Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“I’ve sent three of my plays out now to theatres and haven’t heard anything back except for form rejection letters, and frankly I’m fuming. I don’t understand why these people can’t recognise talent when they see it! I’m so fed up with going and seeing the same old things at these theatres, while knowing what I write is every bit as good. I don’t think I should be expected to play by their rules, because everyone knows real artists march to the beat of their own drummer (so to speak). How do I get people to put on my play?”
I ate Frosties for breakfast every day for roughly fifteen years. That’s approximately 5,475 bowls of Frosties.
If you ignore the fact I also ate Frosties for lunch and/or dinner more often than you would reasonably expect.
Why did I do this?
I have no idea.
I knew at the time that Frosties aren’t the most nutritious food around. They pretty much consist of flakes of sugar with a sugar coating.
The only vitamins they contain are synthesised in a laboratory, I imagine by a lunatic who looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future. Of course, I did drown them in milk, so at least I got some calcium, alongside all the hormones and antibiotics I probably didn’t need.
I can’t really claim I did it because Frosties are really tasty either. Because they obviously aren’t.
So what was I thinking?
It was partly the fact that Frosties are endorsed by Tony the Tiger. Everyone knows tigers are strong, independent, dangerous creatures who do whatever the hell they want at all times. Plus Tony the Tiger always seemed like a stand-up guy, with his beaming smile and stylish red neckerchief.
He also had that memorable catchphrase; “They’re grrrrrreat!”
Tony’s always been my favourite ambassador for heavily processed, sugar-laced corn products. Forgetting the fact no tiger in history has ever been known to eat cereal of any kind.
But mostly, I ate Frosties all the time because they were in the cupboard.
And you can render them edible in less than four seconds.
Pour Frosties into a bowl. Pour milk into the same bowl. Eat.
So imagine the amount of time I saved making 5,475 bowls of Frosties compared to if I had cooked and eaten beef wellington every day for breakfast.
I didn’t have to look up a recipe, prepare ingredients or pre-heat the oven.
But most importantly, I didn’t have to think about it.
Every morning I would go down to the kitchen, to a wealth of possibilities, a plethora of options, an infinite ocean of culinary adventures… and say “Nope, more of the same please.”
This is essentially what the general public do every time they go to see the same old play by the same old writer at the same old theatre.
Discovering new things takes effort. No one wants to do their own research, it’s time consuming and boring.
And if the public can’t be arsed to go to a bit of effort to see something new, why would theatres go to even more effort to find it?
New is risky. People might not like it.
The Same Old Playwright, on the other hand, is dependable. His plays are never too original so there are no surprises, they won’t offend anyone because they don’t really tackle any issues, and they’re amusing without being too clever. I would compare them to Frosties, but I fear they’re more like Corn Flakes.
You and I are more like a breakfast lasagne.
Maybe a lot of people would like it, but it’s unfamiliar and seems a bit weird so they’d rather not chance it.
Unfortunately theatres, like cereal manufacturers, are at the mercy of shallow and unforgiving markets. If Kelloggs released a new lasagne flavoured cereal a lot of people would probably try it, because people are stupid and Kelloggs is a recognised brand.
However, if it turns out these people don’t like it, some of them will stop trusting Kelloggs and will then eat Weetabix for the rest of their shallow, pathetic lives.
This is the risk theatres take when they dish up a lasagne from an unknown playwright. Their reputation is at stake. And as unfair as it might seem to us, maintaining the trust of their regular customers is vital to their survival.
So how can you get around this?
You could take a leaf out of The Same Old Playwright’s book and carve a career out of delivering what people want to see. Or at least what people think they want to see because they’ve been told it’s what they like to see and they can’t really be arsed to travel to another theatre.
Or you can do your own thing and hope someone sees enough value in it to think it might be something people will like to see. Once they’re told they might like to see it, of course.
You seem to insinuate in your question that The Same Old Playwright isn’t a “real artist” because he’s writing plays which have mass appeal, so I’m assuming you’re already shaking your head and exclaiming “How very dare he” at the mere thought of the first option.
It’s easy to become bitter and frustrated when your work doesn’t receive the attention you feel it should, while others get all the shine by seemingly pandering to the masses. However, being popular doesn’t necessarily make someone a sell-out. There are plenty of universally popular works of art which are still really good; the Mona Lisa, The Wire, The Godfather, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Predator 2, to name a few.
So, to qualify my cereal analogy; the public are lazy and stupid most of the time, but they do still get it right occasionally. For every lazy bastard like myself chomping away on nutritionally worthless Frosties, there’s a smug cereal connoisseur out there enjoying a nourishing bowl of Alpen.
It may be that The Same Old Playwright is super popular because his work has genuine oats, nuts and raisins in it, even if it does live in the same aisle as the Coco Pops.
And remember, I’m taking it on your word that your writing is good. I have no idea, I haven’t read it. It might suck.
If your writing does suck, you have two options as far as I can see: give up writing plays and pursue a new career, or sleep around with loads of theatre people until you find one with questionable enough morals to stage your play simply on the strength of your performance in bed.
While this approach must work at least some of the time (based on some plays I’ve seen), I’m not recommending it because I doubt very much it can lead to any kind of sustained success. And also, you might be terrible in bed. I have no idea.
Assuming your plays don’t suck, you only really have one option; keep bashing your head against the door in the hope that someone will eventually answer.
You need to understand that when you send your work to a theatre, it generally goes to the bottom of a very big pile. An unpaid intern or at best, a poorly paid aspiring director, picks it out of that pile after reading six other plays that morning which were in all likelihood as enjoyable as a dishwasher instruction manual.
“Oh joy,” she thinks to herself, “another play.”
I’m not saying readers don’t care, a lot of them are truly passionate about theatre, it’s just that they generally have an enormous workload and are also trying to carve out their own career as a writer, director or actor. Passion aside, anyone reading upwards of five plays a day is going to miss a few gems.
So the odds of your play being the one to get picked out of that mountainous pile are slim. And a lot of the time it has absolutely nothing to do with whether it’s as good as whatever the theatre is staging that week (which is subjective anyway).
The reader has an idea of the themes and styles her institution is looking for. Then she has her own personal preference. Then it depends on the other plays she’s read that day, the kind of mood she’s in and whether the first few pages grab her attention.
Don’t take rejection to heart. Don’t blame it on the reader or the theatre or The Same Old Writer. Don’t blame it on the sunshine, the good times or the boogie. Blame it on the rampant consumerism of the capitalist economic model.
Dust yourself off and send the play somewhere else.
But not just anywhere else. Do your research and find out which theatres produce your kind of work. You’ll have a lot more chance of being picked out of that pile if your play is in line with the broad artistic sentiments of the institution in question.
In the meantime, you need to make yourself known.
Submit short plays to competitions. Do scratch nights. Send your plays to theatre companies who do similar work. When you do have something staged make sure you invite the people you want to impress, whether they are directors of companies you admire, members of the press or agents.
Always bear in mind that The Same Old Playwright isn’t submitting his same old scripts through the same old route as you. The artistic director (or whoever) is his Facebook buddy and he’s pretty much guaranteed anything he writes will at the very least be given a courtesy read.
Nepotism exists, it would be a shame if you’re as good as you say but your career never takes off because you didn’t shake the right hands.
You obviously believe in yourself and the quality of your work. In time (as long as you’re not as delusional as the average X Factor contender) hopefully someone will recognise your talent. On the plus side, the more you’ve written by that point, the better your debut will be.
Keep writing and keep submitting. In the meantime, making a few new friends can’t hurt.
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