By Renee Liang
During a break at the recent Playmarket New Writing/New Producing forum, someone muttered, “How do you get a play on in this country?” It was more a rhetorical question than real one, but I (along with most of the other people in that room) could have told him the answer. You drive it yourself.
My play, Lantern, opens in Wellington in just under two weeks. It’s pretty scary, given I’m an Aucklander, with the usual Auckland hang-ups about going south of the Bombays. Geographical phobias aside, there’s also the reality that it’s unknown territory. Moving the cast and crew of a full-length play south is also a slightly bigger exercise than, say, turning up at an open mic at the Blue Note. Be that as it may, I’m now the producer of my first (touring) full-length play.
Over the past year, Lantern has travelled the path from rehearsed reading to workshop to test production to (now) the full season. Along the way, I’ve had the help and advice of numerous experienced people. In the theatre industry, as with poetry, I’ve found that people are willing do a lot to help the new ones.
So long as you try to help yourself, of course. Just writing a brilliant play and then expecting a theatre company to rush in and produce it – I’m sorry, that only happens in the movies. You could try sending it in, but all the literary directors I’ve heard speak say they receive hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts a year and so naturally the scripts from established names get read first. So the best way to get noticed, if you’re a first-time playwright, is
a. Get a rehearsed reading - organize yourself, or events like The Playpit (BATS in Wellington) and Read Raw (in Auckland) have a yearly call-out for scripts.
b. Enter a competition – but this is pretty hit and miss and may not get you either produced or noticed.
c. Round up your talented mates, their mates and their mates’ mates, and put it on.
This isn’t to say that you’re on your own. In my journey through the enchanted forest I’ve found a lot of people who are willing to point me in the right direction and even to give me a lift with the backpack. What follows is my very personalized view of the process. If I get it wrong or miss something out, you know where the comments box is – and it’s now easier than ever (thanks TBI 2!)
Part one: Script development.
So, you’ve got a script, your friends have read it and it’s unanimous – it’s amazing and deserves to be staged. Where to now? Well, if you are a first-timer, you need to know that theatre managers want well-developed scripts. This means showing that you have gone through a process where you have carefully reworked the script until it is well polished – the same rules go for plays as for any piece of writing submitted to a publisher.
How do you do this? Well, readings are good to gauge reaction and get feedback, especially if your audience includes people familiar with theatre. But what you really need is a dramaturge or a script reviewer. So ask a playwright or director you admire to read the script. Don’t be squeamish – at worst they’ll say no, and if you can’t take people saying no occasionally, then you probably shouldn’t be trying to put on a play.
Other than the direct approach, there are other ways of getting feedback – but they cost. Playmarket, whose dual role is to foster new playwrights and represent the rights of established playwrights, runs a script assessment service. They also run many forums and talkfests through the year, often with rehearsed readings. Although some of these are aimed are particular sectors of the community (such as Maori and Pacific Island writers), no one minds gatecrashers.
Playmarket also supports other initiatives such as workshops, playreadings and the recently deceased (and sadly lamented) Flip the Script sessions, where a writer is given the chance to watch their 5-minute play being workshopped and then performed in front of an audience – a nervewracking but strangely addictive experience. Fringe Festivals are another way to have a low-budget run through of your play before deciding whether to commit to a full season.
Part two – the team
So you’ve got a tight script, you’ve shown it to some venue managers and they’ve have made encouraging grunts. “Who’s involved?” Yes, when it comes down to it it’s all about who’s in the team.
Again, the rule is, ask and you shall receive. A good, new-NZ script is to actors and directors what a home-cooked meal is to a starving student. People will say yes surprisingly often, so don’t be afraid to approach that actor or director you’ve long admired. To find out who you admire, go to the theatre a lot. Get to know the people who are currently active. Take note of the designers, the sound guys, the techs as well – you’ll be needing them. And the producers. They’re thin on the ground and busy with their own projects, but if you can get someone experienced to help you, you’ve gone a long way already.
I won’t go into the delicate matter of payment, except to say that people like to be treated professionally, but are generally understanding. Mutual respect and talking early goes a long way.
Part three – funding
Ah, the big one. Even a co-op production will rack up the costs, and even after calling in all the favours and asking for freebies, there will be some things you can’t avoid paying for. So how to avoid bankrupting yourself?
If you decide to apply for funding, there are many search engines (see side bar of TBI site) which will point you in the right direction. Applications may be a pain in the ass and a chunk out of your valuable time to prepare, but they’re also quite good for forcing you to clarify your thinking about your production , so treat it as that and it won’t be quite so annoying. Do allow plenty of lead time though – in general you need to apply for funding at least 6 months ahead. Look in odd places for funding partners – everyone goes for Creative NZ, which means that everyone’s chances are smaller. See whether your production fits any ‘niche’ interest, then find a funder who likes to fund those niches.
Also, programmes such as STAMP and BATS, if you are lucky enough to be selected, offer shared-risk and mentoring – well worth checking them out as they are there to help new work get produced.
So, there it is. I haven’t talked about things like venues, but the rule is the same – approach a place you like and don’t get too discouraged if they say no – cultivate them for next time and try the next place.
I’ve picked up most of this from talking to others who have been there, and watching a lot of shows. It’s worth noting that Creative NZ has some good publications (downloadable free) going into various aspects of production, funding, marketing and touring. There are also some excellent mailing lists and groups you can join if you decide you’re serious. If you have some useful information to tell the rest of TBI, don’t forget the comments box.
Although I’ve been fairly clinical in this blog, remember that you SHOULD be doing all this because it’s fun, and you (and many others) believe in it. If you stop believing in it, you should ask yourself why. But I think that making theatre is a journey well worth taking.