Playwrights' Playground

“We want to develop upcoming writers whose work can make it onto the main house stage, provide them with the back up they need,” explained the literary manager recently at one of London’s leading theatres dedicated to producing new work. There are many courses, workshops and groups to which writers take their ideas or work in development with this aim foremost in their minds, their focus firmly on getting produced. They are often taught the tools and methods: how to build character, structure, narrative, how to edit, re-write, begin, end, pitch, sell and get the work out there. All this is very helpful, certainly worth learning. “What I want to offer,” I replied to the literary manager, “is something else, a group for writers which focuses on the long term life of a writer, before and beyond production, that feeds the grounding to grow the plays for you to produce. This is about creative practice. It’s the heart of the matter.”

I have been a professional playwright for nearly twenty years and have written for theatre, radio, children, adults, and screen. There have been awards and, of course, many false starts and terminated projects. Whilst some plays are produced all over the world and there are revivals of others, there are those that still sit in the filing cabinet waiting for their moment that may never come. I also have boxes of notebooks filled with scrawlings made day upon day in cafes, on trains, on beaches, in woods, on buses, on boats, in airports, at the kitchen table, in bed. These are for no one to read let alone perform. The writing within has no regard for character, structure, narrative, coherence, sense. This is the raw stuff. This is what I do daily, every morning when I wake and at night before I sleep, writing freely without stopping and without censoring. This is what makes all those polished plays possible. And the habit of writing like this is what keeps me going through all the ups and downs and uncertainty. But more than that, it’s like eating. If I didn’t do it I’d probably waste away to nothing.

A director once asked me, ”Do you want a writing career or a writing life?” The first is just a symptom of the second. So, with my background as a drama teacher and educator, and having always sustained teaching to all ages and all levels of ability, I have for a number of years been running writing workshops and courses that provide the opportunity to develop regular practice not just alone, as most writers do, but to check in with a group of others. Actors, designers, teachers, directors, movement specialists come along with playwrights, novelists and poets. No one brings work in progress to share and there is no critical feedback. It works for beginners, amateurs and seasoned professionals. This is a playground to free-write together and explore tangentially, in whacky and unexpected ways, a whisper, a thought, a torrent, a dream. Recently, a playwright brought along a theme to the group, “What is real and what is not”. This is at once directly relevant to the play she is writing and also runs through her work in general. Everyone present contributed random words and wrote freely juggling “real” with “unreal”. I encourage everyone to be ready to write nonsense. Inventiveness thrives. There’s no need to prove a thing. When the writing is shared we look not at what we think of it but what images emerge. Then we leap from these images and fly off with more streams of words. And so this playwright was given the chance to write not only from her own perspective but from the visions of others. She then took to the hot seat and was questioned in role. And then she in role questioned the rest and herself., turning her view upside down and inside out. This work opens up the imaginative world and enable dialogue between writers within it. The playwright made a number of key discoveries that coloured the development of this specific play and also she was given a boost that expands her daily writing life.

Theatre is a collaborative medium but very little attention is given to the hidden solitary world of the playwright’s process that provides the breeding ground for every script. Of course, this privacy is a crucial element in the growth of the work. What Creative Practice workshops add is a forum where this private process opens up to imaginative feedback and new avenues. There’s something very powerful about a bunch of people writing beside each other, composing in their own worlds and yet linking with others, a playful communion of authors that enriches the writing life.

Published in "The Stage", April 30th, 2009