Category Archives: Pursued By A Bear

Pursued By A Bear: “How do I keep my day job from killing my writing?”

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 can I hold down a full time job without letting my writing suffer?”

This is an issue I’ve touched on before so you may get some mileage out of this previous post which addresses the lack of time for writing while holding down a full-time job. As this is such an important issue for so many writers I’ll try to reframe the question slightly here and focus on ways to stay motivated while also working full-time.

I don’t think making a living as a writer has ever been simple. There are countless tales littered through literary history of those who’ve grinded through extreme poverty to carve out a career.

The modern writer seems to have evolved into a new beast. More and more of us have a second vocation, something to keep the clothes on our backs as we struggle to make a writing career pay. But it’s often more than that; we’re less keen to gamble in the way many of our predecessors did. Our day job is also our fall-back option.

If we never hit the big-time as writers we know we can make a decent living doing that other thing.

Is this a good thing? Yes and no.

Yes, because we can afford to feed and house ourselves.

No, because we’re not 100% invested.

It’s a difficult argument to make but I often find myself wondering if I’m really giving writing my all. My day job is pretty comfortable and secure, I enjoy it most of the time and I work with some fantastic people. If I had to stick with it until retirement in some form or other I wouldn’t hate life all that much.

If I didn’t have a day job, and had to make money from writing to survive, there’d be a lot more pressure. Not necessarily a good thing, but hear me out. A lot of the greatest works of art have been produced under enormous pressure. When we absolutely have to produce something in order to keep on living we don’t think about it, we just do it. No matter how dedicated we are, we can never get quite the same urgency if we know there’s a safety net.

Imagine you’re an alligator wrestler who’s just jumped into the pit with a fifteen-foot prehistoric beast. Nothing stands between you and a grisly, excruciating death but your wits and physical prowess. Are you focused?

Of course you are. You’re absolutely terrified, and that keeps the whole of your tiny mind entirely fixated on what’s about to happen. The rest of the universe has ceased to exist. You’re in the moment. You are going to win this.

Now, imagine your good buddy Ray’s standing on the edge of the pit with a great big shotgun. He’s ready to open fire on that monster alligator the second your pants turn even the slightest shade of brown.

What are you thinking about now? Are you focused on wrestling that alligator?

Probably not like you were before. Now little thoughts start to creep in; “I’ll be fine, Ray’s about to shoot this alligator the second I’m in trouble. I’m not going to die in this pit, even if I can’t wrestle the gator.”

You’re no longer 100% invested in what you’re doing, because in the back of your mind you know there’s a safety net. You know survival isn’t dependent on your success so you find yourself acknowledging the possibility of failure. In fact, you excuse yourself for failing before it even happens.

According to my extremely limited understanding of the complex field of psychology, thinking about failure makes you more likely to fail.

You become like the English national football team before their final group match in a European Championship; “Even if we draw this, we’ll still go through.”

What happens as soon as you adopt that relaxed, safety-net mindset? You go into that game without the pressure. And you promptly balls it up.

The question is, by having another job to take off the financial pressure, am I sacrificing my greatest psychological asset? I have no fear of failure.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to succeed as a writer. I love writing and would love to do it for a living. But is that enough?

I experience the effects of this dilemma on a much smaller scale each time I’m writing to a deadline. I find, without fail, that whenever I have a limited amount of time to produce something and there’s another human being eagerly awaiting its delivery, I consistently produce my best work.

When I have all the time in the world without anyone breathing down my neck I can sit at the keyboard for days without writing a decent line.

I need a bit of pressure to really get the best out of myself. But I don’t want to be poor, so what can I do?

I haven’t fully figured this out for myself but I’ll cover some techniques I’ve experimented with so far as a part-time writer. Maybe they’ll be useful to you or spark off some ideas of your own.

The following are examples of artificial pressure you can create on your own (or with a friend) at home.

Set yourself a fake deadline. Try setting a personal target of finishing a play by a specific date. It can be a meaningful date like your birthday or the day you leave for a holiday, or it can be arbitrary like the end of the month. Obviously a fake deadline isn’t as pressing as a real one, so you’ll need to set a penalty in case you fail to meet it.

“No trick-or-treating if I don’t finish this play by Halloween.”

“No shopping for a year if I don’t finish this play by next month.”

“Chop off a finger Yakuza-style if I don’t bash this play out before my trip to Japan.”

Make sure you stick to these punishments, or the deadline will be meaningless and you’ll fail to get the play finished.

Employ a writing boss. This is one I came up with all by myself. At work I have a boss who tells me what to do, and I invariably do it. I do it pretty well in fact. And I keep to deadlines. I started thinking about this perplexing phenomenon and came to the conclusion I need a writing boss. I need someone to set me deadlines, criticise my output (and appearance), keep track of when I clock in and out, give me a quarterly appraisal and approve my expenses.

Sadly my advert on Reed.co.uk requesting ‘Voluntary manager for part-time writer’ hasn’t attracted any candidates as yet. In the meantime my wife’s covering some of the manager’s work by regularly criticising my commitment and appearance. Unfortunately she refuses to sign off any of my expenses.

Seriously though, if you have a trusted friend or relative with the spare time and inclination to give you the occasional kick up the arse, take advantage of that resource. Employ yourself a boss. Just make it clear from the outset you’re not paying them and they don’t get their own office.

Strictly limit your time. This is like setting a daily mini-deadline. If you have all the time in the world it can be very difficult to get started, you don’t have that fire under your arse to get you moving. Don’t tell yourself “I’ve got all day Saturday to write, there’s no point grabbing an hour on Tuesday night, I won’t have time to get into the flow.” Sit down on Tuesday night, set yourself an alarm for one hour’s time and jump right into it. You’ll be amazed at what you can get done when the clock’s ticking.

The next few ideas are real pressures you can heap on yourself in your quest for productivity.

Enter competitions. Remember the point above about setting yourself a fake deadline? Competitions give you a real deadline, only instead of a punishment you have a potential reward at the end of the rainbow. Competitions can be highly motivating, plus you’ll sometimes get ideas for plays you would never have otherwise thought of in a million years. Choose wisely though, writing a competition piece about Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant is probably counterproductive if you have no interest in the topic.

Write about current affairs. I often find I can get a bit of urgency on when a contemporary topic gives me some inspiration. There’s a sense of having to strike while the iron’s hot; you have to get something down before anyone else, and before the story becomes old news.

Get a commission. Obviously this is easier said than done. But if someone’s willing to pay you actual, real-life money for your work you’ll find it can be hugely motivating (duh). Not only does the promise of cold, hard cash at the end of the road make you eager to get to work, you’ll also be spurred on by the fact someone’s eagerly awaiting your play.

Produce your own work. I realise this is essentially telling you to commit even more time when you’re already struggling to fit your writing in, but if you can convince a theatre to have you it will be a huge incentive to finish writing the play. Hopefully you’ll have a bit of money behind you from that day job to cover up-front expenses. If you can get a strong production team together you’ll be able to really focus on the writing, and as opening night looms you’ll have no choice but to get it done..

I hope what I’ve written above gives you some ideas. There’s no right or wrong answer, and I’ll say again I don’t think I’ve been writing part-time long enough to judge whether it’s a successful endeavour for me. In some respects it’s harder to get things done because you have so much less time and energy to dedicate to writing outside of your other job. On the other hand that lack of time can be highly motivating if you really want to continue writing.

Although I mentioned writers who have had to struggle through adversity, there have always also been comfortable writers; those who are funded by a spouse or an inherited fortune. These people haven’t had the pressure of potential starvation and homelessness weighing them down, and yet they’ve still achieved great things.

I guess in the end it all comes down to your character and how hungry you are. If you really, really want to be a writer, you’ll find the time and the energy to do the work. No matter what.

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 tell actors I’m recasting the roles they developed?”

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.

“My questions are: what kind of involvement in casting is appropriate from a playwright, and how much input should a playwright expect over casting, especially when working with major theatres? And how do I gently tell actors that I’m taking a play they’ve helped create on without them, or that I’m going to re-cast their roles, especially if they’re the only role being re-cast?

I’d prefer to be anonymous, if that’s okay.”

As a playwright it’s normal to feel some sense of loyalty to the actors and directors you’ve worked with. We often cross paths with fantastic people who put in maximum effort learning lines and attending rehearsals for little more than their expenses and a bottle of wine. This is the reality of working in theatre for many people as they first start out, and it’s difficult not to like people who work their arses off to make your play great.

When you start to get a bit of success the situation inevitably changes; you’re presented with more opportunities and (if you’re any kind of decent human being) you feel the urge to help those who helped you on the way there.

If you’ve had a play on at a fringe venue, or even just a reading, which has taken off and propelled you to that coveted next level, are you obliged to bring along the actors and director who made that success happen?

A lot of us feel we should at least try. These people have worked very hard for us with little reward. Their skills are part of the package we presented to the theatre that picked up the play. And often, in our minds, they have become the physical representation of the characters we dreamt up (even if we originally imagined them very differently). Although I read a couple of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels and had the image of the title character as a towering giant in my head, after seeing the film I now can’t imagine anyone other than Tom Cruise in the role (even though he’s clearly nothing like the physical description of Reacher in the novels).

Because of the highly collaborative nature of working in theatre, plays have a tendency to develop into mini communities. Bonds have been formed over your script and it’s very difficult to divorce the people from the words.

As usual reality has other ideas.

The larger theatre that has picked up the play likely has their own director they want to use. This director has a relationship with someone at this theatre, probably in a similar way you have a relationship with your actors. It’s easy to resent the fact you don’t get to choose your own director, but again, bonds have been formed.

This director who works with this theatre also has his/her own group of actors. They’ve worked together on previous plays or they trained together or whatever.

The first important thing you have to understand working in a collaborative industry like theatre is that everyone has people they want to bring up with them.  We all have people we’ve loved working with, people whose talent we greatly admire or people we owe a debt to for one reason or another.

Essentially, it’s natural for us to want to help our friends.

From this point on I guess (cynically speaking) it becomes a bit of a power struggle. Whoever has more control over the production ultimately gets to pick. The person in control tends to be the person with the more established career. If you’re a playwright who’s just starting out you will most likely lose this battle (if you choose to fight it) with a seasoned director who maybe has a long-standing relationship with the theatre or company.

Again, that director has hopefully worked very hard to get to that position and perhaps earned that privilege. You may not feel that way, and it’s certainly not always the case, but I try to be objective about these things. Later in your career, you may well find the ball’s in your court and you get to pick and choose whichever actors you want for your plays, overruling the choices of your up-and-coming director.

That doesn’t mean to say you should.

Actors you’ve worked with may be incredibly talented, awesome and lovely people but that doesn’t mean they’re the right actor for every role in every production. And remember, just because you don’t know the actors your director wants to cast doesn’t mean they’re not every bit as brilliant as your chums.

Don’t be like Tim Burton and try to cast Johnny Depp in everything you make. Maybe the two of you are bestest buds in the whole wide world, but for everyone else that shit wears itself out.

Of course, I will say if you absolutely, positively feel your mate Tristan is just perfect for a certain role in your new play you should try to make that happen. Unfortunately sometimes all you can do is get Tristan an audition, but if you’re right and he truly is the physical and spiritual embodiment of the character, your director will hopefully see that.

Now comes the awkward part.

If you’re unable to have any say whatsoever in the casting process, how do you let your actors and director down gently?

It feels like an awful thing to have to do. However, most actors will recognise it’s beyond your control. A lot of them will understand how these things work already, and if they don’t it’s a lesson they’ll have to learn at some point. The fact you’ve got this playing on your mind tells me you’re trying hard not to be a dick about it. At this moment in time a polite heads-up is technically all you owe them.

They’ve enjoyed working on your play, it’s given them a bit of exposure and they’ve made some new contacts.

It won’t feel pleasant for you or them, but if they’re really good people they’ll be happy for you. And beyond that they’ll understand (or come to learn) it’s not always possible to cast ideally for unpaid readings and development work. It’s very common to settle for someone, however talented they might be, who just isn’t right for the role. In these cases it’s only natural to recast when a professional production opportunity comes along.

Hold your horses though, although it may feel like it at this particular minute, all is not lost. I’m sure you don’t intend to stop writing plays after this run of early success. As I mentioned above there may come a day you have more influence over the casting process. In anticipation of that hallowed time you need to keep in contact with any actors and directors you feel are great at what they do.

Build yourself a network. Invite your people to things you do. Involve them in rehearsed readings of your new work. Meet up with them for a drink or cup of tea or whatever you want to do every so often. Befriend them on the social media and follow their antics. Go and see other readings or plays they’re involved in and hang around after for a catch-up. Recommend them to your other writer friends when they’re looking for actors.

It’s always worth keeping in touch with talented people. You might be able to give them a role in future. They might recommend you for something you otherwise would never have known about. If you ever do end up going down the self-production route you will need a pool of actors to cast from and an extremely reliable director whose judgement you trust implicitly.

The best thing about keeping a good network is that you’ll all be more invested in each other’s work. When you do end up working professionally together you’ll have a great relationship which will inevitably carry over into the rehearsal room. You’ll know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be able to create something far stronger together.

The industry as a whole isn’t loyal, but you can be.

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 political play feels like talking heads”

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 writing a political play and I’m struggling with dialogue. How do I make sure my characters sound like real people, rather than vehicles for the various opinions within my piece?”

A lot of people find politics boring because most politicians are just vehicles for their own opinions, at least when we hear them speak publicly. We very rarely see glimpses of personality, everything is filtered out by the joint machinations of P.R. and party policy. This is why politicians who display a bit of individuality, like Boris Johnson or even Donald Trump, gain more popularity than they perhaps otherwise should.

Of course, a political play isn’t necessarily set in the political arena. Politics encompasses pretty much any issue which has an impact on society. A play about a whaling ship off the coast of Japan can be described as political just as much as a play about a back-bencher in Westminster.

Political issues are by nature contentious, the things people feel passionately about inherently create a lot of drama. Just look at the current debate over Brexit. It’s become quite personal, and political parties are splitting almost down the middle.

But, at the same time, politics can be incredibly boring. There’s nothing worse than being lectured by someone about a topic you don’t know or even care about. And the stronger someone’s opinion on a political issue, the stronger their urge to ram it down your throat.

And the less coherent their argument.

People become so fixated on their own point of view they’re unwilling to even entertain an alternate viewpoint. There’s no possibility of changing their mind, and thus a debate becomes an argument, with neither side budging. It’s repetitive. It’s boring. And everyone gets a bit red-faced.

Drama is, in essence, the possibility of change. A character must come up against an opposing force and either the character or the opponent must change as a result. The excitement for an audience comes in anticipating which side will change, and whether for better or worse. This is why politicians are boring, we know they won’t change. Under no circumstance will any politician ever allow himself to entertain another point of view. I suppose they think it would make them appear as if they lack conviction.

Personally I think it would make them look a little more rational and human. But I’m not a politician.

So how do we show a political point of view without reverting to the politician’s unwavering barrage of spurious facts and transparent statements? How do we make politics dramatic?

Once again it’s a matter of remembering to show rather than tell.

Say you’re writing a play about the legalisation of drugs, you strongly feel that the current system of policing drug traffickers, dealers and users is failing. You feel it’s a massive drain on the country’s finances for little reward, and that locking drug users up does little to alter their future behaviour. You know you need to show two opposing viewpoints so you pick a person from each side of the debate and sit them in a room together.

One is a counsellor who works with addicts, the other is a policeman who wants tougher sentences for drug users. These two people disagree very strongly about a major issue. It should be dramatic, right?

But you soon find your characters stuck in a circular argument, neither will back down. They keep saying things like “Locking people up for drug use is wrong, we should be giving these drug addicts the help they need,” and “Drugs ruin lives, they are strongly associated with criminal activity and can cause long-lasting psychiatric disturbance.”

The problem here is we’re telling the audience what our characters think, instead of showing them.

How do we show a political point of view? It’s very tricky, the key lies in putting your characters in a situation which forces them to act in a way which reflects their opinion.

Instead of sitting in a room debating the merits and flaws of government policies on illegal substances, we need to force our characters to make choices which challenge their beliefs.

For example, at the beginning we see our policeman arrest a dealer who’s been selling drugs to kids outside a school. Maybe our policeman is particularly forceful or even violent towards the dealer, displaying his belief that the dealer deserves punishment. This gives us the opportunity to show the audience how the character feels about drug use.

However, our policeman later discovers his own son who he loves dearly is a heroin addict. This puts him in a very sticky situation because he believes drug users should be arrested but at the same time he knows his son is a good person who doesn’t deserve to be locked up. He’s forced to make a choice; does he stick to his principles and report his son, or does he try to protect his son and thus risk his career?

You can also show the opposite viewpoint by having the son do something benevolent, even if it’s as small as helping an old woman cross the street. This shows us that drug users are not automatically bad people, and you can achieve it with barely a word of dialogue.

By forcing a character to make choices and react to their situation you are showing what they think and feel without needing them to say it. You’ve heard the idiom “Actions speak louder than words,” this should be your mantra when writing a political piece of theatre.

Instead of telling us conflict diamonds are stained with the blood of African children, the film Blood Diamond shows us the ravages of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. Diamond smuggler Danny Archer is forced to choose whether to continue making money from illegal diamonds or help local fisherman Solomon Vandy rescue his son who has been conscripted as a child soldier. As a result Danny’s belief that his actions are not harming anyone is called into question and eventually he is changed by the situation.

If you stick to the “Show don’t tell” rule you can present a political point of view without any character in your play ever expressing it directly through dialogue. The key is to pick a situation which is going to challenge your character’s belief and then force them to make choices. Either they stick to their guns and get through it, emerging triumphant at the other end having resolved the problem. or they’re forced to consider new possibilities, change their point of view and come out the other side with a different perspective.

I’ll end by saying it helps to decide what you want the play to say at the very beginning of the process. Once you know the premise you can create the strongest possible situation to challenge your characters and show why your point of view is the right one (in your opinion). By all means have the political arguments in your head, but never fall into the bad habit of spouting them to your audience. Use your characters and your situation to show us why you believe what you’re saying.

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: “Any tips on getting into musical theatre?”

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 I get into musical theatre? I haven’t tried writing songs before, but I think I could do it.”

Dipping your toe into a new swimming pool can be daunting, especially if you’ve never had swimming lessons. It’s quite possible you could drown, or be bludgeoned to death by the frantically windmilling arms of a butterfly stroke aficionado. Thankfully, there’s no risk of death when trying out a new genre of play. Unless you type it on your laptop in the bath, which I wouldn’t recommend.

My very first piece of advice to you is to have a bit more confidence in yourself. If you think you can write a musical do you really need my backing? Without meaning to sound harsh, just go ahead and try it. Experiment. All you have to lose is your sanity. And you’re a playwright so that’s probably on the way out already if we’re honest.

If you find writing songs really isn’t for you by all means go back to writing verbatim theatre pieces about the fall of Stalinism. If you find you love doing it and can pen a decent ditty go ahead and write musicals until your brain drips out of your ears.

At the risk of writing the shortest blog post ever, and infringing dangerously on Nike’s copyright, just do it.

There are certain conventions you should make yourself aware of when writing songs. An awareness of the various structural components such as choruses, bridges and verses will come in handy. Study your favourite songs from musicals and elsewhere, pay attention to how they’re put together.

Structure can be a useful jumping off point as it gives you some restrictions. A good chorus should be infectious, which often means repetitive. People should be able to memorise the words very easily so it gets lodged in their heads almost automatically.

While a song doesn’t always need to tell a story or have a purpose, in musical theatre the music has to be an integral part of the narrative. This means the songs should move the story forward as much as the dialogue would in any other sort of play. The best songs in musicals give us a glimpse into a character’s frame of mind, they show us the motivation behind the character’s next course of action. Make sure your songs serve a purpose in the plot and also accentuate your character development at key points.

There’s also an expectation that at least some of the words in a song will rhyme. How you accomplish this is up to you, there are infinite rhyme schemes you can take advantage of. Listen to songs you love and pick apart the rhymes to give yourself an insight into how they work. You can even steal rhyme schemes from popular songs; as long as you change the words it’s unlikely anyone will ever notice. By the time different music is also added and the tempo changes you’ll have created something completely unrecognisable.

My top tip for those who are not able to compose and play their own music is to team up with an accomplished musician. It’s entirely possible to write an entire musical by yourself without ever knowing how the songs sound. But it’s obviously infinitely better if you can give it the occasional test run with a collaborator playing the songs live. Much like hearing a play read aloud by actors, this will allow you to pinpoint anything that’s not working and make vast improvements.

Without hearing any of the songs aloud you’re really going on blind faith.

A musician will also be able to make insightful suggestions because they have a greater understanding of the structure of music. They’ll be able to tell you what fits together, how you can transition from a verse to a chorus, when you have too many words in a bar and how to evoke emotions with a song.

You’ll also need to develop your understanding of music genres. If you want one of your characters to sing a mournful dirge about the death of her father it’s no good taking your inspiration from Happy by Pharrell Williams. You’ll want something slow and emotional like End of the Road by Boyz II Men or Candle in the Wind by Elton John. Always think about the most appropriate type of song for the emotion you want to put across.

As you’ve never done this before I would strongly recommend listening to a lot of music and watching a lot of musicals. There are challenges you’ll come across working in musical theatre that you won’t really encounter anywhere else. For example, you’ll need to think about how the characters break into song. It can be deeply unsettling if songs come out of nowhere in the middle of a conversation. Successful musicals often provide little clues to the audience when a song’s about to start. The music will start to build quietly in the background or a character will say a line which foreshadows the start of the song.

You’ll also need to consider the physical actions characters are performing during songs. There’s often some kind of repetitive task happening during the music which allows for physical action onstage without distracting from the words. You want the audience to listen to what your characters are singing, so try to find actions which reinforce the meaning of the song. For example, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Lumiere and the other supporting characters of the Beast’s castle are setting the table for dinner as they sing Be Our Guest. Don’t have your protagonist cleaning a toilet as she sings about wooing her love interest, unless you’re doing it for the comic effect.

One of the keys to writing a good musical is coming up with a story which lends itself well to the format. A lot of musicals heavily feature romance as this evidently makes for many great song opportunities. Don’t limit yourself though, comedies like The Book of Mormon and Urinetown have been phenomenally successful with outlandish and frankly ridiculous plotlines. You can write songs about absolutely anything, and if you can write a song about it you can write a musical about it.

In terms of breaking into musical theatre, I’m afraid I have limited experience. Look out for musical writing competitions and workshops as these do come up fairly frequently. The West End is always in need of new writers with fresh ideas so if you’ve got something that feels original it’s worth pursuing. Bear in mind musical theatre can be extremely competitive and there are a huge number of people passionate about breaking into the industry. If this is nothing but a passing interest to you I wouldn’t get your hopes up, there are people out there who would literally kill to have a successful musical staged.

A lot of the competitions I’ve seen have quite specific entry requirements. This is where collaborating with a musician becomes vital because you’ll often be asked to provide recordings of one or two songs from your proposed production as well as the script. Booking studio time can be very expensive so if you’re going to take this route it’s vital to get in a lot of rehearsal with your musician beforehand. By getting the songs polished in your own time you can save yourself wasting time, and therefore money, in the studio. Of course if you’re lucky enough to be working with a musician who has a decent home studio setup this won’t be an issue.

Whether your musical ends up being a success or not I’m sure you won’t regret putting in the time to explore the genre. It’s liberating for a playwright to throw realism and subtext out the window and have a character belt out their deepest desires directly to the audience. This is something we rarely get to do when writing more naturalistic plays.

Some of what I’ve said above may seem daunting at first glance but often all it takes is the confidence to try something new. Never be afraid to dip your toe in the water of a new genre. What’s the worst that can happen? You write a terrible musical and go right back to doing whatever you were doing before. If it’s that bad you don’t even have to show it to anyone.

On the other hand, you may fall in love with the genre and subsequently carve out an enduring career penning smash after smash.

Obviously as with swimming there’s a learning curve involved in writing musicals, but you can’t drown in a piece of paper so dive in head first and start writing if that’s what you want 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: “Should I accept I won’t break through as a playwright?”

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 am wondering at what point do I accept my limitations as a playwright? I have had a number of well received short plays and rehearsed readings in the last few years with some lovely compliments about my writing but when I send off full length plays to competitions and to theatres they don’t get very far. Sometimes some feedback that I write well, sometimes nothing.

I have done a play writing course which was fantastically helpful but getting to the next rung of the ladder seems impossible.

Any advice?”

A while back I answered a question along similar lines from someone thinking about throwing in the towel after ten years of writing. You may find some of my ramblings in that column useful.

I’ll try to approach today’s question from a different angle.

Constant rejection is enough to knock anybody’s confidence. As writers it seems like almost a rite of passage to be rejected so many million times before finally being acknowledged as worthy of passage to the next level. That hallowed place where you might actually be paid for your work. Maybe.

That little bit of positive encouragement you occasionally receive eventually begins to feel like a dagger stabbing you mercilessly in the spleen over and over again. If your writing is apparently so good there must be some other reason why no one will give you a shot. It’s only natural to start wondering if you need a new brand of deodorant.

Or is it fate? Are you just not meant to be a writer? Is it time to face facts and pursue your obvious destiny as a quality assurance tester at the paperclip factory?

We all fall into this kind of fatalistic thinking at some point. It’s depressing to be chasing a dream for years without seemingly getting any closer. And these ever-so-helpful-and-friendly theatre folks keep dangling it in front of your face like “I really love this play.”

Yet they don’t want to put it on. And you start wondering if that will ever change because you get the same response (if any) every damn time.

To me, the biggest problem here is that little bit of praise. I do believe it comes from a genuine place of encouragement and love; people within the industry do want to help aspiring writers, they do want us to continue writing and they do want us to be successful (eventually). Otherwise they’d have no plays to put on. But often simple praise does more harm than good.

Because it makes you think you’re ready.

Over the years I’ve developed an extremely high level of cynicism when it comes to praise. I don’t trust it. Why? Because praise is no use to me without some kind of accompanying justification.

You like my work? Tell me why.

You like it but you don’t want to put it on? Tell me why not.

Simply saying “This is great” does nobody any favours. It might be aimed at encouraging the writer to continue writing and not give up, but it’s really empty praise because there’s no “but…”

We need that justification. Otherwise we don’t know which way to go and we keep doing the same things and getting the same rejections.

The trouble is when you first start writing you probably have some of what they call ‘raw talent’, maybe you can write fantastic dialogue or create unique and memorable characters. You have to realise a lot of writers have this kind of talent.

I get told all the time that people love my dialogue. And I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging here, but I know this is the strongest part of my writing.

If I’m totally honest about it, I’ve relied on my dialogue too much. Consistent praise for the dialogue in my plays encouraged me to continue developing my style in that one area because I thought of it as my winning ticket.

“People love my dialogue so I need to focus on developing that even further, it’s like my trademark.”

But feedback which draws your attention to your strengths and ignores your weaknesses is useless, and can even be harmful.

Of course, I have to take some of the blame for this. I should have realised the fact everyone praised my dialogue meant that they didn’t like other aspects of my writing as much. I should have been developing and honing my other skills to be as strong as my dialogue writing.

Great dialogue alone will never make a great play.

A great play also needs unique characters, a captivating premise and a strong structure, among other things.

In writing, as in life, nobody naturally excels at everything. Football (or soccer, if you like) commentators frequently describe players as having “no left foot.” What they mean is that a player can only shoot or pass the ball with their right foot. It’s one of the hallmarks of a great player to be able to use both feet; it makes it possible to play on either side of the pitch, and to shoot from either side of goal without having to switch to their stronger foot.

Some players know this and consciously train their weaker foot every day. Others don’t bother, and subsequently never reach their full potential. They’re still good players, they have amazing talents in other areas and are able to play professionally but they’re neglecting a basic skill which could elevate their game considerably.

Find your weaknesses as a writer and work at developing them.

There are some skills vital to writing great plays which take an enormous amount of time and work to develop.

Using myself as an example again, I now realise story structure is likely my biggest weakness. I know I’m not alone here.

Although we as playwrights love to look down on Hollywood writers with their script templates and prescriptive terms like “The Inciting Incident” and “The Third Plot Point” there are reasons why these things exist. And all of your favourite films and plays have them.

There are a plethora of books, articles and PhD theses out there focusing on the structure of stories. A multitude of theories exist to explain why some stories keep us captivated and others bore us to tears.

Structure is real. And it’s out there.

Unfortunately there’s a misconception and, frankly, a bit of snobbery in theatre towards “formulaic” writing. We want our stories to be unique and organic, which is absolutely fair enough, but because of this there is a tendency to underplay the importance of structure. Theatrical types be like “Hollywood writers may need all these templates and guidelines because they’re churning out a commercial product but we in the theatre write from the heart and refuse to be influenced by these rigid conventions.”

Thus, as a young, aspiring writer in theatre I was never advised to study story structure. I received a ton of great tips about writing dialogue, raising the stakes, creating memorable characters and even cutting down a lengthy script, but nobody ever told me how to use story structure to craft a protagonist’s development through a play or to build towards a meaningful climax.

Thinking about it now, it’s absolutely ridiculous not to study structure when you want to develop strong stories. Can you imagine an architect designing a building without a good understanding of maths and physics? Understanding the rules allows architects to design unique buildings which challenge those rules in incredible ways. Not understanding the rules would result in buildings which frequently fell down, if they were able to even stand in the first place.

A lack of structural understanding is the reason why I’ve always struggled to develop my ideas and short plays into full-length pieces of theatre. I’m now working hard to improve my understanding by studying the theory and examining how it applies to the plays and films I love.

I have no doubt in time this will improve my writing. Finding your weak points and working to develop them will undoubtedly improve yours.

Coming back to your question I’d like to end by saying, somewhat ironically, don’t take the praise to heart.

When someone tells you they like something about your writing by all means have a moment of righteous self-congratulation. Give yourself a hearty pat on the back and thank the person concerned as enthusiastically as you feel is appropriate given the setting and level of familiarity.

Then go home and ask yourself what you could improve. Writers are actually very lucky in one respect – there are barely any physical limitations in our trade. If you’re a basketball player who’s too short to dunk you’ll never be able to do it. It’s a physical fact of life.

As a writer pretty much every limitation you encounter will be a gap in your knowledge and/or skill. Don’t know how to spell ‘onomatopoeia’? Look it up. Don’t know how to structure a scene? Read about it and practice. Don’t know what to name your character? Sleep on it.

Obviously I’m being flippant for argument’s sake; some limitations take a great deal of work to overcome. But no problem you’ll encounter in writing a play is insurmountable.

Never stop striving to better yourself as a writer. Keep working, keep learning, keep progressing. There are thousands of people out there who write well. To rise above them you need to be able to write exceptionally.

To write exceptionally you can’t accept your limitations, you need to overcome them.

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: “Is it a bad idea to write about my troubled relationship with my father?”

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.

“Hey Adam, this is a bit more personal than most of the questions you get, so I understand if you don’t want to answer it.  I have a really difficult relationship with my father.  I don’t know if I should go into too much detail here, but he had some serious problems – both in terms of his choices and his mental health.  I feel like I’ve come to terms with it now, but this really fucked me up when I was younger.  And I joke that this gives me great material to be a writer, which is true.  But when I sit down to write about him and us, I feel really stuck.  He’s estranged from pretty much the whole family, so it’s not really an issue of ruining our relationship.  Sometimes I think about reaching out to him, and I wonder, if I’ve written a play about him, would this make things easier?  Harder?  When I was growing up, no one had any idea how bad things were at home, because the whole family was really good at keeping up a appearances, so part of me wants to let it all loose and finally be honest.  But it’s really hard to overcome this upbringing.  I’d love to write something really searing and honest, but I don’t know if this is who I am as a writer.  This would be a big departure from my other work. I guess the question is should I write about my father, and how do I do this?”

First of all I’d like to say I admire your honesty in putting this question forward. It’s never easy talking about our personal demons and family issues, but as writers we’re often told this is expected of us.

We all admire those playwrights who are able to put their lives down on the page, conveying their most painful personal experiences honestly and unflinchingly. I’m sure every writer worth their salt has tried to write something so raw at some point in their career.

It’s worth bearing in mind everything we write is coloured by our personal experience. We may not be basing every play on actual events we’ve been through, but we’re still in there somewhere. I could write a play about the assassination of Martin Luther King, a man I never met, killed in a place I’ve never been over a political struggle far removed from my own life, and it would still be framed by my experience. It would be my interpretation of that story, and my interpretation would be shaped by my own relationship with the world around me. Another writer given exactly the same facts about that story would inevitably come up with a very different play.

So my guess is that, although you haven’t yet consciously written about your father, your childhood experiences of him will have seeped into your work in some shape or form already. Our parents are hugely instrumental in forming our worldview from a young age, whether good, bad or absent.

I’d like to explore the practical implications of your question first because I think it’s important you think about what you’ll actually have to do before you decide if you’re emotionally ready to do it.

In order to write honestly about such a personal topic it’s essential to have some distance. I don’t think it’s possible to ever feel completely neutral about something which has obviously had a lasting impact on your life, but you need to be able to look at the situation objectively as much as you can.

You say your father made some bad choices; in order to recreate him as a believable and nuanced character, you’ll have to examine those choices from his point of view. Why did he make those bad choices? Did he feel he was doing the right thing? Did he feel he had no choice? Did he consider how his actions would affect others? Did he later regret what he did? This won’t be easy, it basically means being able to put your own feelings aside and see the situation through his eyes.

From an audience perspective we have to be able to understand your father. His choices have to be believable to us, and the only way for this to happen is if his motivations are clear. This will probably involve some painful soul-searching on your part but what you’ll need to do is try to pinpoint what was behind his behaviour.

You also mentioned in your question that your father was having some mental health issues. Mental health is a very sensitive area for a lot of people, but I don’t think that’s a reason to shy away from writing about it. I haven’t personally dealt with anything like this so please don’t take what I say here as an expert opinion, I’ll offer you my advice based on plays and films I’ve seen which deal with mental health issues. For me, the key to writing about mental health is to remember that the fact a person has mental health problems isn’t a motivation for their actions.

I’m sure you wouldn’t treat your father in this way, but I have seen some portrayals of characters with mental health issues in which the only justification for what the character is doing is “She’s not well.”

In order for a character to be believable their motives need to be powered by how they’re feeling. If a character has agoraphobia and refuses to go outside it’s not enough to just treat agoraphobia as the cause of their behaviour, you need to show how the prospect of going outside makes that person feel. Maybe open spaces make them feel insignificant, maybe the noise of traffic terrifies them, maybe they’re afraid of pigeons. Whatever it is, make sure their actions are motivated by genuine emotions. This way we can relate to them and sympathise even if we’ve never struggled with mental health issues ourselves.

I hope the above has been helpful with the question of how to write about your father. I really think it’s about getting enough distance to be able to see things from his point of view.

Now I’ll try to address whether you should write about your father in the first place.

Obviously the only person qualified to fully answer this question is you. If you feel writing about this will give you some clarity or help you move past issues then I’d say go for it. The only instance in which I’d say you really need to be careful is if there’s a strong possibility the play will hurt others who may feel differently about the situation. Again, that’s something only you can decide and I really don’t want to sway you either way because I only know the few small details you gave in your question.

Many writers feel a need to write for therapeutic reasons, whether they’re touching directly on personal issues or not. It can be a very powerful outlet for emotions you can’t otherwise reveal to the world. However, it does require a lot of deep thinking around the topic, and there is a distinct possibility you’re not ready to do this, even if you think you are.

Proceed with caution. I don’t doubt for a second you’ve thought about your father’s situation over and over again through the years, but actually sitting down to consciously explore your relationship with him and write about it will require a different type of thinking. You’ll have to try to see both sides of everything, to view the situation as an outsider would. You’ll have to examine your own actions and emotions as well.

If at any time the writing becomes too much for you I’d recommend you put it on hold. There’s no such thing as failure here, if you can’t finish the play now you can always come back to it in a few months or years.

I’m no psychologist, but I do know we all hold onto certain emotions without even realising they’re in us. Don’t put yourself in a bad place for the sake of a play.

Of course, you may well find it’s a relief to finally unburden yourself of this story.

Before you start, if you do decide to go ahead, please bear in mind that whatever happens you’re not obliged to ever show what you write to anyone.

If it turns out the play is too personal and you don’t want to share it, just keep it for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. You may find in years to come your feelings change and you’re ready to share it. You may never want to show it to another soul. Either way, it’s entirely your choice.

Going back to your question, I have no idea whether writing the play will make it easier or harder to reunite with your father. I’m afraid that’s something only time will tell. You may realise you’re able to let go of certain feelings and make a fresh start with him, on the other hand you may unearth more negative emotion and decide you don’t want to see him. That’s a risk you’ll be taking but at least you’ll know you’ve put some deep thought into the decision.

If you do go ahead with writing a play about your father make sure you give yourself the freedom and space to do so honestly. Be absolutely honest with yourself about how you feel and you’ll end up with a powerful play.

Finally, I’d like to end by addressing a particular part of your question; “I don’t know if this is who I am as a writer.”

Don’t pigeonhole yourself. You’re not one type of writer. Who you are and the way you write continues to evolve every time you sit down at the keyboard. If this is what you feel you need to write about at this moment in time, then it’s who you are.

If you then feel you need to write a comedy about three talking parrots who work in a butcher’s shop, that’s who you are as a writer at that point in time.

If this is completely different to anything you’ve written before there will be a distinct learning curve to ascend, but don’t let that put you off. Developing your skills in another type of writing is never a waste of time.

You clearly have strong feelings about writing this play, and the fact you’ve written to me about it shows you’re not afraid to explore the idea. The key to writing searing and honest theatre is to be fearless, to bare your soul to the world. Whether that means writing autobiographical pieces or using elaborate metaphors to explore the deep recesses of your mind, your hopes, fears and desires should be in there somewhere. So, even if you find you can’t write directly about your relationship with your father, you should strive to write with searing honesty in all of your work anyway.

Your personal truth is your most powerful asset as a writer, if you can find a way to express it in your writing you’ll always create something unique and honest.

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: “What’s the best way to write fantasy for the stage?”

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.

“Why aren’t there fantasy plays?  I think it’s really strange that fantasy is such a big genre in fiction and film (not to mention video games) yet we really rarely see this onstage.  Do you have any tips for writers attempting a sci-fi, surreal, or fantasy plot?  We need more of this onstage.”

You only need look at the success of the latest Star Wars film or the insatiable desire for everything Harry Potter to realise there’s a huge audience for fantasy and science fiction out there. Why does this so rarely translate to the theatre?

Let’s deal with the most obvious reason first; fantasy films today are outlandishly expensive to make.

Gone are the days when Ray Harryhausen worked almost single-handedly to create the jerky, miniature monsters of films like Clash of the Titans. Each frame of Avatar took forty seven hours to render, and the budget of the film came in at over $200million.

Theatre just can’t compete in this regard; a reported £12.5million was spent on the stage show of Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately the enormous expenditure didn’t prevent the show being labelled a flop by many critics.

Looking at the theatre from a purely monetary perspective (because who doesn’t love to do that), there just aren’t enough seats to justify a budget of millions. A worldwide cinema release can reach millions of paying customers overnight, allowing Disney to spend $378million on the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. The film made $500million in the first ten days after its release.

The Theatre Royal, where Lord of the Rings was staged, has a capacity of 2,196. If ticket prices averaged £50, the show would have to sell out over 100 performances before it earned back the £12.5mill production cost. That’s if we’re not counting running costs and other overheads.

Cost is definitely a prohibitive factor when we talk about fantasy in the theatre.

Why is money important though?

Think of what all that dosh gets you; these movies are shot in the most exotic locations on earth, the characters are either CGI or decked out in highly elaborate costumes, and the special effects require thousands of man-hours to produce.

The upshot of this is that today’s audiences expect their fantasy to look like reality.

The effects in fantasy films have become so intricate and painstakingly perfect we often only know they’re special effects because we know walking, talking trees don’t exist. It’s almost impossible to render a three-dimensional, realistic Ent onstage in the way Peter Jackson can on film.

Watching any kind of fantasy or science fiction story unfold on stage takes a far greater leap of imagination than it does to see these things in a cinema. I’m not saying people aren’t capable of making these leaps, watch the original Star Wars or King Kong and witness how willing we were to suspend our disbelief back then.

All I’m saying is that today’s audiences are a little bit spoilt. We don’t have to see past the rigid, mechanical movements of Jaws and imagine a real shark because the sharks in today’s films look exactly like real sharks. A man flopping across the stage in a rubber shark suit while two actors in black bodysuits ripple a blue sheet in front of him just won’t convince us anymore.

As a counter-argument, just to play devil’s advocate to my own cynicism, I do love seeing shows like The Lion King which are so creative in their use of costume and puppetry you immediately get swept along despite the obvious lack of realism. Not everything has to be picture-perfect; if the spirit and imagination are strong enough a show can be captivating without being obsessively detailed.

What I mean to say is the physical limitations are problematic but they don’t entirely rule out the possibility of staging fantasy or science fiction material. It’s about finding a creative way to make the impossible possible.

Moving on from special effects, the audience play a significant role in what gets staged and what doesn’t. Lord of the Rings was made into a musical for the stage, I suspect because musical theatre is the only form of theatrical entertainment with wide enough appeal to command the epic budget required.

I haven’t done a survey on this, but if there was a huge audience out there for fantasy or science fiction theatre it would probably be happening. Although we theatrical types like to think art rises above the shallow, evil constraints of capitalism, we are unfortunately still victims of the unforgiving market forces of supply and demand.

So why wouldn’t theatre audiences want to see a stage play of The Chronicles of Riddick? I suspect because most of us go to the theatre to witness humanity laid bare with all its flaws and contradictions. We can watch space operas on TV or in the cinema, whereas we go to the theatre for an intimate experience. We want to see highly detailed characters brought to life in exquisite emotional detail, as opposed to armies of flawlessly rendered but largely anonymous creatures facing off on a battlefield.

When I go to the theatre I want to see drama played out on a far more personal and human scale. I want to look right into a character’s psyche; understand each decision they make and see their desires evolve throughout the evening.

If you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction play, it has to be first and foremost a piece of theatre. There are certain tropes of these genres which make it difficult to really intimately explore the human condition. There are often a large number of characters and locations, there are a lot of deeply ingrained stereotypes (the mysterious elves, the grumpy dwarves, the wise wizards), and there are often multiple, overlapping plot-lines.

Most intriguingly for me, the fantasy genre often draws a very distinct and obvious line between good and evil; there’s no sympathy for Sauron. Sauron is evil, whereas Gandalf is good. Theatrical audiences want to see shades of grey; if a character is presented as evil we want to know what made him that way.

Okay, so maybe Sauron is plotting to kill everyone, but how does he feel about being a disembodied eyeball? Does he love his mother? Was he bullied at school? Is there a Mrs Sauron? What are his interests besides mass genocide and staring?

Fantasy and sci-fi rarely take the time to paint their villains as human (or as possessing the traits we commonly think of as humanity) because in these fantastical worlds the idea of pure evil is firmly established and accepted.

There’s also often an element of social commentary in theatre. A great play examines the human condition, it doesn’t just tell a story, it asks questions. We want to come away from the theatre thinking about what it means to be a human being and how we can reconcile our experiences with those of others.

Fantasy can be a powerful tool in merging entertainment with political or social soul-searching. Thinking of Avatar in particular, questions are raised about colonialism, environmental preservation and racial conflict. However, given the sheer size of the film, the tightly plotted narrative and large number of action sequences, there isn’t room to really explore these issues in great depth. The intimate nature of the stage gives us the opportunity to dive right into almost any issue and examine it from a uniquely personal perspective.

We can dedicate the entire running time of a play to exploring a single conflict between two characters. Imagine if Avatar had been two hours of Sam Worthington discussing responsible environmental conservation with a giant, blue Zoe Saldana. Would it have been a box office hit? I doubt it very much.

But could it play in a theatre?

I don’t really see why not. It would beg the question though; why make it a fantasy play? Without the spaceships, glowing trees and dragons you’d need a good reason to make one character a giant, blue alien. Find that reason and you can make it work.

All of the above is of course nothing but my personal opinion. I would be very happy to be proved wrong about all of it. Films like Lord of the Rings and Avatar have achieved great success by surprising audiences, they were unexpected leaps forward in visual storytelling. There’s no reason why you couldn’t catch us all off guard with an incredible piece of fantasy theatre.

First of all you’ve got to find a story that needs to be told. Secondly, it has to lend itself well to the medium of theatre. Think about what makes your story work better as a play than as a film, novel or computer game.

I hate to use a business analogy, but one of the techniques entrepreneurs swear by is to look for a gap in the market. If you feel there’s a gap in the theatrical landscape for fantasy and science fiction material which you can jump into I’d say it’s worth exploring. Maybe you can give people something they don’t even know they want.

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 give exposition without getting bogged down?”

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 include important back story in dialogue without it sounding unnatural? I’ve gotten feedback for one of my plays that my exposition is ‘too on the nose’, but I want to make sure the audience understands the background of the story so they can follow what’s happening.”

We’re going back to basics a little bit this week so please bear with me if you already feel confident with exposition. I think it’s always useful to revisit the fundamentals even if you’re a seasoned vet because you tend to stop thinking about this stuff as you get more experienced.

This is an issue most playwrights come up against when they first start writing. You want to convey information to the audience to be sure they understand your story, and yet people are telling you not to use blatant exposition.

So, what is exposition?

According to the first website in Google, exposition is:

“Writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain.”

Does this sound entertaining to you?

No. It sounds like a legal brief or a dishwasher instruction manual. Nobody wants to hear this recited on stage.

But how do we avoid it? How do we get across our vital plot-points and backstory without giving the audience information? They need details; who the characters are, where they came from, what they’re doing here, why that guy’s covered head-to-toe in purple paint and swinging a dead mongoose at passers-by.

The trick is to give your audience the information in an interesting and entertaining way. How many Hollywood films have you seen where the lead character has to give a briefing to other characters about an earthquake or alien invasion? If this is done well, there will be opposition from other characters, new ideas being suggested, unanswered questions which could lead to disaster. Crucially, there will be interaction between characters; they will reach a decision through conflict.

It should never just be the main guy/gal standing up front and saying:

“An earthquake hit the city at 11pm last night. It was a six on the Richter scale and five thousand people are presumed dead. This is an unprecedented disaster. However I did some dubious maths involving weather balloons and GPS and I believe a second, even bigger earthquake will happen in forty-five minutes’ time. The only way to save the world from imploding is for Dwayne Johnson to dive down to the bottom of the ocean and pull the tectonic plates apart with his bare hands. Also my wife was at home with the kids in the middle of the danger zone. And my career is in the toilet due to some questionable decisions and corner-cutting. I can see none of you believe me, so I’ll be forced to go it alone, probably with one or two close friends who buy into my theory, even though it’s clearly insane, because I’m super-passionate about it. And by the way, I’m a recovering alcoholic with a tendency to crack under pressure. Also, my wife wants to divorce me and I hate my daughter’s boyfriend.”

This is boring. Why is it boring? Because the entire plan has already been decided, no one is questioning our hero’s theory or offering a different point of view. There’s no conflict, and we’re telling the audience way more than they need to know at this point.

It’s much better if we reveal the wife and kids are in danger later on, once the plan is already underway, so that our team of intrepid idiots has to split up at a crucial point. It’s also better if another character brings up the hero’s shady past and alcoholism as a way of casting doubt on his theory. This would give us much more opportunity to create conflict, which would make the scene a lot more interesting for the audience.

If you’ve been writing plays for longer than five minutes and have spoken to at least one other human being about it, you’ve undoubtedly been given the advice “Show, don’t tell.”

By way of example I’ll write a piece of terrible dialogue riddled with exposition. Please understand this is deliberately terrible, I’m usually better.

            Tracy is in her kitchen.

TRACY: I can’t wait for this fridge repair guy who I called earlier to get here and fix my fridge, because my fridge broke yesterday and I have no idea what’s wrong with it. Damn my stupid husband for buying a cheap, second-hand fridge.

Enter Jason, a fridge repair man.

JASON: Hello miss, I’m here to fix your fridge because we spoke at length on the phone earlier and you told me the fridge broke yesterday and you’d like to have it fixed. I have the necessary expertise to do this work because I am a professional fridge repairman.

That’s the end of the example, it’s me talking again (see what I did there? More exposition, you really could have figured out that was the end of the example for yourself without being told).

So, how could I make this very short scene less expositional?

Let’s try using the “Show, don’t tell” approach.

Tracy is standing in her kitchen, the fridge door is open but the light inside the fridge is not on. There is food piled up on the counter next to the fridge and a puddle of water on the floor. Tracy is pacing up and down, frequently glancing at her watch.

Enter Jason, wearing overalls and carrying a toolbox.

JASON: So the fridge just packed up last night?

TRACY: That’s right.

Jason kneels down and examines the fridge.

JASON: Have you had it long?

TRACY: My husband bought it second-hand about a year ago.

JASON: This fridge must be fifteen years old, I’m amazed it lasted this long.

Me again. See what I did there? First of all, I showed the fridge was broken by leaving the door open, piling the food up next to it and putting a puddle on the floor. This removed the need for Tracy to explain what the problem was.

By all means tell your audience stuff, but make them think they’re figuring it out for themselves. The audience are actually smarter than you might think, they can put two and two together in most instances and come up with the appropriate number. They don’t need to see your sums and working out.

Secondly, instead of Tracy declaring out loud how her husband bought the fridge second-hand she’s now explaining this to Jason. This works better because it feels more natural; information is being exchanged between characters to further the plot, as opposed to information being fired at the audience out of a cannon.

Interaction between characters is a great way to deliver back story and plot points without spewing out big chunks of information. Use one character’s ignorance to inform your audience. Make sure the character has a valid reason for wanting to know and the other character has a valid reason for revealing the information.

For example, it would feel a bit weird if Jason asked; “Are you poverty-stricken?” out of nowhere.

Instead he can say “If I was you I’d start looking for a new fridge.”

To which Tracy could reply; “Afraid that’s not an option at the moment.”

This tells us Tracy is short of money, but we arrived there in a natural way that makes sense within the world of our story. Best of all, we used interaction between characters and effective subtext to inform the audience of an important plot point.

Another useful piece of advice in avoiding exposition is to start your play as far as possible into the story.

In our fridge example, imagine how boring it would be if the play started on the day Tracy’s husband bought the fridge. Do we need to see Tracy loading groceries into that fridge for a year before it breaks?

No. Firstly, that would be insanely dull. Secondly, the audience will automatically make the assumption that the fridge has been well used. All the food piled up on the counter is one clue, then there’s Tracy’s frustration at losing the fridge; it’s obviously important to her.

We don’t even begin the story at the moment the fridge breaks. This has been skipped over, yet because of the exposition we know the fridge broke yesterday. We assume Tracy probably noticed the puddle of water on the kitchen floor and traced it back to the fridge.

Always remember people are happy to be a little confused as they watch a play as long as they feel the plot is moving forward. If you make it clear we’re headed somewhere interesting, and you answer the most burning questions at some point before the end, you’ll keep your audience engaged.

Start the story late and only tell the audience what they need to know when they need to know it.

Lastly, always leave them wanting more.

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!

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Pursued By A Bear: “Should I be offended the actors are suggesting edits to my rehearsed reading?”

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 working towards a rehearsed reading of my play but after the initial reading, the actors and director made suggestions for edits. I’m deeply offended. Should I call the whole thing off?”

That is absolutely outrageous. How dare they?

You’re the writer, you know the play back-to-front, you’ve slaved over it for months, obsessing over every word to make sure it says exactly what you want to say in exactly the way you want to say it.

These people just show up looking for a bit of exposure or some practice, which you’ve been kind enough to offer them in exchange for their unquestioning voices.

And they have the nerve to make suggestions.

It’s a disgrace.

But do you really want to call the whole thing off? I’m guessing you’ve probably worked pretty hard to get to this point. And, despite their flagrantly presumptive suggestive behaviour, your director and actors must see something in the play which has inspired them to turn up.

I’ve been in this situation many times, and it’s completely natural to feel defensive; your play is precious to you, it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point and you’d really rather not rewrite the whole thing at the whim of an actor you just met.

And they’re not playwrights are they? So what can they possibly know about the art of playwriting?

I always have to check myself a little bit at this point though. Maybe I didn’t ask them to make suggestions, but I’m sure they’re only trying to be helpful. I mean, they’re performing in this reading so they do have a little something invested in the success of the play. They want to look good.

Some self-interested actors will make suggestions like; “I think my character needs to say more,” or “I really feel like my character would be more compassionate and likable at this point.” I almost always ignore these outright.

Most of the time though, actors are genuinely trying to make the play better. That’s not to say they think it’s terrible right now, but nothing’s perfect right?

That’s why you’re doing a rehearsed reading. Because the play isn’t perfect.

Otherwise you’d be watching it on Broadway already.

I made the same mistake of thinking rehearsed readings are just to gain exposure. You want something to invite agents, producers and directors along to so they can be amazed and immediately drop to their knees, begging to work with you. And this is part of the reason we hold these events.

However, nine times out of ten, I’ve gone along to a rehearsed reading and come away thinking “That was fantastic, I really enjoyed it, there’s definitely potential for an incredible play there.”

I’ve very rarely thought; “That was an incredible play.”

Because readings are really part of the development process. They’re often the first opportunity you have to hear your play out loud. You should be listening carefully for clumsy dialogue, plot points which don’t quite come across and gaps in your character arcs.

Does this mean you should be taking these actors’ suggestions on board?

Not necessarily. It just means you should listen to what they have to say and try to be objective. Ignore the thinly-veiled pleas for more lines, but soak up the constructive criticism.

I find that the best thing actors tend to do at readings is ask questions.

“Why does my character slap his character with that fish?”

“How did we get from Slough to Dar es Salaam in forty-five minutes?”

“What happened to the severed head they left in grandma’s freezer?”

You don’t need to have answers to all of these right away, certainly don’t feel you have to make something up on the spot if you don’t know. Take them away and think about them.

Actors are people, like almost everyone else, so the questions that are bothering them as they read your play may well bother your audience further down the line. You’ll discover some points which feel crystal clear to you but are utterly confusing to anyone who didn’t write the play.

The other thing to bear in mind is that actors read a lot of scripts. Most of them have actually studied acting, which involves reading and analysing plays constantly. Good actors have ways of understanding characters you’ve probably never even heard of (unless you also studied acting), they have great experience of reading words aloud, they can spot dodgy pacing and weak motivation from miles away, and they’ve possibly had insight from other writers they’ve worked with.

A good director is very similar; they’ve got experience at examining all the little nuts and bolts that make up a script. They’re skilled at analysing the meaning behind each event in a play to see how it flows from beginning to end. If you’re the architect drawing up the blueprint of the play, the director is the foreman, interpreting your vision and relaying that to each actor in a way that makes the whole show stronger.

A director will often give you suggestions about the structure of the play. They’ll ask questions about why certain events happen. Again, in my experience, you’re not expected to be able to answer every question. You do need to consider these questions though, because they’ll often highlight flaws in your plot that need to be addressed.

The first time I sat in a reading of one of my own plays was in a rehearsal with a group of actors and a director. I was looking forward to hearing my masterpiece read aloud for the first time. It was an exciting moment, it felt almost like an opening night. I’m sitting at the side of the rehearsal room thinking “I’ve done it.”

I enjoyed the atmosphere as the actors warmed up their voices, scripts were handed round and characters were assigned.

They finally got down to it. I was on the edge of my seat.

The opening scene began to unfold in my ears. The reading was a bit stilted, but it was the first time the actors had seen the script so I let them off.

They eventually got to the end of the play. I waited anxiously for the applause.

Nothing.

The director announced a short break.

Everyone came back and sat down. The director then began deconstructing the entire play scene by scene with the actors.

“Why do you think this happens?”

“What’s this character’s motivation here?”

“What’s the significance of this location?”

The actors all chimed in with their thoughts, concerns and follow-up questions. It was excruciating.

I felt like they didn’t get any of it. Either they were a bunch of idiots or I had written sixty pages of complete nonsense. Maybe my keyboard was accidentally set to Chinese characters, or I’d had a stroke or popped some LSD without realising.

It was much easier to blame them than myself, so that’s what I did.

I was polite and diplomatic as I left the room, but I went away seething inside. How did they have the nerve to question everything I wrote?

Now I realise it’s all part of the process. As human beings we understand things through questioning. Our curiosity has led to everything from space travel to shoelaces to self-raising flour.

“What is this?”

“Why does this happen?”

“What would happen if I did this instead?”

This is how we learn. Actors and directors use questions to discover more about characters and stories.

You should use readings as an opportunity to learn more about your own characters and stories. I’m always surprised at what I don’t know about my own plays. Note down everyone’s questions and suggestions, then go home and ask your own questions.

“Why did this actor suggest this?” Maybe there’s something they feel is missing from the story which affected their understanding.

“Why didn’t the director pick up on this plot point?” Maybe it wasn’t as clearly signposted as you thought.

“Why did they want me to cut these lines?” Maybe those lines weren’t vital to their understanding of what was happening, and thus became distracting.

When you’ve been working on a play for ages you can easily become blind to its flaws. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees. You’ve read every draft a thousand times; you can easily forget what’s in there and what’s not.

Let the actors and the director point out the gaps for you. They’ll tell you what was unclear, interesting, boring, moving, funny or confusing.

Never dismiss anyone’s feedback outright. There’s always more you can do to improve your work, and there are always people you can learn from, no matter how experienced or competent you are.

Weigh up everyone’s feedback carefully and objectively, then decide what works for you and your play.

Use what’s useful and dismiss what isn’t. Don’t do yourself or your play the disservice  of letting pride close your ears.

 

 

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 tired of being a starving artist”

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 hope this question isn’t too depressing for you but I feel like I don’t know where else to go for advice on this.  I’ve been writing for ten years now, and I’m really tired of being a starving artist. People are always really complimentary about my writing, and I’m still passionate about it, but I feel like I’m going nowhere. How do you know when it’s time to give up?”

Most writers who stick at it long enough (myself included) will have felt this way at some point. Many choose to throw in the towel long before ten years, so I applaud you for sticking with it this long.

First let me try to address the ‘starving artist’ issue. There are no two ways about it, no matter how much you believe in what you’re doing, being broke sucks. Without getting all moany about society judging people by their material wealth, people notice when you constantly have no money. It’s painful to decline every dinner invitation you receive, look in the wardrobe and see the same old clothes you were wearing five years ago, only put in half a tank at the petrol station, re-gift your birthday presents to other people at Christmas, and find out your parents have stopped bothering to even write down what you owe them.

Being broke sucks.

And it only gets worse with time. Because your friends have more money now. People you were at school with, the ones who grabbed that first rung on the corporate ladder, even the ones who dropped out at sixteen to work in a garage, they’re buying houses now. They have husbands/wives, kids, cars, coffee machines, dinners out. They go on holiday abroad every year.

Whereas you consider a £1 tub of soup from Tesco to be a nutritious meal. You pay an extra 50p for the chicken one on special occasions. As a treat.

“But,” people say to you, “You’re chasing your dreams.”

“Yes, yes I am. If only the human body could survive on dreams and pot noodles.”

“Okay, so you don’t have much money,” they say, “But at least you’re passionate about what you’re doing.”

“If only I could build a house out of passion.”

“Don’t give up,” they tell you, “we love coming to see your shows.”

“Thanks, that means a lot. Maybe you could all do a whip round and pay me a yearly salary.”

Being a starving artist felt noble at first, martyring yourself for your art. But as the years roll by and you’re still living off the good graces of others you start to resent it. Then you outright hate it.

From what I can tell, after being in the world of “real work” for almost two years, the vast majority of people do not love their work. They might enjoy parts of it, they might like their colleagues, they’re probably fond of their paycheck (although they’d prefer if it was bigger) but if they had the option to stay at home eating cereal in front of Judge Judy all day for the same amount of money, they definitely would.

I’ve met very few people in nine-to-five jobs who are genuinely excited about their work. I’m talking about those rare individuals who read up on work stuff in their own time, stay in the office late when there isn’t a deadline and still want to discuss projects with you in the pub after hours. Most of these people are insufferable pricks.

Ultimately, I don’t feel qualified to tell you whether or not you should give up. I haven’t read your writing, I haven’t seen your work, I don’t know how much you love it or how much you want to succeed. And even if I did know all of this, it’s not my place to judge. This is a deeply personal issue and whatever course you choose, you’ll have to live it.

I’ll give whatever advice I can, based on my own experience of the past few years.

Way back in 2009 when I graduated and began pursuing a full-time writing career, I gave myself five years. I would either succeed within those five years and continue, or fail and give up.

Five years flew by faster than I ever could have imagined, and I found myself having the same debate you’re having now. I love writing and people seemed to always love my work. I’m not just talking friends and family either; I hate blowing my own trumpet, but I got fantastic feedback from actors, directors and producers I worked with. I had promising meetings with Artistic Directors and TV people. I had work produced at a lot of great venues.

And yet…

None of that love equated to success as measured by the average person’s professional standards; procuring enough income to feed, clothe and house myself on an ongoing basis. It didn’t even equate to getting regular work.

On the other hand, in two years of working at my “real job” not a single person in my office has ever said “I love your work” to me, and yet I still get paid every month and am given work on a daily basis.

But I digress, the point is, if we look at my playwriting career from a completely binary success/failure viewpoint I failed.

And so I gave up on writing.

I took a full-time job and became a wage-slave like everybody else. For the first year I barely put pen to paper outside work.

Honestly, it was a relief. I was under no pressure to produce anything and I had money in the bank every month without having to chase anyone.

However, as I pointed out above, there are few people who truly find fulfilment from their day job, and I’m currently not one of those people. I enjoy my job most of the time, some of it’s interesting, some of it’s challenging, and I do it to the very best of my ability, but a lot of it’s just ticking boxes so that someone I’ll probably never meet can stay rich.

So I started writing again; I write this blog every week, I’m writing a new play, I’m making music. All of this happens in my spare time after work. Doesn’t leave a lot of time for a social life but whatever, I couldn’t afford one before so it’s not really all that different.

Can you really have it both ways? I don’t know yet. I don’t think I’ve been doing this long enough to really find out. Hopefully I find some kind of success somewhere down the road, but I may have to redefine what success as a writer really means.

I guess the overall point I’m trying to make here is that nothing is black and white. Your success and failure are ultimately decided by you.

Maybe you don’t make a living as a playwright, maybe you take a day job and continue writing plays as a passion project in your spare time.

Maybe one day one of those plays is a runaway hit, gets turned into a movie and you can quit your day job. Or maybe one of them is produced by a local amateur drama society and you get to take your mum along to watch their low budget production (which she loves, obviously).

Define your own idea of success and strive for that. For me, the act of writing a full-length play that’s good enough for someone else to even want to read is in itself a huge success.

I also try to think of life as a fluid situation. If you’re having reservations about giving up writing, why not call it a break? I found that taking a year off actually made me want to do it more. Some of the cynicism I’d built up about the theatre over the preceding five years wore off pretty quickly once I saw the shit other people do in their day jobs just for money.

You can give up and come back to it as many times as you like. Do whatever’s right for you at this stage in your life. And when that’s no longer right, do something else.

I’ll end with a warning, if you do give up, prepare yourself mentally for the disappointment. And I don’t mean your own; I mean the disappointment of all your family members, friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances and random strangers you accidentally tell you used to be a writer.

I don’t want to sound like an ungrateful dickhead here, they’ll all be disappointed because they hoped you’d succeed, but even though it comes from a place of kindness they still have no right to make you feel like you’ve let them down. They haven’t spent ten years living like a hobo, mailing out scripts into the ether in blind hope and eating their Shreddies with water because they can’t afford milk.

It’s your life. Live it to the best of your ability.

 

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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