Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

(How) Can We Teach Playwriting?

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

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.




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.


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