The highly sensitive world of playwriting

How does the modern playwright juggle the demand for diversity and specificity with the nature of creativity?

Imagine you are writing a book. Imagine that this book must include the word “fire” or “environment”.

Imagine that the characters must be under 18, or perhaps over 50, or must belong to a particular ethnic group, or have a particular sexual preference or gender. 

Imagine that you cannot write about anything that you have not directly experienced yourself.

If you come from a disadvantaged group, there are opportunities to submit your work in that category, but anyone else who merely identifies with that group can also submit in that category, which means that you are once again competing in the general market.

Your book can be no more than a certain number of pages, and you cannot submit it for publishing or reading if someone has already read it, or if the people in your area have read it.

Welcome to the crazy world of the 21st century playwright.

Playwriting – if you want to get produced – has become strangely prescriptive, beyond the normal restrictions of budget, taste, and size and nature of the theatre, which are restrictive enough.

A browse through the popular website Play Submissions Helper, which lists opportunities from all over the world, is a case in point. 

Mostly these theatres do not accept plays that have already been produced, which means that if anyone else has seen it, it cannot be seen again – which is akin to saying that a library only wants books that no one has read. 

The reason for this, of course is the modern idea that every play a company produces must be a World Premiere, and anything that has already been seen and reviewed is off limits – even, in some cases, if it’s a 10-minute play and they don’t pay the playwright.

There are also limitations on themes and geography, as well as identity. 

Producers want plays with the theme “The Camp Out”, or with Jewish content, or by people who’ve served in the military, or by writers from only a certain geographic area, or with the theme “retrospect” or “Missouri” or “Among the trees” or “forgiveness and retribution” or by writers who are 12 to 18 years old and writing about “heroes and monsters”.

Or the play must include “a take-out container” as a prop, LBGTQ characters or themes, or be by people of Middle Eastern descent.

Or it must showcase “Sapphic super-heroines”, or be by women of colour or transgender women, or those with a feminist perspective, or it must “highlight intergenerational relationships” or be by “female identifying or non-binary writers”. 

Or it must include “50 per cent characters that are female identifying”, or must take place in a gas station, or feature the theme “science fiction summer” or “holiday”, or it must be inspired by H. P Lovecraft and his work, or with the theme “myths and legends”, or be by writers “age 12 or under” (how many six –year-olds are writing plays?)

I didn’t make these up. These are the real demands of real theatres around the world today.

I realise that one reason for this is that these theatres are targeting specific audiences or that they are trying to encourage diversity in the writers and actors they employ and the stories they tell.

But where does that leave the playwright?

Of course, this complaint sounds very un-PC.  But do not mistake personal frustration for a lack of generosity to those who have been historically locked out of the writing world. As an old, disabled woman myself, I understand the need for more diversity in theatre, and for stories that reflect society in general, not just an elite few.

The problem is that this policy misunderstands why people write. We write because we have something to say and are compelled to say it, in whatever form it takes. Therefore being told what we must write, and how we must write it, runs counter to how creativity works.

Few playwrights have in their drawer, at the ready, a play about these very prescriptive issues. The notion that we might suddenly write a play to fit these requirements and deadlines is a strange misunderstanding of the playwriting process. It can take years to gestate a play, and certainly months, if not years, to write it.

Some of these restrictions are for a purpose. The producers want to promote something with the play, or to encourage a certain attitude, or idea, or to shock people out of complacency into awareness. Fair enough. But that’s not playwriting: that’s public relations.

It seems playwriting these days has become a tool for the correction of society’s ills. This is a noble cause.  The best theatre can make people laugh, cry and think, so it’s understandable that some producers think it, therefore, MUST make people laugh, cry and think a certain way.

It is ironic that in attempting to do so, producers are promoting another type of homogeneity. Demanding that writers write about certain things, and banning them from writing about others, is a type of censorship that should be abhorred not promoted.

But when it is done in the name of victimhood, it is difficult to criticise without looking as if you are hurting those who are already hurting.

I don’t know how other playwrights cope with these restrictions.  For me, playwriting is such hard work that I cannot do that hard work unless I am compelled by the topic and the characters and story.

For me, it simply can’t be prescribed, even for a very good reason.

Are you a playwright? What’s your view?