BRUNTWOOD PRIZE TOOLKIT – WEEK ONE – Getting started with Dramaturg Suzanne Bell

In this first session, we will be focusing on some exercises to get you started

 

1. WRITING AS A MUSCLE

Writing takes practice, it’s a muscle in your brain that needs to be worked and the more you can work it, the stronger it will become.  So try to write every day.

Start off by trying to write a stream of consciousness – give yourself 5-15 minutes, and just write anything that comes into your head.  Try not to censor or stop certain thoughts, just give your mind and pen freedom to wander.  You may surprise yourself!  It can be hard to keep going and 5 minutes will initially feel like a really long time but try not to stop – just keep going, whatever enters your mind – it doesn’t need to make sense.  Some, of most of it, may not be of any use to you.  However, you may find that you stumble across an idea, image, character, description, phrase that stands out – a little nugget of inspiration that you could develop.

This can sometimes also be a good exercise to do each time you start writing, or if you hit a brick wall and don’t know where to go next.

 

Multi-award-winning director Lyndsey Turner, Judge for the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, wrote a fantastic series of blogs and provocations urging you to throw yourself into writing, filling the blank page with words in whatever order they come – check out the final in the series here – https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/lyndsey-turner-writing-blind/

 

 

2 CLOCKING ON

Setting aside time to write can be a really constructive way of getting started.  Even if it’s 15 minutes every day at a particular time, some writers find that structure really productive.  To begin with, you might use that time to: think, doodle, research, write whatever comes into your head, set yourself some of the exercises on this website.  Or put four ideas at the top of your page and keep writing for five minutes and see what emerges with those ideas as a stimuli.

 

3 WHAT QUESTIONS DO YOU HAVE

A later workshop will look at this in more detail but don’t feel you need to have all the answers before you start writing – what questions do you have about the world around you?  What baffles you?  What troubles you?  What don’t you know the answer to?

Theatre is a live medium and as such is often a gesture of enquiry with an audience – rather than a lecture to an audience.  So what is it that you want to question and explore about the world we are living in?

August Wilson said “The quality of life depends on the questions you ask.” So what question is driving you to write this play?

 

Multi-award-winning playwright Simon Stephens collated a fantastic list of questions to ask when writing a play – when you’re just starting out this can seem a bit daunting but can be useful to keep and refer back to over the coming weeks as you write your play – check it out here – https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/provocations-tips-tutorials/

 

4 KEEP YOUR EYES AND EARS OPEN

Use stimuli anywhere and everywhere – music, photographs, newspapers, an object – to help you develop ideas for characters or stories.  Try and keep a notebook with you all the time and just jot down anything that strikes you are interesting.  Newspaper clippings, stories on the news, something you see in the street or read about in a magazine can all provide a starting point.

Try taking a story from a newspaper headline and fleshing it out into a scene or larger story without reading the entire article.  See what grabs you and what questions you have about it.

Also, watch other people.  Whenever you are out and about observe other people – how they act and interact, what they say and, perhaps more importantly, what they hide.  Think about the stories behind how they behave and interact with the world around them.

Dialogue is so important to a good script and is something we will be exploring later in this series – judging the quality of the way characters speak and giving them each an individual and distinct voice can be tough.  Some of the best dialogue and interactions you will find is what you might overhear on the bus, at the supermarket, at work, in the cinema or on the street.  Notice people’s shorthand and rhythm, the speed with which they express themselves and how what they say (and are perhaps unable to say) gives us a sense of how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

Take three photographs – either from elsewhere or that you have taken and think about a story that might link them – what order should they go in to tell that story.  You might find that you want to use photos and images to storyboard larger sections of the play or a whole run of scenes.

Athol Fugard said “Every inspiration, every seminal image image for a play has been something I have seen on the streets, something I have read in a newspaper, a story that was told to me, always an event, a story.”

 

5 THAT’S THE TICKET

If you’re able to, going along to the theatre can really get your writing brain whirring.  Sitting in a theatre, watching a play unfold, can be a really creative place for some writers, helping them consider the world they want to put on stage.  From Shakespeare to stand-up to Circus, live performance of any kind can help.

Try to watch the audience experience the performance – when do they laugh, when do they gasp, when are they on the edge of their seats or when do you sense that they are not engaged?  Why do you think that is and how can you learn from that as a writer and implement those techniques in your own work?

Try to think about where you are sitting and your view of the stage.  When it comes to writing your play, try to put yourself back in that seat again and think about what your play might look like in that space.  A lot of writers write with a particular theatre in their mind – even if their work isn’t specifically for that space.

You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t have to go all the time, but your play could begin in your seat.

Award-winning playwright Charlene James wrote a fantastic article urging people to go and see as much theatre as possible – check it out here – https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/charlene-james-on-going-to-the-theatre/

 

6 READING

Reading plays, new and old, can really feed your writing.  Again, this isn’t a must, but experiencing the way other writers shape action, use dialogue, think about rhythm, reveal character and tell a story can help to get you thinking about the way you might write.  This doesn’t mean lifting or copying other writers ideas, but stretching your writing muscles by experiencing the way other writers work.

THE 5 “Ws”

  • Who – who is the dynamic person at the centre of the story taking action?
  • What – what happens to the character to tell the story?
  • Where – where might the story be placed that would be surprising and theatrical?
  • When – when do the events of the drama happen?
  • Why – why do you want to tell this story through the live medium of theatre? What is causing the events of the drama and how does the audience find out?

Finally, LAYOUT is something that we get asked about a great deal – how to format your script on the page or what your script should look like.  There are no hard and fast rules.  But think about the person reading your script – who is trying to understand what you envisage in your imagination and how you see it on the stage.  The document here might be helpful.

 

Hopefully this will begin to encourage you to get writing, exploring ideas, telling stories and finding inspiration in the world around you!  The next workshop will be with award-winning playwright Kendall Feaver whose play, “The Almighty Sometimes”, was a winner of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and won the UK Theatre Award for Best New Play.  She will be focusing on supporting you to create vivid and interesting characters for your play so check it out next Friday 8th Feb.

 

In between each session in the Toolkit, we will also be suggesting other content on the website which will hopefully prove useful, inspirational and supportive.  This week, I would urge you to listen to a fantastic podcast chaired by critic Libby Purves with playwrights David Eldridge, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Roy Williams and former Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse and Bush Theatres Josie Rourke discuss What Makes a Great Play.  This can be found at https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/what-makes-a-great-play-podcast/

 

Good Luck and Keep Writing!!

Suzanne Bell

1 Feb 2019

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