What to do when you win: Sarah Hamilton shares her experience of putting on her first full-length production

So you’ve won your first playwriting competition. Brilliant. Now what? In this guest post, new writer Sarah Tejal Hamilton shares her experience of winning her first short play competition and the challenge of putting on a full-length work.

Last October I won London Horror Festival’s playwriting competition, a 10-minute piece called Chew, which was judged with two other finalists at a live performance at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden.

It was an accident. No, really. I like writing all sorts of topics and genres and happened to enter this contest – my first horror play – in a frenzied year where I had recently left a full-time role as a journalist to focus on developing my playwriting.

As many of you reading this will attest, it feels like you spend all your time writing, getting rejected or ‘send us your next one’ emails – so when you finally achieve (a small) success, you’re not quite sure how to handle it.

But winning was just the start – the prize was an hour-long slot at the Etcetera’s BlackBox Festival over a three-night run. Say what? Three nights? That’s what proper real writers do.  Crumbs.

My first piece of advice to anyone lucky enough to find out they’ve won something is don’t panic. It sounds simple but it’s easy to forget. You’ll be fine. You’ll get it done. You’ve written something good that’s going to get performed. Quit mithering.

In my case, the theatre was only providing the basic space and some publicity, so tech, actors, director, producer and marketing were all in my hands, right down to deciding the dates and prices. What do I know?!

As time was tight, I wanted to make sure I had the basic scaffolding in place – the director, producer, tech – so I could be left alone to worry about the writing of the new piece and not stress about how it was going to get delivered. I decided to retain Rory Fairbairn, who had been the director of my 10-minute piece, (who incidentally I only met on the day of the live final), because he did a good job and I trusted his casting. Luckily, he was available and happy to direct.

Now, producers. Do you need one? I would say it’s useful to have someone who can deal with the technical issues and logistics, and sometimes that will be the director. In this case, Rory had recently started his own theatre company, Red Squash, and was happy to take these duties on board, at their expense. This also included casting the piece. But our first step was to draft an agreement stating what his theatre company would and wouldn’t do. This was in the form of an email, but you could also choose to draw up a basic contract if the length and budget of your show are larger.

Speaking of which, we had zero budget – so keeping costs low was key. When tackling publicity, we decided flyers weren’t worth it in the age of Twitter and Facebook, but a few posters were made to put in the venue. Red Squash also had a designer who created a publicity image after I gave Rory an idea of the kind of thing I was looking for. We also had very basic A5 programmes for the audience on the night giving a brief bio on the writer, cast, director etc. Photography is also nice for posterity as well as CVs so try and get someone who’s good with a camera to take some pictures during rehearsals – also great for publicity in the run-up.

I have a journalism background, so crafting a press release and sending it out to relevant media was straightforward – when doing this, don’t forget fan sites for your genre of play: they can be a great place to find an audience who are already into what you’re trying to do. Inviting agents and theatre literary departments is also a good idea – they may not all come, but you’ve waved a little flag about yourself and many do ask to be kept in touch about future work so remember to do so.

The theatre’s deal with me was a profit share, (in the theatre’s favour of course), so for simplicity I decided to split my chunk equally with the director and cast.

That left decisions on ticket pricing, performance dates and times. I tried to get as much advice as I could from the theatre, more experienced playwrights, and my own research. But guess what? There isn’t one golden answer. So we chose the final dates of the festival (closing it in style and giving us maximum rehearsal time), and priced it at £10 with £8 concessions. This was based on Chew being a full production borne of an award-winning show. The pricing also gave some leeway incase we needed to offer discounts.

In reality, for this sort of production, your audience will be mainly made up of family and friends so you don’t want them to be paying wild amounts. Plus, extra comp tickets above your free allocation will be charged back to you, albeit at a reduced rate, so consider what you can afford if you end up paying for all your industry contacts to get in free.

You will probably be made to sign a contract with the theatre.  I think it is worth getting an experienced third party to advise you on it, especially if you don’t have the luxury of an agent. In my case, it made more sense for Red Squash to have that relationship with the theatre as I had no involvement in production, tech or casting.

So, with all the business end and director/producer sorted, I could focus on reworking my play, agreeing draft deadlines, and enjoying the Christmas break, which came in the middle.

I was also really keen on having a read-through of a pre-final draft with the cast before I submitted the finished piece. This was really useful, not least to catch up with the actors – who the director also retained from the original production – get feedback on where I was heading with my new play and ensure I was in the loop. I made sure I was as happy as I could be with this draft, because I anticipated I wouldn’t get a chance for rewrites, or be involved in the rehearsal process.

If anything, the experience has taught me what kind of people I want to work with in the future, a small insight into the business of putting on a theatre event and the confidence to maybe give directing and producing a go. Which means, however this weekend has gone, I’ll be the richer for it.

I’d love to see you at Chew – please let me know what you think! For more, please visit: http://www.etceteratheatre.com/details.php?show_id=2217

Tips:

  • Fight to be heard. Make sure lines of communication are open with your team. Putting on a play is a collaborative process – and that includes the writer! Not all directors like this but don’t ever let baby be put in the corner. The flipside is, of course, be patient, listen well, and choose your battles.
  • Want to be reviewed? Make sure you do your research on what their deadlines are. Review sites and theatre bloggers will be getting lots of requests so if they advise three weeks’ notice, make sure it’s factored into your planning.
  • Media coverage important to you? Take time to find the right journalist by name and personalise the email. I’ve been sent press releases that have said ‘Dear [Enter name here]…’ Not a good look.
  • Want to give something back? Why not get aspiring writers, upcoming technical creatives, even wannabe directors to shadow the production process to give them experience in a real production? They’ll probably also have some really fresh ideas.
  • Don’t forget to say thank-you. To the theatre, audience, industry contacts who take time to come – and pay for their own tickets if they do, actors and director. And follow up with them afterwards.
  • Remember how brilliant this opportunity is. Good or bad reviews, small or large audience, it’s an amazing first step, a unique experience, so remember to enjoy it. Worse things happen at sea.

Sarah Tejal Hamilton decided to focus on her drama writing last year following the closure of her newspaper over Christmas 2014. She had been a full-time local and national journalist for 14 years working on titles including the Reading Post, where she was news editor, as well as freelancing for nationals including The Sunday Times, Sun and Independent on Sunday. She now combines her playwriting with being a freelance journalist and copywriter. Sarah has previously taken part in the Royal Court Theatre’s writers’ programmes. Last year she also co-mentored former Armed Forces personnel in writing for the stage.
She can be contacted @thereadingscoop.

Photo credit:  Robbie Ewing

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