I read an interesting blog post on playwriting competitions the other day – to sum up, someone asked about whether it’s wise to write plays to order to fulfil the ludicrously strict requirements of some playwriting competitions (you know, the kind of competitions that request you submit a script that’s exactly 39 pages long, for a cast of 15 men and one woman, set in a lighthouse and on the theme of slavery). I love playwriting competitions like the Verity Bathgate or the Bruntwood, but ones that make you write something to order (since it’s unlikely anyone just happens to have such a script tucked away) make me quite angry. I don’t think they benefit anyone.
It got me thinking, and God knows this is not at all fresh territory, on the clash of creativity and commerce that writers get caught between.
Being a former street kid I have quite a little bit of the hustler in me (in the sense of always having an eye on the bottom line, not literally), and I think being an actor makes you pretty good at hustling too. Not in a manipulative way, just in the sense of always trying to move forward and having an eye open for opportunities. Though lately I’ve been feeling… well, that’s another post. But to be a writer, I don’t think you can do that. You have to do things that are paradoxical to that. You have to sometimes take yourself out of circulation and go away into yourself. To commit, perhaps for a period of several months or longer, to writing something that is purely creative, without necessarily knowing whether there will be any material payoff. Because you can try all you want to write something that’s entirely commercial but what do that even mean? Actually, that’s also a different post.
When I was commissioned to write the piece that turned into Tortoise, there was a beautiful harmony in that I was being paid to write something I was crazy passionate and obsessive about. The creative and the commercial coincided. I believed in my beautiful oddball play so much, I could pitch it and protect it and push it forward without it becoming about “I want to sell my work” or “I want to get good reviews because it’ll be good for my profile.” But one play does not a career make.
I’ll tell you a little story. Hopefully it won’t be boring. I was walking home one day, in the ludicrously chintzy and very ‘naice’ neighbourhood I somehow ended up in*, and I saw some graffiti that was one word, “Dogging” with an arrow pointing towards a car park. This set my mind racing and when I got home I wrote, very quickly, a little ten-minute comic play about middle class English people going dogging. I wrote it entirely for myself without any thought to getting it staged — indeed, if I thought about it at all I assumed a small silly thing like that could never be staged. Then it turned out there are lots of competitions looking for very short plays that in my ignorance (I am still very much a baby playwright) I was unaware of. I submitted it and people seemed to like it. And this silly little indulgence I wrote entirely for fun and for myself, wound up getting me a showcase and bringing me to the attention of the Finborough who called me “clearly very talented.”**
So, you know. Maybe don’t worry too much about being commercial, because you never know.
*Barnes, southwest London, if you’re interested.
**I’m sorry, I have to. Come on. This is my blog and my low self-esteem.