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Missed our Q&A session with writer Ella Hickson? No fear - Masterclass Member Bryony has got you covered!

On the hottest day on record, Ella Hickson was a hero in bracing the heat to come and lead her Masterclass. Thankfully the air-con was on full blast, free cold mocktail drinks were being prepared for us afterwards, making us all very grateful to be there, lapping up Hickson’s fantastic helpful advice.

She made it clear from the start that this session was for us, and so she wanted it to run how we wanted it to. We asked her how she got to where she is today:

“I started as a producer. I always felt I wanted to be in the theatre industry but I didn’t know how.” She watched a lot of theatre, and started going to the Edinburgh Fringe every year from when she was 15 years old. She set up her own company in Edinburgh as a producer, and then started writing at 23, bringing her own play Eight into Trafalgar Studios, where she got her first agent. By the time she wrote Boys for the Royal Court Young Writers group, she was on her fourth play, and through sheer luck (“and hopefully perseverance” Hickson added), Boys got staged by Headlong, leading the RSC to then ask Hickson to write their adaptation of Wendy and Peter Pan.

Hickson’s Top Ten Tips:

  1. Set yourself a deadline and make sure you write 1 play a year (or 1 draft every 6 months)

  2. If someone asks you to write a short piece as one of a set with other writers pieces ALWAYS SAY YES! If you do yours really well so it’s the best piece, it’ll get noticed (she got a full commission for someone seeing her short play stand out)

  3. Research 2 people who are up & coming writers. “Beg, steal and borrow to see if you can write a couple of monologues with what they’re putting on. People will come to see the other two writers, so make sure yours is smashing!”

  4. Leave yourself plenty of time to write a play. Try and get a 3rd party e.g. literary manager or dramaturge (not the director) to offer advice and feedback on the dramaturgy of the play.

  5. A big trap that lots of young writers fall into is thinking they’re only allowed to write from their own perspective. If this is the only way we write, how can you write more than 1 character? Actors can be really useful to work with for this. It’s good to have a group of actors with different opinions, because these are controversial perspectives you can use.

  6. Let your values and what you write about be something other than ‘what sells’. We can change what sells if you write about what YOU value

  7. If you get commissioned under an artistic director, but another artistic director is about to come in, make sure you’ve written and submitted your work before that replacement happens, as the new artistic director may have other ideas for what they want to put on.

  8. If you’re putting on a show off your own back, make sure you set up a ‘limited company’. This means, if you lose money, the ‘company’ goes bankrupt, not you, so you can fold the company if it goes bankrupt to protect yourself.

  9. In your writer’s contract, you have a right of refusal for casting. If you find it important to know who you’re writing for, you can make your case to sit in on the auditions/casting. You can also suggest an actor you know for the part you’ve written which means they’ll automatically get an audition.

  10. Keep researching and reading about your craft. It’s not enough just to write out of passion, you still need good structure & form to captivate a paying audience. (Whenever Hickson is writing a play she’ll always be reading a book on the craft of writing at the same time so it stays in her subconscious)

The most helpful thing I learnt:

‘Hard work’ doesn’t mean spending every waking hour studying and writing. Hickson worked like this for her first 10 years, but realised this didn’t create quality, but just added pressure and stress. “It’s about trusting it.” If the goal is 1 play a year and she gets that done in a month, great, she can relax for the rest of the year. If it takes a year, it takes a year. It’s such a game of confidence. “It just get’s better as you get older. Just hang on in there, because eventually something will happen!”

The Process of Writing a Play:

All writers have a different process. Someone she knows takes an A4 notebook and starts writing the entire play chronologically until the notebook is finished! It’ a relief to know that Hickson has a completely different process: she reads a lot of books, annotating and note-taking as she reads, then when she feels she has something to say on the issue, she starts writing. Hickson would then start to structure and compile notes and scenes she’s written in separate folders on her computer as they then start to take shape. As she’s writing, she’ll always be reading a book about her craft at the same time (e.g. ‘How to Write a Play’ or ‘How to Write a Thriller’ etc). She then knows and trusts that this is going into her subconscious so that she’s on the right track with her formatting; yet she still has the freedom to be creative.

Hickson’s structure tends to be based around thesis v.s. anti-thesis. (i.e. power and sexuality: what happens if someone deemed powerless, uses their sexuality to overcome and manipulate someone powerful- where then does the power lie?) She finds this a lot more interesting than action-lead structure (i.e. person wants money, then finds different ways of trying to get that money).

She is looking forward to getting back into more character-led writing. Some techniques for this are to have a day being that character. What are 50 thoughts that that character has through the day? What are they thinking before they go to bed? Be cautious though- remember to get the character to serve the story rather than the story to serve the character.

About Agents:

To get an agent, do lots and lots of inviting. They’ll say no a lot, but keep on inviting them. Hickson suggested to “try and go for an agent that doesn’t have any writers like you on their books”. Think about what you want from an agent, it all depends on your preference. Do you want an agent you can go to to ask advice or give you pastoral support (when you’re at your wits-end and screaming down the phone) or an agent with a purely business relationship? Remember, it’s your work that gets you work, not the agent.