first time writers of undeniable talent thrust into the spotlight before they were ready, plays of great potential but little polish re-written by more experienced directors desperate to show the world their shiny new toy. Plays that achieve stunning success (then everyone acts shocked when the second play fails to live up to expectations).

This fetishisation of ‘raw’ talent is problematic. Even the current debates about privilege often focus on money and downplay or ignore things like access, education, and ability status.

Eight million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate. People who speak English as a second language have to work twice as hard. Ditto people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, those living in poverty or coping with trauma. And that’s making the assumption that these people (me included) even know about, and have access to, theatre in the first place.

There’s also a danger that “raw talent” is conflated with a very specific and potentially tokenistic style of theatre. As a disabled, queer, mixed-ethnicity, former homeless, high school dropout (and a diversity box ticker’s dream!)

I’ve had people trying to push me into writing “issue” plays: “disabled” plays; “queer” plays; “Jewish” plays; and even working class plays despite not being working class. But that’s not what I want to write, and it’s not something I could write.

Naomi’s recent show at VAULT was a one-woman crime noir

I like to write dark comedies, and sci-fi, and surrealist nonsense. I like to play with concepts of language and time. I studied anthropology, linguistics, gender studies, and neuroscience over the course of gaining my multiple degrees (are you changing your mind about my level of privilege, yet?), and God help me I’m going to use it. Middle class white men are allowed to write anything they like. When are the rest of us going to be allowed that freedom?

And the truth is these ‘issues’ theatres are so keen for me to write about can’t be contained to a 90 minute play. I don’t like talking about my health but disability is not an abstract diversity-questionnaire concept, or something that can be access’d away (suffice to say I’ve spent five days this month in an NHS cardiac unit, and attended a press night with wires sticking out of my torso, which probably would have made for a wryly amusing and self-effacingly glamorous Instagram post. But in reality you can’t write when you’re seriously unwell. You just can’t).

I was also harassed and groped by a famous man, then told earnestly and with the best will in the world by a woman, who you’d think was successful enough not to need to play handmaiden, that if I ever told anyone I’d destroy my career. I didn’t listen, and I still don’t know to what degree she was right.

Since these setbacks I have yet to start another new play and the more I learn about playwriting the more of a mountain it feels like to write one, let alone guide it to the stage.

The expectation of ‘raw talent’ makes it difficult to give yourself breathing room as a writer, particularly when others have decided what type of writer they want you to be (here comes that diversity tick box again…) That, coupled with a need to make money, means the dream we’re sold of being a laid back, go-where-the-creativity-takes-you type of writer may simply be just that: a dream.

A writer’s guide to producing your own work

In this guest post, Joanne Fitzgerald discusses the steps she took to produce her own script, and the lessons she learnt along the way.

In September 2017, the long list for the Bruntwood prize was released, and I remember the feeling of disbelief when I spotted my play Her Not Him. I double-checked. I triple-checked. But there it was.

It was an amazing feeling after spending the best part of 2 years working on the script in various guises, sending it into different competitions, getting friends to read it, reworking, tweaking, redrafting, until it was shaped enough that I felt ready to share it.

But a long-listing was no guarantee that it would ever see the light of day. If I wanted it performed I was going to have to organise it myself and take on the producer role.

Perhaps you’re itching to see your script brought to life and are considering taking on the producer role. For all you potential first-time producers, here’s my guide on how it can be done:

1. Arrange a workshop

First things first I had to test the script out.  What I needed was a director and actors to get it on its feet and figure out how to tell the story physically.

I was very lucky to have been an actor for a brief spell and, through actor friends, I met my director, Amy Lawrence.  We then went through the process of casting (using Mandy.com), while I also organised some rehearsal space and a venue.

First day of the workshop!

For this, I used a site called www.rehearsalspacefinder.com that lists places by price and location, but there are plenty of other options worth exploring – schools, church halls and pub function rooms can all be workable and cheaper options.

Hearing actors read the text gave me the opportunity to adapt wording, edit scenes that went on too long, and add in new and interesting details based on discussions in the room.

But this time in the rehearsal room isn’t just about reading the script, it’s also the chance to play games, improvise backstories, and build a structure together, which leads us nicely onto…

2.  Building a Team

I found most of our cast and crew through a combination of friends, recommendations from friends, Facebook groups, and mandy.com.

When creating this team, it’s important to be clear on what people’s roles are and make sure you each understand your own responsibilities.

This sounds very obvious but I had never worked with a professional producer so I didn’t really know what a good one was supposed to do, I just assumed it was a bit of everything.

I had also never worked with a stage manager or a set designer so I had to figure out what those roles were and trust those people to do their job. The key to that is to always communicate rather than assume.

And ask questions, even if you’re worried you’ll look stupid – pride in this context is a waste of time. It’s better to speak up and get a better understanding of what’s needed.

Also, if you value your sanity, don’t take everything on yourself. Build up a team of people you like working with, who are good at what they do and trust them to do their best – and they will.

Last day of workshops for Her Not Him

3. Find a venue

So one of the useful things about doing a workshop is holding an informal showcase at the end to show what you’ve come up with.  In our case, after a week’s work we had a decent 40 minutes to present.

I wrote to a list of theatres and production companies, inviting artistic directors, literary departments and programmers to come and see our piece and give us a little feedback on its potential to be programmed at their venues.

According to the law of averages, I invited people from about 30 different theatres in London, and 3 turned up.  But they gave brilliant feedback!

I would also encourage scouring Twitter for opportunities that come up as it was a call-out for scripts from female writers that led us to getting a slot at Theatre503.

So, by the end of that workshop on the 15th December, I was armed with pages of notes and feedback, a new ending to write, and a week-long run at Theatre503 secured for the end of January.

4. Plan Plan Plan

I’m a project manager, so planning is my forte which, luckily, comes in handy for producing. Here’s my step-by-step breakdown for the built up to opening night…

6 weeks to go: I think this is the minimum point at which you should have a cast and director hired and meeting for the first time to do a readthrough, and a venue booked.  It gives you, the writer, some time to tweak the script based on readthrough feedback and/or things you hear that make you cringe – before you start rehearsal properly; giving the cast enough time to learn any changes.

4 weeks to go (or earlier): Start of marketing blitz (at this point all reviewers and industry invites should also be sent)

2 weeks to go: Rehearsals. Ideally, these would be longer than 2 weeks, but this is a point where it would be helpful to do a run in front of someone who can give you a bit of feedback ahead of performance

1 week to go: Agree the Get In plan – who’s doing what, how long have you got to set up lights, sound, set, props & do a tech run/cue to cue with the actors

And before you know it, it’s showtime!

Production shot of Her Not Him

5. Be in control of performance week

In terms of the week where the actual performance(s) is/are happening, it needs to include the following:

  • Opening night (when things will probably go wrong but it will all come together somehow)
  • Press night (invite reviewers but not to opening night if you can help it, give the show some time to settle)
  • Last night (let yourself enjoy it and recognise what you’ve accomplished)
  • Get out (pitch in, don’t just leave it to the stage manager!)
  • Write your thank you’s (you’ll have invited all your friends and family and colleagues and taxi drivers and literally anyone you meet in the run up – thank them for their support!)

I learned that for all my plans, things will inevitably go wrong.  They just will. On Her Not Him we had at least one crisis a day in the 2-week lead-up to performance.

Set didn’t arrive on time, rehearsal room being evacuated, get-in times and people’s availability changing, flooring being the wrong size, actors getting sick – you name it.

And all you want to do is cry and retreat or shout and swear; but you can’t do any of that because none of it will help.  You may have the moments of despair in the loo but then you quickly wash your face and move on because people are looking to you for some kind of leadership.

And actually it is in those panicky moments that some of the most creative solutions can be pulled out of nowhere and save the day.

6. Time to market it

Having a media campaign planned out in advance really helps. Amy, my director, and I came up with a list of things to post every day on Facebook and Twitter in the month running up to the show.

Posts included discussing the themes of the play, how the production was progressing, photos of cast and crew, promoting the theatre, and pushing ticket sales.

Prepare log lines, synopses and summaries that fit into a max of 120 characters. These can be used on socials/websites/email but also the all-important one liner is needed for every person you meet to entice them to come and see it.

As one PR person told us: ‘That can be said in time it takes for your listener to knock back their drink and make their excuses.’

7. Make sure your team are okay

Make sure actors are happy and calm and given enough time for arriving, warming up, getting to do make-up and into costume, and have a bit of dressing-room gossip.

The last thing you need is actor that are stressed or nervous going on stage.  But this goes for everyone else too – your director, your stage manager, the box office and the ushers.

Check in with people and hear how they’re doing, how they think it’s going and listen to them.  You also want everyone to feel that they can approach you with any issues and know that they will be heard.

Don’t bring any production woes to them, they don’t need hear it.  You might be a stress-bunny in private but you’re the captain of the ship, and they’ll take their cues from you on behaviours; if you’re respectful and professional, they will be too.

8. Remember reviews aren’t gospel!

Don’t take reviews personally.  I cried when I read the first few that weren’t stellar and took it as a personal failure that the show hadn’t been received with glowing praise and theatres fighting to bring us to Edinburgh.

As producer you need to consider the piece critically, and assess reviews for feedback that might help to improve the piece or that you can learn from for the next production.

And, as much as you might want to avoid reading them, it is the producer’s job to scan the reviews for any useable quotes to put into your marketing, so try to look at them from a purely functional perspective.

A Happy Producer!

9. Next Steps

As soon as the first performance is over everyone asks: ‘What next?’

It would have been useful to have a clearer plan so that when this was asked, I could have said something specific and taken advantage of post-show enthusiasm to ask for donations or other support.

But I think the important lesson I learned was to be positive about the future.  Now that I’ve done it, I can do it again. I know to expect things to go wrong, and that it’s okay if not everyone loves the piece.

I’ve worked with some brilliant people and did what I set out to do – get my first play performed.

Now on to the next one.

A writer’s guide to making the most out of VAULT Festival

In this guest post, playwright Naomi Westerman spills the beans on her top tips for writers who want to make the most out of their VAULT Festival experience…

Last year was my VAULT Festival debut, with two shows (the one-woman kidnap drama CLAUSTROPHILIA, and the feminist queer sex comedy PUPPY). This year I’m returning to VAULT with, for some reason, another two shows (the one-woman crime noir pastiche DOUBLE INFEMNITY, and ZINA, a verbatim play about female sexuality and feminism within Islam).

Coming into my second VAULT Festival feels a lot less daunting, having a learnt a few tips and tricks from last year. So I’ve compiled a small guide to help any writers (newbies or VAULT veterans) make the most out of a brilliant festival!

  1. Don’t plan to do too much*

Doing VAULT Festival is like nothing else I’ve experienced. With Edinburgh an increasingly  commercial and expensive leviathan, VAULT continues to provide a fantastic platform for new and established talent, while still retaining a proper underground fringe vibe.

It is also one of the only festivals of its size that offer a box office split with no hire or registration fees, which is frankly astounding.

Though VAULT Festival is fantastic, it’s also huge, overwhelming and, at times, scary. Last year I went into it as a newbie playwright, knowing nothing and no one. It was a sharp learning curve. And having two shows meant the workload I had to deal with became excessive.

As the old saying goes, quality is better than quantity (and it’s also better for your sanity). Though I have two shows again this year, I bought in co-writers to help me with one to avoid the madness of last year!

*That’s unless you’re a masochist who enjoys having no life of course.

Naomi’s VAULT show, DOUBLE INFEMNITY

2. Don’t have preconceptions, especially about your own shows.

I ended up with two shows at VAULT 2017 by accident. A producer/director (the wonderful Rebecca Gwyther) who had previously directed CLAUSTROPHILIA asked if she could take it to VAULT.

I was also in the middle of extending a sketch I’d written about middle class dogging into a sprawling epic about porn, facesitting, protest, periods, women’s magazines and Nick Clegg (seriously) and thought VAULT sounded like a good place to try this new thing out as a work-in-progress.

I went in with such low expectations for PUPPY, and instead found it comforting that proper professional theatre makers were doing a proper professional production of CLAUSTROPHILIA, which I regarded as my serious play

But then the festival started, and PUPPY started to get buzz, and started to sell out, and started being namedropped in intimidating publications like the Guardian, and CLAUSTROPHILIA… didn’t. It didn’t do terribly, it just didn’t do much of anything. Unfortunately you can never know how people are going to react to a show, which leads us onto…

3. Nobody knows anything, so do the projects you want to do

I’ve never been able to predict what will work and what won’t. I don’t think anyone can. So don’t make decisions based on what you think other people will like (for theatre and in life).

I suggested bringing ZINA (a verbatim play I was commissioned to collate and edit) to VAULT for a trial run, and I was certain it would do well there. An extraordinary true story of a Muslim woman who went from devout Hijabi to dominatrix, it felt so vital and urgent.

As I write, we are six weeks away from opening and haven’t sold a single ticket. And incidentally I’m telling you this because everyone RTs their praise and airbrushes their achievements, but it’s important to share the downs as well as the ups.

If you’re a writer going into VAULT for the first time and you’re show isn’t selling well, don’t panic. VAULT is a learning curve, whether in relation to the script, staging or marketing.

And don’t worry that everyone else is selling amazingly well and it’s just you. It’s really not. Best thing to do? Reach out to us other writers on Twitter – we’d love to come and see (and promote!) your show.

4. Work with good people

I couldn’t have done Puppy last year without Rafaella Marcus, a fine director and dramaturg who I met via a bizarre theatre speed-dating event and have stuck with, leech-like, ever since.

I ended up co-writing DOUBLE INFEMNITY with two other generous and talented writers Catherine O’Shea and Jennifer Cerys (you may be familiar with her work, as she’s the LPB Editor!), and new all-female theatre company Paperclip offered to co-produce it.

There are so many good, talented people in theatre. You don’t need to work with those who are neither. Don’t say yes to anyone or anything if it doesn’t feel right, for fear of losing an “opportunity.”

Naomi and her co-writers, Catherine & Jennifer, getting into the crime-noir mood

5. Stick together

Despite so many companies performing, VAULT feels surprisingly uncompetitive. People tend to come to VAULT for the experience, to spend the entire evening hanging out seeing loads of stuff, rather than visiting for one particular show.

So lean into it and support each other. See each other’s shows. Tweet up. Talk. I set up the Facebook group Women of VAULT for this very purpose – VAULT shows just how brilliant being the theatre community can be.

6. Start early

Start thinking about marketing as early as possible. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but draw up marketing lists and start sending out press releases at least a month ahead of time.

Theatre bloggers, online magazines, and podcasts all offer opportunities to market your show. And don’t forget the power of social media.

Ditto technical requirements. You don’t want to be hunched over a laptop wrestling with sound effect mp3s at 1am the night before you open (which I swear I’ve never done…)

7. Want to get involved next year?

Have a realistic idea about what you want to get out of VAULT, and what you can practically achieve. It’s a good idea to attend some shows this year (there’s hundreds to pick from!) to give you idea of what they programme and the venue itself.

A full six-week run of a 10-cast play at VAULT is probably unrealistic. On the other hand, know your own worth. If your show needs a certain size venue or a certain number of performances to make it viable, that’s okay too. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

Naomi’s VAULT show, ZINA

Some parting advice…

Being part of VAULT Festival is an amazing opportunity, both to get your own work out there, but also to see the amazing other things that are happening quite literally underground. Good luck to everyone involved!

I thought I’d leave you with some parting practical advice about VAULT:

  • Make your shows as low-tech as possible.
  • With so many shows on in a relatively small number of spaces, space and time is at a premium.
  • Shit happens: PUPPY had to open without a tech due to venue keys being lost. Getting upset doesn’t help.
  • The get-ins and get-outs are tight.
  • Try not to use props or sets you can’t carry.
  • It’s underground. Wear long socks.
  • Try to get enough sleep. Drink plenty of water.
  • Being part of VAULT means you get to see any VAULT show that is not sold-out for free. Go to as much stuff as possible.
  • VAULT parties are the best parties.

Naomi Westerman’s show DOUBLE INFEMNITY is running at VAULT Festival from January 31st to February 4th. This show has been co-written by Catherine O’Shea and LPB Editor Jennifer Cerys. Naomi’s show ZINA is also running from February 21st – 25th.

Five Top Tips For Co-Writing A Play

With playwriting being seen as a solitary activity, what changes when you form a writing partnership? In this guest post, playwright Tamara von Werthern discusses all she learnt about co-writing for her new play JACKPOT.

It’s not always easy to write plays, is it?

You need to come up with an interesting story, invent characters, write scenes, keep the storyline in mind, write more scenes, make your characters believable and bring them to life and then, you guessed it, write more scenes. And when you finished the first draft you need to rewrite it and change everything you just did!

Most importantly, throughout this process, you have to keep faith in what you’re doing, even if it’s just the belief that you will be able to finish the damn thing.

And being a part of a writing partnership, especially in these early stages of development, can be incredibly helpful in keeping the faith going. This is because it’s no longer just you believing in and championing the project.

I have always thought of writing as a solitary experience, but since I recently ended up co-writing a piece for the first time, I’ve had the eye-opening experience of the benefits co-writing can bring to the writing process.

As a converted co-writer, I thought I’d put together some top tips on how to make this process as smooth as possible:

1- Pick your partner wisely

My co-writing partner was an old friend, Jack Hughes. We had been working together for years but never written together. The play we ended up creating, JACKPOT, was born like most good things are – at a night out in a pub.

Jack and I were talking about a number of things, including our frustration at a whole generation being priced out of London and home ownership becoming a distant dream. So we had the same thought all playwrights do: “You know what we should do? We should write about that.”

Tamara and her writing partner Jack

Co-writing was great: it took a lot of the doubt out of the equation and gave both of us a structure to work with. If you know that your writing partner is waiting for the next scene, it gives you a certain drive to keep going.

But as much as I enjoyed co-writing, that isn’t to say I would be able to co-write with everyone and anyone. It’s not always easy to find someone whose thinking gels enough with your own to make a coherent whole.

You want to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein-type script, so you need to choose someone who writes both in a similar style to you and also uses the same process.

2- Keep communicating

Jack started off the writing on the tube on his way home, and presented me the next morning with the first building block and the first two characters, Sarah and Hal.

He sent me three pages of dialogue and I took it from there. I wrote another three pages and sent it back to him. Then he picked off where I had left it and then we played ping pong across London, writing alongside both raising our young families.

Though we barely met, we spoke by phone and by email, ensuring we were still on the same page (even if we were writing different ones…) and it gave us a chance to raise any concerns before either one of us had got too far with our writing.

3- Remember it’s a partnership

The difficult thing was the editing. If you write by yourself and you’re not happy with a phrase or a paragraph, you cut it. You don’t have to consult with anyone, you are solely responsible for the outcome and you’re not accountable to anyone. This changes when you collaborate. You can’t simply take something out if you don’t like it.

But also don’t be afraid to raise something you want to change with your writing partner. And don’t be offended if they want to debate something you have written. Feedback is one of the main benefits of co-writing, so make use of it!

4- Try to hear the play out loud

This goes for any production, but the danger of co-writing is that you both become so immersed in the world of the play that neither of you can see the bits that don’t quite make sense.

Try and secure a reading to introduce another voice into your partnership – it’ll show you things you had both become oblivious to.

The cast of JACKPOT

We were incredibly lucky to be offered support from London College of Music (LCM) with the development. They were looking for new writing to work on with their students, so I sent the play in and we got the gig.

It was for a week’s development work with third year acting students and a public reading at the end. I asked Lily McLeish, who had directed my previous play, THE WHITE BIKE, and she was happy to be involved with the process.

We were also lucky to receive Arts Council Funding, which allowed both Jack and myself to take time off work and actually be in the room together for the first time. Finally working on the piece face-to-face was amazing.

During that week we found time to explore the world of the play  with the actors, do detailed questioning of the script and write up all the facts and questions arising from it. We drew connections we hadn’t seen before and dared to make the piece even darker and funnier than it had been before.

Remember that co-writing doesn’t mean the script has to involve just you and your writing partner(s). Don’t be afraid to widen the collaboration, which leads us nicely onto…

5- Get feedback outside of each other

At the reading, we left feedback forms for the audience and received twenty-seven filled out forms at the end of the night. Twenty-seven! All of them said they would love to see it in a full production and all of them had useful and concise feedback on what was not yet clear to them in the script.

This feedback fed back into our next round of rewrites, getting us ready to present the finished play in a final public reading.

The reading of JACKPOT

But how do I find a co-writer?

Hopefully this has got you thinking that co-writing sounds great. But you may not be sure where to begin finding a co-writer. You could advertise on platforms like London Playwrights’ Blog , or you could join a writing group or workshop and find someone you work well with there. Or, like me, consider ringing up an old friend. I can really recommend it!

A public reading of JACKPOT, a pitch black comedy about the housing crisis, will take place at The Hackney Attic on 24 January. You can get tickets here.

 

 

What goes in to producing a new writing night?

Where do you go if you want to put on a scratch night? And who do even you talk to? In this guest post, playwright Joyce Lee discusses how her writers’ collective went about putting on a new writing night, including the triumphs and the tests! 

Two years ago, a group of twelve playwrights embarked on the Developing Your Play Course at the National Theatre taught by Jemma Kennedy.  Over ten weeks, we shared work and developed our craft further, soon finding that we got on really well together as a group.

So when the course ended, we decided to keep meeting once a month to continue our collaboration and skill-sharing on our own as a writers’ collective called The Rogue Playwrights. It’s been really rewarding to work together as writing can often be such a solitary task.

But all of us found that, though we’ve had some of our work performed as individuals, we’d experienced those moments when you wonder if anything you write will ever make it onto the stage. We often feel a bit powerless in the industry, wondering will that next play be plucked from obscurity?

So we decided to try and be self-starters, and aimed to self-produce an evening of our new writing together as a group. It would also be a chance to celebrate our collaboration with an audience.

Never afraid of a challenge, and armed with a desire to test out new ideas, we settled on the idea of writing short form plays in response to a provocation:  the theme of Heaven or Hell.

But there’s a lot more to do once you’ve just had the initial idea. If you’ve ever thought of wanting to put on a new writing night yourself, or you’ve just been curious about how they happen, here’s what went next…

It takes time and working together

Sadly new writing nights don’t happen like magic – we came up with the idea almost a year before the event, so it has been long in the planning.  We don’t have a formal leader of the group, it is very much a collective. This means we mostly take it in turns to forge ahead and, of course, take on different roles at different times.

We meet monthly and discuss how we plan to proceed with the various tasks assigned to each member of the group; these tasks have involved trying to sort out rehearsal space, actors, budgets, venue, and other logistics.

Even though we came up with the idea earlier in the year, it has taken us quite a while to get everything ready and organised!

Contact theatres

You’re going to need a venue, and the space will often dictate what style of pieces you can show (or at least influence it), so that’s the best place to start.

Having written to a couple of theatres to see how much their rates for renting the space for a night would be, we eventually got in contact with the White Bear Theatre’s Artistic Director, who very kindly offered us a box office split.

Apply for funding (and know what to say!)

We feel very lucky to have such a great venue for the night and a good deal that really helps with costs, but we want to try and pay everyone involved as well.

Sadly, as I’m sure it is with most playwrights, we couldn’t finance it ourselves, so we decided to put together an Arts Council application for a Grants for the Arts Award to support the project.

Some of us have put together ACE applications before, but it’s always difficult, and we’re still working on a contingency plan for if we don’t get the funding – but we’re keeping everything crossed!

We dived into writing the funding application and started with the initial idea of how we wanted to approach the night. We argued our case for how this project is giving us a chance to hone our skills and continue our professional development, as well as creating opportunities for other artists.

(Psst… if funding doesn’t work out (which annoyingly can happen!), you can read a piece here from playwright Tamara von Werthern about what to do what setbacks happen.)

Workshopping time

Most of the work for new writing nights actually happens before we even get to take the scripts to stage, with an important part being the development phase to the project.

For our particular new writing night, we have an upcoming workshop with our mentor from the NT, Jemma Kennedy, where we will explore the possibilities of writing short form plays; and we will also give each other feedback on each other’s plays.

Promote, promote, promote!

 It’d be great if you could just stumble across an audience to sell-out your new writing night, but (as with most things in playwriting!) you’ve got to put the work in.

Invite friends, family, colleagues, but also use social media. And this doesn’t just mean tweet the odd link to tickets, it’s about targeting your audience. So if you’re new writing night was an LGBTQ+ night, you could tweet LGBTQ+ charities to help promote it, or get in touch with LGBTQ+ playwriting groups – it’s about knowing your audience.

Also link up with the theatre it’s going to be performed in – they probably already have a good way of promoting shows there, so it’s great to get ideas from them.

To the rehearsal room…

Following this, there will be the rehearsal process with professional actors and directors.  A lot can change from getting to hear work read out loud or just having someone else with maybe a slightly different vision for a piece onboard – a piece is never really finished! But rehearsals mean you’re one step closer…

Curtains up! 

Before you know it, it’s performance night itself! We’re looking forward to sharing our work with the general public and early-career theatre-makers, with the possibility of forging creative links for the future.

Putting on a new writing night is no-doubt a consuming and complex process, but it’s also an incredibly rewarding one. Sometimes it seems like you’ll never get it ready it time, but that’s when being in a collective with fellow writers feels like the best thing a playwright can do. And it certainly helps to have a passionate team working to make the night a success!

To get tickets for The Rogue Playwrights New Writing Night on November 13, click here.

The show must go on: How to deal with setbacks

Taking her show ‘The White Bike’ to stage proved a difficult task for playwright Tamara von Werthern after it was rejected for ACE funding. In this guest post she discusses the challenges she faced and how still dealt with them, ensuring the show would go on!

I got the email from the Arts Council (ACE) and my heart was pounding. We had been working so hard to make this production of my play The White Bike happen. Now everything depended on one email.

Inspired by the true story of Eilidh Cairns who was crushed by a tipper lorry in 2009, the play follows a young mother on her journey by bike through Hackney.

My own journey towards this production had started when I cycled past the crash site after returning to work from my maternity leave. As a cyclist and young mother I felt vulnerable in traffic, and my natural reaction was to write about my fears and concerns.

I was lucky to be invited by the Arcola Writers Group to develop my thoughts into a short play under Duncan Macmillan. The piece was then showcased at the Arcola Theatre in 2010, directed by Caroline Leslie.

But that was just the beginning. We were now on the brink of a full professional production with an amazing creative team, an exciting cast and a new full-length script, developed over years of workshops, and Research and Development. We also had help through my own involvement in campaigning for safer roads and from interviewees who had been affected by road violence.

It is hard to make a production happen – finding the right people, convincing a venue, getting funding. I was lucky that I had met director Lily McLeish two years previously, who was equally passionate about the importance of the play and deeply committed to seeing it on stage. (If you want to read more about the early development of The White Bike, click here.)

After securing The Space as our venue and working on all aspects of our production for many months, we had now raised a phenomenal £4,313 via Kickstarter.

One last push at the Kickstarter campaign

But support also came in other forms, including donated rehearsal space and even getting safer cycling charities and independent bike shops on board. There was now a real buzz around the project, and we felt that if everyone else was behind it, the ACE just had to support it too. I clicked on the email. My eyes flew over the page.

And there it was.

Our application had not been successful.

I felt numb.

We had had ACE funding for our Research & Development week and had a committed and brilliant team on board. We had 130 supporters who had given money towards this, our venue was booked, and we even had a publishing deal.

It felt as if the rug was pulled out from under us at this crucial moment, when everything was going so well. Ironically, the main reason why the application was rejected was that at the time of applying we didn’t have enough money already confirmed, though now we did.

The worst thing was that we had no time to reapply. It takes three months for a grant application of over £15,000 to be considered, and it was now the end of July. The show would open on 19 September.

Sadly setbacks are an inevitable apart of the theatre industry – it’s about what you do next that matters.

Back to the drawing board

A few phone calls later I felt a bit better. The director, producer and I were equally gutted but we set up a few emergency meetings straight away to consider our options. We drew up a new budget, cutting away as much as we could and trying to safeguard the money needed to pay our team and cast. We cut rehearsal time down and decided on parts of the process we could each take on ourselves.

In the end we had something to work with. We still had to raise money to make it happen, but, with a bit of luck, it was achievable.

Raising money

It took a whole day to phone up financial headquarters to find out if they had a social responsibility scheme, which is when financial institutions have a goal to support the community they are rooted in.

As The Space is just across the river from Canary Wharf, we thought it might be feasible that the companies situated in our neighbourhood might help us out financially. In return we could offer advertising in our published script or even workshops on physical theatre in a corporate environment.

Unfortunately, it turned out that most banks only support community projects which include financial education, and unfortunately not the arts.

We also applied to trusts and foundations, including The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Esmee Fairbank Foundation and the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation, amongst many others. For some of these you need charitable status, which we have through co-producing the play together with The Space.

We wrote to Hackney Council, where the play is set, and to Tower Hamlets, where both the production and rehearsals (at Queen Mary University) would take place, to ask for help.

While some of these leads gave us hope that they might be interested to partner with us and support us, most of our emails and letters remained simply unanswered. It was all pretty frustrating.

Most of all, I felt disheartened by the fact that we were rejected by ACE, ashamed even: my first thought was that it had happened because the play was just not good enough.

Reaching out

But then I realised that I needed to just tell people. I put a ‘black box’ on my Facebook page, fessing up. And what happened next was amazing. I got loads of messages of support, including ones from friends who were just as gutted about it as I had been, as well as offers of help.

It was heartening to realise that people were really rooting for us, maybe even more so, because we had had this setback.

It turned out that the biggest resource we had were our friends. Many thinking caps were put on across the country and we suddenly had a rich pool of suggestions of where to go and who to ask, and a huge amount of encouragement and support.

I also heard from friends who were in the same situation with their funding having also been rejected, which made me feel much less alone with the problem.

Being open and honest about having experienced a setback was the best thing I could have done, and the reaction from those around us was what made the next steps towards making it happen possible.

Securing support

I thought up four different ways of raising money and tested them on Facebook, just asking people to put them in order of what they liked best.

My ideas were a clothes swap party with an entry fee where I would serve tea, coffee and cake; a ‘gala dinner’ which I would cook at my house with three courses and drinks at a set price; a pub quiz at our local pub; and another bigger cake sale.

A successful pub quiz!

I got so many responses, it was unbelievable. The pub quiz won in the end but I also got offers of people who said they’d bake cakes for me, as well as lots of other tips on where to go for funding. It was amazing to feel there was so much interest and good will behind it all.

Turns out the clichés true: while one door had closed, many more doors suddenly opened.

Think outside the box

There might be ‘pockets’ of potential funding which you can access by thinking about people you know who, though might not necessarily be your target audience for a given project, may be interested in something else you have to offer.

For our Kickstarter campaign, for example, I had crocheted cycling gloves and flower badges as prizes, which were really popular. It is good to have something that is handmade and unique to show your appreciation of the support you are getting.

The beautiful crochet flowers

Another slightly strange coincidence was that I had written a book in German for my dad’s 60th birthday. It was a spoof crime thriller with him as the sleuth. It was a bit of a family in-joke, but it turned out to be hugely successful among his friends and also people I knew back home and even German-speaking friends in London.

I again used Facebook to gauge interest in this, take pre-orders towards a reprint, and ended up making quite a bit of money towards the production.

As The White Bike is about safer cycling, we went to bike shops, wrote to big cycling companies and companies renowned for their involvement in cycling. We also asked charities such as SeeMeSaveMe and Sustrans to support us, and were largely successful with this.

As well as the larger companies, we also got support from individual donors, who gave small or large amounts, often after a personal chat about what we needed and why, and also where the money would go.

We spread the word through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, on organisational newsletters and in the media. In short – we tried every avenue we could think of and then some.

And the show really does go on…

It looks like our strategy worked out: The White Bike will run at The Space in East London from 19-30 September 2017.

Video made by Tom Goudsmit

After approaching so many people for help, we eventually secured financial support from Phil Jones Associates and Hackney Council.

We might not have got the money from ACE to make things easier, but we got so much support from the people around us, which was in a way worth even more. Experiencing this one setback has only made us more determined and motivated to get the show on the road and make it the best it can be.

If you’ve experience what might seem like a failure while trying to put on a production, it could actually end up being what makes your performance. You’ve just got to be determined and learn to think outside the box; and whatever the problem was, it won’t be a setback for long.

To get tickets to see The White Bike, click here. We would love to see you there.

When (and when not) to hear your work read aloud

As part of the launch of our new membership scheme, we’re celebrating writers that LPW has worked with in the course of the past year.

In the final blog from our Dark Horse Festival writers, John Murray shares his thoughts on the importance – and difficulty – of hearing your work read aloud.

It’s important to hear your work read aloud; I say ‘important’, rather than ‘enjoyable.’ Listening to your work is crucial to the playwriting process but it can be a difficult procedure to manage.

I studied creative writing at university, so I feel fairly comfortable reading my work aloud; poetry, prose, non-fiction and some pretty awful and unnecessary hybrids of the above. My first full piece of writing for performance was a monologue which I went on to direct and perform myself, so I felt confident in reading that aloud, to anyone who would listen, during the development stages.

But when it came to work for more than one voice, I was stuck. I just about managed to get away with a radio drama I wrote a few years ago; there were twenty characters in the play and a friend and I read and recorded the whole thing, with long pauses between lines as we tried to slip back and forth between elaborate accents.

That recording was just about enough for me to imagine what the piece could sound like with different actors playing each role. I needed to know how that slew of voices would mesh together and if any of them stood out for the wrong reasons.

My first pieces for the stage with multiple characters were a different kettle of fish. As a writer, I tend to place too much emphasis on the aural quality of the work and ignore moments of more complex physicality. As each piece slowly formed, I found it impossible to feel satisfied with what I was writing because I was not able to hear distinct voices coming through.

After a few false starts with readings, I’ve realised that who is reading your piece is crucial in making the experience useful and can ultimately make the difference between hearing the voices of your characters emerge and hearing nothing at all.

I think that it’s important to hear different groups of people read your work. In the early stages of development, one of the most useful groups you could turn to is a group of writers. I’m sure most people know the general benefits of writers groups, but in this instance I suggest using the writers as actors.

A writer, especially one who is also working on a piece, is often sensitive to the way in which lines of dialogue are being constructed. They look out for pauses, they pay attention to punctuation and they never assume they’ve read a line correctly; they will invariably go back and look at the line again and try and work out if you intended something different with a comma, or a ‘long pause’ or a repetition.

What’s more, it’s likely that most of the writers in the group will not have much acting experience. If you can’t find a group of writers that you feel happy working with, gather a few friends who you trust and ask them to read. Try to avoid any professional performers at this stage and just listen to the lines that people trip over. Listen to them laugh or gasp and stay alert to the moments where they lose concentration. Hearing people make mistakes as they read can be so useful; it can signal awkward phrasing, overworked language or moments of lag in the dialogue.

I get so much out of these readings. After they’ve read, the writers can help you unpack certain choices you’ve made, big or small. They can question your technique and highlight the moments where you’ve really achieved your goals. Their feedback is so useful in developing style and structure.

A group of friends can offer a similar kind of critique: they can point you to moments where you might need to focus when redrafting, moments where the scenes drag or speed along too quickly. They’re a ready-made audience with no professional tint to their feedback; they’ll ignore formatting issues and won’t confuse you with comments about pieces at the Fringe they saw two years ago that “might really help you” but can’t remember what it was called or who wrote it. I’m particularly guilty of that.

After you’ve finished this and redrafted, I’d suggest you take your piece to a director. Ask if they have an hour or two to read your work and comment on it from a directorial perspective. You won’t hear them reading it but their feedback will give an insight into what you might expect from a reading with actors.

They’ll know which scenes might challenge a group of actors and which they’d have less trouble with; this might not actually lead you to make any changes to those scenes, but it’ll give you an insight into what you might face when working with actors and arm you with suggestions you might be able to make to them as they perform.

After these first two stages, you’re ready to hear a group of professionals read. It’s easier said than done assembling a group of actors; I’ll leave it to an advice columnist with more chutzpah than me to explain the process. However you manage to assemble your actors, be ready for that reading to be unlike any of the readings you’ve had up until that point.

On the one hand, the actors will be able to bring a wealth of training, experience and excitement to the roles. They should be used to quickly mining a scene for useful details which they can draw from and they’ll be happy to stop and start and try sections out differently in order to allow you to hear how a different tone could work. You should even be able to make quick edits which won’t faze them and allow you to hear scenes constructed differently.

On the other hand, once a piece is with an actor, writers can often feel like they lose control. They might feel certain words or phrases are being skipped over in favour of something more exciting to that particular actor. This can either be fruitful or excruciating. You might find yourself being asked to justify why a character behaves in a certain way; actors will look for objectives that you might not feel are appropriate which leaves you flailing about trying to correct them.

However, if you’ve gone through the first two stages and really taken as much as you can from those readings, you’ll feel much better equipped to deal with whatever is thrown at you. I don’t want to sound like I’m downplaying the talent and commitment actors can bring to a reading: they can help you transform a piece and give voice to characters that you have desperately wanted to hear from, and once you reach the rehearsal room they are your greatest ally. But, if you take a piece to actors too early in your process, you will be faced with a plethora of issues which might set back your drafting process and distract you from the early tasks of assembling your work and crafting the tone and themes of a piece.

Listen to your work as often as possible. It’s the only way you can be sure that you’re ready to let a piece get up on to its feet and walk about. Which is a third and even more complicated kettle of fish…

John Murray’s latest project is Celebrate The Mountains, an online writing project with Thom Kofoed. Subscribe at: http://celebratethemountains.co.uk/

Be part of the movement. Click here to become a member today!

Are you researching, or just procrastinating?

As part of the launch of our new membership scheme, we’re celebrating writers that LPW has worked with in the course of the past year.

In the last post from our talented gaggle of Dark Horse Festival writers, Sophia Chapadjiev takes a long hard look at herself in the mirror and asks: is all that time spent reading encyclopaedias really helping her research? Or is it just another way of putting off writing?

I once wrote a musical in which a man needed a root canal. I was so proud of my detailed knowledge of vascular tissue and pulpotomy that I sent it to the dentist I had when I was growing up. Unsurprisingly, he never wrote me back. And just as unsurprisingly, my chances of getting this or any piece produced are diminished when I choose to submit things to dentists before doing so to theater companies.

Advice: Submit plays to theater companies not dental practices.

I have always loved research. I can get so caught up in investigating a time period or topic that nothing else seems to matter. And it’s not enough for me to read about things online or even take a cursory trip to the library: I want to so immerse myself into a world – of which I don’t belong and never will – to make those who live in that world feel I am one of them. Ah, pride, why carest thou for the opinions of those whose circles you don’t even travel in?

I just want to get it right.

So, when I was writing a piece about an airline mishap, and I discovered that years after the plane went down a new theory had emerged about why it crashed, I suddenly needed to learn all I could on said theory. Now, I could have written the piece without this information. It wasn’t pertinent to the character study; I was writing an operatic fantasy of what went through the flight attendant’s mind in the last moments of life as she fell from the sky. Did I really need to be googling “how are fuselages like boilers”? Or seeking out interviews with conspiracy theory boiler specialists?

Yes, yes, useful info in theory. But really, what am I doing? Procrastinating. Like a Pro.

Crastinator.

Oh, to have the discipline of those great wordsmiths I admire. To wake at 5, write till 9, break the fast, go for a walk, take the world in while making observational notes for future projects, eat lunch precisely from 1 to 2, review what I’d started in the morning, maybe a nap, le five o’clock, start another project, and, as it says on my shampoo bottle, rinse and repeat, and start all over again.

But no. Instead I am googling things that have nothing to do with what my piece appears to be about.

Advice: Research boiler specialist conspiracy theories only when you are writing a piece about boiler specialist conspiracy theories.

More recently, I was asked to submit a proposal for an opera with a specific location as a prompt and a limit of four characters.

Free of the constraints of research, I was able to dream big. And so I ambitiously indulged in flights of fancy to the land of What Ifs. And next thing I knew I had woven a tale involving:

  • The erecting of the George Washington Bridge
  • The creation of a present day philanthropic project in actual existence
  • The proper use of microwaves
  • A secondary character from “one of the world’s conflict zones”

My proposal has since been greenlit. And I am petrified. There’s a lot I suddenly need to learn about before I even put pen to paper. Thankfully, I am at least relatively proficient at using a microwave.

Advice: Learn your stuff. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: It’s okay to be ignorant about one thing, but three is just careless. Or maybe he said something like this about something else altogether. [Note to self: research and edit later.]

First stop: the library. Books on waterways, the history of bridges, the Great Depression as an appetizer. My protagonist, loosely based on a real person, comes from a wealthy family and so I ask the librarian, “How do I find a book about how people made their money along the New England waterways before, say, roads or railways came about, and is there also, by chance, a chapter on how female daughters of affluent families felt about the inequality of wealth distribution”?

The librarian looks at me blankly.

Of course that’s not true. Librarians are wonderful and will always try to understand and aid me, even when Siri will not.

Advice: When in doubt, search out a librarian. This works for questions of fact and also for questions of opinion (ex: Do you think this book goes with this hat?).

I relish the research phase. But I know it can also be a method of avoidance. As each day closes, I am one day nearer to when my first draft is due on the above project and nary a word has yet been writ. And I’ve only just now finished letters “D” through “F” in the Encyclopaedia of Bridges and Tunnels. Who knows what wisdom “G”, “H” or even “I” hold.

I believe the more I learn about something that I did not know about, the readier I am to proceed to the next step. And so, once I am brimful with newly acquired knowledge and can spout both useful and useless facts, I have to throw it all out the window and finally start the writing.

But before the writing, yet after the research (though sometimes one can bleed into the other) there is a gorgeous sweet spot – often while I am deep in REM sleep – when the synapses of my subconscious are making connections with the speed and alacrity of Muhammad Ali.

And so while research can be a form of procrastination and often times, to those around me, it looks as if I am doing no practical work whatsoever, research is essential to prime my process.

But what is scary… is the trusting. Trusting and believing that I can and will make things work. And so far, this method has not let me down.

Advice: If something has worked for you, trust the process will work again.

I would love to not feel like I have to do so much research. And I would love to not procrastinate but that just isn’t my process. Sometimes, a girl’s just gotta lean in.

Sophia Chapadjiev’s one-act opera, A Bridge Between, debuted at the International House in New York City in May.  The George Washington Bridge in New York; the citizens of Mostar and the famed Mostar Bridge in Bosnia & Herzegovina; and the germination of a philanthropic project all made an appearance.  Sadly, “the proper use of microwaves” was cut from an early draft.  This after Sophia had practically become a microwavologist.  She is now excitedly on the brink of embarking on a stone-carving course.  Following that, her opera, The Bone Keepers – described as “a kind of creep show meets Laverne and Shirley” by Broadway World – will be performed again in New York in conjunction with American Opera Projects.

Be part of the movement. Click here to become a member today!

Procreative: How to be a playwright AND a new parent

As part of the launch of our new membership scheme, we’re celebrating writers that LPW has worked with in the course of the past year.

In the next of our blogs by our playwrights from the Dark Horse FestivalSonali Bhattacharyya gives advice for playwrights balancing writing with parenting.

So, you’re a woman, you’re a playwright, and you’re expecting or have recently had a baby. What the hell were you thinking? Why not throw some circus skills into the freelancing, nappy changing, sleep skipping mix? Only joking. This could be the most creatively fertile period of your writing life (see what I did there?). Or at least a chance for you to redefine yourself as a writer and develop your voice.

5 things I did…

Who needs the Pomodoro technique when you have a sleeping infant who might wake up at any moment?

1 – Guard your writing time

Other parents will use their baby’s nap time to sit in cafes and socialise, go for a jog with them round the park, catch a film at a parent and baby screening, or clean their flat (it has been known). You will power-walk home or to the nearest café with wi fi at the first sign of infant drowsiness, to grab 30, 50, maybe even 90 minutes of blissful uninterrupted writing time. No emails. No internet shopping. No freakin’ Facebook. Just write. There were times I’d sit at my computer with our baby sleeping on my chest in a sling, all the more soundly for the proximity to me, which bought me precious extra writing time. (Yeah, okay, and these were warm bonding moments between us too.) Continue a play you’ve been working on from where you left off, without reading back what you’ve completed so far if you can bear it. You will discover you are 100% more productive than you ever believed. Who needs the Pomodoro technique when you have a sleeping infant who might wake up at any moment?

2 – Write what you want

Maybe you already do this. I view my writing career in two parts: The part pre-parenthood where I had often censored myself and been willing to compromise in the pursuit of politeness and collaboration, and the part post-parenthood where I started writing only what I wanted to see.

Our daughter had to spend 14 weeks in hospital after she was born (do not fear, this is not an inevitable consequence of being a playwright who decides to procreate, it was just my experience), and I was enraged by the glib depiction of NICU life and the expedient use of premature birth in various plot lines on TV and in film. I started writing a play about parents on a neo-natal unit, because I realised it was only on stage that I could convey the intimacy and claustrophobia of this environment.

To my knowledge, there has never been a UK play about NICU life. My agent at the time thought there was good reason for this, and we parted ways, but I was so compelled to tell this story I had to keep going. If you’ve just squeezed a human being out of your uterus it gives you good reason to feel you don’t have to continue being polite all the time. I mean, don’t be a dick, or anything. But if you believe in your work, stand by it.

3 – Lean on friends

No one tells you how becoming a new parent saps your confidence, especially if you’ve always partly defined yourself through work. My confidence as a writer plummeted at about the same rate. Handing over the first few scenes of the first play I’d started to write since our daughter got home from hospital was absolutely nerve wracking. I was convinced I had lost any talent and ability I ever had, and was contemplating alternative career options. But I have an amazing friend, who is also conveniently an amazing playwright, and she offered to meet regularly to share thoughts on what we were writing at the time. We would spend time in cafés, swapping scenes and sharing thoughts while I fed our daughter or she napped in my arms. This was the period when I started to think maybe I was still a writer after all.

If you’re leaning on a friend, they have to be one you trust: someone who will be honest about your work rather than just telling you what they think you want to hear. But then, those are the best kind, aren’t they?

4 – Explore childcare options that work for you

As our daughter got older I realised I could leave her with other trusted adults to allow me to work, but that we could not afford to pay the fees that usually accompanied said trusted adults. I was lucky enough to have made friends with some incredibly cool mums who were also struggling to juggle writing (in their case, PhD theses) with the demands of caring for a young child. So we started swapping childcare for work time.

One afternoon a week I would take my daughter and their kids to the park, or home for a play date (luckily we have no pesky qualms about tidiness in our household, so having three two-year-olds running around was not an issue) to allow them to work, and in return they would look after our daughter another day to allow me to write. This became more crucial as our daughter started to drop her nap. (Luckily she kept napping, sporadically, until she was three, and those 15 hours of free nursery care kicked in. I in no way encouraged this with marathon walks around our neighbourhood, singing songs from Sesame Street to her while she drowsed in her buggy, and any reports of this are exaggerated.)

5 – Send out your work

At first it felt as futile as writing letters of complaint to the Daily Mail. I would send out my play to every open submission and new writing competition going, all the time wondering if I’d become one of those people who signs up for the ‘You Can be a Professional Writer’ courses advertised on the back of Readers’ Digest. But the best way to reconnect with the industry is to share your writing with people working in it.

The play I’d written in those snatched nap time moments was selected for a new writing festival, and I was given the chance to continue developing it with a professional dramaturg. Much later, I discovered this play was so widely read it had contributed to me being commissioned and invited onto several schemes and projects.

…and 2 things I Wish I’d Done:

We need to acknowledge the theatre industry doesn’t pay enough for playwrights to afford nannies and nurseries

1 – Started a group with other parent writers

I wish I’d made an effort to meet other parents who also wrote. The structure and support of a writers’ group where babies and kids would be welcomed would have been a godsend, if I’d had the foresight to try to establish one. This is probably something to think of now, before you’ve actually had the baby, or when they’re very young.

2 – Take your baby to work

I also wish I’d been bolder and more confident about just taking our daughter along to meetings, rather than avoiding them, or finding complex and convoluted childcare options for the odd random weekday afternoon. The only way to break out of the social and professional purdah that can accompany being a freelance creative with a small person to look after is to normalise your situation (because it is perfectly normal, right?).

We need to acknowledge the theatre industry doesn’t pay enough for playwrights to afford nannies and nurseries, and that means we might sometimes just have to bring our kids along with us. (Of course, this goes for other people working in theatre too.)

Nb. All this advice may well work for new fathers too, and I’m sorry if it feels like I’m being exclusive. My experience is that we’ve yet to become an equal enough society to allow fathers to share childcare equally when kids are very young, and this, along with the fact that new parents increasingly live far away from grandparents and other family, means that the brunt of childcare responsibilities often still fall on women for the first year or so.

Sonali Bhattacharyya is currently working on a new commission, ‘King Troll’, as writer in residence for The Coterie, a new theatre company established by director Caitlin McLeod and producer Martha Wilson with the support of Sky Arts. More info here: http://www.thecoterieplatform.com/.  Her new play for Palindrome Productions’ ‘Sahar Speaks’ project will be on at Theatre 503 on 15th and 16th October. You can book tickets here: https://theatre503.com/whats-on/shahar-speaks/

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Demoting Your Central Character

As part of the launch of our new membership scheme, we’re celebrating writers that LPW has worked with in the course of the past year.

In the first of our blogs by our playwrights from the Dark Horse FestivalEva Edo recounts how she realised one of her play’s protagonists wasn’t so important after all – and that exploring a more unexpected story opened up exciting possibilities in her play.

I started writing because I wanted to tell a specific story which was close to my heart: about how the state swoops in to remove children from their homes, which in the long term may not be for the greater good. It felt natural to write about what I knew; about my former working life as a lawyer immersed (if not drowning, at times) in the world of child protection.

I wanted to write about what I had seen, heard and experienced. I just needed to tap into myself. It was like looking into a mirror: my research started with me and my memory. No emails to strangers trying to enlist their help so I could gain their expertise. No feelings of being a fraud and touching on areas I was ill-qualified to comment on. It was going to be easy. Like rocking up to the family court and speaking up for my clients. A walk in the park!

The first draft was written in a few weeks and feedback sought. Story great. Tick. Themes explored well. Tick. Well structured. Tick. Dialogue sharp and witty. Tick. A central character lacked depth. Oh. How was that possible? The character was someone I knew inside and out. A strong person whose presence in my working life had left a mark and was central to this story.

I set about remedying the problem. I pored over the character’s backstory. Re-wrote her short biography. Extended her long biography. I gave her emotional milestones after emotional milestone across her 40-year life which would have driven a real person to insanity. I submitted the play for further scrutiny to be told that the character lacked purpose. So, I focused on her objectives, making them stronger – and now bordering on blatant. The next round of feedback again focused on that character. This time asking if she was necessary to the story at all.

I was completely taken aback. In the real world, outside of the play, this character had a central role. She had been like a mentor to me in my life as a lawyer. Teaching me how to tread water in what sometimes felt like working in a sea of other people’s woes. To me, her presence in the play had never been questioned. I couldn’t write the story without her being in it – right?

Once I allowed myself to ask that question, though, things changed.   I took another look at the story. Asked myself what it could be without this character. I saw where the story might go if she simply disappeared. I tried to let go of my preconceived notion of the play being true to my experiences; that the story needed to mirror them. I had to let fiction be fiction.

At first, this made me feel uncomfortable. It made me question the integrity of the story. I was contemplating departing from what I knew, had seen and experienced.

After a couple more drafts, the play was finished. In the end the character stayed, but instead played a much less significant role. I had demoted her; moved her to the back of the character line. Instead, she informed the play but did not carry it along, which in turn allowed the other characters to become stronger and shine. This revealed that the story I had written was really about the world of a child, rather than her lawyer.

I continue to write from experience and tend to create characters who have traits within my knowledge. I feel privileged to be in the position to draw on my personal experiences and tell these stories. The reality, however, is that although my experiences may enrich my writing and hopefully bring a unique quality to it, in the end a play will only be as good as the story you can tell – which may not be the same as the story you have lived or seen through the eyes of the people that you know.

Eva Edo’s play ‘Looked After Children’ which was part of the 2016 Dark Horse Festival will receive a rehearsed reading in PlayWROUGHT#5 at The Arcola this Saturday 29 July 2017 at 8.30pm. For further information and booking: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/playwrought-new-writing-festival-5/

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