Category Archives: Pursued By A Bear

Pursued By A Bear: “I finished my play. What do I do now?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I feel like a marathon runner who has just ran a 10000 MILES and in search for water, but has just been informed water no longer exists; I thirst for hope. So please, HELP ME! Forgive me if that did not make any sense.

I have just finished my first full-length play, I have spent months on end editing and proof-reading the damn thing. I truly believe it is ready to be read and performed. I have submitted the play to some Theatre Companies; however as expected I have either not received a reply or have been told my beloved play is sh*t (in the most formal and polite way). So the question that is continuously running around my mind like Usain Bolt on steroids is, WHAT DO I DO NOW THAT I HAVE FINISHED MY PLAY? 

There are only so many theatres I can submit my play to, as submission windows are only open once in a purple-moon. So do I just wait until a theatre company wants to produce my play?

 I live in the most deadest, culture-less (if that’s a word) place ever that has only ONE theatre, and which chooses to only play pantomimes. Okay, I might be exaggerating, but you get my point? There’s no writing opportunities here in Milton Keynes.

Do I produce the play myself? Which I have thought about doing, however I am apprehensive to because I don’t know ANY like minded artists who work in the realm of Theatre. (Yeah that’s right I’m Billy-no-Mates). Also, If I’m going to produce my play for the first time, I want it to be amazing and not mediocre, and I feel like in order to succeed in doing so I need the right backing, if that makes sense?

You know, I read about so many playwrights who have worked with successful Theatres who have become residential playwrights, and have won numerous awards etc. But one thing they never do is detail (in depth) how these playwrights succeed in doing those things. 

If you would be so kind to advise me on what to do next Guru.”

This is the multi-million pound question – what to do when you’ve put your heart and soul into a play and slaved over it for months/years/decades on end, only to find no one wants to put it on?

It’s a horrible place to find yourself, and it’s probably small consolation, but I’m sure most playwrights have been where you are at some point.

It’s like walking through the Channel Tunnel.

You’ve been stumbling through total darkness for what seems like forever, constantly tripping and falling on your face as the lack of light tricks you into thinking you can see a Starbucks up ahead, and you finally reach the end of that horrific journey, emerging into glorious sunshine, drinking in fresh oxygen like a drunk hobo with a stolen pack of alcohol hand rub from A&E, only to realise you’re in France.

You can’t speak the language and no one likes you.

You just want to give up. I don’t blame you. Writing can be a lonely and thankless vocation. It can seem like you’ve done everything all the successful people did yet you’ve still got nothing to show for it.

Why them and not you?

I don’t really know. There could be a million reasons why a theatre turns down a play – it’s not long enough, it’s not short enough, it’s too controversial, it’s not controversial enough, they did a similar play last month, they don’t do this sort of play, there are too many characters, there are too many sets, you used the C word, you didn’t use the C word, it’s too political, it’s not political, it’s not funny, it’s too funny… I could go on forever.

Every theatre has its own preferences when it comes to the plays they put on. And these aren’t even fixed; they change from month to month or even week to week, depending on any number of factors. It’s impossible to predict if someone will love or hate your work. It’s impossible to predict whether it’s exactly what an artistic director is looking for or it’s everything he despises.

And even if you absolutely nail it – you write a play of the perfect length about the perfect topic with the perfect amount of bad language and the perfect number of perfectly flawed characters – someone else may still have done it slightly more perfectly that month and just beaten you to it.

So the bad news is there’s no way of knowing what you could have done better.

Let me tell you the good news:

Actually, there isn’t any really.

It sucks. That’s all I’ve got.

You want to be a writer, this is what you have to deal with. It’s not unusual for writers to go through years of rejection before they finally get a break and one of their plays is successful.

You mentioned in your question that other writers never give up the details on how they made it to the top – from what I’ve heard, there’s no big secret.

They persevered.

Rejection isn’t a one-time thing, it’s a continuous process that constantly eats away at your soul.

If you love writing enough to keep writing and keep submitting plays to theatres with only negative responses (or no response at all) you should keep doing it.

Let this rejected play serve as motivational fuel for your stubborn creative fire. Tell yourself; “Maybe they didn’t like this one, maybe they won’t like the next one or the one after that, but one of these days they’ll like one of them and then this will have all been worth it.”

If you really want to be successful the first thing you need to do is develop a thick skin. Let the rejection wash over you and forge forever onwards.

I appreciate the fact it totally sucks, it would be a lot nicer and we’d all be a lot happier if there was a place for every play we wrote. But there isn’t. There are a limited number of seats at the table, and half the people who get a place still only get a mouthful before they’re kicked off by the next ravenous writer.

Every playwright I know has come up against the same brick wall and asked the same question; “Why her and not me?”

If I had the answer I’d have a play on at the National and you’d have all heard of me (outside of this blog).

Of course, I’m aware this hasn’t been a very positive or encouraging answer so far. You were probably hoping for something more helpful.

My main piece of advice is to keep going. When your work is rejected it’s easy to take it personally and let it affect your work. The best thing to do is put all the feedback to one side for a few months.

I know it feels like you’ve been mauled by a particularly angry bear, but when the wounds are healed and you’re able to once again drag yourself along the ground on your belly, you can escape your icy exile like Leonardo DiCaprio and continue your arduous journey through the snowy wilderness to avenge your pain upon your tormentors.

Put this play completely out of your mind and start writing something new in the meantime. In a few months this rejection will feel like an old scar that’s long since stopped hurting and you’ll be able to objectively evaluate the feedback and maybe make some revisions to the script.

Don’t give up on the play. Most successful plays go through a ton of rewrites and edits. This is no different. When you come back to it you may see a way to improve it that just isn’t visible to you right now, and that could be the one tweak that makes it a masterpiece.

For now, forget the entire thing and write a new play. Always be writing. That’s how you improve.

And even if the same theatres reject your next play and the play after that, each time there’s more chance they’ll remember you and start to pay attention.

It’s important to also explore other avenues; full-length plays aren’t the only way to skin a cat. Enter competitions, write short plays, attend writers’ nights, work as a reader, get an internship, make a sex tape, fake your own death. Do anything and everything you can to get noticed.

I agree there probably aren’t a lot of writing opportunities in Milton Keynes – unless you’re writing a coffee table book about roundabouts. I did learn to ski in the Snozone there though, so that’s pretty cool.

On the other hand, London Midland trains go direct from Euston to Milton Keynes. I happen to know this because I’ve picked my drunk-ass brother up from Milton Keynes more than a few times after he’s fallen asleep on said train and sailed right past Watford. But that’s another particularly bitter story for another day.

My point is that London isn’t a million miles away. This goes for all aspiring playwrights out there – don’t feel restricted to your hometown. I don’t think people should feel forced to move to London in order to succeed, but there’s a reason so many artists do it; the capital is the capital. There are more theatres and more opportunities here.

You don’t have to move here but if you can visit every so often and attend a writers’ night or go to a workshop you’ll meet some people. Then all you need to do is exchange emails and keep in touch.

And that’s the final point I’ll make; network, network, network. The more people you know, the more people you can share your work with and the more likely something will come of it.

Don’t get demoralised or assume it’s not meant to be. Thousands of others have made that mistake before you, and they aren’t successful writers.

The successful writers are the ones who kept slogging away at it. If you want to be one of them, that’s what you need to do.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

Pursued By A Bear: “My partner hates it when I write”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I’m purposefully not saying what gender I am, because I don’t want this to be about that. Thanks for understanding. I feel like my partner really hates it when I write. They don’t say this directly, but they find excuses to interrupt me. They ask stupid questions or start talking to me. Or schedule things during time I’ve booked to write. Maybe this is because of issues with one of their parents, who actually was quite a successful writer and wasn’t around a lot. I’m not like that, it’s mostly for fun, but it’s still important to me. I don’t want to hurt my partner, who is great in every other way. How do I get them to be more supportive of my desire to write?”

I feel for you. It can be really difficult to find time to write these days, modern life is just so busy. We spend most of our time at work, then we have to do the chores, wash, watch Judge Judy, spend a few hours arguing about Taylor Swift with strangers on Youtube comment boards, and sleep.

When we do have that precious little bit of spare time to do what we want, it’s understandable that our friends, family and partners want to spend time with us. After all, their lives are likely just as busy as ours.

It can easily feel like the world (or just your partner) is against you when there’s never any time to write. I often think my friends and family are trying to sabotage my creative efforts because whenever I put time aside to do something creative I seem to get a phone call or someone pops round or the football’s on or it’s someone’s birthday or a wedding or someone’s in the hospital or the car breaks down or whatever.

In reality we should count ourselves lucky, there are plenty of lonely people in the world who would love someone to disturb their silence and drag them out of the house. The fact someone wants to spend time with you is a blessing, even if it sometimes feels like a bit of a pain, or at least a disruption.

And don’t forget, having a writing career and having a life are not mutually exclusive. Life informs art, so a bit of social activity from time to time is actually essential – it sparks ideas and gives you more to write about. Here’s where I shamelessly plug this previous post about balancing writing with life.

That said, when you have lofty artistic goals you do need time, and often silence, to work. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study to determine what percentage of artists, writers and performers were single when they first became successful? It would definitely make for interesting reading.

I know in my case I had a lot more free time before I got married. I don’t even know how it happened, it’s like my wedding ring sucked me into an alternate dimension where the days are half as long but there’s twice as much to do.

Obviously I’m joking (not really but my wife might be reading).

What’s my solution to this?

I don’t really have one at the moment. All I can manage is snatching odd moments when no one’s around. She’ll go to visit her mum or to the shops or out with friends at the weekend, and I’ll get a few hours’ work in. Sometimes I’ll sneak off while she’s making dinner and do a cheeky half an hour, but I have to make up for this by washing the dishes at least.

This is making my wife seem like a bit of a tyrant, which she totally isn’t. She just likes to spend time with me, and I feel the same way. But I also like to spend time writing and making music, and they’re pretty solitary pursuits.

There’s no easy way around this issue. If you feel your partner is genuinely trying to stop you from writing I’d say you need to discuss this with them. Frustrations can easily build up until you find the relationship has become too much work, and it doesn’t seem like you’re unhappy with him/her so I’m guessing you want to avoid that.

Your partner’s frequent interruptions might be annoying to you, but try to consider the situation from their side as well; they have limited time to spend with you, maybe they’re out all day at a job they hate, and when they finally get home all excited to see you, you’d prefer to sit in silence in front of a computer.

Have the conversation. Try to find out why your writing might be an issue. It’s not a one-way street, relationships require compromise. If you want to spend time alone writing make sure you allow some time to do something together to make up for that. Also, make sure your partner understands when you want a bit of quiet time and why. Explain what you’re working on, get him/her invested in your story. If you can get them hooked into the plot they’ll want to know how it ends and even see it up on stage.

Pitch the play to your significant other. If nothing else this will be great practice for when you need to do it professionally. Get them on board with what you’re doing, discuss plot points and character development. Be careful not to overdo this though, always show an interest in what they’re doing as well. No one likes a broken record.

Explain how important the writing is to you. Make this very clear, and be honest. You said in your question you write mostly for fun. That’s absolutely fine but if you’re describing it that way to your partner they might be thinking it’s not that serious so you won’t mind being interrupted. Let your partner know that although you’re not aiming to be the next Tennessee Williams, you do value your writing as a creative outlet or therapy session or just a way to unwind.

My only other suggestion would be to encourage your partner to find a hobby. This could be anything, from learning a language to indoor skydiving. Whatever it is, they’ll have something to do once or twice a week which gets them out of your hair. You’ll also have more to talk about when you are together. And sometimes they’ll want to get away from you to do their thing which will balance out the times when the shoe’s on the other foot.

It sounds as though there could also be some insecurity on your partner’s part resulting from a writing parent. It’s sad if your partner’s harbouring some resentment towards a distant parent, but it’s unfair of them to reflect that onto you. I’m not a psychologist but my instinct would be to reassure your partner about your ambitions. Talk to them about your work and get them involved where you can. They need to know the writing isn’t more important to you than they are.

Unfortunately there’s no easy way around this, all of us have different ambitions and desires, we enjoy different things and we all have our own expectations. It can be difficult to balance writing, whether doing it professionally or as a hobby, with our personal lives. I think it comes down to compromise and balance. You have to be willing to give and take.

Always be considerate of your partner and make sure they understand you expect the same in return.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

Pursued By A Bear: “Should I write short plays or full length?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I see a lot of competitions asking for short plays. But it seems like theatres only put on full length plays. Should I write short plays (because it’s faster and fits in my working schedule easier), or am I better off trying to write a full length play and putting my energy here instead?”

This is quite the conundrum. Competitions are almost invariably asking for short plays, yet theatres always want full length pieces. What’s a playwright to do?

It’s worth thinking about why competition organisers tend to prefer short plays. Here are some reasons that occurred to me:

  1. Short plays are less labour intensive for the organisers; they take less time to read, so the organisers can read more of them and have a higher chance of discovering a gem
  2. Short plays are less labour intensive for playwrights; we’re more likely to take a punt on a ten minute play about a random topic, so the competition organisers will receive more entries than if they asked for an hour-long piece
  3. Several short plays can be combined in a single evening, giving coveted exposure to several playwrights, thus making the competition more appealing, and allowing the organisers to establish relationships with more of us
  4. It’s easier (arguably) to write a well-formed short play than a full-length, so the quality of work the organisers receive will generally be higher
  5. Short plays generally have fewer locations and characters, making them easier to cast and stage on a budget.

You may not agree with all of these, and they certainly don’t hold up in every situation, but I suspect it’s a bit of a numbers game with competitions. The organisers want to maximise the number of quality entries they can read, and subsequently the number of promising writers they get to meet.

For argument’s sake look at it this way; in one hour they can read ten short plays, or one full-length.

But how does writing short plays benefit us as writers?

First of all, it’s great practice. With a short play you need to tell a cohesive and engaging story within a limited timeframe. There’s no room for waffle, there’s little scope for spewing forth grand ideas, there’s just enough space for a good story. Writing plays is, first and foremost, the art of telling good stories.

You can write a whole bunch of short plays in the time it takes to write one full-length. This gives you the opportunity to develop the skill of telling powerful stories. I always find the restriction of telling a story in ten minutes forces me to focus on exactly what I need to say, and nothing more. All extraneous dialogue will be cut, every tenuously linked subplot is scrapped and the characters are kept to the barest minimum because there’s no room for extra development.

I won’t say it’s less challenging than writing a full-length, but writing a short play is definitely a different sort of challenge. Once you start writing longer pieces you’ll realise your storytelling skills and understanding of structure have to be absolutely on point or you’ll get lost. Writing a full-length means you have far more creative leeway, you have the scope to go anywhere and let your story twist and turn to your heart’s content. You can also go a lot deeper into complex issues in a long play.

A full-length play also needs to tell a coherent story, it needs to feel like a single piece of writing, it has to gel from beginning to end. This is a whole new challenge, and it requires the kind of storytelling instincts you can develop writing short plays.

Of course, writing short plays isn’t the only way to develop great storytelling skills. I’m sure there are a ton of writers out there who jumped directly into the full-length arena and kept slogging away until they slayed that particular beast.

However, I will say writing short plays is possibly less painful, and I think it’s probably a faster route. I’ve spent months working on a full-length before realising I had no idea what I was writing about. That’s a pretty crushing experience. The reason that happened to me was because I didn’t have a very well developed sense of what makes a good story at that time.

I’ve been in exactly the same situation writing short plays, but I’ve probably only wasted a week or so on each aborted endeavour. This allows me to take more risks and be a lot more experimental without losing a lot of time.

So you can write more short plays – great, but theatres want full-lengths don’t they?

Not necessarily always. Most of the competitions you’re talking about are run by or with a theatre. As I pointed out above, a lot of theatres want to meet playwrights. Short play competitions are a way for them to make contact with talented writers.

There’s nothing stopping you from writing a full-length play and sending it out to every theatre in the land. However, it will probably go to the bottom of a large pile of unsolicited scripts, so your odds aren’t great. Unless you know someone at the theatre. How do you get to know someone at the theatre?

Stalking is always an option. You could chloroform them and tie them up in your basement until they agree to read your play. Kidnap their prize-winning labradoodle and hold it hostage with a rehearsed reading as ransom. Disguise yourself as their nanny a la Mrs Doubtfire and tell them all about this great new playwright you stumbled across.

But all of those suggestions are clearly insane and highly likely to result in prison time. Or at the very least, community service. So don’t try them. And if you do try them, don’t tell anyone you got the idea from me.

You’re far more likely to be successful if you just send in a worthy entry to their short play competition. I would definitely recommend this route, and just to help you out (and shamelessly plug the column), here’s another blog post about deciding which competitions to enter.

Once you’ve entered a few short play competitions and made a bit of noise, you’re in a much better position to send a full-length to your new contacts. Your script is no longer unsolicited, you’re a known entity. They liked your short play so they’ll probably give your full-length debut a look on the strength of that existing relationship.

I’m not trying to sell the short play route to you as a shortcut or a back-door to success. It isn’t. You’ll still have to work really bloody hard and drag the most intriguing and spellbinding stories possible from the depths of your brain. I do think it gives you an advantage in the numbers game though. You can build up a bit of a rep, get your plays in front of a few audiences and theatrical gatekeepers, and make valuable contacts within the industry.

You’ll also be able to develop your storytelling talent while concentrating your efforts on specific goals and experimenting with different styles of theatre.

Don’t forget, the people putting on short play competitions want to meet playwrights. You want to be a playwright, which means you want to meet them. Invest a little time in writing short plays for worthwhile competitions and you could find it does a lot for your career.

At the very worst you’ll have written more, which is the only surefire way to improve.

A short play can also be a great way to explore whether an idea’s strong enough to carry a full-length play. Write it as a ten minute piece, get the bare bones of the story down, see how it plays, and then decide whether you want to invest the time in making it full-length. Think of it like a testing ground whereby you try plays out to see which one has the most potential.

The ultimate answer to your question is to do both. Full-length plays are the dream for most of us, you don’t really get into the Playwrights Hall of Fame without at least a few notable plays of length under your belt. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore short plays. Writing concisely is a great skill to have, and not every idea merits a two-hour epic. Some stories work best in ten minutes.

I find the odd short play increasingly satisfying to write. They can be a lot of fun and also give a more immediate reward than the months or years it takes to write a good full-length. Plus, as you say, short plays are a lot easier to fit into a busy schedule, so you can use them to keep your skills sharp when you don’t have the time to commit to a large project.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

Pursued By A Bear: “My fringe show failed. What next?

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Hi Adam. So I finally took the leap to put my show on in the fringe. (I won’t say what or where, and I guess I just have to hope you won’t google me.) I cleaned out my savings account and used nearly all of my holiday time to make it happen. I’d been working on the play for years and I really believed in it. But if I’m being honest, it was a total flop. The critics (at least the ones who came) hated it, and the industry people I invited won’t write back to my emails. I saw some of my family at a wedding over the weekend, and they were making jokes about it. I laughed it off, but honestly, I’m gutted. And broke. I thought this was going to be my big break (naive, I know), but it seems like it was all a big mistake. I still want to be a writer, but I used up all my resources, and don’t know if I’d have the heart to try again. Where do I go from here?”

I’ll start with a great quote from Albert Einstein; “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Whether Einstein said this or not (because I’m never quite convinced with these online quotes), the sentiment remains perfect.

Failure is part of the learning process. Wanting to succeed at something doesn’t necessarily affect your failure rate. However, it does affect how likely you are to keep trying after a failure. If you really want to be a writer you shouldn’t let this setback stop you.

Einstein himself struggled to gain initial momentum in his career as a physicist, working as a patent clerk for two years after graduating because he couldn’t secure a teaching post. He didn’t give up though, and of course eventually went on to become one of the most influential people to ever live through his revolutionary work in physics. He also now holds the dubious honour of having more inspirational internet quotes falsely attributed to him than anyone else in human history.

The short answer to your question is simple; carry on. Put this play behind you and start writing something new. Get back on the horse. And do it today.

I don’t care if what you write is pure nonsense, just make it fun. Start writing whatever comes into your head if you don’t have any ideas lined up. You don’t have to use what you write, it doesn’t have to be good, you just need to enjoy it. Put the last one out of your mind and have fun writing for a while.

It doesn’t feel like it now, but in time you’ll get over your disappointment. Once you start to get a bit of distance and the emotions have died down, I’d suggest going back to the unsuccessful play. Pretend it was written by someone else and imagine yourself as an audience member. Analyse that shit. Try to figure out why it didn’t work.

Was the message you were trying to get across strong enough? Were your characters unique? Were their motivations believable? Was the plot original? Was the dialogue engaging? Were their dull moments? Did the story keep moving forward?

Ask yourself all of the above questions and try to pinpoint exactly where you went wrong, in your opinion. If you spot a gaping plot hole or a dull character which is dragging the whole thing down you might be tempted to start rewriting it instantly. Don’t do it; put the play away in a drawer and come back to it in a year if you still think you have something important to say on the topic.

I honestly think sometimes we set out to write plays which require skills we don’t yet have. If an idea is vital but you haven’t managed to do it justice you might not be ready for it. Put it to one side until you’ve got another couple of plays under your belt then come back to it. I’m always surprised how easily I can spot problems when I revisit an unfinished draft from a few years ago.

A key piece of advice I’ll give is not to dwell on the critics’ reviews or remarks you overheard from audience members. It’s sometimes difficult to let that shit go, but you really have to, it will never do you any good. Some of it may be constructive criticism, but coming from strangers it’s very difficult to separate the helpful stuff from the throwaway comments.

Remember, a lot of critics tend to use hyperbole in negative reviews for effect. They want their reviews to read well, and saying “I was a little bit bored in the middle,” isn’t as interesting as saying “I desperately wanted to gouge my eyes out with a Peanut M&M.”

At least that’s what I always tell myself.

I wouldn’t worry too much about your family members laughing either. If the play really went down that badly you need to understand it’s probably awkward for them too. I’d say it’s better to all have a laugh about it than have them shower you with embarrassing sympathy and pats-on-the-back. Or even worse, watch them do their absolute best to avoid talking about it altogether.

I once had a chat with a friend after a show of mine she clearly hated, and in a misguided attempt to say something nice all she could come up with was; “I really liked it, yeah, the part with the – that was great, well done you. And the actors did so well remembering all those lines. Had a great burger before the show too, so that was nice. You look like you need a drink, I’ll get the drinks in.”

I would have honestly preferred if she’d said; “Well that was a pile of shit.” That would have nicely cleared the air and we could have moved on knowing our friendship was based on mutual honesty and respect and I wouldn’t have had to delete her from Facebook or piss through her letterbox or disconnect the brake cables on her car.

In all seriousness though, you can’t murder everyone who hates your work (however satisfying it might be). Putting a play out in the public domain inevitably opens you up to all kinds of feedback; positive, negative and indifferent. This is something you’ll have to learn to accept/ignore eventually. It’s probably better to learn that lesson early on than have it come as a big shock once you’ve got used to people saying nice things about you.

The other half of your question concerns using up all your resources taking the show to the Fringe. I don’t want to trivialise this, but in my experience it’s easier to recover financially than emotionally after an experience like this.

Pragmatically speaking, you managed to gather the funds for this show so there’s no reason why you can’t do it again. You said you used up all your savings and holiday, which tells me you probably have a job. The next Fringe is almost a year away so start saving again if that’s what you want to do.

My suggestion would be to learn as much as you can from this experience. If you’re not happy with the amount of money you lost on this show look into other sources of funding next time. Speaking from experience, taking a show to Edinburgh is expensive and exhausting. With your next show it would be worth trying to test it somewhere closer to home, even if just for a single performance, before going up to the Fringe. Once you have a script start looking for opportunities, however small, and see how the play works.

A test run will give you the chance to see how it plays in front of an audience. You’ll then be able to fine-tune things before going to the Fringe.

Another option is to approach producers or companies with your script. If they decide to put the play on they’ll do a lot of the work in terms of securing funding and organising all the logistical aspects, leaving you to stick to the writing and continue honing your craft.

Self-producing can be a fantastic way to showcase your work as an unknown writer. At the same time, it requires a huge amount of self-belief, organisation and a thick skin. Not everyone is cut out to do everything, ask yourself honestly if you’d be better off taking a back-seat once the writing is done.

Audiences are unpredictable, artistic merit is subjective. Putting all your resources into an untested show at the Fringe was a big gamble. This time around it didn’t pay off. Learn from the experience and do things differently next time. You’ll become a stronger writer, and a stronger person.

 

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

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Pursued By A Bear: “What’s the best day job for a recent graduate who wants to write?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Hi Adam! I’m just finishing at Uni and I know I want to be a writer. I also know that it’s probably not realistic for me to expect to make money doing this for a while. I’m looking for work, but haven’t decided what’s best to support my writing. What do you think is the best day job for someone who wants to be a writer? Thanks!”

This seems like a really difficult question to answer at first glance because there are millions of different types of jobs out there. You’re ambitious, you’re young, you’ve got a degree; you should be able to take your pick in the job market.

However, in reality there are a number of limiting factors to your job search. You’ll have to consider how you want your day job to relate to your writing (if at all). You’ll have to decide if the day job is just to pay the bills while you gamble your entire future on writing plays, or if you want a Plan B job which gives you a fall-back career in case the writing doesn’t pay off. You’ll have to decide if you want extra networking opportunities from the day job, or if you’d prefer to keep it separate from your theatrical identity.

Then there are factors which are beyond your control, to some extent at least. In a highly competitive job market, with more graduates than ever before, it’s unlikely you’ll be privileged enough to walk right into your ideal position.

So what’s an aspiring playwright to do?

A popular choice of day job for people looking to work in any creative area of theatre is the front of house route. Working for a theatre makes sense right? If you have to earn money to put food in your mouth, you may as well make contacts and see shows while you’re there.

There are obvious advantages to working in a theatre; you’re in the thick of it, you’ll meet people and get opportunities you simply wouldn’t have access to as a barman in your local pub. If you want to make it as a playwright you’ll also want to watch a lot of plays, and if you’re working in a small theatre you should have the opportunity to do so, either for free or heavily discounted.

Another advantage to working in a theatre is that the hours are generally fairly flexible, and the management tend to be understanding (from what I’ve heard) when you get a last-minute opportunity and need a day off. Also, you probably won’t be doing a lot of writing for your day job, meaning you’ll be saving all that creative energy for writing at home.

So working in a theatre sounds ideal right? It depends. If you’re willing to gamble your entire future on the success of your writing career, yes, it’s a pretty good option. But what about those pragmatists among us who want to hedge our bets? If you don’t succeed as a writer, does a supporting role in theatre offer a job for life? Is it secure employment? Can you see yourself happily selling tickets for the next forty years? What about career progression? How much will you earn at the top end?

Obviously money isn’t everything, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking this route. Have confidence in your writing by all means, but at least consider the fact it may not work out. What will you do at the age of thirty-five when you realise you’re just not making it as a playwright and your only other skill is pouring a large glass of interval wine?

The alternative to working in theatre is working absolutely anywhere else. The immediately obvious drawback to this option is that you won’t get any of the networking opportunities you would have working within the industry. Does that mean you should discount this route though? I personally don’t think so.

Working in another industry has its own benefits too. You’ll have real-world experiences and meet everyday people, both of which can be great sources of inspiration when you sit down to write at the end of the day. I’ve also found personally that not thinking about theatre at all during the day gives my brain a much-needed rest, and I can attack the page with renewed vigour when I do have some spare time to write at home.

If you choose your alternate career wisely, you may have more opportunities in terms of career development as well. There’s no reason you can’t have a successful career in banking, marketing, fundraising, bricklaying or any number of other professions as well as writing plays. As long as you’re motivated enough to keep writing outside work it’s a definite option. If you do become successful as a writer you can always put your other career on hold or drop it completely.

Depending on the alternate career path you choose, you may also earn a lot more than you would selling interval ice creams. Again, while money isn’t important to everyone, consider whether you might want to get married, buy a house or even just own a reliable car in a few years’ time. There’s no guarantee you will be able to do these things whichever job you get, but if a comfortable lifestyle is important to you make sure potential earnings are part of your decision making.

Also, you always have the option of investing some of that hard-earned cash back into your theatrical projects down the line.

Of course, there are downsides to working a full-time job too. You may have to work extremely hard to carve out a career in your chosen field, making it difficult to muster up the energy for your writing job after-hours. You may find working overtime, socialising with colleagues and answering emails at home all eat into your writing time. You may end up hating the job you take and find it slowly eats away at your soul until one day you find yourself staring down into your breakfast cereal contemplating whether the milk’s deep enough to drown yourself in.

I guess what I’m saying here is if you decide to pursue a second career outside of theatre, give it some serious thought as to what you do. Consider whether you’ll get any enjoyment or satisfaction from working in this field. Think about whether you’ll be wanting to do this in thirty to forty years’ time. Investigate potential career progression and top-end earnings in the industry. And of course, be realistic; are you qualified, and are they hiring?

There’s one more thing that’s definitely worth thinking about if you’re looking for a second job, either within or outside the theatre industry; do you want to write in this job? There are two schools of thought here. The first group believe that all writing of any kind counts as practice, whether you’re writing a storyboard for a promotional video or a health and safety risk assessment for erecting a scaffold.

Then there are those who believe you have a limited amount of creative energy at your disposal which has to be carefully protected. This group of people insist any kind of writing done during a day job will deplete your reserves and leave your creative tank empty by the time you sit down to write at home.

Personally I don’t have any issues with writing at work. I work in marketing and, while what I’m writing isn’t always that creative, some imagination has to go into it. I am generally creating something out of nothing, even if it’s writing content for an instructional webpage. At the same time, I don’t really think of my work as good practice, because although I’m writing, it is different enough to be almost totally unrelated to writing a play.

You’ll have to make up your own mind on this one.

In conclusion, this is a big decision to make and I have to urge you to put some serious thought into it. However, we do live in an age when people seem to change jobs and even careers at the drop of a hat. Don’t let this keep you awake at night, weigh up your options and make the best choice for you now. You can always change course later.

The one thing I will say is that you should try to pick something you can tolerate at the very least. Waking up filled with dread at what awaits you in the office will shorten your life and make you miserable. And depression isn’t the best state of mind for creative writing either.

Just remember, you don’t have to love your job, but you do have to keep going.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

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Pursued By A Bear: “Theatre seems pointless when the world is falling apart”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I don’t know what is going on in the world right now. Every time I look at the news it seems like something horrible has happened. I feel like I should use this as inspiration to write, but I just feel really depressed. What’s the point when there are people dying?” – Too Sad To Write

The stereotypical writer everyone likes to joke about is riddled with angst, furious at the world, unlucky in love, poverty-stricken and struggling with addiction to gambling, drugs and/or sex. Writers are manic-depressive shutaways who can’t bear to look a fellow human being in the eye for fear of witnessing more of humanity’s deepest, darkest and dirtiest depths.

By nature, we are observant people; whatever we’re writing about, we are indefinitely providing commentary on the world around us and its troubles. I’ve heard some writers describe their vocation not as an art form but as a coping mechanism which gives them the mental fortitude to keep on living in this crazy world.

It’s fascinating stuff. But how do these singular auteurs find the motivation (or the time) to write about any of this?

I have to say you’re not alone, we all get a little down sometimes. The world just seems too fucked up to bother with; you switch on the news only to discover there’s still a war in Syria, half of Italy’s been flattened by an earthquake, every celebrity from the 80’s is a paedophile, and Chelsea have signed David Luiz again.

Can it get any worse?

Yes it can. And it invariably does. Disaster is replaced by new disaster, the lowest act of humanity you can imagine is soon driven from memory by some shit that’s even more depraved. Nature gets angrier, politicians get more contemptible, train tickets get more expensive. Depression seems like a perfectly rational response.

You try to pick an abominable story from the endless stream of shit floating past your window, only to find it’s surpassed by something even more hideous the next day. And who wants to hear about all this heart-wrenchingly depressing crap anyway? Not me.

People are dying. They die all the time. They’ve always done it, since the dawn of the human race. When you think about it, what does anything we do mean against the backdrop of death and despair that is everyday life?

And what does a play about death and despair matter if people can just turn on the news and see genuine death and despair in their living rooms? Why do we need theatre to remind us how shitty everything is? Just look out the window.

The bad shit that’s happening in the world doesn’t inspire me, not by itself. What’s inspiring, and what makes for great theatre, is finding the little moments of dignity, the small triumphs and the moral victories that grow in the midst of all that death and despair.

If you’re feeling depressed watching people on the news who’ve lost everything, imagine how those people feel.

From your position of relative happiness, you owe it to them and to yourself to write something. It doesn’t have to be uplifting, it doesn’t have to move mountains or reshape the political landscape, it just has to acknowledge the fact we’re all human. We’re in this together.

An earthquake in Italy isn’t inspiring in the least, it’s horrific. The inspiring thing about that earthquake is a rescue team finding a ten year old girl alive in the rubble after 17 hours. In order to make a play out of tragedy you need to find the part of that story that gives you hope. Even if that hope is like a single strand of a spider’s web, with the weight of humanity hanging from it.

Remember, people want to ascribe a meaning to everything in life, especially to the tragedies which touch us.

James Cameron chose to focus on two people meeting and falling in love on the Titanic; even though one of them dies at the end, their human connection makes it worth watching the deaths of hundreds of unwitting passengers. The love story may seem like a cliche, but it’s been used successfully to bring a glimmer of hope to tragic stories throughout human history, even if the love is lost as in Titanic.

It’s about finding the moments of humanity that exist within every tragedy. No matter how horrifying an event is, we like to believe someone involved has acted with dignity, someone has helped their fellow man, someone has managed to pick themselves up and keep going, someone has put themselves at risk for a belief.

In reality this isn’t the case; there are plenty of incidents out there which feature nothing but deplorable behaviour by inexcusable people who feel no remorse. If we accept that, we’ll probably go insane with grief at the sorry state of humanity.

We need stories to have meaning; we need them to be resolved and for that resolution to lead to some kind of positive outcome, however small.

This is why we tell each other stories, it’s a way of making sense of the world. A way of preventing ourselves from giving up, sitting down in the middle of the living room and refusing to move until we crumble into dust.

Depression isn’t a reason to write, despair isn’t motivation, death isn’t inspiring.

Dignity is a reason to write. Hope is motivating. Perseverance in the face of tragedy is inspiring.

If all else fails, deluding ourselves into seeing imaginary good in every fucked-up situation is a surefire way to wake up with a smile. Whether writing or not.

Joking. Sort of.

Not every story has to have a happy ending. Or a happy beginning or middle for that matter. Stories just have to show us there’s a point to life. Because a lot of us aren’t convinced there is, and we could use a little help.

People are struggling everywhere all the time. This is life. When we go to the theatre or cinema or a bookstore, we’re not looking for someone to solve our problems, we just want to hear about someone else who’s gone through something; good or bad. They don’t have to have a happy ending, they don’t even have to survive, they just have to learn. They have to change, or they have to change their surroundings.

Even though most of these people whose struggles we witness aren’t even real or based on reality, knowing they’ve taken a journey makes us feel better. We’re inspired by their efforts to improve their lives. That’s why we sit in dark auditoriums, in front of TV screens and in quiet corners with ragged paperbacks.

Writing doesn’t have to be the solution to anything, but we’ve all read something which made us feel better about the world. We’ve all read something that gave us a kick up the arse or helped us see a situation in a new light. We’ve all learnt something valuable from a play or a film or a novel. At least I hope we have, or there really is no point.

The talent behind every great writer is an ability to ascribe meaning to life. Contrary to the popular stereotype of the angry writer I outlined at the beginning of this post, I think this makes writers admirable optimists. Writers see death, hatred and destruction everywhere they look but manage to find something worthwhile in every tragedy.

I don’t think the ability to find meaning comes automatically to all of us. I think maybe some of us get pissed off before we get reflective, some of us get depressed before we get hopeful. The difficult part is pulling yourself out of that mindset and forcing your brain to go looking for the point. With some stories you won’t find it right away, with some you’ll never find it.

The only tip I really feel qualified to give is you shouldn’t start writing until you’ve found the meaning of your story. Writing blind and hoping you’ll find something worth writing about along the way is setting yourself up for failure. Remember, the tragedy isn’t the part we need; we need the meaning. Finding the meaning is not only cathartic for the audience but for the writer as well, without it you’re just getting everyone down.

Start looking for a meaning in every story you see on the news. It doesn’t have to be a meaning that justifies the story or makes what happened worthwhile for everyone concerned, it just has to give a single person a reason to keep moving forward. That Italian rescue worker may have been losing hope, or even considering quitting, moments before finding that ten year old girl in the rubble.

Force yourself to look for the point in each story you think might be worth writing about. Sometimes you won’t find it, but when you do it will give you a reason to move forward.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

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Pursued By A Bear: “I’m trying to write my biog and it sucks”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I haven’t done loads, at least in my opinion, but more and more I’m doing things where people ask me for my biog. I really, really hate writing this. I feel like I’m bigging myself up, but if I try to underplay things then I look like an inexperienced idiot. I’m terrible at self-promotion. Any biog tips for people who hate talking about themselves?”

I know exactly how you feel. Writing your own biography feels like an impossible task; if you undercook it you’ll look like an amateur but if you overdo it people will think you’re a self-serving blowhard or assume you’re lying.

It’s especially difficult at the beginning of your career because you don’t have a lot of options. If you only put in the really impressive stuff your biog will be nothing more than a snappy one-liner. You’re forced to put in every little project you’ve done, which means trying to make that primary school nativity play sound like a professional job. Which it definitely wasn’t.

It’s cliched advice, but I’ve always thought honesty is the best policy when it comes to biogs. As a playwright on the upward trajectory of a fledgling career, people aren’t expecting you to have lit up the West End or written a monologue for Dame Judy Dench.

The key point to remember when writing your biog is that the vast majority of playwrights started out without a credit to their name. There are very few shortcuts; careers are built from nothing.

It’s okay to be inexperienced.

Don’t get caught up with struggling to pad out your biog or make every project look like The Phantom of the Opera. Depending on where you are, you may have some leeway to pick the best of the bunch from your past projects. In most cases you only need a couple of paragraphs or 100-150 words.

One rule I try to stick to is not putting in names of my plays. At this stage it’s likely the reader hasn’t heard of your play, so unless it was big enough to be easily googled you’re wasting words by including the title. Stick to the names of theatres you’ve performed at; “Laetitia Baines-Wolcroft has had her work performed at The Royal Court and Soho Theatre.”

If you’ve had work on in theatres people will have heard of it’s definitely worth mentioning these. However, a full run in a less-known theatre is probably more significant than a rehearsed reading of that ten minute monologue you wrote for writers’ night at the Old Vic. Use your own judgment to decide which projects to include and prioritise.

Another useful tip is to keep it factual. Write in the third person and simply list your accomplishments in straightforward language. Most people reading your biog will be sitting in the audience at one of your shows or a writers’ night and reading it from the programme solely to find out if you’ve done anything they might have heard of. If they don’t recognise any of your work it doesn’t really matter because they’re about to watch your new show.

You’ll sometimes come across a jokey, comedic or self-effacing biog from a writer. Although I have occasionally got a laugh out of one of these, I wouldn’t recommend writing one because typically they don’t serve the purpose of a real biog; to let readers know what you’ve actually done. In my opinion it’s best to save the jokes for the play and keep the biog factual.

Writing a self-effacing biog which pokes fun at your achievements can seem like a way to get around your self-consciousness at bragging. Don’t be tempted to take this route though because it can often be more transparent than you’d think. You run the risk of belittling what you’ve accomplished, and while it may not feel that impressive to you at this stage, to another aspiring writer in the audience you might be a superstar. Secondly, joking about your past work can sometimes come across as flippant, or worse, arrogant. You don’t want to alienate your audience with a misunderstood biog joke.

If you’re really cringing at the prospect of blowing your own trumpet in biog form, consider outsourcing. Hopefully most of you have other friends who write, or at the very least know someone with a GCSE in English. Why not make a you-write-mine-and-I’ll-write-yours deal with another playwright? You’ll often find your friends are more eager to talk about your work than you are, let them do it in biog form. Asking someone who enjoys your work to write a couple of paragraphs about it isn’t unreasonable as favours go.

This is a no-brainer but the absolute bare minimum you should do is have someone proof your biography. I don’t think readers will be judging your worth as a playwright by the projects you’ve done in the past, but people can be really fickle when it comes to typos. Don’t rely on whoever’s putting together the programme to proof your work because for all you know this person is an intern working two jobs on top of handling admin, social media, laundry and script-reading for the theatre. Ask someone you trust to glance through your biog before sending it off. If anything, you’ll look like an idiot if you spell the name of a theatre wrong.

Once you’ve written that first biography it becomes a matter of maintenance. Each time you do something new remember to update your biog. Weigh up your new project against what’s already in there and make a choice as to whether you bump something else off to make room. Sometimes this will be a difficult decision but don’t be tempted to keep adding projects. You don’t want your biog to snowball into a lengthy essay because it will inevitably be too long when you do need to submit it somewhere.

If you keep the biog around the same length and make regular updates you’ll find it becomes a much easier task. When someone asks for your biog you’ll have it ready. Just give it a quick once-over to be sure it’s still doing you justice and send it off. It’s a good idea to always save a new version when updating because you never know when you might want to revert to a previous one.

In the digital age it’s also possible to keep multiple versions. Say you write tense dramas and musical comedies, why not have a separate biog for each genre? This way you can tailor your profile to each audience. People interested in musical theatre may well be more interested in other musicals you’ve written than they are in your dramas. I realise I’m telling you to write multiple biographies when you’re struggling to write one but, as with most things, practice makes perfect.

The best piece of advice I can give is not to big yourself up or try to underplay things. Just be honest. Keep it factual, and remember most people reading your biog will be curious more than anything. Don’t think of the biog as a piece of evidence on which your value will be judged, it’s more of a signpost pointing to your work. The work is the part on which your reputation rests.

Keep the biog simple, don’t overthink it. Let your work speak for you.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

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Pursued By A Bear: “Should I limit scene changes to get my play produced?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Should I limit the number of locations in my play to avoid complicated scene changes?  I want to make sure my play gets produced, and I’ve heard that this can make theatres less inclined to put your play on (for budget reasons, etc.)”

We all hate the fact budget is such a huge issue in theatre. The purse strings of theatrical institutions are too often used as a garotte to strangle the last breath out of our creative instincts. It’s infuriating when a fantastic idea, a mind-blowing concept, is shot down with a cynical reaction like; “Where do you think you are? DreamWorks?”

The issue people tend to have with scene changes is that, generally speaking, scene changes and locations go hand-in-hand, if you’ve got more of one you’ll need more of the other. Recreating numerous fancy locations onstage costs money, you need props, you need backdrops, you need furniture, lighting, sound effects. Although you’ve only mentioned scene changes in your question, I’ll try to cover problems with multiple locations as well because they are really two sides of the same coin.

Budget’s not the only issue when it comes to extravagant scene changes. There are obvious physical limitations too; the audience are right there. There’s no possibility of cutting to another camera angle to hide the rough edges and create a seamless transition between locations. You can get a fancy lighting rig, you can pump smoke into the auditorium from every angle, you can design complicated sets with ropes, pulleys and new-fangled machinery to fling backdrops and furniture around.

The fact remains scene changes in theatre will always be a challenge. That’s part of the fun; you have to get creative.

Fortunately, there are ways of utilising your audience’s imagination to achieve wonderful effects onstage. You have to look at the lack of money on offer as an incentive to be inventive, rather than a weight on your shoulders.

Remember, it’s normally down to the director to plan out and implement scene changes. You can always describe how you envision a change happening, but it will ultimately be down to your director to find a solution that’s within budget. Good directors live for this stuff, so don’t panic that they won’t be able to do your vision justice. The beauty of working in a collaborative medium is that other members of the team will come up with brilliant ideas that never would have occurred to you.

Having said that, if you ever end up directing a piece of your own work, or even somebody else’s, the job of planning and creating scene changes will fall at your feet. At that point the following might come in handy. If the thought of directing your own work is as appealing as giving yourself acupuncture with a garden fork, it’s still worth paying attention because understanding what can be done physically onstage will allow you to be more creative in your writing.

Some playwrights will deliberately try to push their director by writing in particularly ambitious scene changes. It’s up to you how far you want to take this, I don’t think anything is impossible, but remember you want to inspire your director rather than demoralise them.

It’s become more and more common to use the actors you’ve already got on stage to move furniture and even backdrops around. This can save you time and money, and if it’s choreographed smoothly it can even become an enjoyable part of the performance. Have your characters wheel the sofa offstage, have them swing the set around to reveal another setting, have them paint the name of the new location on the walls in giant letters.

If you can’t hide the scene changes, make them into events.

You’d think there might be a limit to the number of scene changes you can get away with, even if you’re being super-creative. I remember watching The 39 Steps and being amazed at the number of changes of location crammed into the play. This is a great example of how you can use the audience’s imagination to create the sense of a fast-paced, movie-esque journey. A character’s luggage is quickly flipped over to become the bench seat of a stagecoach, a single door on wheels is moved around rapidly to simulate an entire house, actors simply start bobbing around on their chairs to create the impression of a moving train.

As long as the audience are invested in the story they’ll accept almost anything when it comes to scenery. Dim the lights and have your actor hold a metal rod vertically in each hand, you’ve got a prison cell. Turn the lights up really high and play some wave sounds, instant beach. Turn off all the lights except for a few roaming spotlights and dump scrap metal all over the floor, you’ve recreated the futuristic warzone from Terminator 2.

What I’m trying to convey here is that you shouldn’t avoid complicated scene changes just because you’re working in theatre. There are ways to make absolutely anything happen. The more creative you are, the more impressive it will be to your audience. And remember, sometimes the simplest tricks have the biggest impact. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked out of a theatre discussing the scene changes, they can even become a highlight of the play if you’re bold enough.

The second part of your question is more difficult to answer. Does being ambitious with your scene changes make a play less attractive to theatres? There are a lot of factors at play here. First of all, whatever you’re trying to achieve, there are a million different ways to do anything.

Let’s go back to our prison cell scenario from earlier; you could spend thousands of pounds building an exact replica of a cell from a maximum security prison, complete with sliding doors, stainless steel toilet and uncomfortable bunkbeds. Or alternatively you could create a couple of custom lighting effects which cast the shadow of bars and use sound effects to simulate the cell doors sliding open and closed. This effect could be accomplished in any theatre with a decent lighting rig and a talented designer. I’ve actually seen it done at the National Theatre in a Complicite production of Measure for Measure. This was the National, they probably could have spent a lot more on the set, but instead they used clever lighting to build an entire prison, to great effect.

I like to believe if a theatre really wants to put your play on, they’ll find a way to do it. There may be some compromises to make in terms of budget, they might want to strip things down to the bare essentials. If a scene change is essential to the story they should be able to find a way to convey it to your audience which is within budget. The question then is whether you’re happy with the solution.

Having said that, I always feel like there are a lot more plays produced which take place in a single location. Is budget the reason for this? It’s probably a factor. However, there are also dramatic reasons such as the classical unities. The theory is it’s easier to build dramatic tension by keeping your story focused in a single place and time. Scene changes can detract from the story by deflating the tension you’re trying to build. A lot of new playwrights get quite attached to the unities of place and time, trying to tell every story in a single location on a single day. Minimal plotlines are definitely fashionable and they conveniently happen to tie in nicely with low-budget theatre.

Is your play more likely to be produced if you keep the scene changes minimal? Unfortunately I think this might be the case. I don’t want to discredit any of the great theatres out there telling big stories in small spaces with tiny budgets. However, there are definitely theatres who prefer the tight, stripped-down plotlines of small, single-location, two-handers. If anything, I think your plays will have a wider appeal among theatres if you keep things simple.

If you’re at the beginning of your career you should also consider the fact you don’t have a lot of budgetary pulling power right now. Your name unfortunately doesn’t carry a lot of weight, you’re not a guaranteed audience magnet, so theatres will be less willing to put grandiose amounts of money into your pirate-ship-to-Buckingham-Palace-ballroom transition. In years to come, when you’re a great success you’ll be able to write in whatever you want and someone, somewhere will find a way to pull it off.

Finally, if you do have a complex scene change which you feel might discourage theatres, you can always suggest ideas in your stage directions. If you’ve envisioned a smart and simple way of conveying your interstellar spaceship’s warp-speed black hole jump through time and space, by all means let the theatre know it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.They may not even use your idea in the end, but providing an example of how it could be done may convince them to give you a shot.

There really are no limits when it comes to the human imagination. Don’t let concerns over budget stop you from writing something fantastic if it’s essential to the story you want to tell. At the same time you need to be mentally prepared for what a director might do to your spellbinding moment. If the mind-bendingly vast and beautiful cityscape in your mind is reduced to an actor gazing out of a black box with an expression of gratuitous wonder slapped on his face, so be it. At least your play is on.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

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Pursued By A Bear: “I can’t make sense of five-act structure”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Do I need to know about the traditional 5 Act Structure in order to write a good play? Is it ok to break the rules? I keep trying to read articles and books about this but I just end up bored and confused. Does this stuff actually matter?  Thanks!”

For those of you who don’t know, or who’ve got bored and confused, the five act structure is a construct you can use to analyse or create works of literature. It can come in very handy when you reach a point in your story and find yourself unsure of what should happen next. A lot of people use the structure in the planning stage to map out their plot, the idea of which is to ensure the events of the story flow towards a meaningful conclusion.

Think of the play like a journey; your characters are the travellers, your plot is what happens along the way and your structure is the road. You could write an infinite number of stories which take place along a similar road.

Because the five act structure is so versatile, it’s also a useful tool when analysing the works of others. Almost every film produced by Hollywood follows a predetermined structure, to the point where you can often predict how a film will end. Don’t think of this as a prescriptive or limiting template though, absolutely anything can happen within the confines of the structure. It’s really a way of making sure you hit a series of plot developments which, if used correctly, can add depth to your characters and story.

I’m still getting my head around this structure stuff myself, and there are so many different versions and theories behind it that it can get very confusing. For the purposes of an example I’ll try to stick to a very simplistic version. Forgive me if your knowledge is already beyond this point.

I’m using the film The Matrix* as an example to illustrate each point, mainly because I re-watched it fairly recently and can remember (fairly accurately) how the plot unfolds. If you haven’t seen the film this will be a good excuse to check it out. (*Spoiler alert – plot points revealed below.)

Act I – Exposition
This act is essentially where you set up the story; we meet your protagonist and other major characters, we see their normal situation and see that something needs to change. The protagonist needs to learn something about themselves or their situation in order to resolve a problem. The protagonist is given an opportunity to see outside their normal world at some point during this act, which they need to take (or there will be no story…)

Example: In The Matrix we see Neo at his mundane office job, getting berated by his boss. He thinks he is special but his boss is convinced otherwise. Neo receives a phone call from Morpheus who tells him to hide from the agents who have come to get him. Neo makes the decision to do as Morpheus asks, even though he doesn’t succeed in escaping.

Act II – Rising Action
As a result of your protagonist’s decision in Act I (see above), stuff will now happen. This can be absolutely anything as long as it is the direct result of a choice made by your protagonist. Your protagonist will mainly be reacting to events at this point, they are getting to grips with the new world they’ve been dumped in as a result of their choice in Act I. Eventually though, the protagonist will have to make a choice which fully commits them to a course of action, this choice will propel them towards the ultimate conflict of the play.

Example: Neo is caught and interrogated by the agents. After his release he meets Morpheus and takes the red pill which will show him “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Neo learns all about the matrix and receives his training. Morpheus takes Neo to meet the Oracle, Morpheus is captured by the agents. Neo makes the choice to risk his own life and save Morpheus. This is essentially what we in the business call ‘the point of no return’.

Act III – Climax
In this act your protagonist reaches the emotional peak of his/her story. There must be a moment of supreme confrontation which causes the character to learn a vital truth. The truth your character learns will allow them to find whatever was missing at the beginning of the play.

Example: Neo’s problem at the beginning of the film was that he felt like he was meant for something more than his humdrum existence, he felt trapped.. As he rescues Morpheus, Neo comes face-to-face with Agent Smith and beats him in hand-to-hand combat. Neo now knows he is The One. The thing Neo has learnt is that he’s in control of his own world (literally).

Act IV – Falling Action
This act should tie up any final loose-ends in the plot. Stuff will still happen, but we know it’s really all over once our protagonist discovers the thing they were missing or learns the vital truth they needed. To make this a satisfying story we need to see the manifestation of the new knowledge your character has; we want to see them using what they’ve learned to move forward.

Example: The story was really over once Neo was able to beat Agent Smith, from that point we knew he could achieve what he needed to achieve. However, to be satisfied with the story we still need to see Neo wrap it all up. With his new knowledge Neo is able to kill Agent Smith and escape the matrix, ensuring Morpheus is safe.

Act V – Denouement
Although it feels like everything is now finished and the events of the plot have been resolved, there’s still one thing missing; we need to see how the protagonist has changed as a result of their journey. This is often done by putting your protagonist back into that normal world we saw them in at the beginning and showing how their relationship with that world has changed.

Example: Now that Neo is able to control the matrix we see him in one final moment, back in the real world, sending the agents a warning; he’s coming for them. He is now in full control of his world.

Hopefully the above explanation is clear enough, and not too boring. As I said, there are many different theories behind the structure of storytelling. This version is based on Aristotle’s teachings and it’s so general as to fit almost any story. There are much more prescriptive theories taught in film schools which determine how and when each event in the plot should happen.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the five act structure means you have to write a super-long play with five acts either. You can write a ten minute play using the same basic journey. Character has a problem, character decides to change something, character experiences a series of challenges, character learns, character overcomes, character no longer has a problem.  You can apply this simplified structure to almost every (meaningful) story in history.

You’ve undoubtedly heard film terms such as ‘the inciting incident’ and ‘the second turning point’. It’s up to you how deep you need to go down this particular rabbit hole. I personally find that following a very detailed template stifles my creativity and I quickly lose interest in a story if I feel I’m not in control of where it’s going.

Aristotle’s version is loose enough to keep me creative while also giving sufficient direction when I get a bit lost along the way.

You need to decide how you want to use these kinds of structures in your writing (if at all). I’ve met some writers who plot the entire story according to five act structure before they start writing. Others will write the whole play and then go back to restructure things if they find the plot isn’t working. Then there are those writers who do everything by instinct and don’t even know what a denouement is; these people are still subconsciously structuring their work because they are still striving to take their audience on a meaningful journey.

I tried to show in my example above that the five act structure isn’t just about plot, it’s also a great tool to use for character development. Your protagonist needs to learn something during the course of the play for the story to have emotional impact. Characters learn by taking a journey. You put them in a situation, they fail, but they learn something. You put them in another situation, you show they’ve learnt something by having them react differently than they did the first time. Structure is the foundation of character development.

My thinking is that it’s helpful to be familiar with this stuff so that you can decide how and when to use it. If it never feels useful and you feel your plays are popping out of your brain with a ready-made coherent structure, just put the theory to one side and continue what you’re doing. If you feel there’s something lacking, your plays just aren’t hitting the emotional heights you want to reach, it’s definitely worth considering the five act structure as a way to strengthen your character and plot development.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

Pursued By A Bear: “How do I put sex onstage?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“How do you write sex for onstage?  Do I need to feel guilty about what I’m asking the actors to do?  And how do you know whether what you’re writing is awkward or hot?”

There are an infinite number of ways you might unintentionally divide your audience; your jokes might make some people cry with laughter while others just cry, a plot twist might astound some and dumbfound others, an emotional monologue might draw tears from half of them while making the rest cringe. But nothing divides people quite like a sex scene.

What you think is hot might be hilarious to someone else. You think it’s sexy, they think it’s shameful. You’re making it adventurous, they’re finding it depraved. You’re going for sensitive, they’re feeling awkward.

Sex is very difficult to get right.

And onstage it’s even harder.

As a writer, the first thing you need to ask yourself is “is this sex scene really necessary?” We often talk about every event in a play needing to serve the story, everything that happens needs to move the plot along. In my experience, sex rarely does this.

The fact two people have had sex may be integral to your story; maybe it breaks up a marriage, begins an exciting new relationship or is used as blackmail fodder by another character. But the act itself is rarely essential for the audience to see. When was the last time you thought up a vital plot point which could only be revealed during sex?

Okay, say your hero has a birthmark the shape of Gibraltar on his left arse cheek which the audience needs to see in order to realise he’s the long-lost son of your antagonist. Or maybe your play is the story of a woman’s sexual awakening as she realises she can only enjoy getting down if her partner is wearing a grizzly bear mascot costume.

In both of the above cases I’ll grant you the sex scene could be used to reveal important plot points. However, in both cases you could probably find a way around showing the actual sex. Your hero in the first example could step on stage fresh from the shower and drop his towel, revealing the critical birthmark. Your hero in the second example could be seen turning down a date with an attractive young man to pursue the class nerd after finding out he’s the one who wears the football team’s grizzly mascot suit.

Sometimes it might feel like sex is necessary when it really isn’t. Bear in mind you can very easily drop hints a sexual encounter has taken place without showing it. End the scene as your characters undress each other, have them wake up together or show one making breakfast for the other the morning after.

You could simply show a marked change in the way your characters are interacting in the next scene, have them be obviously flirtatious around each other in a way they never have been previously. Try adding in subtle physical cues to show fresh intimacy, such as finding excuses to touch one another or exchanging shy smiles. Audiences are generally smart enough to figure these things out.

What if the sex scene is absolutely crucial to your story and the play just won’t work without it? How do you make it convincing? Where’s the line between hot and awkward?

I don’t have a winning formula for this, I really don’t think any writer does. Anyone who’s ever watched porn knows it’s a real challenge to make sex hot for other people. When you’re doing it you might find it highly enjoyable, but what gets one person off is gross or sleazy or comical to another and there’s a real danger you’ll alienate the audience if they aren’t into what you’re into.

The way to make onstage sex convincing is to make your audience believe your characters are into it. Again, there’s no surefire way to achieve this. One tip I’ll give is to try and build up to it; don’t just have two characters drop everything in the middle of a conversation about mortgages and jump each other’s bones, unless you’ve been dropping hints in their physical interactions or language in the lead-up to this moment.

Once again it comes down to character motivation, there has to either be an attraction or some kind of ulterior motive (blackmail, getting even with dad, settling a bet or whatever) that’s driving your characters to get naked and touch each other. Your audience has to be able to see the attraction (or other motive) growing in front of them, they have to understand it and you have to build it to the point where it’s believable the characters will go through with the ultimate execution of that desire.

Once you’ve nailed the build-up your characters have to nail each other. How do you make this easy on your cast?

I’m not willing to name names here, but I’ve heard more than one woman say it’s a real challenge to convincingly fake an orgasm. And they’re generally just trying to do it in front of a single person, there’s rarely an audience seated in front of the bed, drinking overpriced wine out of plastic cups and eating Haagen-Dazs as they eagerly await the action.

This is what you’re asking your actors to do (assuming the sex in the play is supposed to be good, you might be writing about erectile dysfunction for all I know).

Actors are generally up for doing most things if they feel it’s important enough to the play. However, some actors won’t do nudity, and they’re entirely within their rights to refuse. If you know you’re going to be writing a sex scene let the director know early on (if you have a director attached) and they can try to cast someone who’s comfortable getting naked in front of a roomful of strangers.

If you’re trying to write something genuinely sexy I’d steer away from using too much dialogue. A lot of things might sound orgasmic in your head but I guarantee you’ll struggle to keep the audience focused if your characters start screaming “yes!” or “do it!” or “harder!” during the act. It’s generally a lot easier to maintain the mood without words. Grunting, panting and moaning can also be safely kept to a minimum. Your audience know what sex is, they know your characters are doing it, they don’t need a big neon sign like “great sex is happening right now.”

Your actors will also thank you because they won’t have to struggle through cheesy sex talk with a straight face.

Some carefully choreographed movement which builds to some sort of climax will be enough for us to conclude some good lovin’ is occurring. You can always reinforce the quality of the sex afterwards. A popular movie trope for emphasising good sex is to have the characters immediately jump into round two. Maybe you don’t want it to be good for your characters, in which case have one of them promptly light a cigarette, make a phone call or slip out a disparaging remark.

In fact, while we’re on the subject, a lot of times sex isn’t supposed to be good. Maybe you want to write a shocking sex scene or one that’s traumatic for one of your characters. I won’t go into too much detail on this as you didn’t’ ask about it in your question, I’ll just say there’s a really, really thin line between shocking and disgusting an audience. If you make things too explicit you can very easily put people off. That’s not to say you should shy away from explicit or even violent sex onstage, but it’s important to be sensitive to your audience’s feelings. If you go too far and lose their confidence it’s extremely difficult to get them back on-board.

It’s difficult to know whether a scene will be awkward without putting it in front of an audience. However, you can get some clues from the actors in rehearsal; if they feel awkward acting it out it’s likely the audience will feel awkward watching it. Again, this comes down to making sure the characters’ motivations are clear to your actors. Why are these characters having sex? How do they feel about each other? How does this scene affect the rest of the story?

As with any scene, there are an infinite number of possible manifestations of the written words, so if you want the scene to be played a certain way you might want to state this clearly in the stage directions. If the sex is supposed to be a spontaneous, comical, rough-and-ready fumble between two office workers in the stationery cupboard, make sure this is clear. Too much room for interpretation could result in mood lighting, dry ice and graceful lovemaking, which completely ruins the joke.

They say sex sells but it’s actually extremely difficult to sell it to an audience in the theatre. To summarise, try and avoid sex altogether (in your writing, anywhere else is not my business). If you can find another way to convey the information in your intended sex scene, always take the other route, unless you’re confident you can write an amazing sex scene which offers something unique to the play. If you can’t find another way, and absolutely have to rub your characters against each other, keep the chit-chat to a minimum and make sure your motivations are bulletproof.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it!  Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license