“Learn to Be a Troll-Whisperer” and Other Tricks | Advice for Young Playwrights from Ella Hickson, Chris Thorpe, Isley Lynn and Eli Keren

How does one become a playwright? How does one earn a living as a playwright? Where do you even start? Four professional playwrights share their tips and tricks and general advice for young playwrights just starting out…

Ella Hickson

Plays include: Boys, Precious Little Talent, Hot Mess and Eight

You might as well believe in the magic of it. I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that writing was a proper job. I used to get up at six and chain myself to a desk for a certain number of hours a day, I’d force myself into it all the time – it was a real battle – and the only bit I would really enjoy was getting it finished and sending it in. I was very scared of all that artsy fartsy nonsense about creativity – I had a work ethic and that was what would keep me safe and successful. Trusting anything else was for lazy, indulgent people.

Eventually I went a bit nuts though and I decided that I didn’t want to hate my job – I wanted to love it. The head-girl in me was forced to sit down and shut up for a bit. And when she did I realised that writing wasn’t working in a bank and writing wasn’t being a lawyer – and the kind of writing that workaholic head-girl was producing was sort of weird uptight, workaholic, head-girl writing and it had no balls or fire in it. Workaholism is the martyrdom of our age – people often think exhausting yourself has moral value – it doesn’t – it’s actually an abdication of the responsibility of looking after yourself properly and more than that – it’s dull.

Writing is a wild, angry, ugly, fun, belligerent, big-hearted, fickle, drunk troll that lives under the murky bridge of your insides. It owns you. It runs you. It is bigger and stronger than you. It knows what it wants more than you do. It knows what it needs to say more than you do. You are – in a sense – victim to it. You will do yourself a terrible amount of damage if you don’t yield to your troll. All you can do – and this is where the hard work is – is learn to be a troll-whisperer. Robert Redford your troll. Sit for hours listening to your troll, letting your troll speak to you, through you, be in constant gentle conversation with your troll about form and structure and other writers – discuss all the things that make your heart beat a bit fast with your troll. Tell your troll stories, show your troll new places, read books to your troll, always be honest with your troll, even when what is honest in you is ugly – and then listen when it speaks and write it down. Not because someone else told you to – or because that’s how you’ll ‘be the best’, or so that some important person somewhere will give you the magic ticket into the industry – but because it’s your troll and that is where you are at your greatest.

Chris Thorpe
Plays include: Confirmation, There Has Possibly Been an Incident, and Hannah.

What is one piece of advice you would give to young people interested in pursuing a career in playwriting?
You don’t have to think of a ‘play’ as the default way of writing.
If there’s a question you can’t answer about human behaviour at the heart of your work – and what would be the point if there wasn’t? – then create an experience that’s the most effective way of everyone in the room exploring that question. That experience might look and feel like a play – but it doesn’t have to. You have a room, you have the people who’ve chosen to show up. There are all sorts of ways you can use those resources.

What is something you would like to tell your younger self?
Don’t be scared of going up and saying hello to people who seem to have it all worked out. Does it feel like you don’t know what you’re doing? That’s OK. Neither does anyone else.

Isley Lynn
Plays include: Skin A Cat, Little Stitches, and Lean

– Don’t wait around for commissions. If you get them then great, but otherwise just write the stuff that you can’t not write. Make sure you have work to share if someone asks, that you’ve completed on your own terms. Be ready for luck.

– Make the work you want to make, and try to wrestle anything else into something that interests you. There’s no money in this, so why do it if you’re not excited by it.

– Be picky about who you work with on the big stuff – use scratch nights to test relationships with actors and directors, but hold out for someone who finishes your sentences talking about your play when you’re staging a full production. The wait is always worth it.

– In contrast to all of the above, say yes to everything you can – you never know who will fall in love with your work at a short night, or what connection you’ll make as part of a writers group.


Eli Keren
Plays include: PompeiiBad Advice, and Super

What one piece of advice would you give to young people interested in pursuing a career in playwriting?
Be brave enough to be bad. Nobody expects your first ever play to be a masterpiece, lord knows mine wasn’t. You’ll learn so much more from having that first play performed in some tiny student theatre to an audience made up almost exclusively of friends of the cast and crew than you ever would in books and theory. Stop reading, stop worrying, and start writing. Be prepared to work hard uphill to get that first play on stage, but don’t worry if it doesn’t change the world like you thought it might. The next one will be better. Oh, and read every line of dialogue you write aloud, without fail.

What is something you would like to tell your younger self?
Eli, don’t go in unprepared. You like structure, order and plans. You’re not good at freewheeling. For example, writing, directing and marketing a play yourself in exam term with a half-committed cast and a half-absent crew is not a good idea. There will be more terms. If you feel like you’re going in unprepared, don’t go in. Pull back, reform, re-think and hit it harder in a few month’s time.

Cover photo taken from Playwriting Australia website

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