How would you recommend young people who are aspiring playwrights get started?
The most important thing is to just write. The theatre world is full of people who would describe themselves as writers, but never actually do any writing. Even if it’s notes, a journal, a poem - but just write every day! And read. Read plays, I know it feels expensive sometimes but there are a lot of local libraries. Try and read a play every day - I did that for my first 5 years of playwriting. If you read a lot of plays, you learn how to read. The importance of learning how to read is to read not as a fan, a critic, or an academic, but to read as a thief. You can read through and decide what you’re going to steal from any playwright – steal from Euripides, Sarah Kane, Brandon Jenkins, Shakespeare. Find writers you can pilfer from!
Go to the theatre as much as you can, go to local theatre and see how cheaply you can get tickets. Clearly that’s not easy at the moment, but it will come back. Theatre will come back – go and see as much as you can – don’t necessarily go for a great night out, go along to perfect your craft. Be fearless!
When you’ve written your plays, send them out there. To theatres local to you. When this strange time ends, I think local theatre will be even more important. Get in touch with creatives in your neighbourhood - get in touch with local writing groups, find other writers because other writers will console, inspire and galvanise you.What advice can you give about how to approach a second draft of a stage script?
It’s very interesting - I never really know when I’ve written a first, second, third draft. I don’t count them; I just save it by the date. It seems like an administrative point, but plays are never finished. They are never right. I've had plays that it’s only after the opening night that I've realised the errors and the changes I need to make in the play. So, don’t necessarily see it as a first or second draft, see things as continuing processes, refining things.
When it comes to refining things – advice number one would be to leave the play for as long as you can. Reading something you just finished writing and thinking about is hard to see with clarity. Give yourself time between finishing a script and reading it. Once you’ve sent it out or others are reading it, or if potential producers/theatres have asked for a redraft, listen as carefully as you can to every bit of advice that you can from actors, directors, literary managers, then when you get home, type up the notes.
I think when you write a play, the only response I ever really want from anybody is ‘this is the best play anyone has ever written, congratulations you’ve won’ but of course, they’ve never said that, so every reaction to my play has been about refining and changing. So that can be quite a painful thing, when you get questions or uncertainty. So, when you get out of that feedback meeting, type the notes up. It makes my relationship with the notes much more clinical and much less emotional.
Then what I do is try and leave it again for a few days, then re-read the notes. Then, re-read the play. But print it out, don’t read it on the screen. I think reading on the screen is really dangerous, because reading on the screen you can get seduced into changing punctuation, thinking you’re doing a redraft.
Instead, sit in a calm quiet place, print it out and read it out in one go. Don’t make any notes. If you’ve read the notes from your feedback first, they will start to percolate. Then, when you read it again for a second time, mark the script so you can see areas you’re going to go back to. I’m really practical and pragmatic – I decide how long it’s going to take me to ‘redraft’. I’m working on a film at the moment, and I’m going to do 11 pages a day for ten days. Some pages will require no changes, some will require massive changes. Rather than trying to do the whole lot in one go, which can be an overwhelming experience, I compartmentalize. Maybe do one redraft when you’re looking at stage images, one where you’re looking at characters, allow your approaches to the redraft to be influenced by the people who have responded to the play and who you’re in conversation with. When you have any idea does it usually come from a character you’ve imagined or a particular situation?
For me, ideas come from a synthesis of different impulses. So, every play will at one point be crystallised around a character, one point it will crystallise around a theme, or an experience.
When I talk about this process I always quote Peter Brook – he talks of the empty stage about a ‘formless hunch’ - when I heard that phrase it resonated with me as it feels like my experience of getting the starting point of a play. Plays, for me, start with a vague notion which makes me feel like a detective – there's something I want to investigate. Sometimes it might be a character I’ve met in my own life, and experience, it could be something I've seen in the world, a place I've been to that haunts me in some way, it could be a story somebody told me, it could be something from my childhood. It could be something I’ve read in another play that I want to respond to, either by emulating or interrogating, it could be something I’ve read in a novel or a poem. Often for me it’s a piece of music that I’ve heard, and I want to affect a theatre audience in the way that the music affected me. It could be a fact I've read, or an experience in the political world. It could even be actors I want to work with!
The key thing is not to worry about knowing if you’ve got a concrete idea. Let the formless hunch linger there for a little while and sit in your head. Leave it alone for as long as you can. If you start writing too soon, before the idea has been allowed to develop and grow, you’ll hit a wall. It’s not necessarily that plays come from the same place every time. It’s often just something I don’t understand – it’s normally an idea I start with that I can’t make sense of or frightens me in some way. Fear and confusion are strong starting points when I come across something I don’t quite get. How would you write for a social distance audience?
Like every single practitioner in the world at the moment, I don’t know. We’ll have to figure it out. And I don’t think we’ll figure it out theoretically, we’ll do it by practise and by doing it wrong! That’s really key – we need to make mistakes; we need to get things wrong.
Part of me thinks I’ve sat in many socially distant audiences! Some of my favourite plays. I’m thinking of sitting downstairs in the Royal Court for Nightsongs
, a Jon Fosse play directed by Katie Mitchell and there were about 30 people in the audience, because critically the play had bombed. But the play really affected me, it really lived with me. Some of my favourite experiences have been in empty theatres. Some of my plays have been the same – I remember when Country Music
was on at the Royal Court, we were averaging 35 tickets a night sold. But many of favourite experiences have been in audiences like that, and it can make the experience of being in the theatre feel like a real gift, like it's something really remarkable that you can access and share it in the room with a group of people. I think it can be very beautiful.
I would write it in the same way as I write anything. I imagine the play I wish someone else had written so that I could go and see it. That will remain the same. I’ll be doing that!How do you get the motivation to sit down and begin to write?
I think I just love theatre. I love the magic of it, I love the space, the alchemy that happens when an actor offers an utterance on a stage. The idea that I can make that happen is beyond magical to me. Since the first time I experienced that as a student, it’s an illness you get. The magic of that is an illness that you get, and having had that feeling, the thought of not doing it again is quite unbearable. It’s not about getting the energy to write more plays, it’s about stopping myself! What are the differences you have noticed between writing for stage and screen?
I’m not a good screenwriter – you should ask someone like Abi Morgan, Jack Thorne, or Dennis Kelly. Those writers have written for both stage and screen brilliantly.
Cinema has more scenes, the length of gaze is longer in the theatre. A film might be one line long or might not have any dialogue at all – I like the class advice that screenplays are more like novels. Dennis Kelly said that to me when I was really struggling – to remember that a screenplay is like a piece of prose. I think that’s why historically, novelists have made better screenwriters than playwrights have, especially when you look at the Hollywood golden age.
I think there are some things that are shared - a scene should always be a moment of action, where characters are trying to do something, or affect their world. I never know what the text is called that describes what people do in a screenplay, but I'm working with a director at the moment who likes to think of it as just action. So, in what would be the stage directions, in screen directions, you’re only ever writing the things that people do. What film are you working on?
I can’t tell you unfortunately!Are there any specific playwrights whose work you draw inspiration from?
So many! I’m a real fanboy of playwrights and every play I read I take bits from. If I were to reduce it down to a readable list, I would say the playwrights that most define my work would be Euripides, Chekhov, Sarah Kane, Robert Holman and Peter Gill. I love those writers. Sarah Kane is profoundly important to me in an emotional way – I feel her work in my heart.
I love the Leonard Cohen song Tower of Song
, which suggests that all songwriters sit under the tower of song. He talks about sitting outside the tower of song, listening to Hank Williams laughing all night long. I think playwrights have different towers they sit under, and I think Chekhov is the playwright who I most adore and try and take inspiration from. Where do you suggest new playwrights start when they’re trying to get their plays out there?
Pay attention to the theatres that produce new writing that you love. If you go and see a new play and you love it, find out who the producing company is or go to the website of that theatre and see if they read new plays. Go to the theatre as often as you can, and you might find that there are theatres you keep returning to, or that when you do go there, their work resonates most with you.
I’m also a big advocate for self-production - I know it's really complicated, you have to endure quite a lot of frustration and disappointment, and a long time in your working life being skint. I started off producing my own plays whilst I was working at a café in Edinburgh and earning about £90 a week. I just had no money at all, I’d just plead for rooms to work in, places to rehearse in, and I was working mainly with student actors. I wouldn’t do it now, clearly there are ethics of payment, but if you can find like-minded people who are trying to make work, you may be able to put on a play with your mates. Put on a play in a garage, a pub. It’s such an uncertain and unstable industry, playwriting, but I think possibly, out of all this weirdness, might come an energy and a vitality in the strangest corners of self-production, and that could have something about it.
I’d draw solace from New York City in the 1970s – it was a broken city, economically it was bust. It was when they were giving massive rent discounts for people who claimed to be artists in the attempt to inhabit the Lower East Side/East Village. In that energy of brokenness, of economic despair, there was some amazing work made, in church halls or cafes. Maybe that’s something that people can look at now.
But overall, look to the professional world but don’t be put off at all if you have to put on your own play. It could be by doing that, that you learn more about your craft than anything else might teach you. What would you say about writing in English as your non-native language? Can I be daring enough to write a play in English, despite being Russian?
You can be as daring as you like to be! Dare to do whatever you want. The defining playwright of the 20th century Samuel Beckett wrote most of his plays in French, which was his second language. Always dare to do what you want to do. Don’t be afraid or allow fear to stop you.
I worry a lot about writers who are asking permission to dare. Especially when those writers are female writers, because the nature of patriarchy in my lifetime has been excluding works, not necessarily explicitly, but through entitlement. There are brilliant women writers who I’ve worked with or spoken to, who have sometimes felt that they are not as entitled to speak, or to write, as male writers are. I would urge you to never let ‘daring’ to be something to worry about. Never let fear stop you. If you are writing in spite of fear or uncertainty, always know how politically defiant that gesture is. How do you start writing?
My process has become something I’m more confident talking about. I spoke about the vague notion of a ‘formless hunch’, but once I’ve got it, first thing I do is leave it alone, for as long as possible, in the back of my head. If it’s any good, it will stay there and will only grow richer for being there. If it goes, it was never good enough as an idea. I spoke to Jez Butterworth about this idea on my podcast
. He knows an idea is good enough for a play if he’s left it there for 15 years. I don’t leave it that long, but I do try and leave it for a long old time!
Next thing I’ll do once I’ve made the time and the space to write, is to start researching. Research is a big part of my working life. I mean a whole variety of things by that. Not just the world or the lives (although sometimes that – the history or the geography that I am interested in), but also identifying plays that consider the same questions that I’m wanting to ask. I’ll make a list of plays to read, or films to watch, music to listen to, places to go, and I’ll keep a notebook of observations from those things.
In recent years I’ve started typing out the notes that I make and seeing if characters arrive. I then build the play around the characters that I might have stumbled upon.
I think the typing up is really crucial – it’s boring, but I think boredom is an essential part of making work. It may be that when I type the notes out, I might find something that I don’t remember writing down, and it’s finding that forgotten note where I might find a character that bites. When I read through my notes I search for things. I look for stage images, I search for characters, search for dialogues or actions. I’ll then build a template of stage images. It’s a dramaturgy that I interrogate, but I stand by it.
I do a lot of work on characters, and the relationship between characters. I am also always a planner – I plan narrative, I plan the story before I write any dialogue. Having planned a story of the play, I’ll then plan the structure – how many scenes are there, when are they, where are they. Then you write your dialogue. It’s key that going into each scene, I know who’s leading the scene, who’s driving it – what they want, and who is stopping them from getting it, and what they’ll do in order to get it. Writing is like a game, in which characters are playing. Are there any directors you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
Loads! Rebecca Frecknall, I think she’s a genius. Robert Icke, I think is a genius. Ned Bennett, I think is an extraordinary director. Polly Findlay, really exciting work. Christoph Marthaler. I could go on!How do you slide messages, or talk about social issues in your work without it sounding educational?
I should always say in these things - nothing I say is true, it's just stuff that I’ve done or thoughts that I’ve had. For me, the starting point of a play is never something that I want to teach. I like teaching, I think of myself as a teacher as much as a writer, but I start plays with something that I’m uncertain about or frightened of. If the starting point of the play is not an impulse to educate, then the play won’t be something that educates. The play will hopefully be something that investigates, or interrogates, or affects.
I get quite excited by ideas, I get quite excited by stuff! The thing to avoid is making sure that every line is doing something. As long as every line has an action, then what it contains can be as diverse or surprising as you want. It’s when the action of a line is only to teach, teaching is quite a thin verb in drama. I’m more interested in lines that interrogate, seduce, startle, alarm, compel – these are more alive transitive verbs, and if you can find a verb that takes your idea and can do something with it, that’s the point. What sort of exercises between characters do you do?
There’s a few that I can share – some I’ve been doing for 20 years. When I used to teach Playwriting at the Royal Court Young Writers Programme, I used some of these.
Give yourself ten minutes (use a timer) and ask eight questions. I’ve done this for every play I’ve ever written. If you know my plays well, you’ll be able to spot how I’ve built the scenes out of these eight questions. I ask these questions of every relationship between my characters, regardless of whether these characters meet one another on stage or not.
How long have the characters known one another?
In what capacity do they know each other?
What do they openly like about one another?
What do they openly dislike about each other?
What do they secretly like about each other?
What do they secretly dislike about each other?
What do they get from one another?
What do they want from one another that they don’t currently get?
Those eight questions really fill up the relationship between characters, I think. What skills/techniques/processes in playwriting can you apply in screenwriting?
I think the crucial thing to remember is that every scene should be an action point. Dialogue should never be conversational, every line in a screenplay should be something they’re doing. They have an objective, something that they want. Actors should have objectives, actions, and utterance.
Objectives – what characters want out of a scene
Actions – what characters are doing in a scene to get what they want, overcoming obstacles to get what they want
Utterances – What they are saying
Dialogue in stage plays and screenplays is boring when the utterance, objective and action are too similar to one another, e.g they have something that they want, their action is to get something they want, what they say is ‘please can I get that thing that I want’. You can see it in mediocre screenwriting. Have you ever worked with a dramaturg? What was it like?
Yes, I’ve worked with quite a few, on Song From Far Away,
and on the German language premieres of Pornography
and Three Kingdoms
– I’ve always found it really fun, really exciting. The defining thing for a dramaturg is that they’re present in the rehearsal room, I’ve found them to be allies in the room. The job I guess is to navigate the relationship between the director, the designers, the writer and the actors. They act as a sounding board for the director as they make sense of what they’re doing – being part of the conversation with those dramaturgs was really important. What is a stage image?
It's just something that happens that you look at on the stage. The kind of thing that’s often described in stage directions. I’ve written my first play. What do I do with it?
Well I don’t know your situation, but leave it for two weeks, then read it and see if you think it does what you hoped it would do. If there are theatres in your town, see if they’re producing new plays. If not, find where you can - like I said in an earlier question, go to the theatres and see which ones work resonates with you.
Find some mates and sit and read it, if you can find some space, invite people to come. I know it's hard, particularly if you don’t have the money, but keep going. Try and put it on in a small situation, and don’t despair. Is there a topic you want to explore but you’re nervous to discuss?
No! Those kinds of topic are where it’s exciting – when it’s frightening, is when it’s exciting. If I’m nervous enough, I’ll worry away, and it will make its way into a play somehow. I would only write a play that I wanted to see myself, and if I want to see it myself, I think that other people might want to see it as well. If you have a strong opinion on an issue that you want to explore but don’t want to preach, any tips on how to start?
When I write a play, it’s not that I don’t have opinions on the world. I’ve got so many opinions! But, if you have something you want to say, write an essay. If you have something you want to teach, become a teacher. If there’s something that frightens you, or you have contradictory feelings about, that might be a play. Drama is a space for contradiction, it’s a space for narrative that’s built out of contradiction. Stories are things that contradict themselves, they’re not places of certainty. Theatre is a place for uncertainty and exploration, it’s a place for making sense of humanity in a time of uncertainty. Do you prefer writing from completely original ideas of your own, or from stimulus?
I love both, I think it’s a real honour to be able to do both. I love adapting books for the stage, I love writing English language versions of plays that are originally written in another language, and I love the difficulties and the adventure of inventing a new story. I love both equally.
It feels such a privilege to be able to do this work, to have ever been able to do this job. In a time now, where we need to, more than any other time I’ve ever lived in, where we need to try to make sense of what the human animal is. Who we are, where we are, what we’re going to be. It’s a frightening time for everybody – and if you’re a young writer, a young actor, a young theatre maker watching this, it's an uncertain time, and I feel for you and I sympathise with that. But be fearless, be daring, because if we’re going to make sense of this oddity, of this curious phenomenon of the Covids, what we need more than anything is our storytellers. We need storytellers, to make sense of where we are, and what we’re going to be, and what we’re being. That’s where you guys step up. Be fearless, be daring, have a great deal of fun.