A very unqualified guide to the perils of playwriting in a national lockdown

The (mis)adventures of writing during a pandemic

Theatre is looking pretty sad right now. The ADC is very much shut, countless shows cancelled, ADCbridge has spilt more tea than my clumsy housemate and honestly it’s looking bleak. Having said that, a whole bunch of exciting shows have been programmed for next term, and many of them are new student writing.

Holed up in their separate rooms, thesps all over Cambridge have taken to writing, the one theatre-related activity that Miss Rona cannot rob them of. Move over Beckett and Brecht, because there’s a whole new bunch of writers on the block. So, I decided to take you on a journey through my own experiences of attempting to write during, you know, a global pandemic (yep, that ol’ thing). This is possibly the most self-indulgent article I’ve ever written, so buckle up and get ready for a wild ride…

I’d actually like to preface this by saying that, if I haven’t made this clear enough already,  I am absolutely not qualified to be writing this article. I am currently in the process of writing two plays, but I will admit that I have never actually reached the end of one. A combination of impressive procrastination abilities, impatience, and a propensity to decide halfway through to have a complete self-confidence crisis and resort to binging Bake Off instead, are ingredients which do not make for a good writer. What I’m trying to say is that I’m most definitely actually writing this article for myself. And to be honest, I’m not even sorry about.

Right, here goes…

1: Separate your spaces

Try not to write in the same environment you do your degree work in. Granted, uni rooms are often tiny, and cafés aren’t exactly an option these days, but it will really help the writing process if you can feel like playwriting is a break from your degree, rather than merely an extension of it. Especially if you study an essay subject, like 90% of thesps. This can be as simple as sitting in a different corner of your room, a different chair, even just changing the lighting if all else fails. Personally, I highly recommend a cosy corner with lots of blankets. Just beware of falling asleep.

2: Be a fan of the plan

Now, I am not a planner – not by any sense of the word. But without at least an idea of what you want to happen, you might get to a point where you feel like it isn’t actually going anywhere. Even if it’s as simple as plotting the motivations of your characters before writing them, this will definitely help keep you on track.

The plan my mate and I made for the play we’re writing. I’m aware it makes us look mildly unhinged.

3: Tea is rocket fuel!

Considering all cafés are shut, make sure to stock up on the crucial tea and snacks that would usually keep you going if you could write anywhere other than your own bed (not that I’m complaining). The more attractive you make your writing space, the longer you’ll want to stay there, and for me, this constitutes an endless supply of tea (seriously, my room is currently home to eight different kinds of tea and coffee and frankly that is not enough).

All of the tea

4: People watching is your best friend

I would say that this tip isn’t as creepy as it sounds, but it absolutely is. For one thing, if you’re as nosy as I am then people watching is just really good fun. It will also give you great material for writing your play. Tune in to different conversations and take notes on things you hear that you might want to try and recreate when writing your own dialogues. Prime people-watching spots include King’s Parade, the alcohol aisle of Mainsbury’s and, a recent addition to the list, the phenomenon that is the endless Pret queue.

If the thought of this doesn’t appeal to you (honestly, so fair) then consider this the perfect excuse to watch more Netflix – you’re welcome. Seriously though, noticing the dialogue in TV shows and films and whether or not it seems natural will really help you when writing your own Gossip Girl (don’t do this, though. The threat of the copyright lawsuit is real).

5: Sharing is caring

Talking about what you’re writing with your mates, and getting them to read it, is a great excuse for a nice bit of socialising in these lockdown times. You will either agree with their opinion and have some great advice, or disagree and feel more confident in your own thoughts. It’s a win-win. It can definitely feel super exposing, but there’s never any harm in getting another opinion.

If you’re writing with someone else, then communication is key. Make sure you both know the vibe of the play, who’s going to write what, schedule your crises of confidence for different weeks, all the important stuff. Having someone else involved – whether as a co-writer, advice-giver, or even just a tea-provider – means you can be held to account, and are much less likely to give up halfway through.

What will she say…?

6: Push through that mid-writing slump

Every writer will experience it at some point. That moment where everything you’ve written suddenly seems intensely cringey and you can’t bear to look at it. Think of that feeling when you are forced to listen to your own voice. Horrible, right? Yeah, it’s kind of like that. But worse. This is the danger point, where you will come very close to deleting everything and going for a nap instead. But RESIST! It’s impossible to get any sense of perspective until you’ve finished, and going back to edit your work is so much easier once there’s something on the page to… well, edit.

7: Don’t be too keen with your title

Titles are hard. You don’t want to constrain yourself by picking a title too early on, and then feeling like you have to shape your play around it. Writing takes time, your ideas will inevitably change, and your title should reflect the finished product rather than an initial idea. So write first, let the story happen, and at some point a title will come to you. Well, that’s what I’ve been told anyway – I’m still waiting on mine…

So there you have it – my seven tips for playwriting in these strange times. I don’t know how helpful they are, but hopefully you’re feeling at least a little more inspired to pick up the pen and write that masterpiece you’ve always dreamed of. Or if not, maybe you at least feel inspired to buy more tea. So happy writing, pals!

All photos are the author’s own.