Why many plays are unproduced

By Timothy Daly

An actor friend asked me recently, “What’s the definition of a good book?” I produced a smart answer, then a glib one, then a dumb answer, then a long one, finally ending up with no answer at all. He waited until I’d exhausted my options, then pronounced with theatrical effect: “A good book is any book that sells a lot of copies.” I couldn’t decide if he was being crass, insightful, utterly transcendent or a complete sell-out. Preferring to keep my friends, I nodded thoughtfully and resolved to think it over.

It’s easy to lampoon his approach. On the above basis, Jeffrey Archer is one of the world’s greatest authors. McDonald’s has developed the best cuisine. Club Med is the finest travel experience known to mankind. All are very popular. All enjoy wonderful success in their fields. So what’s the problem?

The problem for playwrights who have yet to be produced is that many of the works that fill our stages are successful (in box office terms), but are not always good. To put the reverse question, is it possible for a theatrical work to be ‘good’ and yet not be successful, in fact not even be produced? I would argue that our current theatre is one of cautious middle-level achievement, for several reasons: first, theatre is hard at the best of times. Plays will always be hard to write. Second, our audience is not an especially knowledgeable or experienced one; they are just older (and getting more so). Third, the demands of box office are often antithetical to the demands of the art itself. In many theatres, a small-cast play that doesn’t “frighten the horses” (as an artistic director once put it to me) has more than a fair chance of not sending the theatre broke.

Thus, if it’s almost as important for a work to be successful as for it to be ‘good’ (read: artistically ambitious, excellent in craft, using the resources of the theatre to the full etc etc), then what are the legions of unproduced writers to do? How are they to write?

Very early in my writing development I remember going to lots of theatre, seeing lots of plays, and walking out after each one with the thought: “That is how I should write.” Having, at that stage, no idea of what my true theatrical voice was, I latched on to the last good show I’d seen. In retrospect, it wasn’t too bad a policy to adopt, for reasons I’ll go into below.

I deal with many writers. At least half of them are unproduced,or have only received one or two productions of their work. In their darker moods, many would sometimes see themselves as failures, or at least in the ‘yet to succeed’ category. In their 4 a.m. moments, they probably wonder if there’s any point to their continuing to write plays.

Personally, I am against people “continuing to write plays”, unless that is part of a wider artistic development. Before we can become playwrights we need to become artists. An artist is someone who simultaneously develops a world view while equipping him/herself with the means of expressing that view. (By ‘world view’ I don’t mean having a political opinion for every occasion; politics is simply one aspect. By world view, I mean an aesthetic which combines the truths of the human inner life with the realities of our outer life, after which it’s simply a search for the stories/ songs/ images that express the developed aesthetic).

What I am suggesting is that our search for ‘theatrical success’ is fruitless unless we ally it to a passionate commitment to artistic development. Is this too idealistic? I don’t know. All I know is that ‘artistic development’ is the most wonderful fun. It’s no more a duty than eating chocolate. Let me list the ways that will both develop you as an artist and help your plays to get better:

  1. Read a lot. Marsha Norman believes writers should read for four hours a day. No exceptions. My own suggestion is this: read twice as much as you write. Be constantly ‘in-filling’ rather than constantly churning out. The best writing is a distilled process; the result of thought, reading and intuition. Reading is also the best stylistic education you’ll get.
  2. See everything: films, plays, puppet shows, children’s theatre, opera, ballet, workers’ theatre, installations, pub theatre, exhibitions, poetry competitions, performance art, demonstrations, moratoriums, S-11 strategy meetings and other circuses. For that’s what life is: a chaotic, free-wheeling circus. Without a broad experience of performance, you’re liable to create something that’s either unoriginal, been done before, or has never been done before (for a very good reason.)
  3. Aim to become experts in your most favourite genres (in any medium). Occasionally I meet a writer who is so determined to write in an ‘original voice’ that s/he avoids all other works, writers and genres. This innocent attitude ignores the fact that the great playwrights were deeply enculturated artists who understood every literary and artistic form of their age (and wrote in most of them, or like Shakespeare, wrote in all of them!) If you like spy thrillers, then read or see lots of them. There’s a good chance that there’s an important (artistic) reason why you’re drawn to them.
  4. Study the genres/writers/ plays that you love. An original ‘voice’ is actually the product of many voices and many influences. Pinter once said, “I’m influenced by everything I see and read.” No one has accused Harold of being an unoriginal plagiarist. Give yourself permission to imitate/ learn from/ steal from every work and writer whom you admire. The fact that it will be strained through the sieve of your own consciousness (and be expressed via your own original story) will be enough to guarantee that it’s yours.
  5. Realise that a central part of our modern aesthetic is its fragmentation, which involves a constant need to synthesize. Synthesis is that process of bringing together disparate elements: eg, ragtime meets western; plays-within-plays; the disruption of linear form in favour of a recurring argument (or scene). Styles, genres, linguistic modes are all ‘clashed together’ to see what (if anything) emerges. It’s a sign of either our search for a new path, or a sign of our artistic degeneracy. Leaving that question for future resolution, our (highly enjoyable) task is to respond to whatever fragments (of form, language etc) that we discover, and use them wherever the creative urge demands.
  6. See your period of being unproduced as being that special time when you were allowed to get better. Imagine if your first work really was produced! Would you ever live it down? My first play was so bad, I would have made an instant laughing stock of anyone silly enough to be involved in it. Sometimes, rejection is a big favour (even when it’s disguised as a kick in the guts.)
  7. Fall in love with your ideas, and the stories that express them. They may well be the only signpost available to lead you toward your future voice as a mature creative artist. I am constantly astounded by how many wonderful ideas (often the central narrative or theatrical premise) that lie dormant in the works of writers whose work I read. I try and make them see how exciting a play or story the finished play would be if it actually realised the power of its own central idea. I then meet the writer a few months later… and s/he has lost heart. In other words, these writers have lost their faith in the power and imaginative potential of their own ideas. With ruthless efficiency, they then extend that doubt to all areas of their art, and in no time at all, they’ve given up playwriting or taken up story editing for TV. If you have a very unique idea that you are convinced will make a wonderful play/film/novel, you should keep it alive by constantly doing a little bit of work on it, a bit more research, a further exploration and reading. Whatever keeps the fire burning. I write because it excites me, but excitement needs the sustenance which comes from the pleasurable and secret knowledge that “this work is getting richer and more wonderful.” Until the phone call comes from the State Theatre Company, keep being excited by your own work. Sooner or later, that excitement has to show up in the work itself.
  8. Plan a very modest series of steps that will ensure that not only is the work realistic (and not over-demanding of your time) but is hugely enjoyable.(Only about half of the writers I meet give me the impression that the act of writing is an exciting, pleasurable thing.) Enjoyment comes when you’re doing something small but significant toward the completion of something you love. Anything else is hard work and ultimately deadening. Planning an enjoyable and very achievable series of small steps, (“This weekend, I write Scene Two”) avoids one of the biggest traps of the unproduced writer: the longing for “a big space of time when all I’ll have to do is think about my writing.” Such an unfulfillable yearning for spaces of time that usually don’t exist is almost guaranteed to stop you completing your play.
  9. Finally, in these thoughts for those temporary dwellers in the Land of the Unproduced, I have a simple suggestion: Take the very first offer you get. Don’t hang out for that call from Covent Garden, Playbox, Sydney Theatre Company or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. If a passionate, young and half-mad director adores your work and wants to put it on in a small shed with six chairs, take the offer! Plays (and playwrights) get better by being produced, at which point, you’ll have no more need for an article like this…