Blog hopping

View a post from me on Kaite O’Reilly’s blog about setting up and running the Writing for Performance Group and Town with No Traffic Wardens.

Spread the Word from Catrin Fflur Huws

The Arts Centre initially advertised Spread the Word as a course. Courses are good. I like courses. I can do courses. I’ve been in educational establishments for 31 years of my life. My parents are teachers. Courses are not a problem. At the bottom of the advert, there was a ‘ more information contact…’line. I contacted, naturally thinking that it would lead me to a motley collection of people whose new year resolution was ‘be more creative.’ The more information turned out to be ‘send us a sample of your work’ and we’ll pick the best 8 people. I nearly didn’t. I’d never written a play before. Well, there was a nativity play, performed by eight care bears, a cuddly rabbit and a stuffed dog, but I was eight years old then, and the only audience was members of my own family, and I was an only child so there was no-one to tell me to shut up. Admittedly I had written some framing stories for plays, but that had meant taking a character (Pa Ubu) invented by a fourteen year old who later went around Paris on a unicycle and painted green (Alfred Jarry), and turning it into a plot. It wasn’t exactly  a play…with characters…and serious things happening. So the thought of sending my work to a professional theatre company – let me repeat that with punctuation for effect. A Professional. Theatre Company. The thought of sending my work to a professional theatre company was a very stupid idea indeed. I mean, I know people who put down ‘writer’ as part of their description of themselves. When you ask them they say ‘I write.’ I usually say ‘I play the piano in a whorehouse’ but only because I heard it in a joke about 15 years ago, or I say ‘David Cameron is my pimp.’ I’m not a writer or a playwright or anything like that. I can’t send stuff to a professional theatre company. I continued in this vein for about three months I think, until a bout of reckless good humour compelled me to press ‘send.’

My word! I got picked! I concluded at this stage that nobody else had applied, they had mistaken me for someone else. They liked my joke about The Oligarchy of Turbot. Much delight! Merriment!  Ride this cloud till it terminates at Wolverhampton!

Session 1

General introductions. It turned out I knew most of the people from the performance writing group. Hi Sandra! Hi Tony! Hi Carmel! Hi Debbie! Still, I did learn something useful and that is that one of my strengths as a writer is that I have a very unusual view of the world. You see, I think what I see is patently obvious. Mainly I think the Government is weird. Does everybody else not think that then? Ok I’ll sit here quietly.

Our homework was taping a conversation. Hmm. Ethically dodgy this, but I overheard a conversation and tried to transcribe it as best I could. Oddly It resonated with a lot of people and when we had to take the dialogues and turn them into a script a lot of people adopted my story about a little old man who had mislaid his wife. It was potentially comic, potentially tragic, tragi-comic, bittersweet. Was he a sad forgetful old man or a cantankerous old bugger? I wrote a comedy court scene – based on a real case but premised on the notion that the defendant too the view that everyone was taking all of this just a bit too seriously, and could he not just buy the policeman a pint. This was fun this.

Session 3

By session 3 we were having to think of ‘the play.’ I had two ideas. One was simple. It was about unemployment, very playey, nice structure – showing that I could apply everything we had learned. Then there was idea 2. A play about Alan Turing. Which would be hard. And would require lots of research. And a realistic portrayal of a real person. Who is a hero to a lot of people. And there’s mathematics. Very complex. An important thing to do, but obviously well beyond my capabilities. ‘Write that one!’ ‘Write the Turing play’ was the  universal response from the rest of the group. My ‘but, but, but’ fell on deaf ears. The gauntlet had been laid down.

The next day I was printing off copies of Alan Turing’s academic papers on computable numbers and machines that can think. The computer scientist to whom I am married was dead impressed. Me I was blooming terrified.

Session 4

The pitch. At this point I have the earworm of Spectacular Spectacular from Moulin Rouge! going round my head. The pitch is thinking about what it’s about, how many characters, what their role is. We were introduced to the idea of the complete metaphor. It became a bit of a catchphrase. Apparently, plays with a complete metaphors are extra good. So we looked for metaphors. Fortunately, Alan Turing’s life was full of them. Apples. Machines.

I had 8 characters at this point – 6 men and 2 women. However it occurred to me that everyone bar Alan was a cipher (pun quite clearly intended! Insert canned laughter.) so I began to pair them up. The lover, The Friend, The Woman, The Government. Looking at it in the cold light of December , I realised that pairing up Alan’s mother and his fiancee looked a bit Freudian. Every man wants a mummy and all that. So I deliberately derailed that train of thought. Are all these characters necessary? Perhaps not. Many characters may be harmed in the making of this play.

Session 5

By session 5, everyone was beginning to apply some theatrical technique to their thinking. Could this scene be written without having A and B taking it in turns to deliver long monologues? Did A need to make a cup of tea in order to give B the opportunity to tell her something vital? Is this a complete metaphor or a disjointed slice of people’s loves What do people actually say to each other in a homosexual love scene? We also discussed the lock in day. It begins with a tutorial. I took the plunge and went in first.

Lock in day

It began with my tutorial. My piece was apparently expressionist. Manet was an expressionist, so I presume it means that I have to put on a black dress and sit in front of a distorted mirror in a bar. The distorted mirror thing is not actually that flippant. I was advised that my piece would be stronger by not making it ‘slice of real world’ stuff. A bit like a Fritz Lang movie. My structure helped – the Easter story was a ready-made framework, so it was simply a matter of fitting Alan Turing’s life into the last week of Jesus.

Inspired by the advice, and surrounded with research material,  I sat down to write scene 4. Well there’s no point throwing myself in the deep end with the inciting incident is there, especially as that had to involve a shy tender love scene. I also had a bash at scene 6.

This was great fun. If you want to write, put yourself in a room with no distractions and write and write and write. I didn’t want to stop. By 3pm everyone else had that round studio pallor of the slightly mad. I was ready to go on and on. Maybe it’s because I have that  round studio pallor of the slightly mad anyway. Nobody can tell the difference. However, the session came to a close, and Christmas arrived.

I left Alan to potter about in my head over Christmas (he’s done some lovely work on the rewiring, but there were some boxes in the corner and he’s moved them somewhere). I thought a lot about what people would say and how they would say it. I scribbled bits down when the mood struck me, usually while eating or while trying to write something extremely clever about the semantics and pragmatics of education law in bilingual legal systems.

Both of these things somehow helped me to find the words for what Alan would say and how he would say it.

In January we met up a couple of times to read each other’s work. Very illuminating this. My drafting and redrafting at home had tightened the structure. One character had been banished. Another was on the gangplank. By now there were no women in it. Controversial! I was told, but I decided to stick to my guns. Other advice was more readily accepted. Scene 1 is too long, too stilted, has too much backstory. Scene 9 is too oblique.

The love scene was still to be written. I used one of the exercises we had done in the session to get started. Write the scene in 3 word sentences. It was a good way of getting it out and down on to the page. There’s a lesson here. Writers work it out with a pencil.

There was also the court scene to write. I had fun with this – the higher courts of the England and Wales get the best stories, the best characters and the best one liners. For example:

PROSECUTOR: Are you a homosexual?

DEFENDANT: Well, put it this way, I used to be.

This got me thinking that the comedy court scene I had written earlier on would provide a useful counterpoint to the court scene where Alan is tried. I spent a fun afternoon therefore writing the same court scene in two different ways- as a comedy and as a tragedy. By the end of January, I had a complete first draft. However, I am pen and paper person. This was all on scrappy bits of paper with crossings out, asterisks and little clouds with ideas in them.

It was then a matter of typing it up. Scenes were shifted. Bits were edited. Gaps were identified. The balance of the scenes was plotted out. On February 4th it was finished. My husband read it. It brought tears to his eyes. This might actually be a bit good.

Then there was The Long Wait For Feedback. Would Sherman Cymru like it? Would they pick it?

Of course, that wasn’t important. Still, it would be nice…

On February 13th, I got the news. They picked my play. I was at work. I ran out of the office to tell anybody who happened to be about. It needed some revision. The weekend was spent doing those. At least doing what I could. I think I am still a bit too close to it to identify the weaknesses and to view it as anything other than A Work of Genius.

By February 14th, I had decided it was a disaster, that the revisions required were major, and extensive, and that the play was awful. This feeling continued until the rehearsals.

THE REHEARSALS

On March 8th, the cast assembled to read the play. I must admit, I rather liked it. Sometimes, when my work has been read, I’ve sat there squirming, but I’m rather pleased with this one. Still there were some very probing questions to address. Perhaps not before the performance, but in the longer term, there are things that need to be ironed out. And then I got scared again. Should I address these questions before the performance? If I didn’t would the play be embarrassingly bad? Would everybody laugh? Would they be bored? Would they walk out?

The rehearsal process was very intense – a no holds barred re-evaluation of the things that were too oblique, too rubbish, too overwritten. Believe me you need this. You might not like it, but you need someone to tell you in no uncertain terms what doesn’t work. Value it, and don’t shy away from it in favour of people who will simper and tell you it’s lovely. Confront your failings.

PERFORMANCE

I’m really scared now. I’ve persuaded lots of people to come and see this. They know about theatre. They have faces  that will go all blank and grey if they don’t like it. They’re people who are completely rubbish at lying. Why did I think this was a good idea? I’m up first too. That’s bad. It means people can forget about it and move on to the better plays. Oh well, at least it means that I can enjoy Tony and Debbie’s pieces. For forty minutes I panic. Then…then people clap. I can relax. The actors were brilliant. But it was over now. Relax. I enjoyed the rest of the show. Then there was the Q and A. There were many hard questions. I think I said some things. Possibly veryquicklyandwithoutanypunctuation or very….slowly….and…pausing…

….when people don’t expect it. Overall, I was delighted though. There’s a lot still to do. I am planting ideas and they are getting water and sunlight. And I am going to revisit Alan…soon.

Spread The Word from Debbie Moon

Every writer has a comfort zone.  The genres and subjects we tackle, the kinds of people we write about, the media we write for.  And we like being in our comfort zone.  It’s safe and warm and fun.  The problem is, sometimes we can only do our best work by venturing outside it…

And for me, that’s what Spread The Word was all about.  Theatre, as much as I love it as an audience member, definitely doesn’t fall into my comfort zone as a writer.  I’m a film and TV writer by profession, and by instinct.  Even my dreams have cuts and camera angles.  Give me some actors on a stage, and what am I supposed to do with them? Luckily, help was at hand!

Over five weekly sessions, tutor Sarah Woods introduced us to the basics of theatrical structure, creating characters, and shaping a play that really had something to say about humanity and the world we live in.  Along the way we tape-recorded conversations, wrote for each others’ characters, continued fragments of dialogue to find out where they might lead, and defined all the elements necessary to create a play (a lot more than you’d think!)

Then came the session where we had to pitch our ideas to the group – and realized for the first time what a diverse, and frankly, downright weird, bunch we were!   Con men, knob jokes, psychologists held hostage, adultery of every kind, and the father of artificial intelligence research.  (Actually, we should have just combined them all into one big play!  Now that would be interesting…)

Then came the ominous “lock in day” – which was essentially a day set aside for us to sit and write, without the interruptions of daily life.  Fortified by frequent tea and cake, I bashed out the first few pages of what would become The Fiddle Game –  four grifters meet in a bar, expecting to interview for a job with the ultimate conman, only to find that nothing and no one here is exactly what they seem…

After I submitted a draft version of the first act, The Fiddle Game was selected for the final phase of the scheme – a rehearsed reading to a paying audience.  However, for a writer, the most interesting part of the process is actually the rehearsals.  Working through your script with professional actors, clarifying the characters’ intentions and finding the best readings of a difficult line, forces you to think about every word and every moment in your script.  And given that the first act involves three separate cons and a whole bunch of treachery and backstabbing, there was plenty for all of us to get our heads round!

So what next?  Well, I’ve got to finish The Fiddle Game – not least because everyone  wants to know the answer to the big mystery set up in act one!  And I think I might have caught the theatre bug.  Because I have this definite hankering to write a musical…

You can find Debbie’s screenwriting blog here

Spread the Word from Tony Jones

Tony Jones from the Writing for Performance shares with us some thoughts on the Spread the Word programme.
Spread The Word is Sherman Theatre’s outreach programme to encourage new writers.

Catrin Fflur Huws, Debbie Moon and Tony Jones at the Spread the Word readings


I had expected a quite prescriptive course, but it was a healthy mix of info of theory (plotting, character, conflict) and utilising our own experiences & perspectives.

Ideas that I found useful were, in no particular order:
– Subtext. The idea of actually writing things about the character, that are perhaps not revealed, was new to me. This process of “subtext becoming text to drive your action” was very helpful (anyone who saw the last episode of “Inside Men” will know what happens when you don’t bother with this.)
– Metaphor. I’ve never knowingly spotted an actual metaphor (I though Animal Farm really was about pigs being bastards and thus OK to eat) and I am frustrated that “they” say we’re not aloud to make them explicit (metaphors, not pigs) eg “Isn’t it interesting, Emyr, that we are facing professional redundancy at just the time we are facing it in our personal lives too?” “Yes, Nathan, I thought that too”. But I am willing to accept that metaphor allows you to gently nudge an issue without necessarily coming over all Al Gore (who wouldn’t deserve such treatment).
– Complete Metaphor. Like above, but a closed system, a world.
– Stuck? Why not try a short brainstorming session about your characters. What’s in their pocket? What’s their greatest fear? etc
– Character is plot, plot is character. I don’t fully agree with either (no theory ever fully true) but have learned to look more at how your characters drive the narrative forward, not people with guns or boyhood sledges.
– Recording actual dialogue shows you how nonsensical much real dialogue is. Completely verbatim theatre would be awful but listening to what is actually said (and then writing it down) will give you an edge. Make sure anything they say is driven by their life so far (see subtext) 
– Don’t mistake people talking for dramatic action 
– Reptition – saying something three times gives power, but five is mad. Setup, pay-off, echo.
– Axis. Find two opposing principles and move between them to create tension (Loss-Redemption, Pleasure-Pain etc)
– Beginnings – create status quo, then disrupt it with your Inciting Incident. Make your ending another beginning.
– Show, don’t tell. I edited out by sub-plot of Steve/Karen affair, but the actors ressurrected it with knowing nods & pauses; audience got it.
– Story = What happened. Plot = Why. 

Although our tutor taught us all of this simply & clearly, it was only actually writing the play that explained it to me. There is no substitute for DOING. I can see how courses & theory can be seductive but we need to write, fail, write, fail and then maybe start again a little wiser.