Detangling power, money and privilege: finding your path as a playwright

In this guest post, writer Naomi Westerman discusses problems with privilege within the theatre industry and how becoming a playwright isn’t a simple as picking up a pen.  

The first time I stepped foot in the Royal Court Theatre was five years ago. That was the same year I met Simon Stephens, which was the first time I’d met a working playwright, making it the first time I’d realised ‘playwright’ was a job people could do for a living, despite it not being the 16th century.

Better writers than me have spoken out recently about the difficulties of earning a living from theatre, and the dirty secret that most ‘successful’ playwrights have alternative sources of income. It’s important stuff, but the debate about privilege has to go further.

When I wrote my first play, Tortoise, I had no ambition to be a playwright and limited experience of theatre. I wrote it simply because I had a burning need to tell that particular story, about the experiences of being a woman in the NHS mental health care system.

I sent the first draft to a small regional theatre, and to my naive amazement they rang me up and offered actual cash money to produce it as part of a festival. I promptly went onto google and invited every theatre I could find (I guess I did have some hidden ambition after all), to a flood of replies saying, “Lovely… let us know if it comes to London.”

So I self-financed a one-off showcase in London, and stepped out from behind the curtain (hey I was self-funding; I had to save on actor fees) to find a completely packed house.

The next day I woke to over 20 emails and voicemails from literary managers and agents, offering meetings, places on writer’s groups, rehearsed readings, showcases, scratches, “development opportunities”, chances to get to know them… everything, in short, except for actual production offers.

Though I was thrilled to have a sell-out show, making money is sadly still no a guarantee. And even now several productions and years later, when a major theatre asked me to extend a short play I’d written to full-length, they expressed this with a keen but non-contractual and unpaid interest.

With these productions behind me, I’m definitely not a new writer anymore. In fact, as someone who didn’t start writing professionally till 30, I’m practically an OAP in an industry obsessed with youth and newness.

Theatre’s obsession with youth only seems to be growing…

And it’s this obsession for newness and discovering ‘raw talent’ that’s made finding my path as a playwright more difficult. I was surprised when someone asked if I’d sent Tortoise to the Royal Court. I assumed any major theatre would laugh at the hubris of an inexperienced wannabe assuming their first script might be Major Theatre-worthy.

I was raised to work hard, study hard, and work my way up from the bottom. This meant I decided to write small plays and put them on at fringe festivals, so I could learn to walk before I tried to run.

Four years later and I’ve still never submitted a script to the Court nor any other major theatre. Maybe it’s low self-esteem but I just don’t think I’m ready.

Not long ago I was in a meeting with the literary manager of a major theatre, who told me, “The ideal X Theatre play is a brilliant play by someone who’s never written a word before, and maybe never been to the theatre.”

Half of me thinks, God I wish I’d known that. I wish I hadn’t wasted my newness. But the other half thinks, bollocks to that! We’ve been indoctrinated by Mozart documentaries and TV talent shows into thinking genius springs unbidden from an underground source, and that passion and the right sob story trump hard work and dedication.

I’m not denying that writing talent exists, but regardless of any innate gift, only watching and learning and DOING will teach you the skills of structure and stagecraft.

And more than anything writers have to find their own path and that takes time and the space to make mistakes – something that the ‘newness’ obsession often prevents.

I’ve seen first time writers of undeniable talent thrust into the spotlight before they were ready, plays of great potential but little polish re-written by more experienced directors desperate to show the world their shiny new toy. Plays that achieve stunning success (then everyone acts shocked when the second play fails to live up to expectations).

This fetishisation of ‘raw’ talent is problematic. Even the current debates about privilege often focus on money and downplay or ignore things like access, education, and ability status.

Eight million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate. People who speak English as a second language have to work twice as hard. Ditto people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, those living in poverty or coping with trauma. And that’s making the assumption that these people (me included) even know about, and have access to, theatre in the first place.

There’s also a danger that “raw talent” is conflated with a very specific and potentially tokenistic style of theatre. As a disabled, queer, mixed-ethnicity, former homeless, high school dropout (and a diversity box ticker’s dream!)

I’ve had people trying to push me into writing “issue” plays: “disabled” plays; “queer” plays; “Jewish” plays; and even working class plays despite not being working class. But that’s not what I want to write, and it’s not something I could write.

Naomi’s recent show at VAULT was a one-woman crime noir

I like to write dark comedies, and sci-fi, and surrealist nonsense. I like to play with concepts of language and time. I studied anthropology, linguistics, gender studies, and neuroscience over the course of gaining my multiple degrees (are you changing your mind about my level of privilege, yet?), and God help me I’m going to use it. Middle class white men are allowed to write anything they like. When are the rest of us going to be allowed that freedom?

And the truth is these ‘issues’ theatres are so keen for me to write about can’t be contained to a 90 minute play. I don’t like talking about my health but disability is not an abstract diversity-questionnaire concept, or something that can be access’d away (suffice to say I’ve spent five days this month in an NHS cardiac unit, and attended a press night with wires sticking out of my torso, which probably would have made for a wryly amusing and self-effacingly glamorous Instagram post. But in reality you can’t write when you’re seriously unwell. You just can’t).

I was also harassed and groped by a famous man, then told earnestly and with the best will in the world by a woman, who you’d think was successful enough not to need to play handmaiden, that if I ever told anyone I’d destroy my career. I didn’t listen, and I still don’t know to what degree she was right.

Since these setbacks I have yet to start another new play and the more I learn about playwriting the more of a mountain it feels like to write one, let alone guide it to the stage.

The expectation of ‘raw talent’ makes it difficult to give yourself breathing room as a writer, particularly when others have decided what type of writer they want you to be (here comes that diversity tick box again…) That, coupled with a need to make money, means the dream we’re sold of being a laid back, go-where-the-creativity-takes-you type of writer may simply be just that: a dream.

2 thoughts on “Detangling power, money and privilege: finding your path as a playwright”

  1. Geraldine Brennan

    I hear you, Naomi. As a (very) late starter, I am bemused by the mixed messages about ‘raw talent’: everyone likes to feel they have ‘discovered’ a playwright and have a personal stake in their success, but there is little perception of what it takes to continue once discovered. The disingenuous disinclination to even mention filthy lucre is widespread in the arts. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it, is the message.

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