Dear Playwright, (a love letter)
I am a new writing ‘gatekeeper’. I am one of the many humans who read your plays. I have read a lot of scripts over the past five years, mostly new ones. Your words have come to me through prizes, short play night submissions, and as a result of your bravery in submitting them to theatres. I’ve read hundreds of your stories, although it’s worth making very clear that I have not read by far as many as the wonderful, generous souls who make script reading their full-time jobs. These (often unsung) heroes of the industry work tirelessly behind the scenes like word-hungry detectives, devouring your stories with compassion, precision and the patience of saints.
If you’ve never been a script reader yourself, try this:
(bear with me as I unpack this slightly messy metaphor, I am not a writer)
Take yourself back briefly to a world where city mapper doesn’t exist yet (woah). Remember how you had to physically print out maps when you went to new places? So imagine doing that, but instead of inputting your destination into your computer yourself, a total stranger does it for you. The stranger then hands you the map, and disappears. Your job is seemingly simple: follow the map.
It might be an interesting walk, perhaps informative, maybe inspiring. You might be a little bit offended by something this particular walk takes you past, and it might sometimes be difficult to understand where you are being taken. If you’re really lucky you might see some cool things along the way, making you want to recommend this walk to all of your friends. Perhaps you’ll see some buildings from new angles, or you might be lucky enough to be taken down roads you didn’t know even existed.
Maybe today’s route brings back memories of a bad experience, and this particular walk is one you never intended to return to. Maybe today you’re a bit tired and run down, and you really don’t fancy walking up a hill, but you have no choice: your job is to follow the map.
Now, imagine ten people handing you ten of these maps every day, and it being your job to try out all of the routes, to appreciate and honour each one, whilst simultaneously managing to get your other work done and also, do everything else in your life that doesn’t involve map following.
These walks are all at once an adventure and a volatile, dangerous thing.
I fell into my map following semi-accidentally. When I was twenty I went to a workshop at the Royal Exchange with the god of dramaturgy herself (always armed with 999 brilliant metaphors far better than my map one): Lyndsey Turner. Lyndsey said: ‘If you want to direct new plays, you have to read them’. This was big news to twenty year old me. I took her advice and squashed my way in as a Bruntwood reader and quite quickly and easily fell in love with the thrill of opening a new script and having absolutely no idea what I might discover.
The script reading process became a huge part of my life. It is a constant tease, a surprise, a disappointment, a joy, and an escape. Getting a tiny little dose of some sharp, poetic and beautifully human dialogue can entirely alter my day. As can a stage direction, say, as simple as ‘A blonde, busty woman enters. She’s middle-aged, but still attractive’ - *loud, exhausted sigh*.
Playwright, I’ll be honest here and say that sometimes I’m furious at you for wasting my time by taking me on a route I’ve already walked, to a place I’ve already been. I’m pissed off when you lead me to a dead end. Sometimes I feel cheated by you, for making the same route seem to be different when really, it’s just the same. Sometimes I wish you had just taken a little bit more time to read some other maps before you started writing your own.
Sometimes though, I imagine what it might be like to have a job where you don’t tap into one hundred different emotions in a single morning, and then I think: ‘How boring would that be?’
I’m just not sure you know quite how much I depend on you to make or break me at any given moment. Readers are powerful, yes, sure, but you, Playwright: even before your play has got anywhere near a stage, you have to know that your words are having an impact.
I am not a writer. I am ever fascinated and perplexed by your strange, alien writer brain. When I’m reading a script I really like, or perhaps really dislike, I find myself imagining you doing your imagining. I imagine you somehow finding the language to build that imagining into ideas, characters, concepts, worlds, and somehow finding a way to write that down on a page, and I am in awe of you. Often your stories repeat themselves to me in my sleep, all mixed up together into one fabulous mess.
Your power starts with me, the reader, but if I am handed your words at the right moment in time (because it is so often about timing, be it politically, socially, or in terms of artistic climate), your power can quite rapidly extend outwards. Your play might be read by someone else, a report might be written about its impact, its gesture, or perhaps it might just be mentioned in passing. Even the smallest mention over a coffee, and your written world is brought to life.
Playwright, I’ll tell you a secret:
I’ve already staged your play. I’ve imagined your audiences, I’ve found you a theatre space, I’ve dreamt up the designs; I’ve even given you a stellar cast and a stage manager who gets. shit. done.
The idea that a play does not exist until it is put on stage in front of a live audience is, in my opinion, one of the biggest un-truths. A play exists as soon as it makes contact with a reader.
I am not a writer – I’ll happily leave that one to you, but I do feel it’s my job to remind you that you are precious; that there are many people like me whose entire days are shaped by something as teeny tiny as your use of punctuation in a single phrase.
I, perhaps like you, am in a continuous cycle of existential torment at the hands of a world that deems theatre to be secondary to politics, to sport, to science, to Netflix. Sometimes in my darker moments I start to believe it, but then I crack open your fresh script - you, Playwright, hand me your carefully constructed map and it quickly sets me back on course.
Sometimes, I love it most of all when you just take me on a gentle walk so that I can breathe and to look at the trees, the sky. In those cases, I’m more than happy to end up back where I started, but this time with the power of knowing that you have gifted me that time to look at the trees and the sky, for just a little while.
I’m not yet sure what it means to be a ‘good’ reader, or how somehow it is a skill I have managed to acquire. Perhaps it’s because unlike most other things in life, the pressure is off me and I can focus on you. I think reading is a lot like listening, which is something I am trying to work harder at, and something that quite frankly, we could all work harder at together.
Listening all the time can be very, very tiring though. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it forever like the brave, script reading detectives who devote all of their creative time to following your maps. It’s very hard work, but I do know that it’s one of the things I’ve learned the most from thus far in terms of empathy, communication, what makes us the same and what separates us, the blurry spaces between stories and life as lived; how all these fit together, and how we might begin to talk about that.
From about the age of ten, I knew I wanted to be a theatre director. It brings me a profound sense of love and fulfilment like nothing else in life, but it also brings me an equal amount of pain, disappointment and exhaustion. Somehow, I’ve found something in my script reading that helps to carry me through those darker moments, and I have you to thank for that.
My mother, also a writer (go figure), taught me that when you’re feeling low, the finest remedy is to build others up. So, here goes:
Dearest Playwright, know that you have power - I am listening, and I think you’re bloody marvellous.