Lockdown has given many creatives the time and inspiration to start writing, but for others it can be hard to know where to begin. Samantha Marsden speaks to playwrights about their best tips for writing in the new normal
A piece of trivia that was trotted out repeatedly at the start of lockdown was how William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while theatres were closed due to the plague. While that is setting rather a high benchmark – and no one should have to feel pressure to create their masterwork during lockdown – here are some tips from course leaders, dramaturgs and playwrights on how to write a play during confinement.
Ola Animashawun, the National Theatre Connections dramaturg, recommends: “Write about what you fight about – what are you passionate about, why, and what do you want to say about it? Identify something you really care about and make this the subject of your play – you’ve got to really care, because it’s this passion that will carry you through to the end when the going gets tough.” Animashawun adds: “Commit to writing, ideally everyday, and set yourself targets for how much you’re going to write each day, when you’re going to write, and for how long. When do you intend to have your play finished? Don’t wait to be inspired. When inspiration turns up, let it find you hard at work.”
Al Smith, graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme, and author of Harrogate (HighTide Festival/Royal Court Theatre), Diary of a Madman (Traverse Theatre/Gate Theatre), and The Astronaut Wives Club (Soho Theatre), says: “Think of something you believe to be true that you wouldn’t want to admit to someone who loves you. Try not to say it, say it, then deal with having said it.” Smith’s play Rare Earth Mettle was due to open at London’s Royal Court until theatres went dark.
Many creatives have had less time than ever to write during confinement, with responsibilities such as homeschooling children and working from home taking up most hours of the day. But even if you can only spare an hour, it’s still possible to write during confinement. Amanda Stuart Fisher, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s course leader for BA (hons) Writing for Performance, explains that some undergraduate students at Central are working with young people and encouraging them to think about what the global crisis means to them. “By starting with your own perspective as writer, you can put a human face on this global issue and write something real and authentic,” she says.
Actor-writer Sarah Milton, who wrote Lucy Light and Tumble Tuck, explains: “One of the biggest traps you can fall into as a new writer is including too much exposition. I think it’s worth remembering that your audience doesn’t want all the information too early. Trust your dialogue – your audience wants to work it out for themselves.”
Actor-writer Maddie Rice has performed in the stage and screen version of Fleabag and has written and starred in her own play Pickle Jar, which is being adapted for television by Apple TV. She says: “I always find starting small works best. I write a list of things that are bugging me, big life questions that I can’t answer, short stories that make me laugh and cry. It’s great to have a ‘feeling’ as a starting point. If you don’t feel like writing, then talk into your phone. It’s sometimes easier for me to think of it as improvising as an actor and then write it up and edit it later.”
Tim Price, senior lecturer in screenwriting at the University of Manchester, says: “The most useful thing for our own writing is to go and read the first plays of our favourite writers. Look at the scale, look at the subject matter. See how they are learning their craft. You’re more than likely to start your career in a studio or a festival setting, possibly even self-producing, so don’t write something with a low budget, write something with no budget. Could you produce this story with props and set from your own home? The more restrictions, the more liberated your writing will be.”
Writer Miriam Battye wrote the play Scenes with Girls while taking part in the Royal Court Writers’ Group. Her play debuted at London’s Royal Court at the beginning of 2020. Battye recommends: “Try demanding of yourself only what you’re writing today. Don’t demand a whole play today. You’re writing a bit today. So do a bit. And then tomorrow just do that again, and again, and again. Then you’ll have loads of bits, and you can line them up and see whether a play is coming out. Every time you write something, don’t panic that it isn’t any good yet. It probably isn’t, yet. You will tart it up later. It’s easier to tart up something that’s halfway there than something that isn’t there at all.”
Comedy writer and performer Gemma Arrowsmith, known for the Emmy-nominated Tracey Ullman’s Show, recommends that you check out BBC Writersroom. She adds: “They have great resources for writers: TV and radio scripts, links to competitions and opportunities. If you’re into comedy and like writing topical material, submit sketches to Newsjack, the BBC’s open-door topical sketch show.”
Playwriting by National Theatre: a free seven-part audio course available through itunes.apple.com
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing: available through masterclass.com
Writing Drama: a ten-week course created by the University of Oxford, available via conted.ox.ac.uk
Playwriting: a ten-week course on offer with Gotham Writers, available through writingclasses.com