Fighting out of the Fringes: When can you call yourself a playwright?

Phil King
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  • Arts
  • Last updated: Sunday, 19 December 2010 at 5:24 pm

51239561 200x300 Fighting out of the Fringes: When can you call yourself a playwright?“You willy-wally wobbly words…” says Major Robbie Ross in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good as he berates Ralph Clark, a young Second Lieutenant attempting to put on a play.  But this could easily be a cry against a playwright.  This could very easily be a cry against a playwright by him/herself.  Dealing with this idea of uselessness or imperfection is something we all have to go through in one form or another: for some they emerge stronger with greater confidence, for others it just feels like a disease.  When you get physically sick though it does test some of these thoughts in greater magnification.  Like many tens of thousands of unfortunate UK residents this Autumn, I’ve recently renewed my friendship with my lavatory and it does give you time to question.

Maybe it’s only in illness we truly know ourselves: stripped back and shivering, useless, dependent and left really only with the power of observation?  These might just be the right requirements to be a playwright though, who knows?  But who am I to even indirectly call myself a playwright?  Until true fame strikes isn’t that act a bit too much like bragging that you’re amazing at a sport you just happened to beat your Dad’s mate at once, before finding you’re 6-0 6-0 in a tennis match with someone in the year below you at school in front of a giggling crowd of adversaries?

I’ve written shows my company has produced.  I’ve written shows that others have produced here and there.  I’ve written a piece I’m proud to say appeared in the Northern Exposure season thanks to the ever-supportive and fantastically innovative West Yorkshire Playhouse. Am I a proper playwright?  I know many, many people in a similar position, some with more or less luck than I’ve had, that struggle with the same question.  Why ask it?  What does it achieve?

In it is contained a sense of identity, self-worth, community; knowing you’re not trapped in a vacuum crying out to yourself; you know there’s something that needs to be said and you want to say it.   Is this somehow noble? Egotistical? Presumptuous?  It’s difficult not to think all three and difficult not to be laying yourself open to harsh judgement as a result.  Maybe this is why we face the test of failure at nearly every stage, often judged on our last efforts rather than track records, often on who we know not what we know, often on being predominantly salesmen not artists.  I don’t claim to be working in the only industry where all this is true. What I can say is that in this industry this deep fear of being mere willy-wally wobblers of words is a remarkably successful way of whittling down candidates. And that can weigh heavily, like an illness (if you let it) if you can’t let any positivity in.

Second Lieutenant Clark successfully directed the play in Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good and in real life Australia.  However, it was one of the cast, Robert Sideway, who is credited with founding a Theatre company. Maybe it is useful to willy-wally wobbly words now and again if that’s all the Major Rosses of this world think you’re doing.  If not for yourself, but for the Robert Sidewayses.  Ultimately playwrights may often write alone but we’re surely trying to write for someone’s good.

(Credit: Getty Images)

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  • tomkerevan

    Great post Phil. I recently had this discussion with a friend who said I can’t call myself a screenwriter until I am making some kind of living off it. I understand that rather practical viewpoint, but I *politely* disagree with them.

    I believe you’re right, it’s a noble, egotistical, pretentious thing. People ask, ‘what do you do?’. ‘I am a doctor.’ Interesting. Not ‘I do doctoring’, but ‘I am a doctor’. Or even, ‘I am training to be a doctor.’ There’s no doing involved in the end result. Others might say, ‘I’m working for an oil company.’ Subtle differences in how they view their work and themselves in relation to it. We do a job, we are a passion. I don’t know anyone in their right mind who would call writing a job.

    Therefore, even though I haven’t made a dime yet and only produced my own short, I still say I am a screenwriter because it is the most affirmative, confidence-boosting, and melodic statement I have in my arsenal.

    The next step is simply to be able answer in the positive the next question asked, ‘Oh, have you done anything I’d know?’

    But I’m as much a screenwriter on that day as I am today.

  • moreish

    Really enjoyed reading these willy-wally wobbly words. Hope you are feeling better.

  • freddiemachin

    Oops. Posted it twice – egotistical and presumptuous.

  • freddiemachin

    We define ourselves so much by what work we do. If you choose correctly then the gap between what you do and what you are is minimal. People often say that creative types are lucky to be doing a job that they love, this isn’t entirely true – we are lucky to have found something that engages us but it takes courage to pursue and hard work to be good at, just like any other type of work.

    Play. Wright. A basher-about of words into shapes and phrases that resonate (cf. Stoppard’s cricket bat in The Real Thing). It is a practical, hands on activity. You can call yourself a playwright so long as you have a willingness to roll up your sleeves and the courage to expose yourself and your thoughts to other people. You can call yourself a writer at any time so long as you are dedicated to narrowing the synapse jump between what you feel and how to express it.

    Good posts both. Food for thought.

  • rebeccagarland

    …often it’s only in illness we begin to really value our physicality and, moreover, our health. Personally I rarely sing thanks to my body for being a healthy (ultimately low maintenance) machine, I take it for granted and it’s interesting to read of the self-questioning that can kick in when you’re poorly…and the key thing is ‘magnification’ perhaps, when those beasts grow like shadows because our body and mind needs a rest … time to turn up the lamp as words can sort out the mercurial mess and find a different foothold for the creative identity. Our minds and bodies need to be connected and illness, (as well as our digital existences) can separate … too long like this makes you feel out of sorts ……I reckon it can be more interesting and accessible to say, ‘I am writing a play’ over I’m a playwright – the first assumes no status and is conversational and the second implies status, and is statement – not necessarily because of the author but because of the intricacies of language, built from a myriad of sources – personal, cultural,historical … aren’t words brilliant?! … either way playwright or writing a play are courageous …really enjoyed ‘renewed friendship with the lavatory’ …Great working with you, Phil, and and hope you’re feeling better.

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