Tackling Issues or Talking About Issues: Scripts at the Edinburgh Festival

At this year’s Edinburgh Festival I’ve seen over 100 plays, written up 82 of them as reviews for The Scotsman (which you can read here if you like) and heard about lots more which sound interesting that, try as I might, I will never be able to see. I am, after all, only human – despite what those getting one, two or even three stars might think.

This year, a lot of the plays were about weighty subjects. Things I’ve been immersing myself in for the past month – between eating scones and finding new words for “disturbing” – include rape in India, conflict in the Middle East, dementia in care homes and the holocaust.

When we’re reading scripts in the BBC Writersroom, people often comment that not enough are really “about” something. Or, that when they are, they’re “too on the nose.” Here are a few things I noticed about work that tackled (or talked about) issues at the festival which might help with your own writing – whether it’s for theatre, film, TV or radio.

Writing that tackles big issues wins prizes

I’d say that out of the 20 shows to a win Fringe First prize for new writing (for which I’m now one of the judges), well over half are about things currently happening in the world, rather than non-specific life-affirming stuff with, say, puppets and pyrotechnics – although there were lots of great examples of these at the festival too.

The Oscars are similarly famously for awarding prizes to films about serious subjects (although here are a few examples of times they haven’t). While choosing to write something issue-based isn’t a golden ticket to a plaque with your name engraved on it, it does seem to be something a lot of people want to reward when it’s done well.


You don’t have to write about serious subjects in a serious way

One of my favourite plays at this year’s festival was Ballad of the Burning Star which uses comedy, cabaret and drag to tell the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that feels fresh and urgent – particularly impressive since a lot of straight-faced and obviously “serious” pieces on the subject make it feel stale and boring.

Comedy is a great way of making topics that can feel heavy-going or done-to-death engaging again. Bridget Christie won the Foster’s Comedy Award this year with her feminist show A Bic for Her. Bryony Kimmings’ and her nine-year-old niece Taylor’s Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel is both a funny, provocative and imaginative look at growing up as a young girl. It won an Arches Brick Award and a Fringe First.

It helps if you have a point beyond being harrowing

No sane person wants to spend an hour and a half locked in a theatre watching someone get tortured, abused and/ or murdered if there’s no real point behind it. I have done it many times and believe me it’s not pleasant, however well done. Similarly, no one wants to feel like they’re being lectured. Issue-based scripts are very dull without well-developed characters and stories.

One of the most harrowing shows at this year’s festival was Nirbhaya (winner of the Amnesty Award), which centres on the shocking rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in Delhi. Performed by a group of women (and one man), who draw on their own horrifying experiences of rape and abuse, at times it’s not easy to watch. However, the fact it’s also about the women’s journeys from silent victims to telling their stories – stories that many people would like to cover up – makes it more than just a relaying of misery. Indeed, it’s a surprisingly hopeful and inspiring piece.

TV, film and radio can generally reach more people than theatre

Theatre is often fighting a bit of a losing battle when it comes to genuinely affecting the issues it wants to tackle. It can end up simply reiterating things to audiences who are already believe in whatever point it’s trying to make. I doubt anyone went to see Nirbhaya believing rape is a good thing. Or came out afterwards thinking: “Well, now I know exactly how I will stop that from ever happening again.”

A lot of theatre companies run after-show discussions and other activities to widen the impact of their work. The writer and director of Nirbhaya, Yael Farber, and the cast did one at the festival. The Belarus Free Theatre also talked about their activities beyond performances at a recent event.

However, it’s difficult for theatre companies to instantly reach the numbers of people film, TV and radio can – which makes it strange that…

TV, film and radio scripts sent into the BBC Writersroom don’t tackle topical issues as much or as well as the theatre scripts we receive

This seems a shame when TV, film and radio have the potential to reach more people and, when written in an entertaining and engaging way, maybe even genuinely change the world for the better (you never know!).

While no one wants to listen to clunky, on-the-nose, self-consciously educational political messages shoehorned into characters’ mouths, it is interesting to read scripts from writers that have something to say – particularly if you haven’t heard it before or it’s presented in a new way.

Lots of new writers seem to see British TV, radio and even film as a place for low-key domestic dramas where nothing of consequence really happens. However, what those on judging panels – whether they’re at the Edinburgh Festival or in the Writers Room – seem to really enjoy is something that has ambition and ideas. “Write about what makes you angry,” people often say. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of things to choose from.

Written for BBC Writersroom


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