David Cottis, 14 January 2017

Present: David Cottis, Jenny Pearce, Fizz Waller, Richard Hurford, Hannah Khalill,

Jawaher (Joy), Anabel Barnston, Andy Harmon, Florence Espert-Nickless, Tom

Nicholas, Joanna Greaney, Rebecca Gould, Mystery Playwright and a few others.

I called this session because I've recently got as job as Lecturer in Scriptwriting at

Middlesex University, after working for thirty years as a freelance director, writer and

dramaturg. I wanted to see what people in the room had to say about this subject.

Many of the people who came to the session were writers, with different experiences

of learning how to write. HK asked whether playwrights actually need formal training.

She said that, when she was first writing, she was given the advice to take a play she

liked, take its structure, and use it to write her own play. Another writer said that she

tried this, but found it hard to get away from the influence of the original play.

JP spoke about the importance of collaboration - she described her early drafts as like

jellyfish, lacking form, and HK suggested that then process of rewriting was about

‘grabbing the jellyfish’. JP also said that she felt that craft and structure was useful in

finishing plays - that it was possible to start with a ‘burning desire’ but that it needed

more to complete them.

Another writer (sorry, didn't get your name) said that what was often missing in the

teaching of playwriting was a discussion of the audience, and of the different

audiences that you might be trying to reach. JP replied that she found it unhelpful to

think of an audience as such, and that she found useful the advice of Liz Gilbert

(author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’) to imagine that you are writing for one person, and that

you reach universality this way. She also quoted the view that you should always finish

a first draft of the whole play before showing your work to anyone - this overlaps with

Syd Field's ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.'

JH talked about his own learning experience - never formally trained, he learnt on the

job, through writing on commission, and through trying things out and discussing them

in the rehearsal room. There was a general agreement about the importance of writers

getting into the rehearsal room (other people's as well as their own).

There was a discussion of the role of the dramaturg, which RH regarded as an exciting

and untapped resource, and a useful way of getting through ‘the whole mess of it’. HK

said that a great dramaturg is like a great teacher in that s/he ‘knows what is wrong

with your play, doesn’t tell you, but enables you to find the solution.' The nameless

writer quoted above said that the dramaturg needs to be concerned not just with the

play, but with the whole dramatic experience.

There was a consensus that one thing (perhaps the only thing) that can definitely be

taught is structure - AH mentioned that he had read many plays which had made him

think ‘this is either really avant-garde, or it’s terrible'. RG raised the question of

whether people can be taught to write dialogue, and AH said ‘You can encourage

people to listen.’

HK asked whether the title of the session was too linked to a specific, Western

dramaturgical model, and whether this is limiting. The question of improvisation was

raised - the mystery writer said that there's a false binary in British theatre between

devised and scripted work. He mentioned that the best piece of theatre he's seen was

‘Gatz’, a seven-hour performance using every word of ‘The Great Gatsby’, which

(inevitably) used a novelistic structure rather than a theatrical one, but which still ‘took

you into a place and took you somewhere else’.

TN said that post-dramatic writing still has to be located in an understanding of

dramaturgy, that you have to know the ‘rules’ before you break them. RG compared

this to jazz musicians knowing the classical forms before they could improvise. JP

argued that part of the process of learning to write was learning to trust your own

instincts, and that structure can come from the unconscious as much as any other

aspect of writing. She cited the example of nature, which creates structures of great

beauty without any conscious intention ever coming into it.

At this point, the session was starting to wind down, so I asked if writers had any

advice, to my students or to other writers. TN said ‘Write your first play, then throw it

away’ (HK disagreed ‘Never throw away anything, ever.’). AH said that the most

important thing is just to keep writing, keep reading, and keep going to the theatre. I

mentioned that structure is essentially the controlled release of information (as is

teaching) and that the only way to get good at this this is to keep doing it, and seeing it

in action.

Several writers talked about the importance of feedback - HK said that, as a

playwright, you get feedback whether you like it or not, so you need to learn how to

use it. She said thatit generally fell into three categories:

1. Things she hadn't thought of. (Helpful.)

2. Things she already knew, but was hoping no one would notice. (Helpful, but


3. Things that were based on a misunderstanding of what she was trying to do.


TN said that young writers need to be made aware of how long it takes to write a play -

he realised this himself when he read an unpublished Tim Price play and saw the

words ‘Draft 18d’ on the title page. This was endorsed by everyone here - RH quoted

the dictum that ‘Writing is rewriting’ and said that it's worth remembering that ‘it takes

the time it takes’.

Overall, a stimulating start to the weekend.


playwriting, Teaching., dramaturgy, Dramaturgy, Playwriting

Comments: 1

Phil Cleaves, 15 January 2017

My interview with Steve Waters on playwriting and teaching playwriting may compliment some of your discussion. Sorry I

missed it.