There’s no success like failure but failure’s no success at all…

29 Jul

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© Georgia Sydeena

The new writing scene in theatre has been transformed in the last few years. Even five years ago there wasn’t the plethora of new writing showcases, mainly for shorter work, that there is now. Perhaps this is borne out of the situation where there is a massive number of (aspiring) playwrights kicking around with relatively few production spaces for new writing, especially for debut writers. Ditto the multitude of young actors and directors and comparatively few opportunities for them. So the burgeoning DIY movement in theatre sees these actors and directors producing new writing, most commonly a one-off production of short work.

This has a strange impact on aspiring playwrights. Unlike the short story, where there is a market out there for prose writers to be published, albeit not especially lucrative, short work in theatre is rare by established writers. There are honourable exceptions of course. Beckett and Tennessee Williams, who wrote classic short work as well as longer pieces, spring to mind. But does this mean that aspiring writers are writing short pieces only because they are establishing themselves, opposed to respecting the form itself? Are they, in effect, having to enter sprinting competitions when really they should be training for a marathon? I actually believe the short play can have great aesthetic value in itself, opposed to just providing an opportunity for aspiring writers, and it is interesting that there is an increasing number of showcases featuring more established writers, frequently around a particular theme, often a political matter.

I have had five short pieces produced in just over a year. Each one was an amazing experience. I felt I have gotten much better at the form, but have often found it makes it harder to return to writing longer pieces. What’s brilliant about short plays, like short stories, is they can strip a tale down to its essence – no sub-plots, no surplus characters, no aching backside for the audience. But to then have to return to producing the intricately technical waffle-fest of a full-length work is challenging. There is also the amount of time you devote to writing shorter work. I have produced enough material in short-form that would amount to two full-length plays in the last eighteen months. Would my time have been better spent actually writing two full-length plays? And then there is the emotional rollercoaster of shortlists, rejections and, more rarely, acceptance and production.

Recently I was shortlisted for a playwriting competition in London and accepted into the Script This showcase in Lincoln in the same week. The latter produces readings of five extracts from longer work and the audience votes on which play gets further development. This aspect is a real selling point. You get a short piece of work produced and potentially get valuable assistance on the longer play. Alas it wasn’t my week: my shortlisted play in London wasn’t chosen and my other play wasn’t voted for further development in Script This. Yet failure such as this is not too disheartening – competition is high and getting any work on is good. Five shorts in just over a year is not bad. Best not to be too greedy.

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© Pixelglo Photography

But it is the Script This model I wish to praise here (see:!/ScriptThisLincoln?fref=ts). It is rare to see this commitment to help writers with a longer play. Also, the majority of short play showcases are full dress productions. Having a script in hand reading of a work in progress shifts the emphasis from just making a short piece work on the night to letting ideas breathe, letting them grow and, equally as important, seeing what doesn’t work and getting rid of it. The Hampstead Theatre used to have the excellent Start Nights a few years ago which had a similar format; it is hard to think of similar showcases at more established theatres these days.

The night of Script This was laid back, with the audience at tables enjoying their drinks. A discussion followed each short play. This was the bit I dreaded – your work being shot down in public. Yet the environment and comments were constructive.

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© Pixelglo Photography

My play, Waiting for My Man, follows two young characters, Jay and Dizzy (see photo of Liam Paul Gregory and Hayley Arnold at the top of the post), as Jay tries to scrape some money together to pay off a debt. They live in a small, perennially out of season, out of luck costal town. The play takes place on a crumbling pier, here’s an excerpt:

Dizzy: …that’s why we have to crawl to Declan.

Jay: He’s alright.

Dizzy: No he’s not, he’s a cunt. Making us come here like he’s James Bond or something.

Jay: He never fails to deliver.

Dizzy: Meeting us in this old dump.

Jay: It’s private.

Dizzy: It’s not safe. It’s been condemned.

Jay: You what?

Dizzy (Shouts): It’s a death-trap.

Jay: Really?

Dizzy: Look at it Jay, this pier’s fucked, burnt out.

Jay: It’s always been like this.

Dizzy: Yeah, it has since you come to the home. But you didn’t see the fire.

Jay: Must have been before I was sent to this shitty town.

Dizzy: It was bad enough before the fire. Year after year it gets worse.

Jay: So you’re saying it could fall down?

Dizzy: Listen.

(The pier creaks in the wind. It sounds like it could topple over any minute.)

Jay: Fuck.

The reading was really useful in developing my play. A character who briefly appears, who I worried might be superfluous, worked well. On the other hand there were far too many ‘fucks’. I cringed at the repetitive bombardment. There again, Liam Paul Gregory also performed Hannah Smith’s monologue at the end of the evening entitled ‘Fucked’, which also used the word like it was going out of fashion. So I was in good company.

But now it is back to being deskbound in the normal isolation a writer endures, opposed to working with creative colleagues. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Like all writers I just need to stop procrastinating and get on with finishing the next fucking play…

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