Pursued By A Bear: “How do I know which competitions are worth my time?”

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 read the roundup every week and it’s really useful to hear about the opportunities out there.  But I have a question about this.  Lots of competitions ask for plays on specific themes/genres. Is it a waste of my time to write something for a brief like this when I might not win?”

I can see how it might sometimes seem like a waste of time to write something specific for a competition. Especially if it’s a subject or genre you have absolutely no interest in. Why should you spend time on a script you’re not really invested in when it might not be selected anyway? What’s in it for you?

And who are these people to tell you what you should write about? Why would they want to stifle your creativity with these lengthy application forms? How dare they dangle a prize in front of your face like a carrot to a donkey?

You could win a full production! Or a rehearsed reading! Or an unrehearsed reading! Or a handshake from the artistic director! Or a free drink at the theatre bar!*

*Prize of one free drink subject to purchase of a ticket for a show, excluding matinee performances.

Is it enough to enter a competition for the slim chance of gaining exposure? And do you even want the exposure if it’s for a play you don’t really care about that you only wrote to meet the criteria of a competition?

As with all things in life, it’s about weighing up the costs and rewards.

THE COSTS:

Writing a play for a competition will cost you time. Time writing it, time attending the production/reading if you win, time moaning about it if you lose. That’s time you could be spending on a play you actually want to write. Or time you could spend mowing the lawn, launching water balloons at your neighbour’s cat or building a life-sized replica of yourself out of papier mache.

It will also cost you creative energy. I’m not sure if everyone has a limited amount of this at their disposal, but I find myself starting to drag if I’m working on too many creative projects at once. If you’re like me you may need to put other things on hold to knock out a competition entry.

And finally, it will cost you a chunk of self-esteem if you don’t win. It’s one thing to write a play out of love and have it rejected by a theatre you’ve submitted to, but it’s a whole different level of bitterness that rears its ugly head when you specifically write the exact play they asked for and they’re all like “Actually nah, we prefer this guy’s play.”

THE REWARDS:

If you win, there’s an actual, tangible reward. In the form of a prize, which may well require you to do more work. Congratulations. Seriously though, sometimes the prizes in these things are amazing. A year-long residence with a respected theatre company? Yes please.

Even if you don’t win, you have a new play. Possibly a play you didn’t want, but whatever, it might be good.

Whatever happens, you got some practice in. Writers need to write, and if you feel a competition will give you the kick up the arse you need then it’s absolutely worth it. A deadline might be just what you require to get over your usual procrastination; “I could write something now, but I really want to know if I can strip this wallpaper with the power of my mind. There’s always tomorrow.”

You have the satisfaction of having risen to the challenge. Like most things in life (except winning), it’s the taking part that counts. You stood up and were counted. Maybe you didn’t win, but you gave it your best shot. No risk, no reward.

So where does this leave you?

Most of the time people weigh up the costs against the rewards they’ll get if they win. This doesn’t factor in the possibility you won’t win, and while it’s great to be positive and confident, it might skew your decision making.

If the rewards you’ll get without winning don’t seem worth it, you might reconsider entering if you feel there’s a more productive way to use that time.

For example, say there’s a competition to write a play about competitive angling with a fantastic prize of a year’s residency at the National Theatre. Considering you have no interest whatsoever in fish, boats, maggots, folding chairs or the drama inherent in sitting by a canal for hours on end, the rewards will be very small if you don’t win. You’ll have a play you don’t particularly like and the satisfaction of slogging through it. On the costs side you’ll spend a lot of time researching something you have no desire to learn about, then even more time writing about it.

But there’s another competition you could enter at the same time. This one is much smaller, with the prize of a rehearsed reading in a fringe theatre. They want you to write a biographical play about the turbulent life of accomplished actor, rapper and underwear model Mark Wahlberg; a subject you feel passionate about and have been researching obsessively since the days of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. You were born to write this play.

Would you go for the big money prize or settle for the little one?

If we weigh up the costs and rewards, it’s obvious you should go for the smaller competition. You’ll be writing about something you probably plan to write about at some point anyway, and you’re more likely to end up with a great play because you care about the subject. The prize is a lot smaller and the topic is ever so slightly more niche so less people will enter, therefore your knowledge and enthusiasm will shine through. And it won’t cost you as much time because you won’t need to go on a six week fishing trip as research.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s important to choose competitions carefully. They’re all worthwhile for someone, but they’re not all worth the work for you personally. Consider what you stand to gain, how much time it’s going to take you, and how else you could use that time. If you have another play in mind that you’re more invested in, I’d say the time is better spent on that than on a competition you’re entering purely for a chance of exposure.

At this point I guess it’s time for another dusty anecdote from the crumbling vault of my memory. Back in the distant annals of time when I wrote my first play I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I muddled through this huge mess of a narrative with a dangerous combination of boundless enthusiasm and blind faith, ending up with what I hoped was a decent first effort.

I had a huge sense of achievement when I finished the play, but this was followed by the crushing realisation that I had no clue what to do with it. I was also about to travel to Japan for two months and didn’t have the time to figure it out.

Entirely by coincidence a friend emailed me about Paines Plough’s Future Perfect scheme, so I sent in my play the day before leaving the country.

By the time I got back I’d completely forgotten about the competition, it was such a long shot I hadn’t really given it a second thought after submitting. It was my first play, I had no idea whether it was any good, what were the chances of this prestigious company wanting to work with me for a year on the strength of that?

So I was pretty surprised when Paines Plough called me in for an interview and gave me a place on their year-long scheme for young writers. I felt like I’d won the lottery.

No matter how unlikely it may seem, there’s always a chance you’ll win. So, despite everything I said above, if you really feel the prize is worth it sometimes you just need to swallow the costs and go for it.

The other thing about Future Perfect is that there were no restrictions on subject matter, genre or length. With these kinds of competitions there are less costs; you can submit a play you wrote years ago without writing a word beyond the inevitable application form. Competitions like that, which don’t require you to write a brand new play about fishing are generally worth a punt if you have a script lying around.

As you can see on London Playwrights Blog, there are a huge number of competitions out there. You’d be completely overwhelmed trying to enter even half of them. You wouldn’t have any time left to pursue your own work and the endless barrage of application forms would eventually drive you to insanity.

Competitions can give your career a massive boost. And they are valuable practice for that coveted future situation when someone commissions you to write about something specific for actual money.  It is useful for a writer to be able to respond to a brief, because very few writers attain the luxurious privilege of being able to write about whatever they want all the time. And you never know, years later you might be approached by a famous actor who loved your ode to Wahlberg and wants you to write their biography.

I hope I haven’t come across as being defeatist; of course there’s always a chance you’ll win, and you should absolutely chase that if the prize seems worth it. Just keep an eye out for the competitions that are worth the effort even if you don’t win.

They’re the ones you should always enter.

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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