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Alison Carr on writing for theatre

Written by Alison Carr

I wrote my first play when I was at University. I was desperate to get my foot in the door of the theatre society. They, for their part, were desperate for student-written drama. It wasn’t very good. Of course it wasn’t. I had no training, no guidance; I just sat down and wrote it between lectures and watching Sunset Beach. I had no aspirations at that point to be a writer. I knew I loved theatre and wanted to do something theatre-y. Be a director, maybe. Or something.

“I didn’t realise it at the time but it was the start of me finding my voice as a writer, that unique something that makes my work mine.”

The early years

When I graduated and moved back to Newcastle I lost all of the resources Uni allowed – the theatre society, free rehearsal space, aspiring actor friends – but the one thing I could continue to do solo was write. So I did. And I stopped trying to write like how I thought you ‘should’ or emulate writers I liked. I wrote characters and situations that I knew about and jokes that made me laugh. I didn’t realise it at the time but it was the start of me finding my voice as a writer, that unique something that makes my work mine.  That play became my first professional production, produced by the 5065Lift at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe. It was well received and was the first time I thought seriously that maybe I could do this as more than a hobby.

Going after opportunities

In terms of how I sustain my work, I go after a lot of opportunities. I have an Agent but that doesn’t mean I can sit back and wait for the phone to ring. I send my work out and apply for things. It’s all about getting my work out there. It’s doing nothing sitting in a drawer, even if in a drawer it’s safe and no one can suggest it’s anything less than a perfect masterpiece. I get plenty of knock-backs and ‘no thank yous’, but when the successes do come I try to make the most of them.

For a long time I went after anything and everything. It did my ego good to get a ‘congratulations’ email that my three minute play was going to be performed script-in-hand in a room above a pub somewhere. But as it went on I got to a point where I needed to be using my time and creativity more wisely. So these days I am more selective. I don’t feel like I have failed if I don’t submit something for every call-out going, and I have learnt to say ‘no’ if I need to.

“It’s not all plain sailing, of course. It’s an uncertain living. I can find it lonely – sitting at a desk writing isn’t exactly a group activity – and my self-esteem is too often tied in with what other people think. ”

Was I in or out?

About four years ago I hit my lowest point and was on the verge of giving up. Like, actually giving up and not just threatening to which I do pretty much twice a month. I had to sit down and really ask myself, was I in or out? Cos if I was out, I was out. Done. What else would I do? What else did I want to do? When push came to shove I decided I wasn’t beaten yet and I have not really looked back since.  Maybe I needed to hit bottom, shake myself up, realise that as much as I sometimes hate this job I bloody love it too.

Alison's top 5 tips

1 Sit down and get on with it.
2 Listen to feedback but don’t be a slave to it. Take it, consider it, try it, but you don’t have to do/change everything other people tell you to.
3 Value your time... and your work.
4 Accept that the first draft is going to be shit. That’s what first drafts are there for.
5 Approach ‘top tips’ lists like this one with caution. You’ll only learn and improve by doing what you do, and as you do it you’ll find your own ways to do it better.

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