Pursued By A Bear: “Should I trust a semi-reliable director with my first production?”

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 feel really silly even writing in with this question, because I know it’s a lucky problem to have, but here goes. 

I’ve been put in touch with a director who wants to produce my play next year at a fringe venue, which I’m really excited about.  This would be my first professional production, and while it would probably only be a few performances rather than a full three-week run, I do feel like this would be really good experience for me.  Also, I’d just love to see the play have a life, because it’s been sitting in my drawer for a couple of years.  The only problem?  I’m not really sure how much I trust this director.  There have been a few times when he didn’t call when he said he would, and then when we did talk he sounded kind of distant and bored.  So, not the kind of vibe that leads to artistic heart-to-heart discussions.  He also can’t confirm details about the venue or funding right now.   

I completely understand there’s a negotiation process involved with venues, but it makes me nervous that while I think I’ll be agreeing to one thing (say, a week run), I’ll actually end up with an unrehearsed one-off performance with no budget.  And there are so many playwrights out there, I’m worried that if I press him for details or hold out until things or more firmed up, he’ll simply move on to another script.  He seems to want me to commit now.

I don’t want to miss the chance to have my first production or have unrealistic expectations of what this would look like since I’m early in my career, but I also don’t want to use up my ‘premiere’ opportunity for this script on a production that won’t be realised the way I wish it would, or where I feel like we’re not on the same page artistically.  He seems legit on paper and appears to have a good track record and good connections (at least for an early career director), but there’s still something that makes me nervous about this.  I feel like it’s better to have the play performed in an unideal way than to never see the light of day, and I know lots of playwrights would kill for this opportunity.  I don’t want to be difficult.  But I don’t want to start out my career with a big black mark if it all goes horribly wrong.  And I put so much time and love into his play – I don’t want to throw away all that work on a production that won’t do justice to it.  What should I do?”

This is a lucky problem to have, but it’s still a problem. And I think there are plenty of playwrights out there who have found themselves in a similar position.

Obviously when you’ve written a play that you’re proud of you feel it should have a life beyond the page, but should you pursue that at all costs? Is it better to leave it in the drawer than have it staged in a less-than-reputable theatre with an amateur cast and a shady director?

This is a very divisive issue. Some would insist you should hold out for a production deserving of the quality of your writing. Others would say that no opportunity should be passed up.

I completely understand your concern; this is your first production and since you began writing you’ve probably pictured it as something spectacular and life-changing. You don’t want to put that experience in the hands of a hack.

A disinterested director does potentially spell disaster. Ideally you’d want to always work with people who are as invested in your plays as you are. You’ve mentioned he has a good track record and seems to have good connections; it would be worth digging further into his past work if you can. Do you know anyone who’s worked with him or at least seen something he’s directed?

I’m conscious that this is veering onto dangerous stereotypical ground, but deep-thinking artistic types aren’t always the most forthcoming over the phone. I have to admit I can be particularly vague during phone conversations, not because I’m disinterested, but simply because I find it easier to judge another person’s response when speaking face-to-face. If you can arrange to meet in person you might find your director more open and willing to discuss things in greater depth.

Remember this isn’t a one-way negotiation; you have every right to withdraw your consent if you don’t feel he will do a good job. Don’t be afraid to let him know you haven’t made up your mind. If he’s really committed to directing your play he should be willing to fight for it (to a reasonable extent, don’t challenge him to a bare-knuckle cage match).

And if he isn’t really committed then he’s not the right person for the job.

I once had a director approach me who was interested in putting on one of my plays. We had a few mutual acquaintances and he’d been to a couple of readings of my work, so he asked if he could stage a full production. I was flattered he liked my writing, and he told me he already had some actors lined up who were really keen to get involved.

He was soon having promising conversations with theatres, getting a producer on board, talking about an Edinburgh run… it all seemed to be moving very quickly. It felt like something great was happening; I told all my family and friends about it. I was pretty excited.

But, in hindsight, I never met any of the actors, he never actually told me which theatres he was negotiating with, and the producer never materialised. At the time I was probably a little naïve, but I just took for granted that he was on the level; as I said, we knew some of the same people, and they told me he was a great director.

At first he’d be calling me every couple of days with new ideas. Then it was once a week. And then I was phoning him to ask how things were going. Those conversations with family and friends began to feel increasingly awkward as I had no more news about my big, upcoming production.

Eventually, after not hearing from the director for a fortnight, it became clear that nothing was actually happening. The last time I spoke to him, he said he was taking on another job for a few weeks but he’d still be working on my play in the background.

I never heard from him again.

Obviously I don’t know the full story. Maybe he really thought he could put the play on but it didn’t come together through bad luck, maybe he wasn’t as well connected as he led me to believe, or maybe he was just a bullshit artist. I’ll probably never know.

It was pretty demoralising to have a project come to nothing like that. My mum was probably more gutted than me, she’d been looking forward to seeing another show. And friends would keep asking me about it for ages afterwards, I almost felt like I had to let them down gently. But thinking back on it, there was never anything other than the director’s talk to substantiate it in the first place.

This happens all the time in the creative industries. Everyone’s trying to get somewhere, and sometimes it takes a bit of exaggeration, or some imaginary connections, to get a project off the ground. There are loads of instances when the blagging pays off and a great production happens. But often things just don’t pan out for a number of reasons. There are so many factors involved, from finding a theatre to securing funding to casting actors, and it can all fall apart at any time.

Did I regret getting involved?

No. In this case, it didn’t cost me anything (except a little time), it did no damage to my reputation or relationships with anyone (except the director in question) and it actually spurred me on to finish the play. I didn’t get the production, but I didn’t really lose anything either. Crucially, I also learnt to be more wary of people who make big promises. I still give them a chance to deliver, but I no longer take it for granted that they actually will.

In your case, there are still an infinite number of outcomes. Based purely on your suspicion, I’m guessing it could go one of the following ways:

You say no and put the play back in the drawer. You lose nothing. You gain nothing.

You say yes but for whatever reason the play doesn’t happen. You lose nothing. You gain nothing.

You say yes, the play happens and he does a fantastic job. You lose nothing. You gain a great sense of achievement, a promising start to your career and possibly some positive reviews. You lose nothing.

You say yes, the play happens and it’s a total disaster. You gain a bit of experience. You lose a bit of confidence.

Let’s not kid ourselves; this is your first production. Unless you’re extremely fortunate and remarkably talented, it’s not debuting on the main stage at the National Theatre. It’s not getting reviewed by The Guardian. It’s not doing a nationwide tour.

You’re concerned about getting a black mark against your name, but I honestly doubt this will happen. If the director does turn out to be an utterly atrocious hack and the play is an abominable wreck, it’s unlikely he’ll haul in a huge audience of notable theatre critics.

For a debut production, most playwrights can expect an audience to consist mainly of friends and family members; your own, the director’s, the cast’s. If you’re lucky and the play’s good, your lighting designer might even recommend it to a few people.

If you’re happy with the play and the director knows what he’s doing, the two of you should be able to drag in a few critics. If you hate the play because the director doesn’t know what he’s doing, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to attract press, and you obviously won’t try to.

It won’t be any fun at all to sit through a production you’re not happy with. It will suck balls and feel like the worst thing that could ever happen.

But it’s a valuable learning experience. If you did a survey, I’d bet the vast majority of successful playwrights have had at least one awful production somewhere in their career. Do they wish it never happened? Yes.

But it did. And I guarantee you they learnt from it. They learnt to be resilient and careful.

I’m not saying you should jump into bed with every director who comes along. There are some dodgy types out there who will try to scam you out of money, but they’re few and far between.

Most directors who will approach you are actually in a similar position to you. They’re at the start of what will hopefully be a long and fruitful career, and they’re desperately trying to get that first foot on the ladder.

All you can do is make sure they want to stage your play for the right reasons; they think it’s a wonderful piece of work and they’re passionate about seeing it live.

Arrange a face-to-face meeting, get to know this director personally and you’ll have a much easier time deciding whether to let him loose on your work. Then learn everything you can from the experience.

However it turns out, you’ve still achieved something most people will never do. Enjoy it!

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