Timothy Daly - Playwright

Author: Timothy Daly
Date published: 13 November, 2003
Copyright: Timothy Daly

Leading Australian playwright Timothy Daly shares his views on the market for contemporary scripts, and offers advice on getting your work in front of directors.

Timothy Daly is a highly experienced writing teacher and playwright, whose works for theatre include Kafka Dances, Livingstone, Complicity and The Private Visions of Gottfried Kellner, which premiered in 2000 at the Griffin Theatre Company. The Private Visions of Gottfried Kellner won the Taffy Davies award for Best Play of 1999 and the AWGIE award for Best Stage Play in 2000. Kafka Dances has been performed in numerous countries, winning awards here and overseas. Timothy has also had several radio plays produced.

DEFINITIONS AND PARADOXES

In one sense, ‘marketing’ for a playwright has no meaning. The ‘market’ for theatre in Australia is so small, and is so tightly bound up with the subsidised theatre companies, that the notion of personally marketing one’s theatre work is a highly vexed one, and raises many issues. I recently wrote an article for Dialogue, the magazine of the Australian National Playwrights' Centre, wherein I wrote, slightly flippantly, of the way that playwrights sabotage their career, not to mention their art. I called it “Eleven Ways to be Unproduced”. A reader responded by saying, “What about an article on how to actually be produced—I mean the real truth?”

This case study is probably an answer to that reader. I hope readers don’t find what I have to say too cynical. Next year I celebrate 20 years of writing for theatre, and my work and I have gone all over the world. My theatre and radio work has been produced in a dozen countries. I’ve won many awards, and I love writing just as much, and know a lot more about it than two decades ago. But I've learned some valuable lessons, some of which I pass on below. Consider them the fruits of reality rather than cynicism.

STRUCTURE OF AUSTRALIAN THEATRE

There are four ‘levels’ of professional theatre production in Australia.

  • The first level is the mainstage companies (Queensland Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company, State Theatre Co of South Australia etc). Writing for these major companies is probably the goal of every playwright thinking of having a financially viable career in Australian theatre.
  • The second level consists of the near-equivalents of the major companies. These include Belvoir and Griffin Theatres in Sydney; La Boite in Brisbane; Black Swan in Perth; and  Playbox Theatre in Melbourne. Being mostly small companies, writing for these companies is only financially viable if the show is a major critical success. If that occurs, several good things happen: an Australia Council grant is likely, especially if the writer is new to theatre; a regional or even Australia-wide tour may eventuate, thus multiplying what was initially a very poor return.
  • The third level is the regional theatres, who have had a particularly hard time of it. At this level, the funding is either precarious or (relatively) lavish, depending on the relationship that individual artistic directors have been able to establish with local politicians, regional funding bodies etc. This includes companies like Jute Theatre in Cairns, and Riverina Theatre Co. in Wagga. The strength of these companies is that they will (often) produce the work of local writers. That is also their weakness. The quality can be highly variable, not always be up to acceptable professional or artistic standards; alternately, it might be too esoteric for its local audience. Some theatre companies I’ve observed pay a lot of attention to their work being innovative and progressive, but don’t much consider whether the local audience actually wants that. In these instances, a writer usually relies on a commission to subsidise what is, in effect, a loss-making activity (that is, the writing of a play for a small theatre with limited seating and an even more limited season.)
  • The fourth level is the heroic world of co-ops and other forms of selfsubsidising theatrical activity. Michael Billington’s comment that the people who subsidise the arts are the artists themselves—is never truer than for this level. Actors work for nothing, as does the writer who may have spent six months writing the play; and directors just out of NIDA, WAAPA or VCA spend long hours on a production that few see. (Most Australian theatre-goers are addicted to subscription theatre; it’s all they ‘trust’ to deliver quality theatre by the dollar.)
16 REALITIES OF AUSTRALIAN THEATRE; OR THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT A CAREER IN AUSTRALIAN THEATRE

Drawing on the above, too-hasty, survey of Australian theatre, I’ll state some conclusions I’ve stubbed my toe on over the years, which I’ll honour with the word ‘realities’…

  1. Australian theatre is moderately healthy where it is subsidized; almost nonexistent, where it is not. When I began writing for theatre in Sydney, there were numerous independent producers, and not a few independent theatres which required no subsidy but lived on the box office support of its audience. Now there is one independent theatre, and no theatre producers/entrepreneurs currently active.
  2. Australian theatre is a small industry. Not enough jobs, not enough skilled positions which allow you to have a career. As one actor despairingly said to me, “In this country, you can’t have a career; you can only have work.” Accepting this and other realities allows you to plan for (or around) it.
  3. Australian theatre is, essentially, commerce dressed up as art. And where it is not, it is subsidy dressed up as art. This will sound ultra-cynical, but it is not meant to be. The truth is, at this historical moment (and probably for a very long time), the Australian audience is a conservative, not very intellectually adventurous or even rigorous, and rather entertainment-obsessed group. You can ignore this - in which case, you’d better write astonishing plays which are an ‘event’ (social, fashionable) to be present at. In some cases, a genuinely innovative play or theatrical event will happen, but the work may find little audience, and live briefly only through substantial funding subsidy.
  4. Australian theatre is endemically provincial. This is both good and bad for writers. It means, for example, that Perth writers are overwhelmingly produced in Perth—but only in Perth. The same goes for writers in Cairns, Townsville, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. I would argue that Sydney is slightly more open to interstate writers. This is also the case with Melbourne, but Melbourne tends to produce the work of already-established writers or box-office certainties. The benefit for writers in all regions is their work is produced—once. But making a viable career out of one production is impossible. (But there are solutions; see below.)
  5. Directors, for good or ill, control the shape, direction and aesthetic tendencies of Australian theatre. They may claim that the audience dictates its will to them, but essentially directors simply direct any play that personally appeals to them. As long as they are reasonably sure it won't send their theatre company broke, they are free to indulge; this month Brecht, next month….? Australian theatre is, essentially, a director’s playground. So what? See next point.
  6. A major cause of your work being produced is by linking your artistic ambitions (and consequent play-writing) to the careerist ambitions of a director. In other words, knowing where a director wants to go with his/her career is as important as knowing where you want to go. You should not, however, be false to yourself by pretending to be (artistically) something you’re not, especially in the light of the next point….
  7. It’s only by establishing a ‘niche’ for yourself that you can make a regular presence for yourself in the financially viable theatres. Some niches: the business set; the affluent gay set; the black-leather angry 20-year-olds for whom most theatre (and all subscription theatre) is a sell-out; the over-40s female set (ever noticed how, just like the Anglican church, a theatre is filled with women?)
  8. Let me be provocative: By mid-career, you should have established your ‘niche’… or got out. Gore Vidal once complained that publishers hated how every book of his was different. They would have preferred him to have written the same book, more or less, each time. To want to grow artistically (the principle reason that writers are in this game) can confuse the punters (see below, for solutions to even this rather intractable problem).
  9. The dreaded maxim—“It’s not what you know but who you know” still applies, to some extent. This requires explanation. It’s not a matter of sleeping with an actor, buying a director enough drinks etc; mostly, it’s a matter of (genuinely) sharing a director’s aesthetic viewpoint, so you can join them, work with them, hang out with them and praise them. (It’s amazing how brittle many directors’ egos are.)
  10. Australian directors tend to work with or cast their friends; or, at the very least, directors tend to with people they’re comfortable with. They will rationalise their thinking: “She’s perfect for the part”; “I can trust him to do the job” etc. A production assistant once told me, “Never make enemies; Australian theatre is too small.” Despite this, I think writers are in a better position because it’s not ‘you’ but the ‘product’ they’re interested in, that is, the play you’re writing.
  11. It’s easier for young writers to get their first work produced, because various companies (for example, Naked Theatre Co; La Mama) exist primarily to produce the work of new writers. But early production of your work is no guarantee of an on-going career.
  12. Another maxim of Australian theatre: “To him/her who has, more will be given”. This means, that the best (or only?) time you should bother applying for the Fellowships, decent-money grants and other Australia Council assistance is when you’ve had a recent success (either critical or commercial). In my experience, fellow artists—the peers who sit on these committees - are highly suspicious of your ‘potential’, or even your ‘track record’. I’ve been on lots of prize judging and fellowship awarding committees, and know lots of the artists who also sit on them; I’ve also studied the list of successful candidates. Put another way, the best time to apply for a grant is straight after you’ve had a reasonably successful production of your (first) play.
  13. To modify (only slightly) the old chestnut: “You can’t make a living in Australian theatre; you can only make a killing”. If I had a single word of advice to a new writer, it would be: Bury almost every one of your works, reduce your output significantly, make them wait for your next work (they won’t want the work for several years anyway, to keep their theatrical seasons balanced.)… and then, aim to produce a hit every five years. (On my experience, to survive just on the plays you write, you need a commercial hit at least once in every five years.) After that, the money runs out and you’re back to driving taxis, waiting on tables, or ushering.
  14. The dominant theatrical aesthetic is, for want of a better term, ‘social realism’ with two variant strains: ‘social realism with a comic/satirical strain’; and ‘social realism with an earnest strain’. In the former (exemplified in the work of David Williamson) we get to laugh at silly, vain and greedy people (stock brokers, orthodontists etc) who we think we’re better than; in the latter, most typically represented by the work of Hannie Rayson and Katherine Thomson, there is a serious issue worthy of discussion. This is not to criticise these writers; they have simply found (or established) their niche. However, there’s a trap here…
  15. To simply follow such writers into the comfort zone of a pre-established niche is to court disaster. Ultimately, your only hope is to become more like yourself, and create your own niche, by creating work that’s so original, so daring and so brilliant (easy to say) that it is all but impossible for conservative mainstream companies not to do our work.
  16. Australian theatre is, for the medium term, wedded to the ‘success myth’. And Australian theatre is bound to that myth, because Australia itself is. The success myth tells a society that what it most likes is, by definition, the best. What is most popular is, by definition, most worthy of being produced. A work is produced because it is (guessed/judged) likely to be popular with the affluent minority of the middle-class who mostly go to theatre. If a work, however good, is not considered as likely to sell enough tickets to cover its cost, it won’t be produced, at least in a mainstage/subscriber season. That’s what happened to the play that is generally regarded as the best American play of the last two decades, Angels in America. In some Australian states, it made it to the main subscription season; in others, it was a ‘special event’.
10 SUCCESS STORIES RELEVANT TO MY FELLOW ARTISTS

This would not be a true case study if I did not share with fellow writers how I’ve
attempted to break, ignore or work around some of the maxims or realities I’ve
described above.

Basically, I’ve adopted ten major strategies.

  1. Have multiple careers. At the time of writing, I am a playwright, a writer for film, an author whose first book (Dramatic Techniques for Playwrights) goes to the publishers a month from the time of the writing of this case study, a script editor and director of workshops all over Australia. I’ve also written for radio and TV. The selection of parallel careers has not been random. Its guiding principle is both creative (that is, I had good ideas for radio plays etc) and self-educative. Talking of which…
  2. Teach in order to learn. In my estimate, it takes between ten and twenty years to fully learn the playwright’s craft (the art comes some time after). I’ve personally decided that, being self-taught (no NIDA, VCA etc background, just a love of the theatrical experience), I would earn a living either writing theatre or teaching it. That’s what I’ve mostly done.
  3. Keep learning. It’s been scientifically proven that ‘life-long learning’ keeps you young, assists in the prevention of Alzheimers etc, and allows you to enjoy life, regardless of the extent of your artistic and commercial success. At the time of writing, I’m currently studying: comedy, thrillers, performance poetry, non-linear writing, sit-com, stand-up etc. It all feeds into the writing.
  4. Try and earn money in areas where you actually learn. I’d rather earn money teaching, script editing etc, than by waiting on tables or taxi driving. I learn lots about the craft by working with fellow writers. I’d learn a little about human nature by driving a taxi, but probably nothing I didn’t know already. Admittedly, there’s always the chance that a Schindler’s List experience will come your way when at the wheel of a taxi, but for me, life is too short to spend it that way, and it only happened to Thomas Kenneally once.
  5. Have several projects on the boil at any one time. That way, nothing breaks your heart. Each project is a ‘break’ from the others, and refreshes you. At the time of writing, I am finishing my first book on playwriting; working on a second (on film with); writing a film script for an Australian film producer, am halfway through a play commission and I am lobbying for another one.
  6. Have different ‘sized’ projects. At the time of writing, I am working on a play for a small theatre, with a small cast. I am also working on a very large-cast play for NIDA. They’re one of the few development bodies capable of supporting the development of ambitious and large-scale work.
  7. Choose projects according to their artistic excitement. When I get confused from ‘too many projects’ I try and go back to gut feelings: “What excites me to do?” I left a comfortable profession because it wasn’t exciting enough. The day that writing is no longer exciting is the day I have a nervous breakdown.
  8. Choose projects according to the marketing/institutional need of the theatrical organisation. I’ve had plays produced and have worked with theatres and institutions like Sydney Theatre Co, Griffin Theatre, La Boite, ABC, NIDA, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Northside Theatre. Co. Quite apart from the art, each organisation has ‘corporate needs’ (which vary depending on the organisation). These bodies don’t feel that they ‘owe’ the playwright anything. Their job is to serve their own charter or their primary clients, whether audience or students. Thus, I’ve had to make sure that what I was writing was not just ‘art’, not just good, but was fulfilling the ‘brief’ that theplay and I were hired for. (Note the tension between 7 and 8.)
  9. Develop a national career through diversity and cunning. Being a Sydney-based writer, Melbourne theatre companies (for example) are not innately going to be interested in my work. For example, one of my plays, Kafka Dances, first brought the great Cate Blanchett to prominence, and has been produced all over the world—but not in Melbourne. (It was actually offered to Melbourne Theatre Company with Cate in the cast! MTC declined.) A prominent Melbourne director said recently, “Why should we do non-Victorian writers? We’re funded by Victoria.” He’d temporarily forgotten that his main funding base is the nation-wide Australia Council. I’ve worked around this by:
    a) Initiating contact with directors in all states, meeting them, introducing my work to them. It’s amazing how unaware many directors are of what’s happening in other states, so it’s our job to make them aware. If there was a director I thought would be wonderful to get the project up, as well as being wonderful to work with, I would write them a brief letter outlining the idea, asking to meet them briefly over a coffee to discuss “how we might further develop the idea” etc. At that meeting, I’d have a further 3-5 page “sell document” that expands on the idea and shows the director how it would make a great evening in the theatre. At the meeting you can also broach the idea of getting Australia Council project development funding which can be used to develop the idea from ‘good idea’ to ‘good play’.
    b) Having skills beyond just the writing of plays. I have travelled all over Australia and internationally as a teacher of writing and a dramaturg (a script adviser) of other  writers’ plays. (I have writer ‘clients’ in all states and territories; they are loyal to me because I genuinely care about them and their work.)
  10. Leave primary marketing to the producing body. The main marketing that a playwright does, at least initially, is getting the commission. In the case of the artistic director, you don’t invite yourself to coffee with them (as mentioned in the ‘coffee diplomacy’ above; that approach works best with freelance or associate directors.) But with artistic directors, you should go straight to the 3-5 page ‘sell document’. Go straight to the meat: how this idea would make a fascinating play/night in the theatre, and ask if they had time for a meeting at their convenience to further pursue the idea. (At the meeting, it might be an idea to give them twenty pages of writing—especially if they don’t know your work too well—which will give them an idea both of your talent and how the play is developing, and could be further developed.)

From then on, it’s up to you to convince them of both the play’s future—and yours. That’s about where the direct marketing ends from your point of view, as writer. Just write a brilliant play. And once the play’s scheduled for production, the theatre that’s producing you tends to organise the marketing and publicity, but if I had my early days over again, I’d probably be more aggressive in insisting that (for example) The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age interview me instead of the director.

In other words, career (self-) promotion is a tiresome but necessary thing,  given the success/fame game that our contemporary culture plays (and will, for the foreseeable future.) It’s probably just as important to become famous as to become a great artist. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

Fame is good and necessary, but ultimately we’re in it for the art. That’s more exciting than anything.

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