Can new writing for theatre be anything more than an expensive hobby?

Sarah Wallis, 4 October 2012

Can writing for theatre be more than an expensive hobby?

Mostly this topic led to more questions!

Do we mean the leap from am-dram to making professional work?
It can’t be a hobby that you do to relax in your spare time, which is what a hobby is, so surely this is more than that?
Is it the wrong question? What would the right one be?
Where is the expense?
Is it in the producing more than the writing? - the R&D – actors time / props/ set –

Is it always simply a monetary cost? What about the writer’s / makers health?
An example given was of 18 months carrying a team of six and that cost to life force in time and energy.

What about devising? Do you always need a writer? Can’t you just get some actors in a room and make some work?

There is a gap for a production company which runs a pool of actors willing to give their time for the experience of being involved with work that will go on to get together with a venue that will support new work.

Buildings with writing programs can help you get a little way along the path but what happens after that?

Mentioned were –
So You Want to Be A Writer / Matchmaker (WYP) Street Voices (Theatre in the Mill, Bradford)

New writing is supported by the Arts Council but you need to build in steps from writing the script to applying for money to put the play on.

Other places to explore getting help to put new work on –

No Strings
WY theatre network
Newk (New and emerging work) 24:7 in Manchester
Full Circle

How do you get an audience in that isn’t just your mates and your family?

The career progression isn’t clear-cut for a writer is it?

Writers should try to get over the ‘I’ve been so lucky’ mentality of being given the opportunity to have your play put on and deal with the reality of not being paid, even though everyone else involved has been paid, it has probably cost you money to be involved in the process and your expenses are not covered, and you’ve had to buy a

ticket to see your own work on stage in front of a paying audience. We should stand up for ourselves more and asking for comp tickets might be a place to start.

‘I’ve been so lucky’ indicates randomness but to be persistently lucky and have your work put on indicates not luck but hard work.

Writers should feedback more to venues on their experience with having their work put on - perhaps it hadn’t occurred to the venues that comp tickets for the writer to see their work performed would be welcomed.

We are stronger together –
writers, directors, producers, actors could get together and offer a 24:7 (Manchester) model to a venue and maybe a venue would welcome being approached in this way?

There is an element of fear involved in contacting others, especially when people starting out think of contacting others with a higher level of experience.
Aren’t we fed up of asking for permission?
Writers – can you please put my play on?

Actors – can I please be in your play?
But don’t we expect to be asked who the hell we think we are and have doors slammed in our faces?

Some people thought we shouldn’t get paid, it is a privilege to be a writer, to be involved in making theatre.

Which led to –

So we should all have day jobs?
If your attention is scattered how good do you expect to get at what you do?
And how long will be able to carry on doing this if there is no payment at all in the foreseeable future?

Because people can do that for a while, putting heart and soul into trying to get their work seen but there comes a point when that is no longer possible and they will be forced to downgrade writing to a hobby, an expensive one, if you turn to putting the work on yourself.


career development, career, time, luck, expense, cost, hobby, Writers, writing, writers, writing programs

Comments: 2

Samantha Ellis, 5 October 2012

This is fascinating...and left me with very mixed feelings. I wish I’d been there to join in, but thank you very much for posting this report.

I hate the title. Writing may not be lucrative but to call it a hobby feels very demeaning. I work very hard at my writing. And I agree that we should stop thinking we're lucky to get our plays on. Theatres need plays and we make plays. And while there is more supply than demand, it doesn't mean that our plays aren't still valuable commodities. Let’s talk about work, not luck. And, yes, let’s stop asking for permission.

And if we start saying writers shouldn't get paid, that it's a privilege to be a writer, all we are doing is devaluing our own work. I have written for nothing and probably will again, but I won't do it if everyone else is getting paid and if there is a paying audience. I always ask for a ticket to the show and if a theatre were to refuse, I wouldn't think they respected my work enough to have it on, frankly. We have to respect our own work, or no one else will.

I also worry about writers looking too much to theatres and funders for support. I think we can help ourselves, and each other too. For example, I’m part of a writers’ group that meets once a week to share work and give critical feedback, and also to talk about issues that come up in our careers. We meet in a pub, and the group was set up by writers; no one has supported or led us.

Also, if I want to hear a play in progress, I ask actors to read it round my kitchen table. Because I’m not paying them, I make sure to at least do readings at a convenient time, and provide tea and wine and cake. And if the play gets produced or published, I put their names in the thank yous. It’s about treating other theatremakers with respect, and not assuming anyone will work for nothing. I also try to be assiduous about returning favours.

I was involved with The Miniaturists from the start, and also helped set up Agent 160 last year; both are writer-led companies, and their support has been very sustaining. And I’ve enjoyed writing short plays for them and building relationships with directors and actors when the plays go on. As well as learning from having my work on, which is the best way.

I've also worked hard to find writers further along than me who are up for me asking them lots of questions, and getting their advice.

We can, I think, be more self-sufficient as writers, more self-starting, and we can demand more. And I think if we respect our work and other theatremakers’ work, we’ll be in a better place than if we start talking about luck and privilege and permission.

Sarah Wallis, 6 October 2012

Hi Samantha, many thanks for posting your comments. We had some disagreement in the room about the title but to explain where it came from - it just seems to be where I am at the moment, where everyone with anything to do with putting on my recent play got paid, and I didn't. I was fine with that at the time, very grateful as an emerging artist and felt lucky to have the play put on at all, but now find myself in a similar situation and wonder, like the majority of my family, how long this can be sustained?

I go to two different writing groups and find both useful in different ways. & yes I work hard at my writing too, but then if I didn't put it down on the page I'd never work out who the bits of dialogue in my head belong to. You must have had that? Trying to remember who said something in the pub over the buzz that sounded a bit good... and then you work out it's what the boy should say to his boat and actually no one said it to you, you just thought of it yesterday & didn't write it down yet? Anyway.

Getting actors to read out bits of script in an informal setting is a great joy when you first hear the words said out loud by someone who isn't your brain re-calibrating but the good ones and the ones who've done this in the past for you start to want paying...

Thanks again for responding, further thoughts welcomed to keep the conversation going!