Her satirical comedy, Octopus, successfully toured the UK in 2017, showing in 16 theatres across the nation and achieving stellar reviews in national newspapers, including the Times and the Stage. But Afsaneh Gray is actually a medical doctor by training who had to get creative to achieve her ambition of becoming a playwright. If you’ve always dreamt of becoming a screenwriter or playwright, it’s time to take some notes.
Name: Afsaneh Gray
Job title: Playwright/screenwriter
Years since changing path: 10
TAP: You studied medicine and graduated with a medical degree, but chose to pursue a career in play/screenwriting. How did you know you were making the right decision?
AG: It was a very hard decision to make and while medicine never felt like the right fit, I agonised over leaving the field for years before I took the plunge. What settled it for me was the realisation that I was never going to be happy as a doctor. So rather than leaving medicine to become a playwright, I told myself that I was leaving medicine because I couldn’t be a medic. Which was true.
Just before my final exams I had been invited onto a young writers’ group at the Soho Theatre (I was the oldest writer there) and I was completely focused on writing my short play for them rather than revising. That alone made it pretty clear where my priorities lay. And when I finally walked away from a career in medicine, after graduating from medical school, I felt like I was walking on air – which confirmed that I had made the right decision.
TAP: Talk us through how you got from where you were then to where you are today
AG: After I left medical school in 2008 I worked as a temp for a while and then I took a job as a copy editor at the journal Nature. I did that for three years and then, prompted partly by my partner moving to Kenya (I wanted to be able to take large chunks of time off work to visit him) and partly by the fact that my writing was taking up more of my time, I went freelance. That was another scary decision, but it’s also paid off. Throughout all of this, I was writing plays, going through various schemes at theatres such as the Royal Court and Theatre503 and learning my craft. But I certainly wasn’t getting paid. My first paycheck from writing was in 2012 and it was £5. I considered sticking it up on the wall!
It took another four years before I took the plunge and decided to self-produce my play Octopus. I set up a Kickstarter, begged and borrowed money from every and anyone, and took it up to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. It was a success and went on to transfer to Theatre503 and then go on tour in the UK. No, it didn’t make me rich, but it did get me my wonderful agent, and he’s opened more doors for me. Now I’m finally beginning to get a bit of income from writing, but I’m still trying to figure out how to earn a proper living!
TAP: What actions and decisions would you say you owe your success to?
AG: It’s been a long journey to get to where I am now, but I never for a moment thought of giving up. I think once you’ve done something you hate for a long time, doing something you love – even if it’s hard – feels like a blessing. There was also an element of ‘fake it till you make it’ – as soon as I left medicine I described myself to everyone as a playwright, long before I’d really had a play on. As far as I was concerned that was who I was now and everyone had to accept it. Going freelance was another good decision and my latest good decision was self-producing my play. It felt very risky at the time but it paid off in the end.
TAP: Did you ever feel at a disadvantage and how did you overcome that?
AG: It takes a long time to learn how to craft a decent play (I’m still learning), and I think that’s especially true if you haven’t studied English literature since you were 16. It’s often felt like a steep learning curve, and I still sometimes feel like conversations are going over my head because I don’t have the same vocabulary as everyone else. I was lucky enough to benefit from some great (and free) schemes that teach playwriting, and I absorbed as much as I could from them. I also read a lot and went to the theatre a lot. You learn a huge amount from figuring out what you like and what you don’t like. At the same time, I’ve always seen my knowledge of science as a bit of a secret superpower. It’s enabled me to earn money while I’ve been writing, and it gives me this whole different vocabulary that most people in theatre don’t have. That’s something I can bring to the table. For example, I just did an internship at the BBC show Doctors – suddenly my medical knowledge was useful again!
TAP: Well-wishing family and friends usually have well-intentioned but often unhelpful opinions when it comes to changing careers. What piece of advice were you given that you wish you’d ignored/you’d advise other budding career changers to ignore?
AG: When you change from a secure career like medicine to something as insecure as a career in theatre, you’re unlikely to be greeted by a chorus of hallelujahs. I stayed in medicine for much longer than I probably should have because I was terrified of leaving, and that fear was certainly amplified by people’s reactions whenever I suggested that maybe medicine wasn’t for me. A lot of people thought I should continue to train and maybe work as a locum doctor while I was writing, but I knew that continuing was going to make me incredibly unhappy. Finally, I had to trust my instincts. You still have to be very strong to shut that stuff out. At some point I started having to have conversations with people where I said, ‘I never want to hear you question me about this again – I’ve made my decision, it’s done’.
TAP: Can you share a few resources that you think are invaluable for breaking into play/screenwriting?
- Read David Edgar’s How Plays Work, John Yorke’s Into The Woods and Robert McKee’s Story.
- The BBC Writers Room often shares screenplays from BBC shows and is a great source of advice and opportunities.
- There are also a number of websites that list opportunities (competitions etc) for writers, such as the London Playwrights Blog.
- If you live away from the capital get in touch with whichever local regional theatre works with new writers – they’ll be delighted to hear from you and lots of them have development schemes.
- If you have the chance to sit down with a writer you admire and pick their brains, do it! If not, the Royal Court has a podcast series of interviews with playwrights which may be the next best thing.
TAP: What is the biggest misconception about working in play/screenwriting?
That theatre ever makes a profit. Unless you secure a big West End show you’re unlikely to make good money from it. This means you need to have another string to your bow and be prepared to use it. As for screenwriting, I think many people do not realise just how long it takes to get anything on screen. Unless it’s a short film that you’re willing and able to raise the funds for yourself, it can take years before anything you write sees the light of day. But that doesn’t mean you’re not a screenwriter and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Want to break into play/screenwriting? Here’s Afsaneh’s advice on the six things you should do
- Watch a lot of theatre, TV and film, and read a lot of scripts and screenplays.
- Have meetings with people who are already writing plays and films, and ask them for their advice.
- There are a lot of theatres who will read unsolicited scripts – the Royal Court, the Soho Theatre, the Bush Theatre, the Traverse Theatre, and the Royal Exchange – but don’t expect any of these theatres to call you up and say they’re going to put on your play. If you manage to get a letter with some feedback, you’re doing really well because they don’t do that for everyone.
- Apply for free courses such as the Royal Court’s Introduction to Playwriting course. Again, if it doesn’t happen the first time, try again. You’re going to get so many rejections and you have got to be prepared for that. They’ll keep coming and coming, but for every ten rejections you’ll get one meeting or a short play – take heart from that.
- Make things happen for yourself. Run a crowdfunding project to raise any money you need; make your own low-budget movie or put on your play in a theatre above a pub. That’s how you find the people you trust, the people you want to get feedback from and those you want to collaborate with. When you start, you’re going to ask a lot of people for feedback and most of it will be useless, but the advice you get from one or two of those people will help you to write your best work.
- Finally, just jump in and don’t let yourself get scared!
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