Top 10 Tips for Playwrights: Advice from the Other Side of the Line

Van Badham is the Artistic Associate (Writing) of the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. She has recently returned to Australia after living in the UK for several years, where she was Literary Manager of the celebrated Finborough Theatre in London.

When I was starting out as a writer, I believed a common fantasy – that if I just sent my script to the right theatre company, my genius would be recognised. My words would land fully-formed into a room full of professional actors, and all they’d have to do was learn their lines, then a set would be built, some lights would flick on – and I’d be famous.

The difficult reality is that it is not the written word of the play-script that is the art-form of theatre – it’s the live performance.

Creating great theatre is a process of dedicated and often time-consuming mediation between the two, in which the abilities of a diverse team of creative professionals explore the potential and refine the invisible mechanics that a script offers for entertaining an audience.

Most writers – especially emerging writers – are writing in isolation, without the assistance of trained actors, designers, technicians, directors and dramaturges to test each line and action live on stage.

This means that, as you’d reasonably expect, only a handful of plays ever land in the lap of a theatre company anywhere near fully-formed.

In the last twelve months, The Finborough Literary Department has assessed well over 1000 scripts. As the Literary Manager, I personally have read hundreds. We give every script the same amount of due consideration and in that time I have read just two scripts that I’ve recommended for immediate production.

The rest of the new writing we programme is borne of a development process of meetings, discussions, workshops and readings before, hopefully and eventually, a script goes into production.

Like many small independent theatres, The Finborough has no funding, and very limited resources. Yet we have a passion for new writing and give everything we’ve got to the writers with whom we work.

As assessors, we’re therefore searching amongst what we receive for two things: the theatrical potential of the printed play-text, and the kind of writer with both the technical skills and professional willingness to collaborate who will, with work, transition the blueprint of the draft to a ready production script.

We receive many more scripts than we can possibly ever develop. So that we use our scarce resources most effectively to make the best art, various criteria determine the selection of our writers.

These following points are by no means exhaustive advice, and I’ve edited them for glibness:

1.) Attach a cover-letter. Get the name of the Literary Manager right. Also, it helps to Google said Literary Manager. So, no “Mr Ven Badham”.

“Who cares about the cover-letter?” someone responded. “All that matters is writing a decent play.” We read many “decent” plays. Thing is, we want “decent” plays to be “astounding” by the time they hit the stage; we need to recruit writers who are meticulous and hardworking, and excellent collaborators. Getting the addressee’s name right demonstrates the writer is at least meticulous enough to plan their submission. It’s also a professional courtesy, and courtesy is the bedrock of collaboration. If you can’t be bothered here, what indication do I have that actors or technicians will be shown due professional respect in a development environment?

2.) Don’t write “I would like to submit this to you” if you are actually submitting it to us. It is indirect and inarticulate.

This is not a deal-breaker but instances of poor expression can be a source of quiet concern: we expect writers to have technical skill and precision with text. Alternatively, poor expression betrays a disturbingly slapdash attitude toward detail.

3.) Don’t make a big deal of going to Cambridge in your cover-letter.

A cover-letter is to establish your professional experience, your writing character and – through inclusion of a brief synopsis – whether your work meets our programming criteria. Mention your education, list the awards you have won and the other theatres who have staged your work. Any detail that hypes a sense of entitlement, however, is best avoided; the only meaningful qualifications in a development process are a flexible attitude and hard work.

4.) Please number all the pages of your play, especially if it is a paper copy. Please don’t use Tippex, strange formatting or crazy fonts.

Anything that makes a play unnecessarily more difficult to read or administer in the time-pressured environment of assessment raises questions about a writer’s willingness or ability to work within the organisational structures of a theatre.

5.) Please read the submission guidelines on the website of the companies and theatres you are approaching.

6.) Please watch the shows of companies and theatres you are approaching.

Every theatre has its own aesthetics. At The Finborough, we are explicit about the kind of dramatic stories and themes that appeal to our programmers and our audience. Sending us something that we explicitly do not want demonstrates a lack of interest in what is important to us; seeing our productions and reading our literary policy is a direct way of appreciating what we do to determine whether your work is suitable for us, or if our work is suitable for you.

7.) Don’t send us narky letters. We read everything we’re sent. Be patient.

A very small team of readers does its best to stay ahead of a constant incoming stream of scripts. It’s fine to receive a polite enquiry about a script’s progress, but hostile communications do little to recommend a writer’s ability to respectfully collaborate.

8.) Don’t include too many stage instructions.

We seek plays that provide other creatives the opportunity to deploy their talents. Scripts that contain at-length descriptions of stage properties or character actions show little respect for the creative capacity of directors, designers and performers to realise the interpretative artistic potential of a text. Assessors appreciate detail in stage directions only if it is integral to the action of the story.

9.) Explore that magic of theatre.

As theatre spaces have developed, so have styles of presentation that can make imaginative use of staging, design, performance and other effects.

Readers look for plays that understand theatre’s unique devices, and use of forms of presentation that can’t be replicated in novels, radio, films or TV – the magic of the theatre is what the human body and voice can conjure within the limitations of the theatrical space.

10.) If we tell you we want to see more of your work, be encouraged: we mean it.

Ultimately, we’re seeking within a text are moving and unusual truths that through performance can be shared with the world; the best test of good writing is the simple desire to keep reading.

Great theatre is a difficult trick, involving a lot of time, personnel and human effort, but if we ever find ourselves asking “What will happen next?” as we turn the pages of a script, the hard work ahead looks just like joy.

If you are a new playwright, between 18 and 26, then one more great tip from all of us at Fresh Ink: apply to take part in our National Studio, taking place in December at Budanon. Details on how to apply, here!


Van Badham was born in Sydney and began her writing career as a playwright, staging her first professional play at 15. Her plays have appeared in Australia, the UK, Germany, the USA, Iceland, Austria and Switzerland. She has been staged at the Royal Court Theatre, was the first Australian playwright selected for New York’s Summer Play Festival, won a Queensland Premier’s Award and the NSDF International Playscript Competition and has written for BBC TV and radio. An
award-winning critic and screenwriter, she also writes for music theatre, and recently Van became a novelist; her first book, Burnt Snow, was published by PanMacmillan in 2010, the second volume of the paranormal saga, White Rain, is due soon. She is currently employed as the Literary Manager of the celebrated Finborough Theatre in London, but is relocating to Melbourne in October 2011 to take up a position as the Artistic Associate (Writing) of the Malthouse Theatre. You can follow her on twitter @vanbadham, or check out her website at

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4 Comments on “Top 10 Tips for Playwrights: Advice from the Other Side of the Line”

  1. August 30, 2011 at 11:23 pm #

    Differences of opinion on Van’s point about stage directions (Number 8).

    Dramatist David Eldridge comments:

    “For some writers detailed directions are very important. And no disrespect to other artists. The greater disrespect is shown by directors or actors ignoring them b4 investigating them!” @deldridgewriter

    The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner commented, in response to David, that she could imagine that “would be hugely frustrating for a writer” @lyngardner

    Van remarks “for me, the magic is always going to be in interpretation, not proscription”…@vanbadham

    David goes on to say: “Taking stage dirctions seriously isn’t proscriptive & all theatre is interpretative; directing/designing/acting/experiencing even the most detailed stage directions is wholly interpretive”

    Van responds: “Totally agree! Just saying to new writers to write them with as much care as the dialogue!” @finborough

    While Queensland based theatre advocate Kate Foy responds: “(Stage directions) are part of the playtext. All of the playtext is valuable.” @Dramagirl

    Follow the discussion on twitter at #toptentips

  2. August 31, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    Please: reread what I have written very closely:

    “8.) Don’t include too many *STAGE INSTRUCTIONS*.

    We seek plays that provide other creatives the opportunity to deploy their talents. Scripts that contain *AT-LENGTH DESCRIPTIONS* of *STAGE PROPERTIES* or *CHARACTER ACTIONS* show little respect for the creative capacity of directors, designers and performers to realise the interpretative artistic potential of a text. Assessors appreciate *DETAIL* in stage directions only if it is *INTEGRAL TO THE ACTION OF THE STORY*.

    What I am talking about are pages and pages of instructions that tell actors how to pronounce every line, that contain details of a set or props that are not crucial to the story or practical to the demands of a production.

    I am *not* saying “cross out ALL stage directions”.


    I am *not* saying “cross out ALL stage directions”.

    I realise this is a sensitive issue for people, so do take me at my word.

  3. February 1, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Reblogged this on Making It. and commented:
    Some great tips for aspiring playwrights by Van Badham. She will be at Playwriting Australia’s National Play Festival this year at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne from 22-25 February. I’m going to get my playwriting on now…


  1. A Little Light Reading. « Playwrights' Competition Calendar - September 4, 2011

    […] Advice from the other side of the Line is written by Van Badham from the Finborough Theatre and is full of useful stuff about submissions and covering letters. […]

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