Budding playwright? Then here's how to take your latest script from page to stage
It’s one thing to dream up an idea for a play in your head, and something of an achievement to get it on to paper. To get your lines into the mouths of living, breathing actors, there are some principles you should follow
THEY SAY EVERYONE has a book in them, but what about a play? Have you dabbled in drama and sketched scenes in your head but felt unsure about how to go about putting the words you’ve set on the page into the mouths of living, breathing actors?
In the absence of any formal accredited training in Ireland – when the Lir national academy of dramatic art opens at Trinity College Dublin next year, it will offer the first master’s degree in playwriting in the country – there is no traditional path for the playwright to follow. But there is an informal route that budding dramatists can navigate if they have the glow of the footlights in their sights.
1 Write itYes, write the play. If you have hopes of being the next Martin McDonagh, you should have a script (or several) in your bottom drawer. If you have an idea, find a way to express it, testing out form and trying out voices. Read the work of your favourite playwrights again. How does a play look on the page? Go to see some plays. How does a play change in performance? As a budding playwright, Mark O’Rowe refined his writing skills by setting himself invaluable sketch tasks, where he would write a scenario and follow it through to the end. Even if it was only a 10-minute scene, he would have finished something, achieved something concrete. Write something. Refine it. Refine it again. You may not have a conventional three-act script or 90-minute one-act drama, but you will have had the opportunity to create an arc, conclude a story and, most importantly, develop your voice.
2 Get it readSome of Ireland’s leading theatres and theatre companies have full- or part-time literary departments, which are dedicated to fostering new talent. The Abbey Theatre and Fishamble: the New Play Company, for example, each has a literary manager whose job is to respond to unsolicited scripts from unknown writers. Aideen Howard, literary director at the Abbey, says that the theatre receives between 300 and 400 unsolicited scripts a year – and that it reads and responds to every one. For a new writer that is a remarkable opportunity to get feedback from professionals, although traditionally it is a rather slow process – the turnaround is between three and four months. Sean McLoughlin’s play Noah and the Tower Flower, which won the Best New Play award at the Irish Times Theatre Awards in 2007, was discovered in a pile of unsolicited scripts submitted to Fishamble. Its success prompted Fishamble to commission his new play, Big Ole Piece of Cake, which previews at the Mermaid this week.
3 RejectionBoth Howard and Fishamble’s artistic director, Jim Culleton, admit that it is rare for an unsolicited script to get a full production. That does not mean the process is futile, however. On the contrary, it provides literary managers with an opportunity to see emerging talent, which they may be able to foster in a different way. For Fishamble, the playwriting courses that it offers throughout the year are invaluable for engaging with new writers on a formal, structured level. As Howard explains, the new-playwrights programme at the Abbey was set up in order to respond to best writers of unsolicited scripts. “It was conceived from a desire to seriously engage with those writers whose scripts have promise and vision but who we feel are not yet ready for a full commission. We give them access to resources that we have on offer: international writers, directors, dramaturges, using resources of in-house staff, and an intensive engagement with theatre, as process and as business. We hope our investment will be a long-term one for the developing writer, that in the future they will have a play at the Abbey.” Rough Magic’s ongoing Seeds programme fosters emerging playwrights through a similar mentorship scheme, which pairs emerging writers with established playwrights. Just because your play is not ready now does not mean it will never be ready.
4 The commissionThe commissioning process is usually used to support writers who to a greater or lesser degree are already established: a company will formally invite a playwright to write a play for the theatre. Most companies producing new work adopt this approach: Hilary Fannin and Ellen Cranitch were commissioned to produce the script and music text for Rough Magic’s recent stirring production of Phaedra. Usually, the commission begins with a conversation between theatre and writer, where potential ideas are thought through. Although writers are rarely given any creative parameters, they are occasionally asked to respond to a particular issue, as in the recent No Escape programme at the Abbey, for which Mary Raftery was invited to write a docudrama based on the Ryan report. Jim Culleton, who commissioned Sean McLoughin’s latest play, says: “Unusually, Sean was in a position where he had lots of ideas, so he pitched a few and we talked them through before deciding which might suit best. For the most part we do not give any creative restrictions in terms of staging or cast size – we try and encourage writers early on to give us dilemmas and problems, not to limit themselves – but occasionally we may not be in position to bring it to full production.” As Howard explains, “in such cases the rights automatically transfer back to the writer, and we would encourage them to try and get it put on elsewhere”. Although new writers would rarely be offered a commission, both Fishamble and the Abbey have used the short-play format to commission less experienced writers, and sometimes these experiments put the theatres in a position to take a more informed risk on nascent talent. In the new year the Abbey will produce full-length work by several writers involved in its short-play series The Fairer Sex last year.
5 Rehearsed readingsA commissioned play is usually wrung out through several drafts. The first draft tends to be accompanied by a rehearsed reading, with actors and a director. The process is to enable the writer to see and solve potential problems; to test the live experience of theatre for the first time. For young writers, Howard says, this is crucial, because “even when you are an experienced writer you rarely get the chance to sit in the rehearsal room beyond the first week”. The new-playwrights programme is crucially designed, she says, so that participants can observe the full rehearsal process and better understand the mechanism of theatre in production. Druid Theatre’s Debut series also recognises the importance of the rehearsed reading to the playwright. Curated by Druid’s literary manager, Thomas Conway, it gives unsolicited writers the opportunity to have their work performed by professional actors in front of an audience. The opportunity to see how a work is transformed in performance and how an audience responds can be crucial to reaching the final draft of a play.
6 Do it yourselfFor most emerging writers the first and last resort is often the DIY approach. Conor McPherson first produced his plays on a shoestring in the tiny room above the International Bar in Dublin. The proof of his talent was in the production, and word of mouth saw his one-man shows eventually transfer to bigger venues, where they came to the attention of the theatre establishment. Dublin Fringe Festival has become the most fertile breeding ground for new talent, and literary managers like Aideen Howard are often out scouting the festival for new talent. Meanwhile, new initiatives like Project Brand New and The Theatre Machine Turns You On, which has just called for applications for its second cycle of performances, invite artists to showcase work in progress in front of an audience. They see themselves as laboratories for theatrical performance; theatre is a process, not just a script. The writer and director Mark Cantan has taken an imaginative slant on the DIY approach. Cantan received positive feedback through the unsolicited approach to his comedy The Get Together but was unable to find a theatre company willing to produce the play, which features an expensive cast of eight. He decided to stage it himself in the least expensive and most experimental way, by having the cast perform every night after rehearsal, from the very first rehearsal onwards. The audience is invited to come every night, to see how the show evolves over the course of its intensive schedule, or just once. As the show is tuned the ticket price is raised, so the number of euro you pay matches the date, from €1 on November 1st to €11 on November 11th. Now that’s an apprenticeship: a way to learn your craft while doing it.
Big Ole Piece of Caketours until November 27th; fishamble.com; The Get Together is at Sweeney’s Bar on Dame Lane in Dublin from November 1st to 11th. The Theatre Machine Turns You Onis open for applications for its February festival; its homepage is on Facebook