From our guest editor Theo Bosanquet: Following Hannah Khalil's blog about the increasing difficulty of making a living as a playwright, an Open Space event was organised by Anna Jordan of Without a Paddle theatre company, and Theatre503's Lisa Spirling, to discuss the issues raised. Due to the level of demand the event was moved to the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, where it took place on the morning of 26th May. I recorded some interviews and discussions, which you can hear in the podcast below. You can also read Hannah's follow-up piece which provides a more comprehensive summary of the day. Hopefully these two records will prove a valuable resource, particularly for those who were unable to make it along.
Warning: Podcast contains strong language
From Hannah Khalil: I had to catch my breath a little as I travelled to this Living and Writing event - as per this tweet:
As I travel to this event about living as a writer I’m feeling amazed that it was organised in response to a tweet and then a blog wot I wrote - Twitter really can be a force for good in the right hands thanks @waptheatre for making it happen x https://t.co/lTKIEyXcNU— hannah khalil (@hannykha) May 26, 2018
It's wonderful to think the internet and social media can be such a force for good.
Lisa Spirling, the artistic director of Theatre 503, plus playwrights Chinonyerem Odimba and Nathan Wood acted as our guides through an Open Space-style event - which by its very nature is dictated in form and content by the attendees on the day. The goal was to explore "sustaining life as a writer financially and emotionally with advice, resources and ways we can collaborate and support each other".
Everyone was refreshingly open and honest, and there was a mix of more established writers (whose work I'd seen or who I knew of) and writers who are newer to the industry. In the spirit of the honesty and energy of peoples’ contributions I'm going to share here broadly what was discussed but I won't attribute any specific quotes to individuals. What follows is a summary of what people openly and impassionedly said.
Attendees were invited to write a topic that they'd like to discuss on a piece of paper and read it out before handing over to Lisa to try and curate which topics might work best together. A flock of white papers followed with concerns - here are just a few to give you an idea:
· How can I stay creative when I feel burnt out?
· How can I find reasonably paid work to support my writing time?
· How to make a writing routine that fits around paid working
· How do you get help for mental health issues that won't cost the earth?
· Is the idea of writer as cultural entrepreneur a helpful one?
· How to push through imposter syndrome
· Stupid things literary managers have said to writers and how to stop that
· How to get theatres to redistribute resources from administrator to artists
· How to self produce
· What support is there to help when chasing invoices?
· How to connect with directors
After a lovely 'getting to know you' game, Lisa divided all the different subjects into five broad topics for the first of two sessions. I'll summarise briefly what was discussed in each group:
Dealing with theatres:
The theatres in question were both large and small and included independent companies and in-house producers. The main subject tackled was getting paid in a timely fashion, and it was suggested that at the time work is agreed payment dates should also be put in writing, to avoid any confusion. It was flagged up that as a freelancer - with the right notation to your invoice - you can charge interest on late payments.
The safest way for writers to protect themselves, said one experienced attendee, whether the work is paid or unpaid is to ensure a robust contract is in place again so all parties know what is expected and timelines. Although it was agreed the Writer's Guild was the place for advice and support most writers admitted to feeling like they didn't know much about what the union did, that they didn’t feel it was ‘for them’ (in that they didn’t feel they were eligible) and that the cost to join was prohibitive.
There was also a strong feeling that those working in theatres needed to be reminded of what it is like to be a freelance artist making ends meet and that perhaps theatres should be lobbied to pay artists within a month rather than the (apparently normal and accepted) three months.
There was also conversation around the Arts Council model and how restrictive it is, in that more recently they have not funded R&Ds which has meant artists have had to have money and self fund or tap up friends and family for kickstarter style campaigns in order to begin to make work. There was a curiosity and interest in what the new ACE funding stream called Developing your Creative Practice will bring and how applications and selection will work with the forthcoming events at the Pleasance flagged up as a way of finding out more.
There was also a feeling that theatres were admin heavy and a desire to try and lobby for a shift from the current model to one that is more artist-centric.
Everyone agreed that more transparency around money and what people earn can only be a good thing and that we should reach out to contacts and make the most of social networks to make sure we know if we are being paid fairly - on a par with others.
It was agreed that it is difficult to be a 'shy playwright'. But that confidence and writing ability didn't always go hand in hand so there was an idea that more bashful members might elect a day every couple of months to be a 'brave day' and send out emails to people in the industry or go to a 'networky' event on that day before returning to their more comfortable space.
It was also suggested that goals for your play from the outset could be a helpful thing - deciding on when it would go on and where would be useful to keep focus and drive away negative thoughts. Also because confidence grows in the moment you finish a project or complete a goal you have set yourself.
On an imposter syndrome day people felt reminding yourself why you are writing your play would help.
There was a nice reflection that frustration is built into playwriting because it is a blue print for a work of art.
It was stated that the elevator pitch is dead but that a 'sip pitch' (taking the length of time a gatekeeper might take to have a drink) would be a good skill to grow.
Someone said: "Don't beat yourself up or your creative life will become a negative space too - it's ok to just not be writing right now." Others agreed that writing isn't just pen to paper, or being sat in front of a computer but that you're always writing in your head, and so we shouldn’t get bogged down by a daily word count.
One writer flagged up a hashtag #selfcareforwriters which was thought up to encourage honest sharing of negative moments and rejections in solidarity rather than pretending everything is always rosy.
The question of 'right to reply' came up and whether - if a rejection feels particularly painful it was ok to respond to a theatre. It was agreed that a carefully worded response could be a good thing and that most theatres would understand that rejection is hard for writers to cope with so they should be open to a little comeback.
Topics covered included job-life balance, mental health and emotional life. The paradox of living to write but having to work to live. The positive reflection on a 'day-job' is that it is a window to the world and potentially source material. The double-edged sword of writing as therapy was also addressed but it was agreed you don't have to put everything down on the page, indeed you shouldn't expose or make yourself vulnerable. Blood on the page isn't vital - keeping your mental health good and looking after yourself is.
Again the dichotomy of writing was discussed - the fact we writers have to be two people simultaneously, vulnerable and open to see the world in all its nuance, and thick-skinned to be able to allow negative reviews roll off us.
Someone flagged up that if you can't afford therapy you can seek out psychotherapy trainees in the same way you might go for a haircut with a trainee and that this might be a more affordable route for people.
The question was raised: Am I valued if people put on my work, but don’t pay me? A constant problem in the industry was identified: how do you get PAID experience? Writers are between a rock and a hard place because we want our work produced, but if everyone else is being paid then where does that leave us? Someone said: “There’s a fine line between being grateful and feeling exploited”. It was agreed that it is important to connect with other writers in safe spaces (like this very event) as discussion demystifies. Certainly the aim was that writers should earn the living wage for their writing.
How to end a collaboration:
This thorny topic was also broached. Gentle ways to let a collaborator down were considered but ultimately it was agreed that the writer can and should take ownership of their work and consider collaborations accordingly.
There was a discussion around the education of dramaturgs and directors about the fact the play ultimately belongs to the writer no matter what process has been undertaken. And it was flagged that boundaries are key and conversations ahead of any process – respect is vital and a laying out of lines. For example when potential collaborators share a writer’s work without their permission.
Someone said: “Writers have to have the word NO in their vocabulary.”
The second session followed in which we considered the following (again with briefly summarised round-ups):
Expectations around writing:
The conversation here considered the double-edged sword that is using autobiography in your writing: while there’s no doubt it gives the work authority it can also be exploitative. It was also acknowledged that emotional honesty doesn’t always equal good drama. It’s also very patronising if writers are told or made to feel that they can only use their immediate experience in their writing – as we all have imaginations!
If however we do use the experiences of people close to us it was suggested we should have the courage to have conversations with those who are the subject of our work.
Support and the gatekeepers:
I’ll skip over specific examples of ‘stupid things literary managers have said to us’ to protect the innocent (!) but there was a feeling that writers are expected to have an ‘edge’ or be ‘brandable’ which people agreed was frustrating – though they realised that putting on plays is a business and not philanthropic endeavour.
One attendee talked about their experience in a theatre company and the reassuring realisation that plays aren’t produced for lots of reasons (cost, subject matter to similar to something that is already planned etc) rather than the quality of the work. They said that this was reassuring as a reminder that even though plays are a very personal thing to the writer – if they’re not produced it’s often not personal. Another attendee thought more transparency around how and why plays are selected would be helpful including clear information on how many unsolicited plays are ever produced at a given theatre – to manage people’s expectations.
The sage advice was offered that no writer should bankrupt themselves in the quest to self produce. And there was a suggestion that more skills training for writers interested in this field might be useful.
For writers keen to meet directors it was revealed that Theatre503 and the Young Vic do regular ‘speed dating’ events for writers and directors. The forthcoming Pleasance Theatre Futures events were also flagged up once more.
One attendee highlighted an online guide on how to fill in an ACE form.
What am I allowed to expect (to write full time or not to write full time)?
Everyone agreed that the myth of the ‘Big Break’ and ‘Overnight success’ was just that – a myth and had to die. It serves no one at all.
One writer in this group told us they had started writing full time but it meant they had to accept every commission offered and as a result were overwhelmed. Another confessed they didn’t want to do it full time and that the day job model gave them financial breathing space they needed to be able to create, whereas trying to pick up workshops and odd bits of teaching in an ad hoc fashion to make ends meet became too stressful.
The question of TV writing came up but it was agreed that this is a career in itself, a different discipline, and set of contacts – so not to be thought of a possible ‘day-job’!
It was acknowledged that if writers were more honest about their second job – or how they made the rent, everyone might feel better about themselves.
The importance of periods of not writing was also alluded to, though people agreed that not all ‘not writing’ was as helpful as others – ie computer gaming may not be as inspiring or invigorating as reading a book, or being with other people. The benefits of organising your inbox/ document folders was also extolled with this, helping to focus on the things you are cooking – what’s on a back burner and what’s almost ready to come to the table.
Asking for help (when you feel you don’t belong):
The daily battle with rejection and self doubt was looked squarely in the face. And the problems of balancing creative work with work- work. A discussion around how a day job makes some feel disconnected from the industry and fraudulent when calling oneself a writer.
Suggested medicines for such ailments included: finding out about pockets of funding available to buy you writing time – places like the Peggy Ramsay Foundation and Royal Literary Fund – keep an eye on Social media and Twitter. Also the important and usefulness of establishing a culture of mentoring, having different mentors for different parts of your writing life (perhaps a director or a lawyer as well as a more established writer).
A frustration at the culture of youth and many opportunities being for those 25 and under was expressed. One writer suggested no one asks for evidence so if you really want to do something (and you could passably be in the age bracket) apply! Another attendee pointed out men are more respected with age – but this is not the case for women.
An interesting conversation arose here around that fact that in the theatre industry there’s a presumption of a baseline privilege – and that age and class are entwined. It was suggested that age specific opportunities are classist as you may come to theatre later if you are not from a privileged background.
Finally there was a conversation around establishing a new co-op for writers to share experience and knowledge and to support each other in an ongoing way – rather like the ‘Antelopes’ group that was set up a decade ago. There certainly seemed to be an appetite for this.
At the end of the morning I felt completely inspired by all the wonderful writers I had met and chatted to, meeting people in the real world who you have twittered with is often an exciting experience and this was doubly so. Ultimately if the original moany tweet that led to my previous blog can make events like this happen I reckon we should all moan a bit more!
Hannah Khalil is an award-winning Palestinian-Irish writer whose stage plays include the critically acclaimed Scenes from 68* Years at the Arcola, and The Scar Test at Soho theatre. She also writes for radio and the screen.