“I’m sure I could write something better than this crap” Actors as Playwrights

Convener(s): Andrew Piper ([email protected]) - if anyone wants to talk to me about writing plays and share their experiences of what works for them and what they find difficult then please drop me a line!


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

I called this session because I’m trying to write my first play. I’ve been working as an actor for about 10 years, and have acted in student, fringe & non-professional theatre for 20 years before that. In the last few years I’ve performed a number of scripts – new writing & published work – that I thought were so bad that I was certain I could write something better. 

I’ve started. And it’s harder than I thought

(I apologize for the fact that I was often caught up in the discussion and didn’t make as many notes as I should!)


  1. Actor (one participant was a director) who writes plays, not a playwright who acts (or directs). Acting is still the thing that I care most about and that most strongly defines me, but writing feels like an important part of me that’s been neglected.
    1. Background brings an awareness of dialogue (what is ‘speakable’ and what feels contrived or unrealistic) and theatricality (how theatrical devices work) that other writers may have to develop in other ways.
  2. Getting writing
    1. One person (a writer) wrote every single day; another (a director) just when he felt like writing, but if he felt the urge he’d make space to do it, whatever else he was doing at the time.
    2. If you don’t sit down and write, do you really need to write?
    3. A glass or two of wine can help silence the critic and just get you to write! (Stephen King wrote Kujo off his face on coke & booze, and has no recollection of having written it – not recommending this approach!)
  3. What are you afraid of?
    1. Not doing the subject justice
      1. Don’t expect your first play to be your masterpiece
    2. That no-one will like it
    3. That it will never be produced (except in some zone 6 fringe venue)
    4. That it will be bad/boring
    5. That the first (bad) draft is a waste of time
      1. Trust that is isn’t. You can’t write the second draft without it. (Not just a semantic truth!) All the thoughts and processes you go through in the first draft will feed through and make the 2nd draft stronger with better foundations.
    6. That actually the whole exercise may be a waste of time
    7. Getting paid for it feels important too.
  4. Relish the crap
    1. Allow the first draft to be terrible
    2. Write in clichés to start with (have someone check the 2nd draft to make sure none have found their way in to that!)
    3. Take away the censor. Allow yourself to be boring, blasphemous or obscene. Discover your inner Tourrette’s child. Be as inappropriate as you want, because no one else will see your first draft. (Writing these notes, I realize that’s part of the problem: if no one will see it then why am I writing it? I want approval for everything, even the first draft, but I won’t get that if it’s bad)
    4. If you do want someone to read the first draft then get them to talk dispassionately about the specifics of what works and what doesn’t. Generalised praise or criticism is not helpful.

5. Make the first draft art-less

      1. Let the characters say exactly what they want
      2. Expose the motives; write the subtext out in the open
      3. Richard Curtis’s Hamlet reduces the whole play down to a few pages by just letting the characters say exactly what they mean, as concisely as possibly.

    6. … but give yourself some structure

      1. Write a scene at a time: a scene is where someone tries to get what they want, and by the end of the scene something has changed.
      2. Let the first draft be your way to discover the structure


    Books & films that got mentioned:

    So you want to be a playwright? By Tim Fountain

    On Writing by Stephen King

    Hamlet by Richard Curtis

    Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip TV series by Aaron Sorkin

    Breaking Bad (another TV series)


    Interesting unrelated fact I learned today: Martin Scorsese wanted to be a priest; so did Stalin.