Adventures in Playwriting

This time last year, I signed up to do an Open University course called “Start Writing Plays.” It was a year since I finished college and I missed studying; I wanted reading lists and assignment dates and homework. I also wanted to learn more about play-writing because I want to devise my own performances. I have always done devising with a group and I have no idea how to start devising on my own. I thought an introduction to play-writing would help with that.

I wrote my first when I was 8 or 9. I know it was set in a forest and that it involved bears, it might have been vaguely based around the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, but I can’t remember the title or even the plot. My cast were my sisters and my cousin, and it was very much written around the props and cast available. It was performed after my birthday party and I remember getting upset that the audience (my mum, my aunt and my uncle) weren’t taking it seriously enough. The production was not a great success – lines were forgotten and the set didn’t live up to my expectations (the “forest” was a single paper tree hanging from the light shade in the middle of the room). It was so far from how I’d imagined it that I didn’t even attempt to write another play until my final year at university.

It was for a module called Writing for Performance. As an introduction to writing, it wasn’t great – we spent hours exploring why people wrote and doing exercises to find a subject to write about. In one class we were partnered up and one person was blind-folded and lead around the building for half an hour by their sighted partner, and then we swapped. I’m still not sure what that class had to do about writing plays.

I read lots of plays and books about play-writing during that course, mainly because I wasn’t getting that much from my classes. The end of term assignment was to write a script. I learnt a lot about what not to do from my first draft and made a half-way decent attempt at the second draft. It’s hard to write realistic dialogue that also keeps the audience interested and also keeps the plot moving along. My attempts at play-writing ended when I handed in my assignment at the end of term.

Until last year, when I decided to try again! The Open University course gave me a much better introduction to play-writing. It was an online course with loads of exercises, examples and regular feedback from the tutor and the other students. I learnt a lot about creating characters and structuring a play, what you are trying to do in each scene, as well as remembering that theatre is a visual medium, as well as an aural one. There were extracts of plays and interviews with playwrights describing their working practices, how they outlined their work (or not), creating characters, using dialogue to make a character come alive. I found it really useful and by the end of the course I could definitely see an improvement in my writing. Even just having lots of exercises to do forced me to write something and it was great to get positive feedback from the other people doing the course.

(The first time we had to submit a scene to the forum for other students to give feedback, I really tried to give everybody some constructive criticism. By this I mean, I tried to point out the problems with it and the things they could have done to make it better. I wasn’t a total bitch – I said what I liked about each piece, and what really worked for me as well, but I just thought it would be more useful to know the problems with the script. If 8 people all say, ‘that’s nice. I like it’ you don’t learn anything. But I did feel mean when I read their feedback on my piece and everybody said really lovely things about it!)

The OU don’t do that course any more, but I would definitely the Open University in general. I think it’s one of those things that the more you put in, the more you get out of it. I didn’t always have as much time as I would have liked to dedicate to the course – to go through every exercise, to read and response to everybody else’s work, to really utilise the forum as a place to try out new ideas, etc. The only thing that would put me off was the price. It’s expensive to do it as an Irish citizen. If I ever find myself living in the UK again, I think I would like to do a few more courses.

The course satisfied my need for study and learning and it also got me really interested and enthusiastic about play-writing. Before the OU course ended, I signed up to do another play-writing course with the Gaiety School of Acting.

The real-life class – Practising Playwriting – was very different to the online one. Online, I was really just doing the work, getting on with the exercises and doing my assignments. The Gaiety course, with real people in the same room was so much chattier! I got to hear other peoples ideas and ways of looking at the world. The OU course was more like studying – I got a grade at the end of it and was given formal feedback. At the Gaiety the feedback came from the people sitting in the room instead of a teacher, but it had the advantage of hearing your work read out-loud. And hearing other people’s works in progress being read for the first time.

I got different things out of both courses and I have two half-finished plays as a result. Sadly, I haven’t written a word since the Gaiety course finished last March. I would like to work further on my two plays. Though they were both written as class assignments, and I don’t really see a life for them beyond that, it would still be interesting to finish and polish a play or two. I think I would learn a lot from the work and it is an area that I’m interesting in learning more about and getting more experience in. I want to get good at it!

Play-writing is not something that comes easy to me but I think it would be something that would give me a great deal of pleasure if I could do it well. I would really like to see something I’d written on stage. Someday, maybe I’ll be able to make that happen. In the meantime, I am thinking about setting up a play-writing workshop. It would have all the advantages of the Gaiety class – people to talk to about your ideas, a chance to hear your work read aloud and get feedback on what you have written, and a weekly meeting as motivation to write.

Workshops and classes

I didn’t see that many shows in the Dublin Theatre Festival but I did get to see Freefall by Corn Exchange and I loved it. I like Corn Exchange a lot and I was raging when I missed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last year so I had pretty high expectations for their new show. I wasn’t disappointed. It was fantastic; wonderful actors and a great story, beautifully told. I found it a bit of an emotional roller-coaster of a show and felt drained by the end of it but there was still some very funny moments and a few moments which were painfully, tragically funny. I don’t know if they are touring the show, but if you get a change to see it – I highly recommend it.

I did a workshop with Corn Exchange about seven or eight years ago and I really enjoyed it. It was three evenings classes and we got to build our own Commedia del’Arte character each evening, picking out clothes for them to wear and painting on own mask. We spent the rest of the class creating scenes with our characters.

I have been dying to do another workshop with them ever since but whenever they came around, I either didn’t have the money or I couldn’t get time off work or I was in England. Even just a few months ago, I didn’t have enough days leave left to take the week off work and go and do yoga every morning instead. Maybe 2010 will finally be the year that I get to do another Corn Exchange workshop!

At the moment, I’m doing a voice class with Actors Training Ireland, who I would also highly recommend. I did a weekend workshop with them in July (it included voice, acting and moment work, as well as some singing). I enjoy it and got a lot out of it. It’s not really a beginners class; the aim is to remind you about the things you already know and maybe pick up a few new skills. Acting is something that you need to practice but unlike other performance arts like playing an instrument or singing, it’s very difficult to practise on your own. You need other people, you need an audience. Going to class let’s me practice and remind myself what I’m trying to do. It also helps me to feel like an actor, even though I spend all day in an office.