Advice to playwrights

Playwriting is also the most difficult art form in my view.

Success depends not just on the quality of your writing, but the currency and popularity of your topic, the size of your cast, the cost of your production, the mission statement of theatres and their capacity to produce your play, and the subjective nature of personal taste.

Now, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, it also depends on whether it’s legal to be within spitting distance of your audience.  

We in the theatre industry face an uncertain future.

Here’s my advice if you are contemplating a career as a playwright:

Does it have to be play?

Writing a play is difficult. Getting it produced is even more difficult. Unless your story can’t be told in any other way, unless it demands to be acted rather than read, don’t write a play.

If it MUST be a play, read on.

Learn the craft

If you’re serious, do a course. That’s the advice I received when I started out, and it was invaluable.

I’d already completed a six-week Council for Adult Education Course in Melbourne in 2008.  When I moved to Singapore in 2012, I signed up the online advanced playwriting course at the Gotham Writers Centre in New York. I did the course twice, using my play, The Journey, as my project. The Journey later became e-baby.

A course will teach you the craft – including structure and how to write scenes and dialogue. Many courses encourage students to share their work, which is a great way to learn and will introduce you to a cohort of like-minded people. 

You should also read as many plays as you can (check out Australian Plays https://australianplays.org/) and listen to playwrights and theatre professionals talking about the craft (American Theatre Wing and CUNY-TV – City University New York) and the BBC).

I also found it useful to study screenwriting, as the principles are similar. Check out Robert McKee’s book Story, and the many writing resources on YouTube, including Film Courage.

Write about something important

Playwriting is hard work and highly competitive, so make it worthwhile by writing about something important.

This doesn’t mean your writing should be humourless. But you should write about something that is important generally, not just to you and a few friends.

Think in terms of themes rather than topics. Plays that endure tend to be about themes that are understood universally, not just nationally.

For example, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, is not just a play about the Salem witch-hunts, its themes are morality, the restrictions of living in a theocratic state and the effects of mass hysteria. These issues translate across cultures.

You can write about a topical issue, but it must have bigger themes if your play is to endure.

Resist the temptation to follow fashion. Topics fall in an out of fashion in the theatre, just as they do in other genres. It may be tempting to try to fall in line, but you cannot write authentically about things that you don’t know or care about. 

If you write a good play, you will be living with it for years, so it helps if it’s about something important that you and others care about.

Consider cast size and script length

The only theatre fashions you should consider are limitations on cast size and script length. 

Large casts are favoured in amateur theatre where actors aren’t paid and everyone needs to have a role, but in professional theatre the size of your cast will be a big consideration in whether your play will be produced.

Do your research

Whatever your topic or theme, you need to be an expert. Make sure you find out as much as possible about the world that you are writing about.

I’m not an advocate of the current view that you can’t write about anything you haven’t personally experienced: on that basis most of what we regard as great literature wouldn’t have been written. But you do need to know your subject, especially if you’re play is produced, as you will be quizzed.

Re-write

Understand that all writing is about rewriting. Your play will need to undergo many revisions before it is worthy of production. Even then you won’t know if your play works until you get it before an audience. I still make small changes to my plays based on what I learn from each production.

Neil Simon, one of America’s greatest popular contemporary playwrights wrote an autobiography aptly called Rewrites.

Entertain

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as Mary Poppins said. Humour is your sugar. Make your story entertaining as well as enlightening.

It’s a big ask for people to sit in a cramped theatre seat on a Friday night after a long week of work, having struggled through traffic, possibly on an empty stomach.

Make it a fun night, a moving night, an enlightening night – a thoroughly wonderful, worthwhile night.

And finally, break a leg!

For a thorough examination of what this really means, see