I took part in my first panel discussion last weekend (and barely managed to keep it together when I realised one of my fellow panellists was the guy who made Hackers, a film I can quote almost in its entirety from memory). It was both inspiring and slightly depressing to meet so many talented, passionate young people, and to have them asking me for advice on how to become ‘successful’ writers. I never know how to strike a balance between being encouraging and being realistic, and I wish I could do more than give advice that boils down to, “Keep writing, keep sending your stuff out, consider putting on your own work.”
I like talking to other writers and especially young or aspiring writers, and although I’m far from experienced I try to give advice. But there’s one question people constantly ask, and it’s impossible to answer:
“I wrote a script and sent it to every theatre/production company, and they all rejected it. What do I do now?”*
First Draft Syndrome
The first question I always ask was what number draft did you send out. An awful lot of the time the answer is, “the first draft” which is not a crime since a lot of newbies don’t realise (I didn’t, when I was starting out), but yeah, never send anyone a first draft. I recently had to send in a first draft I’d been commissioned to write, and it was physically painful.
There’s rejection, and Rejection
The first play I wrote has never had a full production, but I still consider it a success and the play that was my first small break into the industry. Though none of the theatres I submitted it wanted to produce it, about two thirds said, “No, but…” In some cases that “but” was an offer of a rehearsed reading, a one-off performance as part of a festival, or an offer to come and do some R+D in their rehearsal rooms with their dramaturgy. In other cases it was an invitation to come in and meet them, or to join their writers’ group, or participate in some kind of professional development. In some cases it was simply a request to send them future work. Many of them also gave valuable feedback.
I don’t consider “No, but…” to be Rejection. Very few playwrights get their first play produced off the back of unsolicited submissions. If you’re submitting cold and you’re getting a load of “No, but….” then consider that a positive.
Everyone Writes Shit Plays
There’s one thing I wish I’d known when I was starting out (err, back in 2014) and it sort of boils down to don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and don’t be too in love with your own work. Be realistic. Be brutal.
I promise you can ask any professional writer, no matter how accomplished, “Have you ever written a shit script?” and they will say yes.
Everyone has written a shit script. God knows I have. Everyone has walked away from something they’ve invested time in because it just didn’t work. It doesn’t mean anything. You can write a shit play then write a brilliant play. You can write a brilliant play then write a shit play. You can write a shit draft and turn it into a brilliant finished play. You can write a great play that isn’t right for when and where you’re writing it. Writing a shit play doesn’t mean you’re a shit writer. But on the flipside, your play might be a shit play. In which case you can either go the self-producing route and find out for sure, or go and write another play.
Go write another play. Write ten more plays. Fail more. Fail better. Isn’t that what they always say?
*A fair percentage add a codicil: “How do I get past the slush list and actually get my script read?” which is kind of rude, honestly. If your play was rejected, it was read. Script readers know how to do their jobs. The idea that Vicky Featherstone is going to be able to see the genius that some dumb reader overlooked is probably fantasy.
Image credit: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/