“Write the sort of play you’d camp outside overnight in the freezing cold to get tickets to.”

Michael Ross, shortlisted for the 2015 Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize for Happy to Help, gives us his honest reflection on life as a playwright, and why the sacrifice may just be worth it. 

Following the Liverpool Hope Prize ceremony last year I managed to scrape my sobbing form from off the floor and I am now pleased to report that whilst my short-listed play Happy To Help lost out on the ten grand prize money (no, really, I’m fine!) and a run at the Royal Court Liverpool, it will instead premiere this June at the Park Theatre, London, for a four week run. A satirical comedy about the supermarket industry, it’s crammed full of love, death, betrayal, revenge, mistaken identity and tinned baked beans; all the classic Shakespearean tropes.

This March, I had my play Protect and Survive at London’s Vault Festival. Taking place in a warren of tunnels deep below Waterloo Station, the Vault Festival is the ideal location for a Cold War drama set in an underground nuclear bunker. I’m frankly useless at describing my own plays. In attempting to summarise the plot during auditions, I got promptly scoffed at by my director (Andrew Pritchard) for making it sound like “Love, Actually in a bunker” because I focused on the love-triangle aspect of the play instead of all the death, violence and nuclear paranoia it’s mostly concerned with. Suffice to say, it definitely isn’t Love, Actually in a bunker.

Anyway, I’ve been asked to share any techniques, tips or tricks for budding writers I may possess. But a spot of housekeeping first; if you wish to know the secret of becoming a truly successful playwright then please cease reading now and direct your enquiries instead to Richard Bean or Sir Tom Stoppard. If, however, you aspire to be a lonely, debt-ridden shop assistant who writes fruitlessly in his free time, then look no further, comrades; for I am your role model!

Here are the 3 steps towards becoming a playwright just like me.

Step 1: Relinquish any semblance of a personal life. Drinks after work? Romance on the weekend? Forget about it! Writing is now your controlling and slightly abusive partner who will only reluctantly unlock the front door to allow you outside for rare forays to the theatre (research purposes only, not entertainment!). Always best to go alone so you can fully focus on the play and correctly identify the relevant ‘inciting incident’ and ‘point of no return’ when they occur, but if you must be accompanied by someone else then for God’s sake make sure it’s another writer! That way the two of you can joylessly dissect the play’s narrative in the bar afterwards (over lemonade!) before you traipse off home (separately!). But then, who knows; if you make it big one day you might get to date sultry screen siren Marilyn Monroe or tempestuous twink Lord Alfred Douglas. In the meantime, get used to your own company.

Step 2: Write a play. Write the sort of play you’d camp outside overnight in the freezing cold to get tickets to. Because if you love it then there’s always the vague glimmer of hope some other freak might like it too. What do you think you are? Some kind of unique and precious snowflake?

Step 3: So you’ve written your first play? Congratulations! Go on, treat yourself to a glass of wine. No, that’s enough now! Ok, now it’s time to pop your script in the post to some of those really posh theatres- because you just never know, you could be the next overnight sensation like Shelagh Delaney or Polly Stenham, you could be interviewed in The Observer and everything! Hang on, what’s that thudding through the letterbox? Oops! Still, you’ve written the damn thing so it’d be tragic to let it go to waste. Why not Google any am-dram societies/youth theatres/satanic covens in your area and see if any are particularly desperate for royalty-free plays to perform? If all else fails, find a room above a pub and put the damn thing on yourself. Then sit at the back and watch the audience. Are they laughing? (Genuinely laughing, not just out of politeness, or because their friend Dolly said the word ‘knickers’?) Any sighs, groans, fidgeting, yawns or walk-outs? Have you found the experience unexpectedly humiliating? Fantastic! This means you’ll write a leaner, sharper, funnier play next time.

Congratulations, you are now a fully qualified playwright!

Oh I’m sorry, were you expecting something more? Your name in lights? A publishing deal with Faber and Faber? Money? (What are you?- some kind of filthy capitalist?) Nope, this is it. Keep going. Year in, year out. Forever. Fail again, fail better.

Michael Ross on twitter: @MichaelAliRoss

Michael Ross – official website 


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