Thanks but no thanks: how writers deal with rejection (June 2015)

It was 10.30am and Dave had been typing the number seven into Excel for the past three hours. He was wondering if his fingers or the keyboard would be the first to break, when an email arrived: “Thank you for sending us your script. We appreciate the time it took you to write it and contact us. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to take your work any further.”

Dave felt the familiar thud in his chest. He didn’t need to read the rest. He knew what was coming from the word “unfortunately”. At first he was angry. Why did no one appreciate his office-based sitcom ‘Dave Goes to Work’ quite like he did? Then he was sad, as if his script was a friend who had just died. Then he hated his script and wished it had never been born. Then he parcel taped over all of the keys on his keyboard, except for number seven, and vowed never to write again.

If you recently received an email from the BBC Writersroom informing you that your script wasn’t selected for this year’s Comedy Script Room, you may be experiencing similar emotions. Of course, you may be fine – in which case, great – but if you’re not, this is a blog for you (and, if he can get the tape off his keyboard enough to access Outlook Express, for Dave too).

Virtually every well-known writer has a story about their work being rejected early on in their careers. “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try,” said Sylvia Plath. “Often you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir,” said J. K. Rowling. There’s also the tradition of writers defiantly wallpapering their bathrooms with ‘thanks but no thanks’ letters (or, these days, emails?).

However, it’s probably easier to come up with inspirational quotes about perseverance when it’s paid off for you than when it seems to be having no effect at all. If you’ve got a bathroom full of rejection letters that only you know or care about you may feel, like Dave, that the time has come to call it a day – in which case here’s another blog I wrote: ‘Should writers ever give up?’. Everyone has to decide for themselves how they spend their time, but if you enjoy writing, why not continue doing it? If, however, you are writing to escape your office job, pay off your debts or become famous, there may be more effective ways of achieving these things.

Having spent time writing and sending out rejection letters in the past, I’ve seen how these can vary. Some contain useful information; others are brief and to the point. Some aren’t really rejections at all – for instance they ask the writer to submit more work or let them know they have been longlisted in a competition (or, in the case of the BBC Writersroom, say if a script got to a second or third round, or a full read). Sometimes, they contain a few lines of feedback; other times, a full report.

I asked writers to send me a selection of the rejection letters and emails they had received from film, TV and theatre companies, agents and competitions, and got back some interesting examples. Like scripts, the standard varied enormously – from the inspirational to the generic. Strangely, many of the letters used almost exactly the same phrases. Here’s a summary of a few of these and how they might be interpreted:

“We are not in a position to take on any more clients/ develop any more writers”
A polite no, although in my experience this would probably change if the right script or writer came along.

“Keep in touch/ Send next play”
They like your work, even though they don’t want to do anything with it at the moment. This is a very positive kind of rejection – and not really a rejection at all.

“It’s not quite right for us at this time”
Ambiguous. Will things change with time? I’m inclined to think not, but you never know.

“Evaluating scripts is very subjective”
Yes! In my experience, there are just opinions, a general consensus, and a lot of shouting in the middle.

“The standard was higher than usual”
Sometimes people say this because they think it’s what you want to hear. But sometimes – as with this year’s Comedy Script Room– it’s true.

“Keep writing!”
Are they trying to sell you a writing course? Or some feedback? Or their new book? If not, this is the most enthusiastic rejection letter ever.

“No thanks!”
Just two words long: the shortest rejection letter ever? (Actually, a comp slip, sent from Private Eye to me, aged 10).

“Our funding has been cut, so we can’t accept unsolicited scripts/ send you feedback”
Almost certainly true. Unfortunately places that used to have resources for reading scripts now have less.

“We wish you all the best with your future endeavours”
I first saw this phrase in 2001 and suspect it’s been around for decades – but it means well.

“Good luck!”
Not the hollow words it might at first seem – but an acknowledgement that success as a writer is due to luck as well as talent.

A few writers I spoke to also mentioned techniques they have developed to avoid feeling too demoralised if their scripts were rejected (let me know if you have any others). These included:

• Sending scripts to more than one place, so there is never a time when there isn’t a chance one will get somewhere
• Writing because they wanted to write, rather than to win things/ pay for stuff/ quit their day job
• Making the rest of their life so enjoyable that script rejections didn’t really matter (“Hey, at least I’m spending the summer in Barbados!”)
• Concentrating on learning from any feedback and their ultimate goal
• Thinking of something new and imaginative to do with rejection letters (and, failing that, wallpapering their bathrooms with them)
• Doing some more writing (writer and producer Robin Bell wrote about this, after his script was rejected by the Red Planet Prize)

You might be surprised to hear that a few weeks later (and after reading a motivational book by Olympic athletes) Dave was feeling much better – so much better that he decided to write a blog about ‘How to deal with rejection as a writer’. But a quick Google search revealed that someone else had done that already. He briefly contemplated suing them for copyright infringement, but then remembered Everything Has Been Said Before (including ‘Everything Has Been Said Before’).

It was thinking about the above that gave Dave an idea for a new script: a self-referential comedy about a post-modern world in danger of eating itself. He tore the remaining strips of parcel tape off his keyboard and began frantically typing, as only someone with a story that needs telling, or a dispute with a telecoms provider, can.

Some months later, and a script reader was hunched over a script, completely gripped by what she was reading. It was a wryly observed, witty and irreverent comedy about a guy called Dave writing about another guy called Dave, who was also writing about someone else called Dave. The characters were brilliant, the structure was amazing: essentially, it was the perfect script. And it was written by a normal, everyday guy who worked in an office. His name was Steve.

Written in June 2015 for the BBC Writersroom 

What’s Funny? An Update from the BBC Writersroom Comedy Script Room (May 2015)

Dave sits typing at his computer in the dusty, corporate grey of an open-plan office staring into space. He wishes he was writing a script, but instead he’s doing something monotonous and soul destroying in Excel. For a treat he takes a sip of coffee, realising too late that it’s cold, has been there since yesterday and is covered in skin. An overhead fan whirs, which is strange, as offices haven’t had overhead fans since 1988. He bangs his head on his desk in despair. “This,” he thinks, “would make a brilliant sitcom.”

Meanwhile in the BBC Writersroom, a script reader is on page seven of a comedy about someone called Dave banging his head on a desk and is wondering how long it will take for him to knock himself out. She is feeling sad that there are so many Daves out there, having such a miserable time in so many unfulfilling jobs. So sad, she hasn’t laughed once.

Young guys in offices, young guys in flatshares, young guys playing football, older guys playing guitars, older guys moving back in with their parents, guys of all ages having a chat or crisis in the pub: these are some of the themes in the 2111 scripts sent in to this year’s BBC Writersroom comedy script room ‘sift’. Of the scripts I ‘sifted’ (i.e. read the first 10-20 pages of) some were entertaining, a handful were funny, two made me laugh aloud, a few made me cringe, and lots had potential even if this wasn’t enough for them to become part of the small number that went to get a full read.

The standard of the scripts was higher than in previous comedy sifts and, as is often the case, especially with comedy, fewer women sent us their work than men (one in four). Within the scripts we received there were many female characters, but a fair proportion were doing things like “clinging onto their fading good looks”, being “beautiful but bitchy” or simply “unattractive” (how dare they!) with the same kind of dead-eyed weariness as when I wrote about them two years ago.

However, there were also lots of cool and imaginative scripts, and less imaginative but polished scripts, and weird but interesting scripts that I knew the person sitting across the table from me would hate, but I put through anyway because, hey, I work for the BBC and someone once told me that means “being brave”. Comedy is, of course, subjective – and so is script reading, as I’ve mentioned before. But when it comes to what script readers and producers are looking for there are lots of things they agree on, at least in theory.

“Irresistible original comedy characters” are something that would make Head of BBC Radio Comedy Julia Mckenzie commission a script. She also feels dialogue should be properly “funny, and not just banter or mildly witty. It needs to make me laugh or at the very least crack a smile.” Unsurprisingly, believable characters and a strong sense of humour are things Executive Producer of BBC Comedy Richard Webb likes to find too. “This may sound glib, but you’d be amazed how many scripts don’t have any jokes in them. Comedy, famously, is meant to be funny.”

I ask Richard, what would be the one thing he would like to make before he dies? “I’d like to make a lot of things as I’m not planning on dying for a bit,” he replies, “but a big, fat mainstream hit that people aren’t snobbish about would be a good start.” Julia continues: “Writing mainstream funny stuff that has heart and some sense of underlying substance is the most difficult thing to get right, but if you can it’s magical.”

What would Julia say to people who feel that BBC Comedy is too safe? “’Is that because your sitcom about nymphomaniac zombies who share a flat has been turned down?’” she replies. “People say that Radio 4 comedy is safe, but a great deal of it would make you spit out your Werther’s Original.” Richard’s response to such criticism is similar: “I’d say you haven’t been watching it. There’s nothing safe about Inside No. 9, Nurse, Stewart Lee or W1A.”

One of the problems new writers sometimes face in consciously trying to write “a mainstream hit” is that their scripts can end up feeling cold and cynical. We often read sitcoms about flatshares that are similar to Friends, or domestic comedies inspired by shows like My Family, or stuff set in shops that’s a bit like Black Books. Sometimes they’re pretty polished, but also lacklustre – like the writer has approached them the same way I might approach assembling an Ikea chair. The end product might look like it’s supposed to, but there’s an allen key sticking out of the side.

Deliberately trying to create original or ‘unsafe’ comedy isn’t easy either. The kind of boundary-pushing stuff some writers might envision for late night on BBC2, or beyond (“my work is pretty edgy”), often ends up being shocking simply for the sake of it. In it, male characters tend to behave in unpredictable and extreme ways: for instance, sexually abusing a “beautiful but bitchy” boss, shouting racist abuse at anyone who isn’t white, or defecating loudly on a toilet floor.

“Yes, but is it funny?” BBC Development Producer Simon Nelson asked, after one of my colleagues had read a sitcom featuring one of the above. “No,” she replied, “It’s just offensive.” And yet, offensive comedy can be really effective, particularly if there’s a point behind it. And even if there isn’t, sometimes it makes us laugh anyway, although as we might then feel obliged to point out “not necessarily in a good way”. But still, we’re laughing.

I talk to stand-up comedian Stephen Carlin about the difference between confrontational and mainstream comedy. “There’s a tendency [for comedy producers and writers] to try and give people what they want,” he says. “But if you set out to be either risky or safe that’s possibly the wrong thing to do. It’s better to concentrate on just writing something good.”

If you want to make me laugh, it’s actually quite easy: I realised a while ago that every comedy character I love is pompous, delusional and sees themselves completely differently to the way they actually are. On the radio I like Clare in the Community; on TV I like Siobhan Sharpe in W1A, but there are also lots of others. You might like different things – for instance, characters such as Dave, the ‘little man’ struggling against an unfair and oppressive work/ life balance. Perhaps you’re wondering what happened to him. Was he given a ‘no’ verdict at ten pages? Did the BBC script reader pass him to another BBC script reader for a full read? Did she secretly place him under a cake on Richard or Julia’s desk?

I wish I could tell you, but I’m afraid there are lots of Daves in lots of scripts and they have a tendency to blur into one giant blob of melancholy, despair and biscuit crumbs. Most don’t get past 10 or 20 pages in the BBC Writersroom comedy sifts – but, then again, neither do most characters. However, there’s no reason why Dave couldn’t be an interesting, funny and, indeed, topical figure if he found the right writer. In the meantime, I hope he can get a well-paid, satisfying day job he enjoys and have a proper cup of hot, freshly made coffee. Everyone deserves that.

Written in May 2015 for the BBC Writersroom 

Prisoners of Pompeii (May 2015)

Somehow we had ended up in the cemetery. It was the last thing I wanted to see – as well as the painted house, the sauna, the dog mosaic, the brothel with sex graffiti, and the room full of broken pots. Just a few more things on the map! Only now it was dark, the tombstones, as tall as houses, were looming over out heads, and we couldn’t get out.

“Gates close at 7.30pm,” a sign had said in Italian, but the only Italian we knew was “ciao” (hello) and “ciao” (goodbye), so we hadn’t seen that. As the sky turned to black, Pompeii, a skeletal city immortalised in ash, opened its burnt-out eyes, and we realised something: we were the only people still here.

We ran past the graves, along the bubbling stone of never-ending streets – which a few hours earlier had been drenched in the hot, dripping sun. The cold, quiet city glowed, blue-grey in the moonlight. Gone was the chitter-chatter of tourists and the pseudo-military guards keeping fascinating artefacts and tormented spirits behind well-bolted doors. Now the real residents were in charge.

Face-after-face on the tombs – the carved alter egos of the dead, their unblinking eyes watching us stumble; finally able to make their presence felt after the souvenir hunters, ice-creams and selfie sticks had been spat out. As we sped past people’s former homes and possessions, down the now deserted paths of daily lives, under untrimmed trees and bushes, bats flew in front of our faces, swooping and screaming: “Go back, go back”.

In the shadows, the map faded from sight. It had shown us what the guided tours hadn’t; that there were miles of streets no one was looking at; whole houses and temples not deemed worthy of a pithy description; palatial mansions almost completely intact; an amphitheatre empty, too far away for most people to walk to – or just not as quite big as the Colosseum. And then there was the cemetery.

Nobody comes to Pompeii to see an actual cemetery. The dead people they are interested in aren’t buried in the ground; they are covered in plaster, their faces curled into horrific grimaces, illuminated by the continual flash of cameras on their glass box prisons. Bodies destined to be forever incarcerated, highlighted on the map with a big red star. Maybe one day you’ll go and stare at them. But perhaps afterwards you’ll visit the real Pompeii, like we did.

Crackling stone; the stretched fingers of backstreets; gardens once played in, now quiet and still; small pots where food was served hot and spicy, now cold and empty, the paraphernalia of daily life made special by the way its owners died. The bats, the rats and the bugs are the only life here now, along with us – and whatever else lurks around the corner.

Eventually: a small metal turnstile. And a man. A man! Apologies. We didn’t realise the time…. We thought we’d got locked in…We didn’t know where to go…He shrugs: “This is Italy. You go where you like.” Apparently it happens a lot; people getting lost. They – we – are all the same. None of us can read a map. But at least he was there to save us. “A pleasant surprise, yes?”

And yet, as we leave and go back to the train, to a world of tourists, tickets and timetables, we can’t help but be disappointed. Holidaymakers chat loudly, while locals chat louder. We miss Pompeii and cold silky quiet of those who once walked its streets. Next time, we must try and stay longer. Next time, we must stay all night.

Finalist in the Bradt/ Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Awards 

Seven ways to become a Hollywood screenwriter

In 2001, I was lucky enough to go and study at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Televisionin Westwood, Los Angeles. The campus, which was bigger than most towns I’d been to at the time, was like Oxford University reimagined by Universal Studios. Here, Baz Luhrmann or Jodie Foster stopping by to do a guest lecture was as much to be expected as vending machines selling mini-doughnuts and never-ending flavours of iced tea. With a spectacular alumni list, it was also a place where writing and selling a Hollywood screenplay didn’t seem an unrealistic or even especially ambitious aim, just something that everyone was doing. As my friend Valerie drove me around the city in her truck, the feeling of optimism seemed to stretch from one end of Sunset Boulevard to the other.

Sound great? I certainly thought so. But, as a writer living in the UK, how exactly do you get to LA if you haven’t got a Green Card and you’re not on a university exchange scheme? I decided to find out, by speaking to UK writer Matt Jones, who has worked on TV shows both in the UK and the US; Melissa Iqbal and Sam Baron, the two British winners of this year’s Academy Nicholl Fellowship; and agent Ed Hughes, who looks after a number of UK screenwriters working on movies in the US. Here are a few of their thoughts on the different ways you can ‘break into’ America:

1. Get work as a UK writer – and use it to propel yourself into the US

When Matt Jones started his TV career, as a storyliner on Coronation Street in the late 1990s, he never dreamed he’d end up in a Writers Room in LA. And yet, just over ten years later this is where he found himself, working on a “sweary, violent, undercover cop show” called Rogue. But it might have never happened if he hadn’t asked Russell T Davies if, as a favour, he could write a practice report on a script Davies was working on at the time – one that turned out to be Queer as Folk. Matt’s notes went down so well he was offered a job as a script editor on the series. More script editing work followed, on Linda Green and Clocking Off. “I’ve always been very lucky in my career,” Matt says, “I’ve worked for very talented writers.”

It was through script editing that Matt got his first UK writing commission. He was working on a new series, Love in the 21st Century, when the final episode fell through at the last minute. Producer Nicola Shindler said to him, “Matt, you’ve written things. Go home and write this half hour script by Monday.” And that’s what he did. Next he wrote for Children’s Ward, wrote and produced his own original single drama, Now You See Her, and produced Shameless. “I wrote in the evenings on shows and then produced in the daytime,” he says, “It was crazy.”

But it was as a producer rather than a writer that Matt ended up working in New York and Toronto for a year, on the American version of Skins. At around the same time he was commissioned by UK producer Brian Elsley to write a script about four gay best friends based upon his childhood. It didn’t get commissioned in the end, but became his ‘calling card’ script. “Off the back of [that script] I got a job as a writer in America on Rogue, and so I was in a Writers Room in Los Angeles for 10 months,” Matt explains, “It was a British Canadian co-production, so they needed British writers. And one of the production companies knew me from working in Toronto on Skins.”

Matt thinks that the UK writers who have found work in the US “most successfully are the ones who have established themselves very strongly in the UK first.” However, getting commissioned here isn’t the only way to attract American producers’ interests.

2. Win a writing competition Americans have heard of

Two of the four winners of this year’s Academy Nicholl Fellowship – basically the Oscars for new writers – are British: Melissa Iqbal, and Sam Baron. When I speak to them they are about to head off to Hollywood for an awards ceremony which, I like to imagine, will be a cocktail of glitter, diamonds and emotions – or, at the very least, provide good opportunities for networking.

I ask Melissa whether she thinks it will lead to more writing opportunities in America. “I think it’s a fantastic way to break into America,” she says, “The Nicholl Fellowship is really well respected, especially in the US, so there’s been a lot of interest in [my] script, which is fantastic. It’s a great way to get your name out there.”

Sam agrees: “Just being shortlisted was incredible, but winning was mind-blowing. [It] opens lots of doors in the US. As soon as you get shortlisted, you wake up to find hundreds of emails from producers, agents and managers all congratulating you and wanting to read your script and meet you.”

Both Melissa and Sam point out that it’s still early days, with the winners having only been announced in October, but when it’s difficult to get anyone to read your script in the UK, let alone America, winning a prize, particularly one that is well-known over there certainly seems to help. However…

3. Don’t give up if you don’t win a writing competition Americans have heard of

Not everyone agrees on what a prize-winning script looks like. Sam says: “The thing to remember with these contests is that while they’re great if you win…you can’t take it too hard if you don’t win. The day after I won the Nicholl Fellowship, I got rejection emails from two other screenwriting contests, for the exact same draft of the script – so it’s all subjective. A handful of rejections are no reason to give up.”

Melissa almost didn’t enter the Nicholl Fellowship at all. “I’d never had much luck with screenwriting competitions in the past,” she says, “I was feeling a bit disheartened at the time, but I told myself every competition is different and has different readers, so you never know. Of course I never thought I would actually win!”

4. Get an agent with connections in America

When I first speak to screenwriters agent Ed Hughes he’s about to jet off to LA for the kind of jam-packed business trip of appointments and meetings that I like to think I’m familiar with purely from reading Julia Phillips book ‘You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again’. I ask him how he gets UK writers work in the US. “Ideally we hook them up with a US agent and/ or manager,” he says, “The US reps can then spearhead looking for US work. But we have also got clients work direct from the UK with US companies. Most often [this is] by getting their feature spec scripts optioned by US companies.”

However, as pretty much everyone knows, getting an agent isn’t easy. “A [US] agent is good, but if you’re early in your career you’ll have a hard time landing one,” says Ed, “A good manager is actually a better bet to start off with. They are more focussed on the career development side of things and tend to be more proactive than agents.”

Having a well-connected agent and/ or manager certainly sounds useful. Matt, Melissa and Sam all have one (Bethan Evans at The Agency, Tracey Hyde at Casarotto, and Amanda Davis at Curtis Brown, respectively) although at some point in their careers they didn’t and still managed to get to where they are now. There are also lots of things you can do without an agent, such as…

5. Write a spec script Americans might like – but make sure you like it too

Some scripts feel perfect for an American audience. Others feel like the writer has been so dazzled by imaginary gold dollar signs that the characters, dialogue and story have disappeared under pile of estimated earnings calculations.

Ed suggests writing “several great US-set spec [scripts]” and to “write commercial material” but also “high-quality material, of course.” Regarding what American executives are looking for, he says “[There are] probably less period drama movies in the US than the UK. More genre TV shows get made in the US as there are more outlets for that kind of thing and more of an appetite too. More sports movies get made there than here. They love a good inspirational true story sports movie… One thing executives will ask for is a strong voice or unique point-of-view. But also big ideas and concepts really appeal.”

Talking about her Nicholl Fellowship-winning script, Melissa says: “I didn’t write it for an American audience, but I do tend to write quite commercial stories and usually genre. Having said that, I took the opportunity to write something a bit different…Obviously scripts should be written with some thought to how they might be marketed, but everything else should be from the heart.”

Sam explains how he came to create his prize-winning script: “I didn’t write it with an American audience in mind – although I do love lots of American movies, particularly character-driven American indies, and I did set out to write the film I would most like to see, which is how I’m convinced all films should be written – so perhaps it happened accidentally.”

In the BBC Writersroom we often read screenplays aimed at an American audience where the characters talk in a strange, heightened movie-inspired kind of language that doesn’t exist in real life or, indeed, movies (at least, not good ones). Like a lot of British writers, something Matt struggled with – when he was writing Rogue – was getting the America characters’ voices right. “It’s easy to work out the words you need to use,” he says, “but what’s hard is to realise what the phrases are that we use that they think sound really weird. And there are lots of those.” So how did he manage to avoid them? “It was really about being in America, reading other scripts and watching the actors,” he explains.

6. Work in other areas of the UK film and television industries

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” people sometimes say – and a good way of getting to know people is by working with them. Matt had jobs as a storyliner, script editor and producer before becoming a full-time writer, which led to some great contacts in the industry, such as Russell T Davies and Nicola Shindler.

Sam has also worked in other areas of film and TV and started off “making no-budget films with my friends as a teenager”. He explains: “They often didn’t even have a script, but we had an unexpected success when one of them went viral.” After going to university, he got a job as a runner. Despite doing long production days he describes how “every evening and weekend I would write, and lots of my Nicholl script was written in the margins of tattered call sheets on set, and then carefully transcribed on the night bus home.” After two years of writing his script, along with jobs in Development at Ealing Studios and as a script reader for BBC Drama and BBC Wales “some very supportive colleagues introduced me to my agent at Curtis Brown, who started getting me meetings with lots of producers, and soon after that I won the Nicholl Fellowship.”

7. If you can, take a trip to LA

Ed regularly visits LA and thinks writers who want to work there should aim to do the same, if their circumstances allow it. “You need to be ready to get over to LA at least a couple of times a year, for maybe two weeks at a time,” he says, “LA is the main place [in the US]. There’s not much happening in New York or elsewhere.” Obviously, this won’t be possible for everyone, but sometimes writing work can take you there.

Matt moved to LA to work on Rogue, since being part of a team of writers in a Writers Room meant he needed to go into the office every day. “I think you really have to be in America to write American TV,” he says. “All of the big shows have a Writers Room…You get a weekly wage. You are employees.”

Whereas Matt works in his home office when he’s in the UK, in LA it’s very different. He talks about juggling writing an episode with other responsibilities, such as storylining and polishing other writers’ scripts: “They wouldn’t let me go home and write my [episode]. I said, ‘Look, I’m not writing the script because I’m doing 10-hour days in the Writers Room.’ [The showrunner] said ‘You’ve got four days. Go in that room and write a script.’ I said, ‘Can’t I go home?’ and he said, ‘No, I need you around.’ So I sat in an office for four days and wrote.”

While becoming a Hollywood writer might often seem exciting, glamorous and well paid, it’s not all dark sunglasses, large cheques and apartments overlooking Santa Monica Beach. Ed explains: “[American] TV is more stable business these days, for sure. On the movie side there is not much of an indie scene in the UK, whereas there is a good indie scene in the US, which means more targets to aim for and hopefully hit.” However, “competition is fierce and [in the US] TV is now filling up with movie people looking to reap the benefits of the TV world.” Does Ed think writers get treated better in the UK or the US? “I think they get a hard time wherever they are generally!”

Matt explains some of the differences between writing for American and British television: “[In the US] there’s a massive investment in the writing process. We [writers] mapped scenes out and pitched things over and over. There was much less rewriting than in Britain and consequently when we wrote our first drafts, we wrote them very quickly. I wrote mine in four days.”

However, you don’t need to go to the US to experience the American way of working as, increasingly, it’s being adopted here. Matt has recently been working on Mr Selfridge, which runs a mini-Writers Room. He says: “Gradually producers have learnt that it’s better to spend a bit more money initially so writers can spend more time with the lead writer and really feel a series and understand what it is… But you’re still undergoing the process of writing drafts, getting notes and rewriting. That’s the same whether you’re in a Writers Room or home office.”

“I think people love to be negative about both the British film industry and the whole notion of Hollywood,” says Sam, “and I’m sure they have their reasons, but I think there’s brilliant creative work happening in both places, in film and TV.” Melissa agrees. “I used to think Britain didn’t like big concepts,” she says, “This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Unlike writers who spend many years trying to get to Hollywood, Matt never had a dream to do this. For him, living in LA and writing for a US television show was a surprising but enjoyable opportunity. It “came out of the blue,” he explains. “And it was great, it was a fantastic experience. But my first love is British television.” He’s currently working on two new pilots: one for Channel Four and one for BBC America, but he would like go back to LA in the future.

Nearly 15 years after I was in America, I feel the same. And so, as Melissa and Sam head off to Hollywood for their awards ceremony and Ed rattles through his “crazy schedule” of meetings there, I start planning ways I too can step out of a plane at LAX into the world’s most glamorous car park. “Dear UCLA, you know you said ‘if ever I want to come back…?’” Dear Nicholl Fellowship, do you ever use British script readers…?” “Dear Valerie, do you still have the truck…?”

Written for the BBC Writersroom 

To read more about my time in LA, going to film school and living in a housing cooperative click here 

My trip to UCLA, California

When I was 21 I was pretty sure that I would win an Oscar, probably by the time I was 25. This never happened. However, it does still sometimes lead to conversations with people I haven’t seen for a while where they – having also half-bought into my dreams and the idea that someone, even if it’s not them, is ‘Following their Heart’ – tentatively ask whether I’m “still writing”. And I tell them about the things I write, usually starting with stuff for newspapers and elsewhere, or my blogs for the BBC Writersroom, because I know they’ll find these the most exciting, before moving on to copywriting (“I’m basically Peggy from Mad Men”), script reading (“I’ve written over 5000 reports, you know…”) and this blog (“No, I don’t get paid, but I can write about whatever I like and that is worth more than money – isn’t it?”).

“But are you still writing scripts?” is what they really want to know. And I’ll eventually have to tell them, no – when I failed to instantly win an Oscar in my early-twenties, I got demoralised and stopped. If they look upset by that, like I’ve mis-sold them payment protection insurance or something, I’ll explain that there are other things that you can do with your life that aren’t scriptwriting – and that, in my experience, these are often more enjoyable than sitting alone in an empty room and staring at a blank screen. Sometimes they will agree and it will be like I’ve freed them from the millstone of aspiration hanging around their neck. At other times they will look bereft, as if by shattering my own dreams I’ve inadvertently done the same to theirs. “But you went to Hollywood?” they’ll say, desperate for any evidence that I’ve achieved the kind of success that they and my younger self had hoped for. Yes, I’ll say, and to cheer them up I’ll tell them a bit about what happened there:

When I was at university in Bournemouth (which, having grown up in a small village in North Yorkshire, might as well have been Ibiza), there was a competition to go and study screenwriting at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in in Los Angeles. Even though I was pretty sure I would become a rich and famous scriptwriter, almost certainly by the end of the year, I thought, “If I want to win an Oscar I should probably go to the place that makes the things.” And so I wrote a TV drama about unemployed people in Scarborough, which, against the odds, won – the trip to UCLA that is, not an Oscar, strangely.

And so, in 2001, 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Center (a place I was previously only dimly aware of), I took my new laptop, trainers, passport and swimming costume on our first ever trip in an aeroplane. It was exciting, scary and took what seemed like three weeks to get anywhere. While my mother had given me a step-by-step list of instructions on ‘what to do at the airport’, everything after I stepped out of LAX and into a taxi was unknown.

UCLA is located in a part of Los Angeles called Westwood. It was here that I had arranged to stay, in the University Cooperative Housing Association (known as ‘The Co-op’). Having only a vague idea of what a housing cooperative was, I was hoping for a cross between something from Beverly Hills 90210 and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Instead, I was dropped off outside what appeared to be a multi-storey car park. “I’m looking for the housing cooperative,” I said to a sullen man behind a desk. “You’re here,” he replied. Dear god, I thought, but I was tired and fell asleep on a bare mattress in the tiny room I was shown to. It was only when I woke up that I noticed how closely that the place resembled a prison cell – and that my roommates had arrived.

Sharing a room for three months with two other people you’ve never met before perhaps isn’t for everyone, but the roommates I was lucky enough to get turned out to be great. And apart from having to do a four-hour work shift sweeping leaves in the driveway once a week (which I decided was preferable to working in the industrial-sized kitchen or cleaning bathrooms), life in The Co-op was actually great fun. The students (and odd non-student) staying there were from places ranging from India to Germany to Hawaii, there was endless food (including a quite spectacular breakfast buffet which could be eaten on a roof terrace overlooking the city), cinema nights and lots of staying up late, drinking wine and trying to play an old piano. Yes, the place could have done with a good clean, but it was like nowhere else I’d ever been and cost only $500 a month – including four meals a day!

There was also something called ‘bump’, which involved everyone swapping rooms. Those who had been there longest got first choice of a few so-called ‘penthouse’ apartments, while the rest of us scrabbled over any remaining private bathrooms in an atmosphere somewhere between moving house and attending a baseball match. It was the evening of ‘bump’ that I realised the whole place was not only inhabited by students but run by them – and finally discovered that this is what a housing cooperative actually was (you can read more from people who have stayed in my one, here).

A short walk down Landfair Avenue, through an underpass everyone at The Co-op recommended I only attempt brandishing a full can of pepper spray, and there was UCLA – the most spectacularly kitsch university ever. It’s full of faux historical buildings, like Oxford reimagined by Steven Spielberg. The first time I walked through it cheerleaders were practicing marching, a band was playing, the sun had never seemed so bright and I was half-expecting John Travolta from Grease to strut by drinking a bottle of Snapple. Here Bruin-wear (the kit of the university sports team) was the equivalent of a school uniform, and since attending a course costs a small fortune there were endless swanky gyms, outdoor pools and restaurants on campus to help everyone feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

So what about screenwriting? Oh yeah, between having a great time in The Co-op and trying not to step in the fermenting food pouring down my street (because everyone had so much of it), I did actually do some. Screenwriting students at UCLA are expected to write a finished feature film every quarter (term). They can also take classes in all kinds of other things – from script reading to producing to film criticism. One of the best things I learnt is how useful it is to watch a good film twice; once for enjoyment and once to really understand how it works. Then there were guest lectures from people I loved, such as Baz Luhrmann, as well as test screenings of films from the studios before they were released. And everyone seemed to be making these films – actually making them, rather than just saying they wanted to, or they might do, or they could have done. Whether they really were, I’m not sure, but it almost didn’t matter. It felt like the Hollywood dream was happening and just being in a place where everyone fed into it was exciting enough in itself.

I stood outside weekly film premieres in Westwood, watched DVDs in Beverly Hills, stayed in a motel in Hollywood and walked along the beach where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds. But all too soon it was time for me to get rid of the giant picture of a sunset I’d found by a bin, abandon the comfy desk chair a girl I met at a baseball match had given me, cancel my overpriced phone contract with Verizon and come home. Even though I was only in LA for three months, everyone was so kind and welcoming – not at all cold and anonymous in the way I’ve since heard people describe the city – it felt like I lived there. The stuff I remember most about my trip wasn’t to do with scripts at all – it was life at The Co-op, being in a new country, meeting people and travelling to interesting places. And while I had managed to write a feature film script there – about a teenage disco dancer from Wakefield – when I got home people didn’t like it as much as the one that had got me to LA in the first place. But perhaps that was because I was having too much fun for writing. However, I did get an Oscar – a plastic one with my name sellotaped on it, bought from a gift shop outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Edinburgh Festival 2014 Round-Up

“Did you enjoy the show?” “Yes, it was good.”

Good. Bad. The only words I have left after seeing over 100 comedies, dramas and everything inbetween at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Sorry, all of the rest have gone in reviews – and even there they ended up repeating themselves. I’m pretty sure you could devise a drinking game around the times I’ve said “the play’s world”, “emotional journey” or “a celebration of [insert something rousing]”.

A lot of people think it’s not possible to do justice to every show you see when you’re writing up four, five or six a day. That’s because it isn’t. There will be a something that you give three stars to that, at a later date you think should have been four, or vice versa. You will try and get names and facts correct, but invariably you will undermine yourself by saying “Smith” instead of “Smyth” and announcing that “life was tough in ancient Rome 3000 years ago”. There will always be times where someone else (who I like to think has less reviews to write in more time) manages to say what you wanted better. And it will be annoying when you read it and you’ll wish you’d written what they’d written, and WHY DIDN’T YOU WRITE WHAT THEY’D WRITTEN, IDIOT…

But there are also times when you rattle off 300 words in 20 minutes and think: wow, that was better than anything I’ve ever done in two hours. Covering the Edinburgh Festival like I (and many others) do is an intense but inspiring experience where, every day, you push yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of doing. The downside is you have to re-read all of your reviews at the end to remind yourself of what you’ve actually seen. So, having done that, here are my observations on the 3.1% of 3,193 shows I was lucky enough to go to:

Just because a show seems feminist doesn’t mean that it is

Lots of people I spoke to at this year’s festival seemed to think: women on stage + dialogue about sexism = feminist play. But by focussing purely on women as the victims of men, the media and the make-up industry, plays such as Freak (by Anna Jordan) and Sirens (by Belgian company Ontroerend Goed) – as well-written and performed as they are – are in danger of making it look as if victims are all half the population are.

I have heard more sexist jokes in plays highlighting the problem of sexist jokes than I ever have in real life. And if I want to spend £15 on a lipstick, I’ll do it. In fact, Ontroerend Goed, even if I don’t want to spend £15 on a lipstick I’ll do it, just to show you that I can. Oh, and aren’t you the company whose show a few years ago, Audience, involved bullying a female audience member the rest of us were supposed to step in and ‘save’? Go feminism.

But there were also lots of shows that had more interesting female characters and perspectives on sexism too: Travesti put real women’s words into the mouths of male performers in a way that highlighted how farcical it is that men and women are still treated or viewed differently. Clara Brennan’s Spine is about two working-class women who certainly don’t need saving – least of all by a middle-class theatre goers who might think they know best. Pondling, written and performed by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, is one of the best depictions of a teenage girl I have ever seen on stage. And in The Capone Trilogy – three plays from some of the company formerly known as Belt Up, written by James Wilkes – the archetypical screen goddesses of the 20s, 30s and 40s are given their say within the traditionally male-driven gangster genre.

Some plays can change the way you watch all subsequent ones

I’ll never look at stand-up comedy or political theatre in the same way again. This is because two excellent shows – Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-Up Comedian and Confirmation – have, in my mind, pulled both of the genres to bits. And I’m very grateful to them for that. The first, written and performed by Gary McNair, is a stand-up performance within a play within a stand-up performance and dissects how making people laugh is often at the expense of others, who may or may not deserve it. The second, written and performed by Chris Thorpe, is a one-man exploration of how we use our experiences to enforce, rather than inform or change, our deep-held political beliefs, whether these are as a left-wing theatre maker or right-wing member of the BNP.

Many of the plays and comedy shows I saw after these two were made far more interesting as a result. Thanks to Gary, when I hear a comedian at Late ‘n’ Live telling an audience member from Pontefract “I spent half of my childhood there”, I automatically assume this is a load of rubbish. And much as I enjoyed another show, Cuckooed, in which comedian and activist Mark Thomas gives a compelling account of being spied on by the BAE Systems, having seen Confirmation I can’t help thinking it’s still only one side of the story. “I’m a very good liar, but everything I’m telling you today is true,” says Mark. But because I don’t like BAE Systems, I’m happy to ignore the first part of that sentence.

There are not enough good roles for female audience members

If you’re a woman, watching a play, and you’re picked out by a male performer, it normally means only one thing: you’re going to be serenaded, presented with flowers and, basically, turned into a generic female love interest. Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson, a smart multi-award winning look at our attachment to things from the past, spends a lot of time doing this. Don’t perform or try and be funny, female audience members are told just in case we want to, god forbid, do our own thing.

Whenever I’ve seen the brilliant comedian Adam Riches (whose shows are built around audience participation) pick out a woman they are turned into someone whatever cartoon-like eccentric he’s playing fancies. In contrast, male audience members, who are chosen far more often, get to do things like ride ‘lizard men’ on skateboards, seduce Ryan Gosling’s mother (played by Riches) and be covered in the contents of pots of Yakult. Even in Every in Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan Macmillan’s lovely, upbeat show about finding things to be happy about, an embarrassed-looking woman in the front row is turned in a familiar girlfriend-type. Cue everyone waiting for inevitable awkward snog.

Kiss-him-or-spoil-the-show is often the implied message for women who find themselves chosen to join performers on stage. Sometimes the audience are even chanting some such thing, or cheering their approval increasingly loudly. And so, behaviour that in real life might be classified as, at best, mass bullying or, at worst, sexual assault is turned into light entertainment.

If you want to make me cry in a play, this is how you do it:

Be funny. Be sad. Be funny. Be sad. Keep alternating. Be more funny. Be more sad. End with a character either facing death or dying. Zap the house lights up. Tell me to get out because there’s a five minute turnaround time.

OK, maybe don’t do the last one. But basically this formula of shifting from something funny to something sad and back again is one that I and the many other anonymous figures sobbing in dark venues find very effective. Daniel Kitson probably does it best and summed it up in his 2012 show As of 1.52 GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title as “’I’m thinking, I’m crying, I’m laughing,’” before adding, “You’ve been Kitsonned.”

Unfortunately, Daniel Kitson didn’t have a theatre piece at this year’s festival (although he was dong comedy, with friends, at The Stand), but keeping someone in the mini-tissue packet business going was Irish writer Pat Moylan’s Beowulf: the Blockbuster, a nevertheless uplifting story about the power of storytelling in which a father uses the ancient poem and all of its magic to tell his young son he’s dying. There was also So it Goes, Hannah Moss’s moving but playful autobiographical play about dealing with her own dad’s death told almost entirely without words (because there are some things words can’t say). Which leads me to…

There were a lot of plays about dead or dying fathers

As well as Beowulf: The Blockbuster and So It Goes, there was Banjo Man, Quina Chapman’s upbeat but touching play celebrating the life or her father, the creator of the 90s cult song Swamp Thing, and her childhood with him. And the semi-autobiographical Jim, by David O’Connor, which follows two sons brought together through dealing with the death of their cantankerous dad.

So, if you’re one of those people looking for ‘Festival Themes’, there you go.

Sometimes the best plays make you feel the worst

To be honest, I spent the majority of The Christeene Machine thinking “My god, when is this going to end?” It’s a confrontational show, particularly if you’re standing, like I was, right at the front of the stage. And that’s the point – or part of it. Basically, it’s the kind of explicit New York underground LGBT cabaret show designed to make you feel at times very uncomfortable. But it was also the most invigorating thing I saw this year, juxtaposing understated monologues with genuine menace as Christeene and her dancers shouted and stamped their way through explicit yet expertly choreographed rap numbers.

This combination of down-to-earth friendly banter with images and behaviour that make you recoil in horror is something that Kim Noble also uses in his epic show You’re Not Alone in which real-life and fiction, as well as comedy and theatre, are blurred together to form a piece that veers from being bleakly funny to heartfelt to horrific approximately every four seconds. It can’t really be confined to a single theatre performance, drawing on the lives of real people who, we are told, have been secretly filmed or recorded. While this makes it ethically dubious, Noble’s disregard for social norms is also part of what makes it so fascinating and simultaneously uneasy to watch.

Vanity Bites Back also plays with audience emotions, asking us to laugh and then throwing this back in our faces, morphing from a seemingly innocuous one-woman character show, by Helen Duff, to a bold and thrillingly fresh exploration of a troubled relationship with food. The lesser-known venue, in the dark and damp South Bridge Vaults, brilliantly lowers expectations, as does the smiling, chirpy woman who greets us there, before all of this is sharply and painfully undermined.

None of the above three plays are comfortable to watch and all of them are all the better for it.

Interesting shows have interesting problems

A lot of plays I’ve enjoyed at this year’s festival have things wrong with them: their stories needs dealing with, everything finishes too abruptly, there are too many ideas crammed into too little time. While these issues could do with being sorted out, they are BORING to talk about compared to how enjoyable the shows containing them are. The Art of Falling Apart has a structure that, yes, falls apart but it also has brilliant characters – probably too many brilliant characters – and one of the best depictions of going on a night out clubbing I’ve ever seen.

One of my favourite shows this year, Looking for Paul – Wunderbaum, ends with all of the characters covered in what appears to be excrement and mayonnaise, with straw shoved into any available orifice. But it’s also a terrific satire about public arts funding, the type of people who become artists and the things that, rightly or wrongly, drive them. The ending goes on way too long and the piece risks becoming the very thing it’s sending up, but the fact it otherwise so successfully breaks down and parodies theatre itself, while still being a great piece of theatre, is (unlike, I imagine, the watery spaghetti which covers the stage) simply delicious.

There are lots of good three star shows. But many of you won’t go and see them.

“What’s got five stars? I only want to go and see four or five stars,” people are often saying to me. But if you’re interested in a play’s subjectmatter, or you like a certain genre, or are following the work of a specific writer or group, seeing a three star show could well be more enjoyable that a five star one about something you have no interest in by a company you hate. Why avoid something that sounds entertaining and just your kind of thing because it hasn’t got that magic extra, highly arbitrary, star?

Here are some of my favourite three star shows from this year’s Festival: Milk Presents: Self-Service, Burger Van, Blind, First World Problems, Something’s in the Living Room, Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve F*cked, Glue, The Height of the Eiffel Tower, Beans on Toast, How Does a Snake Shed It’s Skin, Standby for Tape Back-Up, I’m Thinking of Leaving Facebook, The Secret Wives of Andy Williams.

The star system has lots of problems

Here are some of the main ones:

• It is impossible to accurately ‘rate’ plays by giving them a number between 1 and 5. Invariably there will be shows that both have the same amount of stars and one will clearly be better than the other.

• Critics generally think a three star show means something interesting but flawed, or well put-together if not exactly earth shattering. Audience members think it means avoid at all costs.

• Choosing how many stars to give is difficult when you respond well emotionally to a play that is technically less successful. Or vice versa. You may have the “3 stars or 4 stars?” conversation with yourself. It can go on for hours.

• Normally about three weeks after you’ve written a review – when the show is over and no ones cares what you think any more – your true and lasting opinion becomes clear.

Celebrities sometimes face unfairly harsh criticism just because they’re ‘big names’ (and other times it’s completely justified).

I thought Simon Callow in Juvenalia was an interesting if somewhat meandering insight into everyday life and attitudes in Roman times. Others found it to be full of sexism and prejudice too dubious to stomach in today’s world. Meanwhile, Callow complained at the Fringe First Awards that “the London critics “don’t properly appreciate one-person shows”. Whether this is true or not, I do sometimes wonder if being a ‘big name’ at the Edinburgh Fringe means critics are likely to judge you more harshly.

Saying that, the fabulous Nancy Dell’Olio put no effort whatsoever in to her one-woman show Rainbows From Diamonds. While I gave it one star, it has to be one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen albeit for all the wrong reasons. It was like watching someone do a completely unrehearsed speech at a wedding – one that went on for over an hour, cost thirteen quid and involved a ten minute costume change during which we stared at an empty stage accompanied by incongruous dramatic music.

I don’t often feel like I want to get directly involved in other people’s shows, but this was like stepping into A&E, discovering a patient was haemorrhaging and that all the doctors had disappeared. I might not know what I’m doing or be the best person for the job, but Nancy, if you need a script, I’ll give it a go. Failing that, call someone. Call anyone. Whatever they can come up with can only things better.


Hopefully some of the above shows will go on tour and you’ll get a chance to see them. But, like every year, there will probably some that won’t and the only record that they existed will be in a few people’s memories and any reviews, blogs and features that commemorate them online. While that’s a bit sad, it’s also one of the things that makes the Edinburgh Festival special. No amount of ‘round-ups’ like this or ‘best of’ late-night TV programmes on BBC3 can really capture what it’s like to be there.

If you still haven’t had enough of reading about the Edinburgh Festival 2014 here’s the rest of my reviews

How to be an Edinburgh Festival reviewer

Every year there are more critics at the Edinburgh Festival. Soon there will be more than there are shows. When that happens they will have to take to the stage and review each other. Eventually, the whole process (and possibly the whole festival) will implode and all that will be left is a giant meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square with a few charred fliers and scratched lanyards covered in radioactive dust.

This week, for the eighth year running, I’ll be one of this army of notetakers in comfortable-yet-smart-yet-waterproof shoes, getting on the train at Kings Cross (yes, some of us live in London I’m afraid) with a suitcase full of big coats, out-of-date Microsoft products, and stars. Awaiting our arrival will be audiences, primed to see who we give these stars to. In some cases they will be so dazzled by them that what happens on stage will seem far brighter (or duller) than it actually is.

Those putting on shows will also be waiting to see what we think of them – many ready to hurl a disproportionate amount of praise or abuse in our direction depending on whether we “get” (i.e. like) or don’t “get” (i.e. dislike) their work. Everyone else will be, at best, ambivalent to us as we embark upon three weeks of frantically typing in bars and cafes or from the pavement, like nothing else – not even the massive meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square – matters. Because if the Edinburgh Fringe isn’t a competition for who can be the busiest I don’t know what it is. Oh yes, it’s an arts festival. Or is it dream lottery? Or a chance for Foster’s to sell you beer?

It’s actually all of these things, and more. But perhaps most importantly it’s really good fun, especially if you’re reviewing it – even more so if you’re getting paid, and more so again if you’re getting paid properly. I mean, really, what better job is there than doing something you love all day in a place where large numbers of people are doing the thing they love, and then writing about it? For a month!

If you’re lucky enough to be joining me and many others for the first time as part of this disparate, fractious, paid, under-paid, not paid, experienced, not experienced, enthusiastic, cynical, happy, not-so-happy group of people classified as fringe reviewers – welcome.

There is an elaborate and often difficult to figure out hierarchy among reviewers at the festival. The ones who work for certain newspapers can be disparaging about the ones who work for other newspapers, and the ones who work for other newspapers can sometimes seem to think very little of the ones who work for websites (unless they’re websites they like, and then that’s OK).

At least once a day you might end up in a conversation about what qualifies someone to be an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer. People may even ask you directly, usually because they’ve had a negative review or they’d like your job. Of course, there are no qualifications (BA theatre critic?) in the same way there are no qualifications for people who read scripts or commission TV shows or decide you’re going to win or lose this competition or that competition. Someone in a position of power just decides that you’re able to do the job in the same way whoever’s in charge of them at some point just decided they could do their job.

And if you can’t get someone to publish you (or even if you can), you can always publish yourself online. Newspapers are cutting back, websites are growing. Of course it’s more difficult to get people to listen to you from a small blog with an out-of-the-box turquoise font than, say, the front page of Scotsman – but at least no one’s stopping you from giving it a go due to lack of space, budget or appreciation of your genius ideas.

The Edinburgh Fringe is all about artists producing their own work. And more and more people who write about this work are publishing their own reviews. The spirit of the fringe – that everyone can have a go – has spread. And while some people might be horrified by that, I’m just happy there are other people sitting on the pavement typing. It makes us more visible to passing buses.

So, if you’re coming to review the festival for the first time – or if you’ve been before but would like me to tell you how to do your job – here are my tips for being an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer:

* If you’re under 30 you might want to try and win the Allen Wright Award. Or you might not. But you probably will.

* If you’re over 30 you might want to moan about being too old to enter the Allen Wright Award – or the fact you didn’t win it in 1997. Or you might rise above all of that. But you probably won’t.

* People putting on shows are not your friends – unless they are your friends, and then you should avoid reviewing them (that is, if you want to stay friends).

* Your opinion is your opinion. Other people will have different opinions, but they can’t tell you you’re right or wrong because that’s why it’s called an opinion.

* Sometimes there will be a general consensus regarding which show’s a multi-prize-winning work of a creative god, and which isn’t. It may be disconcerting that everyone disagrees with you. But it may be that you’re ahead of your time.

* At some point you’ll give a show a number of stars you later think was too generous or too conservative. Either way, everyone will have hundreds of the things by the end of August. By this point you might (rightly) question what stars mean anyway.

* Three shows is an ideal number to review in a day. Four is do-able. Five is too many (but not impossible). Seven is dangerous.

* You will write something nonsensical. You will forget to eat. And drink. You will leave all your money in a venue that looks just like another venue. That’s what happens when you review seven shows in a day.

* If you want to see and hear interesting stuff out and about, don’t wear your press pass around your neck. People will know you’re from the press.

* At some point there will just be you in the audience. You will feel awkward, but not as awkward as the performer.

* You might notice other reviewers taking notes. Chat to them. Chat to everyone. They will tell you stuff. But wait until the show has finished first.

* People will refer to you using only your surname. i.e. “Stott says this to that.” If you’re a woman and you’ve written something they really hate they will precede it with “Ms.”

* Be prepared for every performance you see to be amazing. Many of them won’t be, but at least you’ll have given them all a fair and equal chance.

* Sometimes the characters actors play are more appealing than the people they are in real life. That is the power of acting.

* Don’t say anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. At some point, that someone will want to chat to you about it. And then you’ll have to say them to their face anyway.

* The Festival is one of the few places where many people get to do a job they love – at least for three weeks. Others are simply working to earn money and be a part of it. So be nice to the bar/ restaurant/ café staff. Serving you falafel is probably not their dream.


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