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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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