Blog: Why we need to publish industry advice to ensure a more equal theatre industry

When I was starting out, I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t know how it worked. You didn’t see jobs advertised in the newspapers stating “Wanted: Writer” and, coming from a single parent family with no connection to the arts, it seemed like a career I couldn’t pursue.

Fortunately, I stumbled across the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers programme via a Google search of “playwriting opportunities” and that’s when things started to make sense in terms of how I could pursue that career.

This, and other similar experiences of people stumbling or not stumbling across opportunities, is what we hope The Student Guide to Writing series will address – because if you want to be a writer, it shouldn’t be dependent on whether you happen to know people who know how the industry works.

The new “The Student Guide to Writing” series instead publishes for the first time industry training, which we hope will provide an invaluable insight into what is being taught on those programmes, what skills are being looked for in the industry and how the industry works. We hope the first book, The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, can be used by playwrights, students or by teachers to study or teach playwriting. The book is made up of 10 lesson plans which cover craft and business skills, building a play up step by step with key exercises and advice from the contributors, and contributors include Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers programme, Fin Kennedy, founder of Schoolwrights and Artistic Director of Tamasha theatre company, Steve Winter, founder of the Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays and TS Eliot US/UK Exchange and Director of the Kevin Spacey Foundation, Rob Drummer, former Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre and Artistic Director of Boundless Theatre, and others, most of whom have never published their training methods before. Partners on the project include the Bush Theatre and Oberon Books.

Why do this? Well, the phrase that always comes to my mind is if writing is about reflecting on who we are, who we were and who we can be, then it’s important our writers come from different backgrounds so that all voices and perspective are heard.

For example, Lyndon Johnson, as he signed the National Endowment for the Arts into existence in the US, said: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

As such, it seems important that training provides access to the right information and to the industry programmes and what’s taught on them so you know what skills are being looked for, both in terms of craft and business skills. In some forms of the arts, such as music, training has long been viewed as essential, but the need for training has been taken less seriously in other art forms, such as writing, which seems to us wrong as, if you are feeling your way, this is when you can get lost. In addition, research has shown it is those from backgrounds not associated with the arts who are most likely to give up. Because it can be a vicious cycle – you can’t get onto industry programmes because you don’t demonstrate the skills being looked for in your work, but you can’t know what the skills being looked for are because you can’t get onto the programmes to learn what those skills are, as most industry training has never been published until now.

And, in the interest of the series’ aim of providing as much access to information as possible, here are some of the contributors’ top tips:

Rob Drummer, Artistic Director of Boundless Theatre and former Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre: “The most important thing is to remember that a play is intended for performance, to be experienced by an audience and to be performed by actors… Remember as a playwright you are telling stories with words and pictures.”

Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers programme: “Your passion is important because if you choose to write about something you really care about, it will be likely that its something you’ve already thought about a great deal and therefore the chances are it will be a subject you already know a lot about.  Plus, writing from your heart greatly increases the chances of you completing your play, because you’ll be using your play to say something you think is really important to be said.”

John Yorke, founder of the BBC Writers Academy; “There are no successful writers who haven’t mastered structure. … The more you learn about your craft the easier and more fascinating it will be.”

Fin Kennedy, founder of Schoolwrights and Artistic Director of Tamasha: “Unlike in novels, where writers have the luxury of giving the reader access to a running commentary on everything their characters are thinking and feeling, in plays the writer has only what a character says and does, with no omniscient voice. The temptation is to over-explain, to have characters tell each other everything because the inexperienced playwright does not trust the audience to keep up. They will – and what’s more they will enjoy having information withheld. It means they have to lean in. Counter-intuitively, temporarily excluding your audience is the secret to actively engaging them in your world.”

The book’s contributors are from the following industry programmes which we recommend for emerging writers: the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers progamme, the Bush Theatre (who run an emerging writers group and take unsolicited submissions), Boundless Theatre (who take unsolicited submissions), Tamasha theatre company (and particularly their Developing Artists programme,) the Kevin Spacey Foundation (who run an excellent grants programme for emerging artists), Tonic Theatre (who run an event series for women), the BBC (BBC Writersroom is particularly useful) and others.

To find out more about The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting and future books in the series please go to: www.thestudentguidetowriting.com