Inspiration comes from various surprising sources: but the first question to deal with is How to Start?
When asked how to start writing plays, many writers of experience will tell you to write something short. Something around ten-minutes will usually do the trick. This is certainly how I began.
How did I start? Well, starting with my The Open University Creative Writing course, back in 2004, I never considered writing plays. I was more focused on prose, dreaming of that novel I would eventually create, a novel which never found a home. So, what next?
As a secondary school teacher, I was invited to the 2012 Trim Swift Satire Festival in Ireland. I brought some bright and enthusiastic students with me. I had entered a playwriting competition with the theme of the writings of Jonathan Swift. My first taste of scriptwriting.
Shocked to be shortlisted, I was advised that my students were to perform my play. Together we were to direct it, stage it, and rehearse it. This was my first ten-minute play performed in front of a paying audience – we didn’t win, but to take second place was remarkable.
A year later, my school was invited back and I was asked to write another ten-minute piece on a satirical topic of my choice. Again, this would be performed to an audience, this time on the closing night in a lower-key event than the previous year.
Unable to rehearse, my students performed this as a read-through, scripts in hand – but, still, it was useful to hear my play read out loud. The students got to add another feather to their growing caps.
I sat on that play for the next four years, as I never saw myself as a playwright. I was more focused on producing poetry, short stories, and completing the 80,000-word novel that, to this date, has its only home printed out into a box.
So, four years on, 2017: I stumble into an online writing group I found on social media and saw a request for a 10-minute script as part of a translation project.
This group enjoyed my script and translated it into Russian which was performed in St. Petersburg in March 2018. This short play is my inspirational piece: it has since been published in The Brooklyn Review, USA, and was picked up by a production company for radio adaptation. Suddenly… I considered myself as a playwright. So, let it continue…
This is how I started. Small: ten-minute plays, using three characters, and I have seen how much longevity this can provide. Since this success, I have ventured out into writing longer plays.
Inspiration from specific playwrights
I have recently read articles about the difficulties of adapting Brecht. This playwright did inspire me in my first longer-length play: particularly in the setting. I saw Caucasian Chalk Circle in Leeds in 2009 and enjoyed arriving, taking my seat to see the cast already present.
One character was sweeping debris to the different ends of the stage. The audience later know him as the Delegate. I loved the idea of having this character roaming the stage.
The opening to one of my plays uses this idea. A character, set on an unused beach, sweeping away the seaweed to prepare it for his special guests. Inspiration takes its form.
Similarly, I saw a comedy which was set in a hospital waiting area – I enjoyed how a ‘normal’ quite dull setting could stage such a vivid comedy. This was Larry David’s Broadway comedy Fish in the Dark, 2015.
Famous for comedy writing (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), it was the sitcom which provided inspiration for my plays. The idea of taking everyday locations and finding humour in them.
We look to what we are used to, without realising it. So, the next time we’re in that annoying supermarket queue we can perhaps think about how we could use this. Let’s think about the big stage productions and how we can make this smaller for us.
Where do my ideas come from?
My ideas come from a varied source. My first came from the anniversary of Titanic sinking. Another a brochure for a cosmetic clinic. The last was inspired by a German children’s book given to me as a present, back in 1985.
My point is that anything can be used as inspiration. Use these resources and study them vigorously. If we do some digging around our shelves, we could stumble upon that book we have not opened for many years. And there it is – your next play.
I still love poetry, I read prolifically it – my favourite poet being Irving Layton (a teacher of the late Leonard Cohen). Layton writes with his strong voice and personality striking through a verse which teases his readers.
I have never visited the Greek islands but enjoy reading his extravagant tales of debauchery and can envisage how popular he was with the locals as he got drunk and danced around – they called him ‘Zorba the Jew’.
Strange, as I write this article… this has now become my next idea. Working title: Zorba the Jew – set on a Greek Island – protagonist based on Layton – the plot based on events he describes in his Greek-based poems. This is my latest idea. This is my inspiration!
So, have a go. Revisit those childhood interests. Dust off those books. Or, the next time you see a performance, write down something you could use.
Pick up a script you have never read before and scan through an act – there is something for us all around us – we just haven’t found it yet. As a playwright, we need to find the source, be inspired, then the writing flows from there… You will surprise yourself; and hopefully, so will an audience.
Check out more of our How To Write articles for great tips and tricks for playwrights to help them craft that elusive ‘perfect’ play!
Mark L. Burrow is a writer from one of the ‘cycle’ towns of Yorkshire. Some of his plays have been performed in Ireland, published in the USA, and recently translated into Russian. He enjoys travel and is enjoying how his words travel.