TS Eliot once said that playwriting "gets into your blood and you can't stop it – at least not until the producers or the public tell you to". It sounds like a fair summary of a profession that, while continuing to attract some of the nation's brightest and most passionate young writers, remains difficult, frustrating and badly paid. But if you want to become a playwright, where do you start?
Perhaps the simplest way is to submit a script to the national Bruntwood playwriting competition, which in 2005 attracted almost 2,000 entries. Organised by Bruntwood – a private property company based in the North of England – in association with Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, the competition is open to anyone over the age of 18. All entries are kept anonymous to prevent any bias in favour of previous experience, age or gender, so even if it's your first attempt at writing a play, nobody will need to know.
"Writers come from all different fields," says Jo Combes, the Royal Exchange's associate director and literary manager. "You don't need to have done a playwriting course; you just need to have a story to tell and a passion for theatre – those things will make your play interesting. People who do endless playwriting courses won't necessarily be any better in the end: it's the life experience and flair for storytelling which make the play unique."
If the judging panel – made up of working playwrights, actors and directors, to ensure a balanced reading – approve of your work, the rewards could be immense. The winner of the previous competition, 27-year-old Ben Musgrave, not only walked away with £15,000 in prize money, but also had the satisfaction of seeing his play, Pretend You Have Big Buildings, performed on the main stage of the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
"There's a very particular feeling you get when you see your play performed," he says. "It's probably a bit like scoring a goal at Wembley. It's a particular kind of buzz, a pride and pleasure in knowing that you're giving somebody else pleasure. If you put your play in front of people and they respond to your vision, it affects you in a deep way that's difficult to put your finger on."
Musgrave, whose winning entry dealt with the aspirations of young people in the struggling London suburb of Romford in the Nineties, first began writing drama at university while studying for a degree in English. He went on to do a Masters in writing for performance at Goldsmiths in London, and after winning the Bruntwood competition was asked to draft another play for the National Theatre Studio, the institution's experimental arm. As well as the buzz he gets from seeing his work on stage, Musgrave also enjoys the creative process involved in constructing a play.
"Sometimes writing is very painful, awkward and inconvenient, and you can sit around for days without getting anywhere," he says. "But when you're calm and relaxed enough, and you're in a place where you can write, both geographically and emotionally, then it can be a real pleasure. Things come out of you that you don't realise could come out of you, and you begin to realise things about the world that you haven't before."
Although playwriting can still be a very lonely profession at times, the stereotype of a writer locked away in their isolated garret does not ring true for Musgrave, who calls it a "fundamentally collaborative art". The same goes for Phil Porter, 30, who has been writing plays professionally for 10 years after studying drama as an undergraduate, and won third prize in the last Bruntwood competition. He says that accepting input from others is an essential part of being successful.
"When I hear my script read out loud – even if it's not by actors – I learn much more than I ever would by sitting at home," he admits. "It can be a soul-destroying experience if the jokes that sounded so good in your head don't quite fire, but you learn as much from what doesn't leap off the page as what does. It's a very revealing process.
"Some of the work you have to do on your own, but among playwrights there's a strong sense of community. It can be quite a sociable job, and all of us look forward to the bit where others become involved in our work. There probably are some people who hate that part, but most good playwrights are people who love the theatre and the performance – and that's a very communal thing."
How to get started
Visit your local theatre and join its playwriting group, if it has one.
If you are over 18 and have written a play, you still have a few weeks to enter the latest Bruntwood playwriting competition. For details, visit www.writeaplay.co.uk.
The website Writernet (www.writernet.co.uk) is a useful resource for aspiring playwrights. It has a map of the UK to help you find your nearest writing group, and has details of courses, agents and competitions. It also has a script-reading service that offers feedback on drafts.
For a comprehensive list of postgraduate creative-writing courses, including those specifically geared towards playwriting, visit www.prospects.ac.uk.Reuse content