Douglas Maxwell - A Playwright's Guide to being a Playwright
There’s only one sure way to become a better writer and that’s to write all the time. And when you’re not writing plays, read plays. And then at night go to the theatre. Eventually, if you’re paying attention, your work will improve. I promise.
Let’s all pretend I’ve said “write what you know” in a new, attractive, non-clichéd way.
Hardly any scripts are trying to be emotional. And yet I can think of no surer way to get your play on than to make the reader cry. It’s a high-wire act of course. When emotional writing goes wrong the blood gets everywhere.
Your aim is to get a director thinking “how the hell would I do that”.
Everyone . . . everyone has an unfinished something or other under the bed. When you actually finish one, post it out and wait. You’re now in the same game as William Shakespeare.
Don’t try to be fashionable. Let the zeitgeist come to you.
If you’re a young male writer ask yourself . . . “Do I need a Mametogram or a Pinterectomy?” It’s very common, don’t be ashamed.
Don’t be a wiseass in your cover letter. And don’t be a dick afterwards either, phoning up demanding apologies and updates. If someone likes your work, write the next one with them in mind.
Don’t include a SAE. They can keep the script or bin it. You wouldn’t send out a dog-eared script anyway. Your scripts are clear, brilliantly printed, slide bound, and easy to read.
Find out about the people you’re sending the script to. And get their name right.
Rejection letters make you feel sick and cry. They make you want to give up. But that feeling goes away. Wait until they see your next one.
When you find out someone’s going to produce your first play don’t leave your job immediately. You won’t get your £8000 in one lump sum. Register as self employed at the Post Office or get an accountant. Save money for tax. Don’t budget on your royalties.
Start working on getting another commission as soon as you can. When you’re introduced in the bar to an Artistic Director ask for a coffee meeting.
Join the Scottish Society of Playwrights.
Re-writing is much harder than just plain writing, but it feels much better when it's done. Don’t be bullied into it, but be open.
Beware actors' flattery, but take serious note of passages, action or phrases they’re unhappy with.
Hopefully you won’t be re-writing right up to tech week. So stop attending rehearsals in the second week, and then show up again for the last push. By this point everyone hates the director and thinks the show’s going to bomb, so you’re the hero from the good old days here to save the day.
All your notes should go through the director. Just look at them when you speak, rather than the actor. Never read a line to the actor “the way it should be done”.
Ask the Stage Manager before you do anything.
On the first night you need to get everyone a card. It’s polite, and is also your last chance to affect the production with clever psychological tricks: e.g. “thank you for making the character a three dimensional being who always speaks clearly and remembers to keep hold of the phone in Scene 4”.
DEALING WITH YOUR NEW FOUND FAME
The good news is that your first taste of success makes you better looking. Your skin will clear, you’ll loose weight and get taller. The downside is that theatre ages you in dog years from now on in.
You’re not being interviewed because the journalist thinks you’re ace. If they stop speaking don’t feel the need to fill the silence. That’s how they get you! NME statements like “I’m the new Tennessee Williams” don’t work.
You’re allowed to politely decline the photographer’s attempt to get you to climb into that wheelie bin. And no-matter what they say, never lie down in a photo. All writers look awful in photos until they turn 50, then they look brilliant.
Don’t go to award ceremonies.
Don’t bring your friends and family to press night. Have them come the next night.
I would say don’t read your reviews, but . . . aye right. I’ll say this then…don’t re-read your reviews. Even the confusing ones with no punctuation that you couldn’t quite follow.
Try to see the good in other people’s work. Keep going to the theatre. This is a strange art form which seems to employ a lot of people who clearly hate it. Some playwrights never go to see plays. Are there equivalents? Novelists who don’t read books? But beware that bitterness. Bitterness is like cocaine. It’s a talent-reducer that while it’s sucking away your zest it’s telling you that you’re better than everyone else. Open up! Be an enthusiast. It shows confidence in your own work. “And let that cocaine be!”
Keep writing. Theatre’s a blood sport. But as long as you’ve got a play to write, even if it’s for no money and just for you, you’ll be okay. Just get to that desk! Somehow. Every day.
And don’t give up.
Douglas Maxwell is the author of many plays including Decky Does A Bronco, Our Bad Magnet, Variety, If Destroyed True, Backpacker Blues, Melody and The Ballad of James II.
His work for young people includes Helmet, Beyond (with Nicola McCartney), Mancub and The Mother Ship. His plays have been performed in translation in Germany, Norway, Hong Kong, New York, Chicago, Holland and South Korea, where Our Bad Magnet has just completed a three year run.
His plays are published by Oberon Books.