Getting Started & Asking Questions

9 Months To Birth Your Play

9 Months To Birth Your Play is a new series designed for artists to explore well-being-centred approaches to their practice whilst gaining a more rigorous understanding of the psychology of drama. 8 Well-being Workshops by neuro-psychodynamic coaching psychologist Anna Webster run alongside Writing Workshops from 9 exemplary artists working in the wonderful world of new writing today.

The next workshop to be published will be Well-being Workshop 2: What Are Feelings For? on Friday 24th May.

Getting Started & Asking Questions by Nicola McCartney

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…

Doh-Re-Mi, from The Sound of Music, Lerner and Loewe, 1965

Of course all works of art start somewhere. And there are copious amounts of websites and “how to” playwriting books which will give you excellent advice on exactly how you should think about writing plays and how you should approach them.

You should ignore all that.

By all means read and listen to all the advice you can get. But then absolutely ignore it. And me too. You should definitely ignore me (don’t tell any of the students I work with at University of Edinburgh I said this, though…). The reason why you ultimately need to ignore what other people tell you about playwriting is that what matters most in creating any work of art is originality. And the originality is you. You’ll have heard it said in playwriting advice you’ve read that there are no original stories left to tell. This is probably true. But there is only one you, and how you choose to tell that story as a play is refracted through the prism of you: your life experience, your context, your mind, your heart, your experience of theatre. This is called your “voice” as an artist and it’s vital to find it, cultivate it, grow it and love it. Without having your own distinct voice, your work will always be derivative of someone else’s (we don’t create in a vacuum, and we all have influences, but these are a unique mix for each of us.) Without knowing and starting from your own voice, you’ll probably not get much work on.

We’re living in a time when theatre is in perhaps the biggest crisis ever since the last crisis, due to economics and the ongoing lack of value our capitalistic society places on art – it’s only as good as its box office draw. The other qualities we might see in theatre, those appreciated in other nations such as theatre’s power to create dialogue about the big themes, issues and problems of our times, the human condition, its ability to transport and even transform us (sometimes), are dwarfed in our culture by the tyranny of box office sales. This is how funding bodies seem to measure the success of a play – does it sell? – whilst ignoring that the plays and playwrights which really changed theatre often didn’t pull in the big numbers at first. So, right now theatres are mostly playing it safe, not taking risks, and programming what they think will sell, because public funding no longer underwrites risk, it actually supports anti-risk-taking. Of course there is nothing wrong with big box office returns. We all want the maximum audiences for theatre. But I think this kind of programming ultimately works against its aims, as if we just stage what is familiar, audiences get bored and eventually stop coming. What theatres really want, although they do a good job of convincing us otherwise right now, and what they always come back to in the end when audience get bored of the “same old”, is your original voice.

Being a real artist is about taking the risk of telling the stories you want to tell the way you want to tell them. Being a real artist is about putting yourself out there, about dredging up from the depths of yourself what most troubles, puzzles or bewilders you and playing a giant game of snap with the rest of the world (or whoever comes to see your play), to see who is having the same experiences, questions, responses. Theatre is a public act. It’s a civic act. It’s a social act.

So, the first question to ask yourself is…

1. What do you want the consequences of your play to be in the world?

Pretty much all of us want to look great to other people. We want to be the smartest, coolest, most liked etc. Often this gets bound up in the way we write plays and what we choose to write about. And we do this unthinkingly. I think it’s very important to think about why you want to write plays. Why choose this form? What do think makes theatre different to other media such as film, prose, poetry etc. For me this is bound up in the liveness and social aspect of theatre – it’s a social event in which a whole bunch of people come together and witness the same performance, and something should happen to the spectators in the course of that performance. But what? What is that for you?

This is about aesthetics – what you think makes a good play, or theatre experience. But it’s more than that. It’s about what you think plays are for. Every playwright thinks differently about this. Some think that theatre’s chief goal should be to entertain (and that is a big one, I think). Others think that it should be to change things – the individual spectator’s mind, society as whole. The academic Helen Nicolson talks about two different ways in which change can work – transformation (when a thing moves from one state to another), and transportation (in which we’re lifted out of our reality for a short while and taken somewhere else, then dropped back again). And perhaps these two types of change can be linked. But she also asks another question – who’s driving the change? And whose good does that change serve?

If you don’t know why you want to write plays, then start here. Because it’s hard and unless you know what the drive towards this specific art form is for you, you’ll likely come up with an idea better suited to a different medium…

2. Think about what you’re thinking about

Once you know why theatre is magic for you, then think about what you want to communicate. Think about what you’re thinking about. This is sometimes called, “metacognition” which the OED defines as “an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes”. It’s very important to listen to yourself. Often when I’m working with young people, I get them to write down lists of responses to certain questions such as: “List 20 things which make you laugh/ be afraid/ need to be fixed etc”. We do this against the clock – 2 minutes for each set of responses. That’s important because it helps them tap into what’s in their heads right now. A big starting place which many playwrights report as crucial for them is what makes them angry. Anger is often a real energy for drama, whether it’s comedic or serious. The vital spark is that you need to be passionate and, perhaps, obsessive about your idea for your play. Because you’re going to need that energy to sustain you through the writing process. Sometimes emerging writers I meet don’t really care that much about the idea they have which really surprises me; I ask, “if it’s not important to you, why should anyone else care?”

Of course, sharing publicly something which you care about makes one vulnerable. One can’t avoid a degree of vulnerability in making art. There are ways to keep yourself safe if you are writing about something very personal (it’s a good idea to find ways of distancing the characters and their stories from your own), and it is necessary to explore and adopt those.

All of this requires listening to yourself. We’re obsessed with talking in our culture but not listening. Everyone is on broadcast and not receive. But I think that this can often

include ourselves – we don’t really listen to the dialogues going on in our own heads or deep in our own hearts.

In my other artistic practice as an applied theatre maker, the work of the humanistic philosopher and psychologist, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) has become a major influence, especially his book, The Art of Listening (1974) in which he outlines six principles of being a good listener (I’ve changed the pronouns here to be inclusive):

● The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.

● Nothing of importance must be on their mind, they must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.

● They must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.

● They must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were their own.

● The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love them — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to them and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.

● Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.

I’m just leaving these here for you to explore them as I did. I think they are just as applicable to the way we listen to ourselves as they are to how we listen to others. If we do not listen to ourselves, if we do not think about what we are really thinking about, I think it’s impossible to really write anything of substance and impact in the world. It’s the most crucial aspect of being an artist of any kind.

3. Time and Space

All of this is hard if not actually impossible though, isn’t it? No one has any time. We must eat, sleep, make love, make money, watch Netflix, have a social life and attend to social media. How are we supposed to get the time to listen to ourselves?

The answer is we have to make it. We have to hold the space to do this.

Thinking is work. Listening is work. We need to stop seeing this as something which is naturally just happening (it isn’t, contemporary life and its noise and busyness consistently squeezes it out) and an indulgence when the real work is putting words on paper, digitally or literally. The truth, for me, is that any words you put on paper without doing the thinking work first are likely to be echolalia of the constant noise of the world and others’ voices around us, as opposed to any original thoughts of our own.

So, find, hold, fight for and jealously guard the space to do this work. Writing is a form of meditation. If you know how to worry you know how to meditate because worry is a form of meditation. Use the anxiety-driven skills we almost all have and co-opt them into thinking about what you’re thinking about.

It’s not just sitting down humming or escaping into yourself. I think when I am walking the dog, or hillwalking, when I’m sitting in a café watching the world go by with an open notebook, scribbling down passing thoughts, when I’m listening to music. I do it when I go to the theatre to see other people’s work, old plays, when I read plays (read as many plays and see as many plays as possible, it’s a lifeline for your own creativity). But it needs to be active time which I hold for myself. Otherwise, the ideas tank is bankrupt. I don’t do this enough. It’s my greatest struggle. I resolve to do better. But I promise you it is key.

4. What’s the where?

So, what is you starting place having done all of this?

Everyone starts somewhere different. For me, I think it’s about the concept, which I’ll talk about in the next section more. But I think this is just when I know I’ve officially started. Before that, I’m probably starting in different places each time. You can start from a character, a theme, or even a world you want to explore, be that historical, contemporary, or fantastical.

Eventually, we all have to cover all of these things. But we do them in a different order.

Many great playwrights, including Chris Thorpe, start with a question, and very specifically, a question that they cannot answer, about themselves, the world, anything really. The crucial bit here is that plays are not statements but questions we ask the audience. This allows the spectator to come up with their own answers, or possibly more questions. But it also addresses something else which speaks to what makes good drama – it exists in the grey areas. In our current culture everyone is pressurised to align, to say the “right” things, to think the “right” thoughts. Really superb drama doesn’t do that. Instead, it provokes, invites the spectator to wonder.

5. What’s the “game”?

This kind of invitation to wonder, to question, which is offered to the spectator, is the way they get to participate in the play – I call it “the game” because a play Is supposed to be playful. There are roles and rules in a game, and this for me is the concept.

The playwright, Phyllis Nagy, says “an audience comes to participate”. I think this means that the best plays allow the spectator not to be passive but to co-create the experience of the play in some way. This doesn’t have to be direct audience participation, which can really terrify some people. What makes theatre theatrical is that it is about using imagination, and so it can be that the audience is simply invited to imagine certain things – places, people, dialogue etc. Or it can be about structure and sequence. When a play moves forwards in time, the spectator is being invited to predict what happens next. If the plot moves backwards in time, they are being asked to analyse what is happening and what might have caused this. If the time structure is fragmented, they are being prompted to piece together the jigsaw.

This is what is called form-content relationship – how we do the “what” of the play. Different genres have different principles for how to structure and sequence action. It’s good to read and see as much theatre as possible and to start to think about different ways plays work. But you don’t have to stick to “rules”. You can fusion cook forms and genres, or you can invent your own. The main thing is how does the how the play works formally relate to the what it’s about?

The form and structure of your play matters just as much to the meaning the spectator takes from it as the content.

Give the spectator a role to play in the play, allow them knowledge of the rules, give them an experience to remember.

6. What’s it called?

Titles are everything, I think. For me, it’s always a dead give away that I or any other writer doesn’t know what the focus of their play is or what they want it to do in the world, until it has a title. I think of the title as kind of like a target. It encapsulates the themes, the form, the experience I want the audience to get. Titles can evolve. But thinking of the title focuses my mind. And it focuses the spectator’s mind before they come into the performance – it is the first indication of the “game”.

7. Craft and graft

The playwright Dan Rebellato does an amazing workshop on playwriting in which he shows slides of x-rays of Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, uncovering the many previous versions of the work the artist made and painted over before he arrived at the version he deemed finished. In the early versions we see shapes and ideas which end up in the final version but in very different places on the canvas. Rebellato uses this to demonstrate that making any work of art involves craft, choices, moving things around and quite a lot of hard graft. Writing plays is no different. They very, very rarely come out perfect in their first version. We must be prepared to work and rework them, cut lots, move things around etc. But we also have to be able to stick to those elements we know to be really important and preserve those, as we draft and re-draft. It’s been said that making anything is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. And so, we’re back in the realm of giving ourselves space and time again.

8. Your best friend is failure

In the oft-quoted words of Samuel Beckett, from his 1983 story Westward Ho,

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

We need to give ourselves permission to take time and space, to fail. In my experience, playwriting is about failing most of the time. You’re always doing it wrong until you’re getting it right. And if you don’t give yourself permission to fail, you’ll write a really boring, unoriginal, play.

My whole process as a playwright changed when I realised the truth of this: failure is my friend, and when I meet it as a friend, it is my biggest helper.

About Nicola McCartney…

Nicola McCartney is a playwright director and dramaturg. She trained as a director with Citizen Theatre/ G&J Productions and Charabanc Theatre Company Belfast. Nicola was Artistic Director of lookout Theatre Company, Glasgow from 1992-2002, and has twice been an Associate Playwright of Playwrights Studio Scotland. She has worked for a host of organisations as a dramaturg including Vanishing Point and Stellar Quines/ Edinburgh International Festival.

Her plays include: EASY, HERITAGE, HOME, STANDING WAVE: DELIA DERBYSHIRE IN THE 60S, RACHEL’S HOUSE, CAVE DWELLERS and LIFEBOAT. She co-authored HOW NOT TO DROWN with Dritan Kastrati (Thick Skin/ Tron/ Traverse) which won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019, and had a national UK tour in 2023.

She is also a social theatre practitioner and has worked with all sorts of groups including people within the criminal justice system in UK and USA, asylum seekers and refugees, drug users, survivors of domestic violence and childhood abuse. Nicola has worked with Traverse’s flagship outreach programme, Class Act, since 1997, taking it to Russia, Ukraine and India, and recently leading Class Act for displaced-by-war Ukrainian young people in Scotland. She is currently Lead Artist on National Theatre Scotland’s “Caring Scotland”, a three-year project with care-experienced people. In 2018 she was a recipient of a Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Olwen Wymark award for encouraging theatre in the UK. Nicola is currently Reader in Writing for Performance at University of Edinburgh where she leads the Masters’ programme in Playwriting.

Like that? Check out these…

ARCHIVE- Mark Ravenhill 101 Notes on Playwriting – The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting (

TOOLKIT SERIES 3- ‘A cookbook for concentration by a self diagnosed procrastinator’ by Tabby Lamb – The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting (

REPOST WEEK FIVE- The Driving Question. Theatre as a Gesture of Enquiry by Chinonyerem Odimba – The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting (


Published on:
17 May 2024


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