‘I want to be a playwright’ – playwriting careers explained

A playwright at work
If you’re full of original ideas and love a good story, a career as a playwright might be for you. Find out what’s involved, how a playwright gets paid and whether you need particular qualifications.

Writing a play can be highly satisfying, especially if you then get to see it performed on stage. However, turning it into a career can be a challenge – as with acting, you’ll probably need juggle it with another type of job that provides a reliable salary. Playwrights don’t go through a formal training process but there are plenty of activities and qualifications you could undertake to help build your skills and knowledge. There may also be opportunities to use your skills to write for television, radio or film.

What is a playwright?

Playwrights write completely new plays and adapt existing works such as novels into plays. They can also create new versions of older plays written in foreign languages, often working in collaboration with a translator, to achieve aims such as making the language feel more up to date.

Sometimes playwrights will write a play that’s their own idea, then when it’s finished see if they can find a theatre company that’s interested in putting it on. This is particularly the case for unknown new playwrights who are trying to break into the industry. More established playwrights may also be asked by a theatre company to write a new play, with payment agreed upfront. This can be based on an idea of the playwright’s that the theatre company likes, or an idea of the theatre company’s (for example a certain topic that they want the play to explore or a rough outline for the story). Or the theatre company could ask the playwright to adapt a particular story or provide a new translation of a specified play.

Playwrights will usually still have some involvement with a play once they have handed over the script and rehearsals are under way. They typically attend at least some rehearsals and might be asked to make changes to bits of the script.

How to become a playwright

There aren’t any qualifications you need to be a playwright – the ability to write a good script is what counts. However, you’ll need to work hard to develop this skill and there’s lots you can do that will help.

  • Read lots of plays and see lots of plays. Get creative about ways to find cheap tickets or get in for free – for example, if you volunteer as an usher for a professional theatre or amateur show, you’ll probably get to sit and watch without paying. Make sure you see and read new plays, not just classics such as Shakespeare – you need to know what types of work theatre companies are saying ‘yes’ to today.
  • Get involved in any shows, drama clubs or acting classes you can find – you can still learn a lot about how plays work even if you’re not the writer.
  • Get writing! It doesn’t really matter to start with whether what you write is any good or not – the only way to get good is to start somewhere and keep going.
  • See if there are any writing groups or evening/weekend courses in your local area.
  • Consider getting together with friends or members of local drama groups to put on your plays – you’re unlikely to be paid or find fame, but it will be a useful learning experience.

Once you’ve developed your skills and written work you’re happy with, it’s time to try to get noticed by the professional theatre world. There are competitions you can enter and workshops and courses with prestigious organisations that you can compete for a place on.

Some theatres and theatre companies read and consider plays sent in by unknown writers – though even if they like you, it’s more likely that they will invite you to participate in further learning activities with them rather than paying you and putting on your first play. Big names include the Royal Court Theatre, Paines Plough, National Theatre of Scotland and High Tide.

Qualifications that can help would-be playwrights develop skills and knowledge

Some school, college and university subjects offer opportunities to develop skills and knowledge that will help you as a playwright. None of these are essential – no one is going to ask to see your CV when you send them an amazing script – but you might find them useful.

  • English literature will give you the chance to study plays by top playwrights.
  • Drama will give you a broad understanding of theatre, allow you to experiment and, at university level, perhaps take a module on playwriting.
  • A number of universities offer a joint degree in English and drama, allowing you to do a bit of each.
  • Creative writing degrees will give you the chance to learn about and try different creative writing forms, such as novels, short stories, poems and screenwriting as well as playwriting. Some universities ask for an A level, Scottish Higher or equivalent in English, some don’t.
  • There are a few degrees available to first-time university students that have more of a focus on playwriting.

There are specialist playwriting degrees available, though these tend to be at masters degree level – that is, for applicants who have already completed their first university degree or have a lot of relevant experience outside academia. Some like you to have studied a relevant subject for your first degree; others don’t mind what you’ve studied as long as you can prove that you’d be good at the course.

If you do go to university, there’s likely to be the opportunity to get involved in theatre outside of your degree. You might even find a student drama society that’s willing to put on your play, either on campus or by taking it to a festival such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

How does a playwright get paid?

Playwrights work freelance – they aren’t employees who receive a regular salary each month, but instead are paid a lump sum for each script that a theatre company wants. There might also be some extras, such as fees for attending rehearsals, a small percentage of the money taken in ticket sales for a show or royalty payments if someone puts the play on again in future.

Some playwrights make extra freelance money by taking on roles such as running playwriting workshops. There are also a few ‘writer in residence’ opportunities they can apply for, which involves being paid by an organisation for a few weeks or months – for example a theatre, charity, business, or education provider. Writers in residence often combine creating new work of their own inspired by their location with teaching work helping aspiring writers.

Supporting your playwriting with another job

If you want to be a playwright, be aware that you will probably need another career too. Even successful playwrights don’t tend to earn enough from playwriting to pay the bills, and the odd fee for leading a workshop or being a writer in residence won’t make up the difference. You might choose something connected to drama (such as TV work, teaching or working in a theatre in an office or front-of-house job) or completely different. Take a look at jobs related to playwriting below, the other theatre careers in this section, and at the other career areas on TARGETcareers. Just don’t take on anything with a reputation for long hours, such as investment banking – you’ll need the time to write.

Jobs closely related to playwriting

There are a number of job roles similar to playwriting that you might want to consider getting into as well, to make some extra money while still using your storytelling skills. As with playwriting, many of these involve working freelance and being paid for a particular piece of work, which won’t give as much security as having a ‘day job’, and they’re all competitive areas.

Devising new plays – the dramaturg role

Playwrights can work with theatre companies to help them devise new plays – that is, to put together a play as they go along through techniques such as improvisation, rather than having a script to work from. Usually a director will head up the project and lead rehearsals, but draw on the playwright’s expertise in storytelling to make sure that the play remains coherent and well-structured. In these cases the playwright will usually be called a ‘dramaturg’. (The word dramaturg can be used in different ways to describe different roles, usually relating to being an expert on scripts and giving advice on them.)

Screenwriting for film, TV, radio and adverts

The skills you’ve gained writing for the stage will be similar to those needed to write for film, TV and radio drama, and advertisements. Of course, that invite to write the next Hollywood blockbuster may be a while in arriving, but Hollyoaks or Holby City, for example, need plenty of good, reliable writers.

Script reading

Script readers are employed to read the scripts sent in to theatre, film or broadcasting companies or competitions to assess their potential and summarise their contents. There are also some script reading agencies that offer feedback to writers for a fee.

TV script editing or storylining

Storyliners work on long-running TV or radio dramas to come up with new, engaging storylines that will then be given to screenwriters as an outline to write from. Script editing is a similar role and also focuses on storylines. It involves liaising between producers (who are responsible for ensuring the commercial success of a series) and screenwriters. They may come up with story ideas themselves, make sure that storylines across a series are consistent, brief writers, read and provide feedback on scripts and discuss rewrites, negotiate timescales for screenwriters to produce work and sort out any script issues once production is underway – for example, a line that needs re-writing. Some script editors and storyliners work freelance; others are employed full time.

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