Introduction TOOLKIT SERIES 3- By Dramaturg Suzanne Bell

”Theatre is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves. We practice sitting down, paying attention and learning from other people’s actions. We practice caring.”
Bill English – San Francisco Playhouse

As theatres re-open, work is once again on the stage and stories are shared with audiences, we are so excited to re-launch the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and look at ways to support people to explore their creativity and submit their work before 6th June. Creativity, experiencing stories and engaging our imagination in a shared space seems more precious than ever before.

But we also shouldn’t deny how tough the last two years have been and how tenuous theatre can seem – we don’t know if we will be open sometimes seemingly one day to the next – how do we continue to be creative, how do we find the flow, how do we find the stories that we need to explore?

How do we tell stories about human interaction when our own interaction has been so curtailed?

What we are doing, why we are doing it, how do we continue, what is the future of theatre and the role of the writer within it, how can I speak to the future?

There are so many questions.

Surely, in so many ways, writing for the theatre is about asking questions – nothing is certain, nothing is in our control. The very nature of the live experience means that every performance, every moment, is in flux and each person’s experience of something is individual as they will bring with them their lives and experiences. So it’s okay not to know the answers. It’s okay to explore and leap off into the unknown. Because the very nature of theatre is the unknown.


”The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.”
Anton Chekov

So questions is how we have framed this following series of workshops, blogs and provocations from some fantastic writers and theatre-makers. We want to support you to dive into questions that might help you complete your play, try something new, take your writing in a new direction and to follow a path towards sending us your work. We are not necessarily offering answers because writing for the theatre is much more complicated and nuanced and individual.

We have gathered together some fantastic writers and theatre-makers to explore some questions with compassion and curiosity. How do you ask the questions that scare you or baffle you or make you angry? How do you look at things that maybe you don’t understand or agree with or want to acknowledge within yourself and bring rigour and compassion to those you don’t recognise as much as those that you do?

Because we need your stories. We need your worlds. We need the beautiful complex characters to whom you give voice.

Perhaps this time has even made you question the point of theatre and why we do what we do. While theatres have been dark and people have been unable to come together to share stories and feel the excitement of watching narratives unfold before us, perhaps we have lost sight of what it was that made us want to write for theatre in the first place.

So let’s try something…

Think about a time you were watching theatre, or taking part in theatre, or sharing stories in some theatrical way and you thought “I want a piece of that” – what was happening and what did it feel like? Theatre is a whole body experience so what sensations did you experience in that moment? Try and take yourself back to that memory and conjure those feelings. What was happening? Think about the detail – what was actually happening that sparked this reaction in you? How might there be clues in that to what inspires you in theatre? How might your own work create that reaction in the people that experience it?

Take a minute to think that through and really pinpoint how your own work might capture that. Write it down as a manifesto or challenge to yourself and what you’re going to create.

Remember, as Elinor Fuchs says, “a play is not a flat work of literature, not a description in poetry of another world, but is in itself another world passing before you in time and space.”

Hopefully this series will also provoke you to think about how you define yourself as an artist and how you move through this world – something that is just as important as exploring humanity in all its multiplicity as it surrounds you. How do you bring yourself into your expression of the world around you?


“…as I write the container dictates what sort of substance will fill it and, at the same time, the substance is dictating the size and shape of the container […] It’s like this: I am an African American woman–this is the form I take, my content predicates this form, and this form is inseparable from my content. No way could I be me otherwise. I don’t explode the form because I find traditional plays ‘boring’–I don’t really. It’s just that those structures could never accommodate the figures which take up residence inside me.”
suzan-lori parks

Spend some time considering who you are and how your identity defines you and the way you move through the world and view the world. Don’t feel that your work needs to conform to other views of drama – discover and express how drama moves through your world and find a way to express that.

Maybe you are feeling frozen by the last 18 months. You don’t know where to start. You don’t know how to express what you feel and think. You don’t know how to define yourself. I hope this might provoke you –

“I don’t want to write what I’ve already written. I want to write a play which forces me to develop the talent I have. Talent must not go back on itself and stagnate. It is only with pushing against the barriers, stretching the boundaries, staring at the abyss that the imagination soars and poetry can be achieved. I believe that no great play was ever written at any significant distance from the abyss – they are all written on the edge.”
Willy Russell

Stand on the edge and look over. It can be scary. But it’s only because it matters. If you feel frozen, know that it’s okay. If you don’t know a way forward, that’s okay too.


Let’s create a Scared List –

  • Take a moment to think about what scares you in terms of your writing, your process, your work, your creativity.
  •  On a sheet of paper, write “I’m scared” five times down the side of the page.
  • Now complete those things with five of the top things that scare you – remember to focus on your creative process and your writing.
  • Take a step back and consider what you have written –
    • What is in your control?
    • What do you need? Does it help you identify any needs about how you create work that you can address?
    • What is out of your control – and, hard as this might be, how can you let go of these fears because you do not have the power to change the outcome?
  • Think about what you have written and what it says about your process and your writing – don’t turn away from it and think about the following –
    • RECOGNISE what is going on, what is happening in the room and around you as well as in your body – Recognising means consciously acknowledging, in any given moment, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that are brough up through doing this exercise.
    • ALLOW the experience to be there, just as it is – Allowing means letting the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations you have recognized simply be there, without trying to fix or avoid anything. You might recognize fear, and allow it by mentally whispering “it’s ok”. This creates a pause in the recognition which brings deeper attention to it.
    • INVESTIGATE with interest, curiosity, compassion and care – the desire to know truth—and direct a more focused attention to your present moment.
    • NURTURE – with kindness and self compassion – Self-compassion begins to naturally arise in the moments that you recognize you are suffering and struggling but don’t turn away from it.
  • This part of the exercise is taken from Buddhist psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach – more information can be found at
  • Finally take a moment to go back to your Scared List and at the end of each sentence write “And still I write”.

Keep going. Keep writing. Theatre needs your stories.

As we continue to ask questions about the future, and about theatre and playwriting, so does this toolkit. We have given the contributors questions to provoke them, just as you might have questions in your mind about aspects of your work. And I hope the series might support you as you dive into the journey of your writing, spurring you on and hopefully giving you the confidence to submit your work to the 2022 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting! We can’t wait to read it!

Published on:
16 Feb 2022


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