We are continually told that execs are always looking for writers who have an original voice or have something interesting to say. The spec screenplay pile doesn’t offer a lot of distinctive voices or innovative material. So, a lot of the time, execs will turn to the theatre to see which writers are making their mark.
It is not a huge leap from theatre to screenwriting, and a lot of successful writers have learned their craft by dabbling with more experimental fare on radio and the stage. But I don’t know a great deal about it. Luckily, Tom Green does. Tom is a writer who is a member of the Writers’ Guild of GB and edits their blog, website and magazine. Here, he shares his tips and insight into writing for theatre:
“There’s not a huge amount about playwriting available online so, even though this is primarily a blog for screenwriters, I thought people might be interested in a few thoughts about writing for theatre.
I had my first play staged in 2004 and my second, Antigua, opens at The Tabard Theatre in London on November 7th, so I’m hardly a seasoned professional. But the brief experience I’ve had has been extremely enjoyable and taught me more than anything I’d done before.
As with any form of dramatic writing, there are no limits to subject or scale. But more theatres will be able to stage a two-person show than one with a cast of thirty.
People in theatre seem less hung-about about structure than their film and TV equivalents but the same ‘rules’ still apply – after all, Aristotle wasn’t writing about feature films. On the whole, risk-taking in both form and content is encouraged. If you can tell a good story and create controversy then you’re made.
For some basic ‘how-to’ advice try Playwriting 101 by Jon Dorf. The Playwriting Seminars by Richard Toscan is also useful, even though it’s very badly designed.
There is no single set format for play manuscripts, just make a clear distinction between dialogue and action and make it clear who is speaking.
What’s in it for you?
You’re unlikely to get rich writing plays. Even if you do manage to get something staged at a decent venue you won’t be giving up the day job any time soon. A writer told me recently that she’d made more from a single episode of Hollyoaks that she wrote in three weeks than from a commissioned play that took her two years.
The benefits come primarily from the working process - writers tend to be more involved, and listened to, than they might be in film or TV. And seeing your work performed in front of an audience is invaluable.
You’ll also find that, if you can get something produced, people in TV, as well as in theatre, will take notice. If you get some good reviews, expect to find agents knocking on your door.
There are only a handful of new writing theatres, but most of them will (eventually) read what you send them and, if they like it, they’ll try to find a way to get you involved in a writing group or scheme. Don’t expect it to be any easier than getting into TV or film, though. But at least you’ll be getting rejected by different people.
While getting a play on at a mainstream theatre is the goal, you can also try the fringe. It’s not cheap – perhaps £150 plus per night to hire the venue, for starters – but if you can raise the money it’s a way to get your work seen and your name known.
There’s a useful list of London fringe venues at OffWestEnd.com
Some new writing theatres in London:
The Bush Theatre
Theatre Royal, Stratford East
Liverpool’s New Writing Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
If you are interested in writing for the theatre, the best thing to do first is read a lot of plays and go to the theatre as much as possible. Feel free to start by coming to see my play, Antigua, at The Tabard. Say the magic words “Danny Stack” and I’ll buy you a drink in the bar.”
That’s extremely useful. Thanks, Tom!