Dear Reader,

I want to write the chaos that is inside us, chaos in which a word has no meaning but a meaning has a sound and the layer of sounds is grappling with what it is to be.

I want to write a person that I can’t know by meeting them, that I can’t see on a screen, something that goes deeper than subtext; it doesn’t matter why you are like this. I want to see you, the way we never see each other. I want to watch, I want to listen, imagine. Let me find another way of thinking.

I want to write beyond language, I want to write noise, emotion, the impossibilities of writing any of this.

Show me a world without the answers, let me see the patterns, let me discover something about myself, I don’t care if it wasn’t intended. How could it be? No one is that clever.

Writers don’t know why. Writers don’t know what they are doing. That’s when it’s writing writing writing the writer is lost.

Lost, invisible, busy, we want to disappear in our work.

Risk. Audiences love it. Audiences don’t know the rules. Because there aren’t any. Anyone who needs someone to tell them how to do theatre should be doing something else. A job with a line manager.

Stop censoring writers who play with plays.

I can’t tell you what central question this play is asking its audience, because it hasn’t been made yet. Because the page is only the first breath. And even when it has been made it will ask different things of different people, and they will ask different things of it.

As soon as you think you know how to write, direct, make theatre – as soon as there is a system, it is dead.

Of course I can learn the ‘rules’, I can understand them, I enjoy them embedded in a good novel. Hunger Games used them well in the film (the book gets the rules of plot right but forgot to follow the ‘show don’t tell’ rule with character and dialogue). Of course I know the rules. I’m good at teaching them too. I also don’t think the audience is stupid enough to require them on a plate. Not in the theatre. Not in the theatres with uncomfortable seats, dodgy heating, and no ice cream. I need something more to keep me sitting there.

The funny thing is, everyone knows this, everyone knows that really, there are no rules, but still, people keep quoting the ‘rules’ of playwriting back at me. David Lan’s ‘rules’ come up a lot. But he doesn’t have rules for directors, this is great:

It is not as if once you have done 37 productions, you will walk in next time and know how to do it. Everyone is equal and everyone is struggling all the time. On the first day of rehearsal it can happen that you arrive and you have no idea how to start or what you are going to do. You make it up. We are all equal and everyone is starting afresh each time. David Lan, interview. 

The following was given to me by David Prescott from the Drum Theatre Royal, Plymouth, I will find out where he got it from. It has also been quoted to me verbatim more than once.

David Lan’s Narrative Structure for all of Western Drama:

A character exists in a culture.

Something about that culture is causing the character to suffer.

Something happens that makes the character realise that they have to do something or get something to ease the suffering.

They go on a journey that may or may not be a physical journey in their attempt to do or get this thing.

On this journey they come across obstacles which they either succeed or fail in overcoming.

In their success or their failure they either learn something about themselves or the audience learns something about them.

[I have never met David Lan and he may not intend the above as a manual for today’s playwrights, however, it has been presented to me as such]

I prefer to think of narrative as the perspective that the work is told from, and as something that the audience can weave for themselves, audiences are good at that, we just need to let them.

I struggle to apply Lan’s structure to Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, Sarah Kane’s Crave, Beckett’s Not I…etc. Perhaps with effort and a bit of twisting it’s possible. But what’s the point? These principles were not extracted from plays in the first place in order to interpret this ‘postdramatic’ generation of writing (which is a joke in itself, this work is hardly new, it’s just marginalised now more than ever –and in fact barely exists in this country thanks to the censorship of the few ‘new writing’ theatres that accept unsolicited scripts). But it seems this vocabulary is all many have. As a reader/director told me, if we don’t use these parameters to discuss a play – then how can we talk about it? If they can’t talk about it the writer’s fucked.

I hope I never know how to write a play.

Give the writer a voice. Let us respond to your reasons for rejecting our plays without fear of ostracism and the reputation for being difficult to work with.

Being able to think as well as being about to write doesn’t mean we are difficult to work with.

Art gallery curators don’t tell artists how to make their work. Stop telling writers how to write. That doesn’t mean we won’t listen or collaborate. That doesn’t mean we will be difficult to work with.

Stop censoring plays you don’t understand. You’re not supposed to. They are not supposed to be read. I thought Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis was a self-indulgent diary the first time I read it. Then I read it again many times and performed in it. All plays are for performance, but some plays in particular don’t work on the page, and certainly one quick reading of them is not enough. It doesn’t follow that they need more than one viewing in order to communicate in performance.

Don’t dismiss a play because it doesn’t look like a play on the page. Don’t dismiss a play because it does look like a play but doesn’t do the other things you expect. I’ve said this before, I’m boring myself.

Come on England, let us write and get rid of the bloody readers. They are not needed because playwrights don’t write for the page. So stop reading our pages and let us write them.

For my part: I’ll stop sending you my pages to read.

‘We hope you will find a home for your play elsewhere’

There is no home for my plays. I need to build one myself.

Inspired by my rejection letters, various blogs including by George Hunka: 

The impulse to storytelling (and to being subsumed within the telling of a story) is constantly undermined by violent fragmentation of the human urge to both telling and listening to a well-rounded narrative — and, in fragmenting and frustrating this desire, to invite the individual audience member to fit these on-stage events into their own matrix of interpretation instead of having this matrix imposed upon the events by the artist: to create one’s own story, rather than having a story eliminate alternative interpretations through the logic of its expected progression through time, in conforming to the “well-made” story, as that “well-making” is ideologically defined by the dramatist and the director. (George Hunka)

and a feature in the recent UK Writer, the Writers’ Guild magazine which quoted Arnold Wesker from ‘Wesker on Theatre’.

Arnold Wesker on the Royal Court in the 50s:

They didn’t like or understand what I wrote, but they took the risk. I’d like to think they trusted the writer, but with experience and hindsight now understand it was the directors – Anderson and Dexter – whom they trusted.

And on new writing now:

All plays must be filtered through those directors and, more likely, literary managers with first-class degrees in Eng. Lit and little ability to lift a play off a page, or whose antenna are tilted to detect what is politically correct or (ephemerally) of the moment.

[...] I have no home, no base, no team with whom to work on that material, and my file of curious, stuttering, contradictory letters of rejection grows. Artistic directors admire my plays for their ‘powerful’ themes, ‘passionate dialogue’, and ‘brilliant’ something or other but, but, but…they do not fit into their artistic policy.

17 Comments

Filed under Playwriting, Theatre

17 responses to “Dear Reader,

  1. Hi Hannah, I cannot agree with you more.

    I have no idea how I write.

    I have no plan.

    No guide.

    I just write when it comes.

    The structure is how it is when it falls out of me.

    The words and the language set themselves up.

    I know it is working for me when I see patterns emerging.

    As a writer/performer myself, I made the rather silly mistake of sending
    my most recent work for inclusion in a ‘new writing’ festival last month.

    Here are the readers comments;

    “This is a highly stylised piece of work which would benefit from some development of the narrative. There were snippets of information – mostly related to the character’s relationship with his parents – which could be expanded to make a more satisfying dramatic experience. Structurally, the writer might like to think how to inject some tonal variety into the piece. Short sentences work best when there is a sense of rising tension – allow some space for it to ebb and flow. The writer evidently has something to say; the trick is now to find a structure that will make the narrative more accessible.”

    From my point of view the reader completely missed the whole point of the piece and saw nothing of the structure or the poetry of my language. They have no idea how I would perform it. They know nothing about me.

    Needless to say, I was neither successful or even shortlisted.

    In fact now, I’m rather pleased that I wasn’t.

    I like it here out on the edge.

    But it doesn’t pay the bills.

  2. Hi Stephen,
    Yes, nice one, they even told you what length sentences to write :)

    I’ve noticed that readers are particularly hostile towards language play and poetry.

    Having said so, I’ve got some lovely (rejection) comments:

    “I was immediately drawn in. There is intriguing word-play from the get-go and a sense that something intelligent and solid is underneath all the strangeness. I liked that it was hard to pin down, this kept me reading. It breaks form, eschews reality and feels ambitious and dangerous.” (on my play, Hunger)

    – But that was from a company that produces very little new work and when they do it’s with established writers.

    My worry is that the writers who don’t fit the new writing culture are forced to write for themselves to perform, and to go into other areas where they are more welcomed when really, they are playwrights – they are just not allowed to be. I wanted to make Opposition, but I don’t want to continue with a string of one person shows written for myself, I find that too limiting.

    • Agreed. Yes, it would be great to write for more than just myself. Collaboration.
      I trained as an actor and the idea of writing came a lot later. I needed to write to perform. I couldn’t just stay in line waiting to work. I also had stuff I needed to write about. Solo work is hard. And yes, it can be limiting. From a purely economic viewpoint it makes sense to me. I can travel light and only need to rely on myself. Performing is the main thing for me. So if this is the only way. Then needs must.

  3. Yes, that makes sense for you then. Writing is the main thing for me. So if this is the only way…

  4. Hi Hannah and Stephen

    I’ll stick my head above the parapet and dive in, if that’s not mixing too many metaphors at the outset. We were the ones who rejected Stephen’s work recently and it’s true that the reader just didn’t connect with the work. Which is something that happens whether you’re reading something on the page, or seeing it on stage. It’s an arbitrary process and it’s difficult to get around that subjectivity.

    Having said that, the reason for running an open submission process was to try and discover new voices and new ways of working. As an emerging Festival with few resources, it’s difficult to find a way of doing that without breaking the bank. We consciously tried to get readers who work with a range of artists in a range of different ways. Perhaps we’ll find a completely different way of doing things next year. As it stands, the works we’ve selected are not run-of-the-mill “new writing”. One is a very lyrical piece that makes great use of language, sound and visual landscapes. The writer works across visual poetry, performance, theatre and spoken word – using language as a crossover between art forms. That’s very interesting to me, and I’m pleased to be able to support his work through this process.

    Which is kind of the reason why I’m here in the first place. I follow Hannah on Twitter – we corresponded via Capital last year and I liked your work very much. I’m interested in your journey as an artist and where the crossovers are between “new work” and “new writing”. It’s part of the reason why I set up this Festival – to find out if there are different models of support for writers working in different ways. But we’re not going to be able to support everyone.

    I’m heading out, so won’t be able to respond to anything else this evening, but look forward to discussing this further.

  5. Hello Catherine,
    How great that you respond here, thank you!

    It’s a funny one isn’t it, I entered your festival the first year, got to the final 10 I think and received a very nice email from you about my work but without specific feedback. I felt very encouraged reading that email and went on to develop what I’d sent you (a re-working of David Cameron’s Big Society speech) into my show, Opposition. So really I have your festival to thank for that. And anyway it turned out that piece was better suited to being a solo show for me than a play with actors. Stephen on the other hand got some feedback – but I wonder how useful feedback is from a reader that ‘just didn’t connect with the work’. I think a reader who just doesn’t get a piece of work shouldn’t be offering advice to the writer on how to write it. At the risk of the reader in question turning up to argue their point (and I don’t know Stephen’s work at all) – sometimes work can be so far out of the reader’s parameters that there’s no point responding to it, even though this is equally hard for the writer to hear. But still, I prefer someone to say honestly, ‘I can’t talk about this work’ (as several have to me) than to criticise it in an uninformed way – even though it worries me that this inability reveals a limited perspective of theatre.

    But as you say, it’s difficult to get around subjectivity. In the same way, a lot of the work I see at new writing theatres is so removed from what I want to do that I realise there’s no point sending the theatres my stuff. On the other hand, I write plays, and I don’t want to be stuck in a spoken word/performance art/avant-garde category. And actually I think it is hugely important that writers working differently get their plays onto stages and don’t give up with the concession that, at least we can write something to perform ourselves.

    The world of playwriting is so saturated that I think there are big problems with how the competitions/theatres can deal with the vast amount of work that gets submitted. A couple of (not really that big) things I’ve applied to in the last year have had over 600 submissions. Something else, outside of playwriting only had about 60 (which was considered a lot), yet the opportunity is really much greater and much better funded (and I got it, watch this space : ).

    I remember what it was like reading essay after essay when I was teaching, I guess it’s the same for a reader. Still, personally, I’d put forward the ones that stood out, the ones that were attempting something different. The pieces you mention sound great, but I know that in many situations work is rejected as the readers just don’t know what it is, and are a little bit afraid of it. – Hell, even my spoken word stuff doesn’t fit the usual idea of spoken word, but at least people can see me do it, and see that it works.

    As a friend recently said to me – If you don’t know what something is or what to do with it, that’s the work that should be taken forwards, as we need to find out.

  6. Hello Catherine, Hannah.

    First of all, I’m sorry if I’ve caused a stink by mentioning all of this. Perhaps in hindsight I shouldn’t have posted the feedback I received from the reader. I was simply illustrating one of the points that Hannah was making. My rejection was still a bit raw.
    I simply felt that the feedback really didn’t help me in any way. It appeared that the whole point of the work was completely overlooked. Misunderstood. I’m certainly not annoyed with the reader in any way. I do, however, stand by my work.
    The way in which I write has no rules, no formula. My work is honest and personal. I’m not trying to fit into any category. Simply reading it does not explain the sum total. In performance meaning can be derived.
    Catherine, I do appreciate what you are doing. It must have been difficult to make decisions on the work. Perhaps some of work just didn’t fit into certain parameters that were considered suitable for performance and audiences. Perhaps it was because I am an unheard voice? An unknown quantity…I don’t know…

  7. Hi Stephen,
    I don’t think you should apologise for your post at all. I don’t know your work but regardless, that reader’s comments are patronising and narrow. I think writers shouldn’t be scared of responding publicly, even when our work is little known so we are vulnerable, and there is the risk that observers will make judgements on our plays based on the fact they have not been accepted. I am interested in constructive feedback on my work, and even pay people myself for it. But I’m no longer willing to listen to the mantra that asks my play to fit into a structure I know inside out and do not want to fit into. It is extremely hard to critique and support work that is different to anything the reader knows, which is why it’s so rare to get informed feedback on this kind of work. – Don’t expect anything from anyone, you have to do it yourself. Forget about your rejection now and keep going.

  8. Hi Hannah

    I’m really pleased that my response to your play had a positive effect and I’m sorry I didn’t get to see the full version. If we’re splitting things up into “us and them”, it’s really tricky as “them” to design a system that will tailor to everyone’s needs. And I’m aware that the very use of the word “system” is an anathema to creativity.

    But if we’re talking about vocabulary, I’d like to challenge the perception of “us and them”. It’s much more complicated and fluid than that. I set up Capital off my own bat as a response to the lack of development opportunities for writers. So I’m an individual, running the Festival as an independent project. For my own sanity, I have to set up systems and build up a team of artists and practitioners, whose work and opinions I value and trust. I (we) am not always going to get things right. And I make no apology for that. But what I can do is make sure that the process is as transparent as possible, and that includes engaging in dialogue with people whose work we don’t necessarily understand.

    I’m sorry if the parameters were too rigid to assess Stephen’s work appropriately, and you make a valid point about the nature of the feedback. Equally, I made sure that everyone who applied received a response, which is something that doesn’t happen across the board. That looks pretty feeble written down; basic respect for writers should be a matter of course. But, unfortunately, it isn’t.

    There’s a lot of artists whose work I love, but whose processes I don’t understand; people like Third Angel and Chris Goode. I don’t know what their work would look like in script form. It doesn’t matter; their shows are fab. If the Festival has a future life, I would like to work with artists whose work and visions I trust. The trick is finding them in the first place. Part of that is reading scripts, but part of it is also going out and seeing people’s stuff. I acknowledge that, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Takes time though, and unlike an NPO, I can’t claim expenses!

    Finally, I was interested when the National Theatre Wales opened out their submissions policy: http://bit.ly/HPnotk – all about building relationships rather than reading scripts. That’s what it’s all about, really. Making connections. And yes, trying out new things.

    I’m not sure what the Festival will look like next year, if it takes place at all. I’d like it to be responsive; not fixed, but evolving. I’m interested in where it fits in the regional and national scheme of things. Whether it has a place in finding and developing new work and how exactly to approach that connection point.

    It’s good fun though, if a little knackering at times…

  9. Ah, see that’s what happens when I’m doing several things at once! Apologies Stephen – I didn’t see your latest response. No, you absolutely have the right to challenge opinions, and I’m sorry that the feedback wasn’t more helpful. As I mentioned in my last tome, it was set up in a very specific way, in order to try and cover all bases. But it obviously missed the mark.

    I would be interested in seeing your work as it’s performed, so do keep me on your mailing list for future shows.

  10. Hi Catherine,
    I really look forward to seeing what you do with the festival in the future. Totally understand how hard it is to see everything on no money, I have the same problem. And I take your ‘them and us’ point as well. Part of it I think is when a writer feels powerless to respond, and therefore those rejecting their work feel so impossibly hard to reach, and so, inhuman in a way.

    I’ve had meetings with people on my plays where they have talked to me as if I know nothing about writing and theatre and as if they know everything. This sets up the ‘them and us’ mentality. I agree it must be broken down.

    You mention Chris Goode – this should probably go in a proper post at some point, but I think it’s very interesting, if he doesn’t mind me quoting from his blog:

    “Then there were my adventures in being a proper writer — The Extremists for the Royal Court and The Loss of All Things for the Bush as part of their extraordinary 66 Books. What do we make of all that, on reflection? I’m not quite sure, to be honest. I was very pleased with, and a little startled by, both pieces; neither is perfect but both are, I think, interesting and provocative and ambitious. That the Royal Court ended up not wanting The Extremists after what felt like a really ecstatically successful public reading in March has inevitably slightly distorted my relationship with it, but I think I mostly feel as I did at the time that the breakdown of that project was more to do with a mismatch of expectations around process than a direct reflection on the script; it didn’t go forward because they felt it didn’t quite work yet, and the frustrating thing is, I agreed that it didn’t — but it seems they wanted me to fix those problems by continuing to work on the piece as a lonely playwright in a little room, while I felt that only a rehearsal process would iron those wrinkles out, while further time alone in my writer’s cell would only produce rewrites of increasingly antisocial weirdness.”

  11. Hannah – Yes I did have that slight feeling of regret about airing my views publicly. I am simply trying to go about the process of getting myself and my work out there. My work does not fit into certain structures. That has become quite apparent. I wish in some ways that it did, then I wouldn’t be having this conversation. I wouldn’t feel I had to fight to find a venue who is willing to risk and accommodate the ideas of myself or other unknown voices. And by risk, I mean risking to serve up something that an audience are not expecting. For that very reason. Not because it is ‘on trend’. But because it is the time to do it. Otherwise we are we heading?
    I will keep going. I am alone, as we all are. A tiny voice in the distance.

    Catherine – I think ‘engagement’ would be a good thing. When work does not simply ‘fall off’ the page, there needs to be another set of criteria that is in place to assess what it actually is. If the reader does not understand or know what they are reading they are not in a position to fairly judge its merits or failures. I wonder how much work is simply overlooked because it is not ‘obvious’. I do hope that you take the Festival forwards next year and it evolves into all it can be. And yes, I will be performing my new work in June and July. It would be great if you could come and see. I will keep you updated. Thanks.

  12. Hi both
    Yes, there are definitely structures and attitudes, particularly amongst the “traditional” new writing set that are crying out to be challenged. Believe it or not, that’s partly why I set up the Festival in the first place, to find a bridge between writers doing it themselves, and the perceived inflexibility of venues and larger producers.

    And I really think we’ve done that; the three plays we’ve selected are fantastic pieces of work; challenging, provocative and original. I hope we’ll find an audience for them, because I certainly haven’t seen work like that in Birmingham recently.

    But you’ve got me thinking about setting up a two or three-pronged approach next year. Looking at submissions from a lateral perspective and thinking up other ways to engage. Possibly inviting writer-performers to pitch their ideas at a dedicated event.

    This has been a really fruitful discussion. Thanks for raising the issue in such a constructive way! Stephen – do send me details of your performances and I’ll try and make it along if I can.

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