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Getting the play on the stage

What does it take to be a playwright in the community? My reflections on the highs and lows of writing plays for community groups over the last 25 years featured recently on the arts professional web site.

Made redundant from British Steel in 1980, my passion for drama and theatre took me back to college to do teacher training. I spent many happy years as a drama practitioner in schools and in 2009 decided to form my own company, Theatre is Real Life. Four plays, three productions, many rejections and one education pack later, it is time for reflection.

My first play ‘Two Sisters’, back in 1990, was the product of a playwriting workshop at the Holborn Centre for Performing Arts in London. Based on a true event about some legal documents that were found in the street, it explores older people’s attitudes and relationships. The workshop ended with rehearsed readings by professional actors.

My second play ‘Nowt like this in America’, set around the 1980 steel strike, is the story of a family, a community and an industry. I submitted the play to Alasdair Ramsey of Cleveland Theatre Company, who liked it and advised me, and it was one of five new plays to receive a rehearsed reading,  at Live Theatre in Newcastle over five nights.

This was a minimal performance in that two days of rehearsal gave the actors a working knowledge of the script. Would a full production follow? As I am London-based and the production was to be in the north east of England, I attempted to draw funding from Newcastle and London. After several frustrating months arguing with funders about issues such as heritage, ‘Nowt’ went ahead courtesy of a pension pot, my very understanding family and my undying enthusiasm (others might say vanity).

but good coverage in the local media could not overcome some of the problems – people not knowing where the college was.

My third play was inspired by Peter Terson’s football play ‘Zigger Zagger’ on teenage football fans and their rite of passage into the adult world of work. We relocated our production from Stoke to Middlesbrough, and when Middlesbrough Football Club nearly went out of business in 1986, then won its first trophy in 2004, the desire to put that story on stage loomed large. Workshops in local schools nearly happened, but a combination of costs and other commitments drew a blank.

But four months later ‘The Boro’s 37 mins’ was written. Staging the production at Middlesbrough College, only a corner kick from Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium, seemed fortuitous, but good coverage in the local media could not overcome some of the problems – people not knowing where the college was. The small audience that did see the play was not disappointed and a critical rather than commercial success provided some comfort.

2011 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Middlesbrough FC coming back from the brink and temptation reared its head again. Mindful of the heritage issue, I discovered the way forwards: education activities could link with heritage, while giving opportunities to arts practitioners, football fans and the wider community. As a member of the Independent Theatre Council, I aided my professional development through workshops on working creatively, starting a performing arts company and funding. A key thread that emerged was that you can’t do things on your own.

To this end I engaged an arts consultancy and Middlesbrough 86 was born. The two consultants I worked with were crucial, securing Heritage Lottery funding and some £120,000 in support in kind, not least from Teesside University which provided a promotional film, rehearsal space and theatre, a DVD of the production and launched the education pack.

Most recently, having read an article about teenage relationships, I decided to write a play about how they have moved on to a dangerous new level. With funding from Awards for All, and workshops with Ghetto Youth Theatre (GYT) under the guidance of Face Front, where I am a trustee, I developed my fourth play about cyber-bullying, sexting, revenge porn and grooming with a working title ‘Cybermissive’. When GYT decided not to use the script, I redrafted and renamed it ‘My name is Tom’. The rejections continued so I edited the play to suit schools and offered a range of free activities. Four schools have now joined the education project and I am very pleased that a production of the play is planned for autumn 2015.

With this experience I would suggest you think carefully about the following if you too want to be a community playwright:

  • Writing: You need to write for an agreed time every day. Whether it is one, three or eight hours, do whatever works for you and don’t allow chores or other responsibilities to stop you.

  • Commitment: You are on your own and when things are tough you need to know why you are doing it and if there is a need for what you are offering. Check what others are doing and what is happening in your area, so you don’t miss out.

  • Planning: Youth, community and amateur companies often programme 12 to 18 months in advance so you need to be aware of that when making an approach.

  • Schools: Offer free activities to schools you have links with through your children, family and friends, such as assemblies, discussion groups and workshops.

  • Funding: There is advice online, but also ask friends or people in local arts companies who may have applied or received funding.

  • Networks: Link with other developing playwrights in your area and don’t be afraid to ask professionals for advice. Look for free opportunities or cheap events, including websites for community organisations, to promote your work.

  • Marketing: Business cards and leaflets are always useful to build links and promote what you do. If you don’t think you have something to offer, why should anyone else?

  • Insurance: Join a writing organisation that includes public liability cover as part of its membership fee, such as National Association of Writers in Education.

Alan Spence is a community playwright and was Artistic Director of Theatre is Real Life Productions till 2018.