Article: Judy Upton on writing for theatre

Top Ten Tips for Getting Started as a Theatre Writer

Top Ten Tips for Getting Started as a Theatre Writer by Judy Upton

Judy Upton offers her ten best bits of advice for those looking to break into the industry.

Judy is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has had plays produced by the Royal Court, National Theatre and BBC Radio 4 as well as feature film and TV credits.

1. Write What You Want To Write

If you love political dramas, maybe write one. If you don’t, don’t try to do that just because it is fashionable. There was a phase where everyone felt they had to write at least one very gory scene. Fine if that’s your thing, but if it isn’t you, it’s not likely to be convincing. Topical plays are in demand, but it’s better to set a trend than follow one. If you ‘write what you know’ it will feel authentic, but if you want to ‘write what you don’t know’ there’s nothing wrong with that either, and it can work just as well.

Book jackets try to sell you a novel by telling you what a great story the book contains and that it is told in a great way. People visit the theatre for a great story, well told too.

2. Make Your characters do stuff (rather than just let them talk).

Best keep to six actors or less, even if there needs to be some doubling up.
The exceptions are plays written for youth theatres, community groups schools etc that ask for big casts. For New Writing Theatre, if approaching the paid sector, a small cast play sadly has the best hope of being produced, because of the wages bill.

Always make sure each actor has a part worth playing. Put yourself in an actor’s shoes. Even on the fringe where they may not be paying the actors, would you give up your evening for one or two lines, or to just walk on carrying a cup of tea?

3. Keep Staging and Props Simple

The more elaborate the staging, the more you restrict the opportunities for your play to be produced. By all means think big, but if you need a revolving stage, ice rink or a train moving across the stage, think whether you could create all this with a bit of low cost theatrical magic – like acting. If your actors tell the audience they’re floating in zero gravity, or give that impression by their movements, the audience will accept it.

It is always up to you, the writer, to describe in your script how you imagine a scene will be staged, even if the director ultimately does it differently. You need to convince the literary manager of the company or theatre that your play is stage-able, e.g. ‘The raging sea is suggested by projection and sound effects.’ Now the company doesn’t think you’re hoping they’ll flood their auditorium for your piece, they can concentrate on whether they like the script.

4. Don’t Forget The Drama!

Whether comic, tragic or neither a play needs drama. There has to be a conflict. Never forget you are using actors to tell us a story. It is not just people chatting. Stuff happens. Generally someone wants to achieve something but something or someone is stopping that happening, e.g. ‘John wants to make a sandwich but Sue won’t give him the bread.’ That’s a basic conflict, albeit not a very gripping one as it stands. Perhaps the bread is the last loaf left in the city, and perhaps Sue is starving. Now the conflict is a more urgent one and a drama is starting to build.

5. Size Matters

Although it might feel a little prescriptive, it is sensible to think about the length your play might be, even before you start writing it.

10 minute plays (7 – 8 pages) are massively popular now and lots of people are looking for them, for showcases and scratch nights. You almost certainly won’t get paid, but if your play is on in a big town or city, producers and theatres may be persuaded to attend. Even more importantly you will have made contact with actors and directors when your short play is in a showcase. You’ll also learn a lot about what does and doesn’t work in your script.

A 10-minute play like a short story tends to feature one situation and a cast of no more than 4 characters at the most, or more likely two or three.

Around 30 minutes and 60 minutes – also known as a one-act play – these are a little less popular but there are still a number of opportunities for them.

90 minutes – the full-length play. I wouldn’t go much longer than 90 minutes for a first play. It’ll probably be 70 – 80 pages depending on how you lay it out. (There is not a standard format as there is for screenplays). A plain-looking 12 point font is best.

6. Layout

Plays are laid out on the page in a different way to films, TV and radio Plays. A book of plays from the library will give you the basic idea. It’s something like this.

Act One

JOHN and SUE’S tastefully furnished bungalow. The present.

JOHN: I’m a character.

SUSAN: You certainly are.

(SUSAN stands and heads towards the door.)


7. Write A One Page Synopsis

A synopsis describes the action of your play, usually in present tense. Try to make it as exciting as possible, and to convey the emotion of the script. If it reads like a good short story, that’s fine. Include the whole plot and don’t worry about spoiling the ending. Some writers write the synopsis first, then use it as a template for the play. Some don’t plan and plunge right in. You are writing a synopsis as a marketing tool though – to persuade people to read your play.

8. Write A Brief Covering Letter

A letter is still a letter if sent by email. Some theatres ask for scripts by post, some by email or online upload. Best to send it the way they ask. If the online upload is glitchy, email the company and ask if you can send it another way. Technology and writers using it are not infallible. If a company’s website says ‘No Unsolicited Scripts’ it may simply mean that they don’t have anyone available to read new work. You could always still ask if they’ll look at your one page synopsis. They can only say no.

9. Enter Playwriting Competitions and Festivals.

There’ll nearly always be an arts or literary festival of some sort fairly near you. Often they have readings of new plays, and a rehearsed reading is a great way to experience your play and to work out what is, and isn’t working. It’s a good chance to get feedback from others too. Playwriting clubs and organisations may also stage readings. Jump at any chance of workshops or mentoring, especially if they are free. Look out for schemes run by various theatres and companies.

Competitions and opportunities are where your 10-minute scripts and your 30, 60 and 90-minute plays will come in. Most competitions are free to enter. People advertise their playwriting competitions and opportunities in a number of places online.

Try these for starters:

  • Playwriting UK on Twitter and Facebook
  • BBC Writers Room
  • London Playwrights Blog
  • Nawe
  • Creative Scotland

Lists of theatres who accept new plays are in both ‘The Writer’s Handbook’ and ‘The Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook’ – available at local libraries. Use these as a starting point, as they give a brief summary of who is looking for what, then go to the website of any theatre or company that sounds promising where your script is concerned. Often your regional theatres will have opportunities for writers local to them.

You will have to check submission guidelines for each theatre or company individually. Many companies will ask for an entire script, possibly with a synopsis and cast breakdown. Some of the big theatres still only accept scripts by post, some have submission windows once or twice a year. They may ask you to email a script or want it uploaded at certain times only. If you are going to send a query to a company who doesn’t have an open-door script reading policy, don’t attach anything, just send a brief email to ask if they would read your work.

10. Lastly Remember – The Industry Needs You.

Literary departments love posting photos of piles of scripts they haven’t read yet, and telling you it will take ‘six months or longer’ before you hear back on yours. It sometimes makes it sound like there are so many scripts out there you’d be better to take up knitting of baking instead. Don’t despair. There are also loads of theatres and theatre companies large and small, here and all over the world, and they all need great plays to produce. Sure some of them prefer plays by established or long dead playwrights, but a lot of them are keen to schedule a great new play, large or small. You could be about to write that play, and you won’t know unless you try.

Judy Upton