Teach Me How To Write A Play

Hi. I’m David Burton and I’m a playwright from Queensland, Australia.

So there’s a lot of debate that’s been happening about plays and how they’re written. There’s a growing trend in Australian theatre that builds work collectively (ie without a writer leading the vision but with actors, directors and creative people who have an interest in writing putting everything down on paper.)

Wesley Enoch talked about this on Facebook this morning. We’re seeing more ‘abstract renderings’ of plays, he describes, that explore deeper social narratives that explore disconnection, alienation and…eh,I’m trying not to be impolite here but basically there are plays going around that just don’t see story as a priority. They see unique forms of expression as the priority.

When you sacrifice story you also sacrifice character and structures that audiences know.

But I’m astonished that a lot of people I’m talking to don’t see this as a big deal.

Sam Boyd, Artistic Director of Student Theatre company Vena Cava (they’re brilliant, they’re the theatre makers of tomorrow)says that he was recently given a ‘straight up’ play from a friend at NIDA. His first thought was ‘Is there even a market for this anymore?’

Chris Kohn, artistic director of Arena Theatre Company (which also does amazing work) replied to Wesley’s post by saying that he’s never found the binary between the playwright and the rest of the creative team that useful.

Are playwrights useful anymore? Is there a market anymore?

Well, interesting questions. Let’s look at the historical precedent.

Playwrights have been seen as important members of the theatrical community since…

Ancient Greece.

There seems to have been a market for plays since….

Ancient Greece.

And I’m not saying that theatre shouldn’t evolve or innovate – it should! And I’m not saying that plays that don’t involve a playwright with a specific vision aren’t valid, life-changing and amazing, but I do want to ask a question…

Where can I learn to write plays?

Seriously, where can I, as a young artist, go to get incredibly specialised knowledge in this ancient artform?Actor’s have workshops, millions of degrees everywhere. Directors have less than that but they have a ladder – assistant director to director, and mentorship seems to be stronger in that community (?). Playwrights have amazing institutions like ATYP and Playwrighting Australia, but I’m talking to you, Queensland.

Playlab’s little engine is doing all it can, but some changes have been happening that I’m not so sure about…

QTC just cut their Young Playwright’s Program which started my career down to a high school age comp only. The amount of mentoring that came with the program has been cut too. Their GreenHouse project develops established playwrights, but there’s not much happening in between that I can see.

La Boite have a playwright in residence program for women playwrights this year. All six of their mainstage shows come directly from a text or at least based on a text – only one** of those works was written by a Queenslander – Out Damn Snot – and in their entire Indie Season of shows there’s not a single project with anyone credited as ‘writer’.

Metro Arts, a bastion of innovation and exciting emerging art have quote unquote ‘plays’ disappearing rapidly from their repertoire.

Side note: their programming officer Kieran Swann recently reviewed the amazing I should Have Drunk More Champagne by the Good Room

(featuring amazing Queensland playwright Dan Evans) ‘It manifests as the rough edges between light moments, as striking images that utilise theatrical devices against their own theatrical traditions.’

I love you Kieran but Whaaaaa?

It this how we as a community talk about our art now?

Where can I go to learn about writing a play? The type of play that both La Boite and Queensland Theatre Company consistently find bring in the money? If we look at another industry that relies on writers with a vast knowledge of forumla, structure and character – film – we see they make approximately 8 bajillion dollars while theatre makes about $2.50.

Collaboratively devised works are important, but so are traditional plays. Playwrights seek to hold an incredibly well-defined mirror up to ourselves and show us something we would’ve otherwise missed were it not presented in such an articulate focussed manner.

It’s not like Australia hasn’t done it in the past: Ray Lawler, Michael Gurr, Michael Gow, Wesley Enoch, Tommy Murphy – or even doing it now, in Queensland – Matthew Ryan, Maxine Mellor, Claire Christian, Sven Svenson, Ben Schostakowsi…..

Me, I hope.

Tell me where we can send young artists to write plays. Tell me where and how we can start nurturing young artists with specialized knowledge in writing. Writers writing plays have kept theatre going for this long. I’m not so sure we should be so quick to evolve past it.


**this is incorrect. LaBoite’s mainstage seasons features not one but two shows penned by Queensland writers. The second is ‘The Wizard of Oz’ by Maxine Mellor and the Danger Ensemble. I’ve amended the blog. Apologies to La Boite, Maxine and the Danger Ensemble. It was an unintentional mistake. [DB, 11th of April] Additionally, Tim Spencer is the writer on one of the indie shows, my apologies for the omission, once again.