MY WRITING LIVING: OLIVER EMANUEL

18 February 2019

The winner of the ALCS-sponsored Tinniswood Award tells us how an early stab at love poetry sowed the seed for a successful career writing acclaimed plays for stage and radio.

One week you win a major award for writing the best original audio drama script. The next you’re back at your desk, seeking your next commission. That’s the reality of life as a playwright, as I discover when I talk to Oliver Emanuel. His 2019 Tinniswood Award for When the Pips Stop was just the latest in a whole series of accolades Oliver’s work has received in recent years. Flight won a Herald Angel at the Edinburgh International Festival 2017; and his version of Jan Sobrie’s Titus won the People’s Choice Victor Award at IPAY 2015; while Dragon won Best Show for Children and Young People at the UK Theatre Awards in 2014. Oliver was also lead writer on Blood, Sex and Money by Emile Zola, which won Best Adaptation at the BBC Audio Drama Awards 2017.

When we speak on the phone, Oliver expresses his delight at winning the £3,000 Tinniswood, both in terms of the prize money and the kudos. But it doesn’t mean he’s able to rest on his laurels. “From next week I have no work. So at the moment I’m in a phase of pitching ideas and sending things out. And most of those ideas will be long-standing ones which I’ve squirrelled away and then made notes on over time.”

Slow but steady development has been the hallmark of Oliver’s 15-year career as a writer for stage and radio. He found school difficult – he was eight before he learned to read and write properly, and it was only by chance that his nascent gift for writing was picked up by a teacher at his Kent secondary school when he was 16. “I’d written a love poem to a girl I fancied. I never gave it to her but instead accidentally dropped it on the floor. An English teacher called Mr Lanaway picked up it, read it and said to me, ‘It’s good. If you write anything else, let me know.’ Because of his interest, I started writing more poetry and short stories, and he’d give me feedback. Then I entered a short story for the Guardian Teenage Writer of the Year Award. It was all about a 16-year-old boy who had synaesthesia and who worked at KFC, just like I did. It won first prize and at that point I thought: okay, maybe I am quite good at this.”

I’ve had to build my career bit by bit, slowly making connections and establishing working relationships. I think that has stood me in good stead.

Despite this early success, Oliver initially stuck by his early ambition to be an actor. “My Mum and Dad were big into amateur dramatics and I’d been in lots of school shows and other plays so my plan was just to write on the side for fun.” Then while he was studying at Leeds University, the opportunity came to write a play. “I don’t think what I wrote was great but I did find it exciting that I could make something up, and get someone to say it out loud. It lit something for me inside.” A creative writing Masters at the University of East Anglia followed, which essentially taught him he wasn’t a novelist. “I found out the hard way that what I really enjoyed was not solitary novel-writing but writing something and then taking it into a room to share with other people.”

Having made playwriting his career of choice, Oliver spent his 20s “being relatively poor for someone with a lot of qualifications. At that stage I was still trying to write like other writers, trying out different voices but never really finding the right one”. In 2006 he relocated from the south of England to Glasgow, a move he now believes was key to establishing his career. “Early on I was only earning about £7,000 or £8,000 a year:  I don’t think I earned more than £11,000 until I was 30. But I could afford to be a playwright – because Glasgow rents were really low.” Despite steadily gaining commissions, at the age of 28 Oliver found himself at a crossroads, wondering whether to carry on. “But I think I just had a hunch that I could get better at it if I dug down into myself. I wasn’t a wunderkind or an overnight success. I’ve had to build my career bit by bit, slowly making connections and establishing working relationships. I think that has stood me in good stead. My agent Giles Smart at United Agents has always said it takes seven years to make a playwright, and he signed me when I was 25. And by the age of 32 I was just about established so he was right.”

Oliver’s income sources during 2017/18

How does he create a market for the work he wants to do? “The thing that’s sold my work has been the quality of my ideas. I think the marketplace for playwrights has changed in recent years: in the 1990s and early 2000s, you got commissioned because you’d written a play and people liked you. But now you get commissioned much more on the basis of your ideas than on your CV.” While writers in some genres are finding it ever harder to make a living, Oliver has found that his income has built up along with his output. He has written well over 40 plays in around 15 years, and now writes up to three or four new pieces a year. “In Scotland the theatre rate for writing plays is higher than in England. I could still make a living if I wrote less, but I’m always greedy to take on work, not for the money so much as for the challenge. Still, like that of most playwrights, my income goes up and down wildly.”

…it’s about being authentic and writing something that’s true to you. Yes of course you need to earn a living but you’ve also got to enjoy it.

Oliver’s fee for writing a single play might be around £10,000 or £11,000. “If you then get 10% of the box office and the show is on for two months, you might make £20,000 for one play. Which is pretty good. When I write for BBC radio, because I’ve now written around 20 plays, I’m on the established writers rate of around £92 per minute for a 45-minute drama. The year before last, I wrote three and a quarter hours of radio so that’s quite a lot of money.” Income also comes from royalties from stage productions of his work overseas. “I wrote a version of Robin Hood that has been used for six different productions in America. It’s not a fortune but it’s a good proportion of my income. And last year I also had two shows on in New York.” Nevertheless it was only when Oliver was offered the regular income of a part-time teaching role at the University of St Andrews after he helped devise and set up its Masters programme in playwriting and screenwriting, that he and his partner felt their financial situation was stable enough to start a family (they now have a daughter).

Does he have any advice for those aspiring to make a living from playwriting? “I don’t want this to sound glib but my best piece of career advice is always write the best play you possibly can. The world is not full of great plays and so if you write one, people will put it on. Also I’d say that when I’ve followed my artistic ambitions, it has worked out well. When I’ve taken risks, it has worked out well. When I’ve tried to write what I think other people want me to write, or done something fashionable or zeitgeisty, it has never ever worked out. So it’s about being authentic and writing something that’s true to you. Yes of course you need to earn a living but you’ve also got to enjoy it. I tend to value well-being over career.”


Interview by Caroline Sanderson, author, freelance books journalist and editor of ALCS News.

Photograph © Eoin Carey