Ever wondered how the NT decides what plays to put on? And how a new writer finds a home for their work? Read our Q&A with Sam Sedgman to find out…
Theatre is not just something that occurs within the four walls of the auditorium, and often means more than just being a nice evening out (though it’s definitely that too!)
The new fortnightly National Theatre Podcast is presented by LPB’s very own Sam Sedgman, with Emma Reidy, the NT Digital Content Producer, working behind-the-scenes (pictured above).
The podcast looks at how theatre connects to the bigger issues in our lives, covering everything from Brexit to masculinity.
But the most recent episode titled New Work is all about, as the name suggests, how new plays get written and the practicalities of this. It’s an amazing resource for writers, with it including interviews with playwright and actress Cush Jumbo, and Emily McLaughlin, who is Head of the New Work Department at the National Theatre.
There are also insights from many other theatre makers, and with the interviewees help, Sam takes you through the process of taking a script from the first draft to stage, dispelling myths around new writing.
I got the chance to chat to Sam about the podcast episode and what advice he has for aspiring playwrights.
Q&A With Sam Sedgman
JR: Cush Jumbo mentioned that she didn’t see herself as a writer when creating her one-woman play, Josephine and I. As a playwright yourself, what was the moment that you finally felt like a writer?
SS: I think I actually suffered for thinking of myself too much as a writer. One of the things Cush talks about in her interview is how she’d never done a playwriting course, so she felt free to approach her play however she liked.
I did a creative writing degree, and a master’s after that, and went to a writing group for years afterwards. That was great for learning important things like structure and technique, but I think it left me with a very narrow view of what being a “proper writer” was.
I wrote lots I wasn’t happy with and never felt it was good enough. When we study writing academically, we tend to hold up certain kinds of writing as being worthier than others. And it’s taken me a long time to realise that’s not really true – that I can write whatever I want, and I don’t need to fill that idea of being a “proper writer”.
It’s dangerous to limit your idea of yourself in an industry that’s all about creativity and trying new things. Now, I actually think of myself as “a writer” much less than I used to – but I find myself actually writing a lot more.
JR: I was really interested (and a bit surprised!) when Stewart Pringle, the associate dramaturg at Bush Theatre, said they are more likely to be interested in the writer than the script when receiving new work. From recording the podcast, what was the most surprising thing you learnt about new writing?
SS: I’m really pleased he made that point. Now that I’ve worked in a theatre for a few years, it seems obvious that a literary department wouldn’t just programme a play they get through their letterbox – but for years that’s how I thought it worked, like so many writers out there do.
One thing that didn’t surprise me as much as just delighted me, was what came up when we talked in the episode about how different scripts suit different spaces. A lot of writers don’t think about the venue their work is likely to be put on in – but obviously certain plays only work in certain kinds of theatres.
That goes for things like scale – a show in a 50-seater theatre will feel very different in a venue that seats 500 – but also really simple mechanical things like whether or not there’s a door. I know this sounds dumb, but bear with me. A lot of fringe theatres don’t have a door in their stage space you can use. And on a previous show I did, this caused no end of problems, because in the script, that door was quite important. We had to rework the whole thing and it was a total mess.
So now, when I’m writing a scene, and I have a character leave through a door, I always have to stop myself to ask why that’s necessary. Why does that scene need a door? Why is it in a room, anyway? Why can’t it be on a plane or a footbridge or a tech support messageboard?
It was really awesome to discover that writers at the National are thinking about the same stuff – only their issue isn’t that there’s no door, it’s that the door is 30 metres away from where the action’s happening because the Olivier stage is so enormous. So if you want someone to walk out that door, you need to write half a page of lines to give them time to get there.
JR: You chat about ‘Generation Slashie’ in theatre (or multi-hyphenators!) with your interviewees, some of you being members of it yourself. Why would you say a lot of new work is being created by people who call themselves theatre-makers instead of simply writers?
SS: There are still loads of people out there who write plays and think of themselves as playwrights, and that’s really vital. At the NT, there’s a really strong focus on the playwright as a craftsman, and I think that’s important.
But sure, in the world of theatre, people do take on multiple roles. Often that’s to create opportunities that might not otherwise be there – in a previous episode of the podcast, we spoke to Harriet Walter, who was really frank about how there are far fewer great parts out there for her than there are her male contemporaries – and if that’s being felt by one of the greatest actors around, what hope is there for the rest of us?
So it makes sense that people are taking matters into their own hands and making their own work. It goes for writers too: we have a great blog series on the LPW site that’s all about how to produce your own work – because that’s something a lot of writers are having to do to get their show off the ground. Now, that can be a great learning experience, but when you’re doubling up your role, it often means working twice as hard for half as much.
Having a variety of skills is great, but I wouldn’t want to move to a world where we expect everyone to do more than one job; it’s important to value our writers, directors, lighting designers, stage managers, producers… and not just assume someone else on the show can fill in. These are specific skills that deserve to be valued.
That said, everyone should be free to make work however they want, and if you feel you can be more creative by blurring the boundaries between traditional production roles, then more power to you.
JR: Stewart said that one of the biggest problems in UK writing is the lack of transparency. What advice would you give to writers baffled by where to even begin in contacting theatres?
SS: What Stewart said is a great starting point – a literary department most likely isn’t going to read your script and say: “Yep, we’ll produce that for you”. It does happen, but oh-so-rarely. What’s more likely, if they like your script, is they’ll say: “That’s nice, what else have you got? ”
So my first piece of advice would be to have a lot of things in your desk drawer – including ideas that you know that theatre would be interested to work on with you. If a theatre likes your script, that’s awesome – but usually that’s the start of a writer’s journey, not the end of it.
A lot of writers work alone, but theatre gets made by teams. So the best advice I can give to someone who wants to get their play put on is to find people who can help you. Get people interested. Find a director. Find a producer. Raise money. Have a reading. Do a scratch. Invite people. Put it on at a fringe venue. This lets you build momentum for your project, and develop a reputation.
This is a hell of a lot more work than sending a raw script in to a literary department, but it’s much more likely to get people interested in you, and in the kind of work you write.
And also, remember not to lose heart. We all know plays have to go through several drafts before they’re good enough. The same is true of learning how to put on plays – you’ll probably have to try doing it a few times before you really know what you’re doing, and that’s okay.
Where Can I Hear More?
And if you are confused about the process of getting new work performed, listening to this podcast is the best place to start. The episode makes it clear there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to theatre making.
Cash Jumbo said structure comes last for her in writing, when for many, this would be first. But as Stewart Pringle points out, the brilliance of theatre is that it can be tackled from a million different angles, with the unknown element of what makes a successful script opening up the possibilities for new writing rather than closing them.
To hear more advice, you can download the NT podcast from iTunes.