JOIN BRUNTWOOD WINNER ALISTAIR McDOWALL ONLINE TO SUPPORT YOUR WORK!

On Friday 15 May from 1pm-2pm Alistair McDowall will be online to answer any questions and offer advice.

As the deadline for the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting draws ever closer, we want to bring you the chance to interact with previous winners of the Prize to support you to submit you work!

Please join us!

“The Bruntwood Prize helped me make that transition to a full-time writer. I’m proud to be part of the Prize’s history and hope it continues on for years to come.” Alistair McDowall

Alistair McDowall is a multi-award-winning and critically acclaimed playwright who grew up in the North East of England. His plays include the hugely successful POMONA which will be produced at the Royal Exchange Theatre this autumn (National Theatre, Royal Exchange Theatre 2015/Orange Tree Theatre 2014), TALK SHOW (Royal Court, 2013), CAPTAIN AMAZING (Live Theatre, 2013) and BRILLIANT ADVENTURES (Royal Exchange Theatre 2013) – winner of a Judges Award at the 2011 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. Alistair has previously worked with the Royal Court, Royal Exchange, Live Theatre, Paines Plough and the National Theatre Studio. His work has been translated and produced internationally. He lives in Manchester.

“McDowall’s writing relishes its own absurd possibilities, grounding the fantastical in a grim reality with the verve one associates with Philip Ridley” Matt Trueman on BRILLIANT ADVENTURES by Alistair McDowall, winner of a Judges Award at the 2011 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting

Event dates:
15 May 2015

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  1. Hi Alistair, I was just wondering about your process? Do you map out what happens in your play before beginning or do you start writing, finding characters etc. before delving into structure? I imagine ‘Pomona’ took a lot of detailed planning! Thanks, Rachel.

    by Rachel
    12:05 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hello All. In true McDowall fashion I am unfashionably twenty minutes early, so let’s crack on.

      *

      Hi Rachel,

      I used to have a very fixed process, but more and more I find the process is dictated by the play.
      Here’s a potted history if that’s at all helpful:

      From the age of sixteen right up to about the age of twenty, I did no planning whatsover.
      I would just have the idea, the characters and head straight into it.
      This meant that my plays often had quite a frenzied energy, but this energy would falter and sputter a bit (usually in the middle) and the plays would meander.

      Then I decided I needed to take things a bit more seriously once I was working on the fringe.
      This was the start of a period from then to maybe a year or so ago, when I would pretty rigorously plan out near enough everything.
      I wasn’t absolutely precise with it, because I liked to leave some space for surprise and spontaneity, but everything was plotted out pretty carefully, beat for beat.

      NOW, I’m sort of shifting a little bit.
      I find that absolutely rigorously planning every single moment is sometimes a bit stifling if I’m trying to write something more free-associative and open, so maybe I’ll plan out the basics, then start writing sample dialogue, bits and bobs, start to get a feel for things.
      BUT! If I’m writing something big, complicated, lots of characters, lots of scenes, locations, etc, it’s pretty much essential for me to plan very very rigorously.
      I will sort out my characters, what they want, what’s stopping them, then sort out the structure- is this a two act? One act? Are there five scenes? Two hundred scenes?
      Then I’ll take each scene maybe on a post-it or scrap of paper and plot out the basics – What’s at stake? Who wants what? What’s the conflict? Where is this happening?
      Etc, etc.
      Then I’ll be able to see the shape of the play in a big way, and also see each scene in a more intimate way.

      Since you mentioned Pomona, the basic process for that was- Characters, then the structure, then being absolutely brutal with the core components of each scene, stripping everything away – pinning down what’s at stake and playing each scene like a miniature battle.
      It was all written in that order, despite being in the “wrong order” chronologically.

      That was a very meandering and unfocused answer – I should have planned it better.

      by Suzanne Bell
      12:59 pm, 15 May 2015
  2. Do you think playwrights need to start seeing their plays as a blueprint for collaboration and therefore more open/flexible to interpretation or do we need to be protective of the playwrights role in crafting the story?

    by Kellie
    12:08 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Kellie!

      I think we all agree a play is a blueprint – it’s not a finished item. If you want to feel 100% finished when you finish writing, you should write a novel.

      But – I do think the argument about this is a bit more specific than this. People are often debating who the, if you like, “primary artist” is. Or, how much say the director or anyone else should have over the script, making changes, twisting things around, etc, etc. Lots of people have very strong opinions on this both ways.

      I don’t like the idea that there has to be an absolute either way.
      It’s much more interesting for me as a writer to work in all kinds of different ways, and as an audience member sometimes I want to see weird wild and wonderful performance art, and sometimes I want to see absolute, precise naturalism.

      I’ve written plays that are intentionally very open texts.
      Plays with a non-specific number of characters of any gender, scenes you can do in any order, everything left up to the rehearsal process.
      But I’ve also written plays that are very specific in various ways (admittedly in quite an old-fashioned way, some would say), that if you decided to deviate a long way from what’s specified, it’s likely the play wouldn’t stand up as well.
      It’s important for me to keep trying different ways of working, to keep everything interesting for me and for the audience.

      I think the answer is crafting your play well enough so that the core of it stays strong enough to withstand being experimented with – and also, crucially, making sure you’re on the same page with the right director.
      It’s a collaborative process, and you will find much more exciting things about your play if you’re open to feedback and other ideas, and if you have a harmonious collaboration.
      That’s the point of a rehearsal process.
      Just be clear with your writing, and have clear lines of communication with the people you’ll be working with.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:14 pm, 15 May 2015
  3. what has been the most difficult experience you have had in writing new work for the stage at a professional level? What did you learn from that experience and how would you do or handle things differently if you ended up in the same situation again?

    by May
    12:09 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi May,

      I have said Yes a few times to writing short plays (10/15/20 minutes).
      When you get asked to do them “at a professional level” they’re often for special events or charity etc, so it’s often quite hard to say no.

      So what this means is I will then write between 10-15 short plays for this event, spending vast amounts of time on something you’re probably doing for free or very little money, whilst neglecting other deadlines, and I’ll just start having pretty major-level anxiety attacks about the whole thing, before dashing something off in the middle of the night, sending it off and swearing to myself I’ll never do it again.

      That’s a long way of saying I realised even though I CAN do short plays, there’s something about the form that absolutely crushes me.
      I’m pretty brutal about saying no now.

      I guess that’s an important thing to learn, that gets easier with time:
      In the early days you might struggle to say no to things you don’t want to do, just because you’re grateful for all opportunities.
      Sometimes it’s great to be thrown out your comfort zone in that way, and you’ll come up with something amazing.
      But you also have to learn when saying Yes to something will be damaging.
      You don’t ALWAYS have to do everything you’re asked to do.
      Stick to your guns and your gut.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:20 pm, 15 May 2015
  4. Hey Ali, I’d love to know what your starting points are? What inspires you?

    by Ella
    12:11 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Ella!

      Starting points – who knows.
      Sometimes the characters just wander into my head and start chatting.
      Sometimes a song sparks something,
      Sometimes a life event or similar.

      My actual starting points process wise will be just toying around with it in my head for a bit, testing it out.
      Then I’ll start writing scraps of dialogue on my phone, or in notebooks…

      (QUICK TIP: Stephen King hates notebooks, says they’re a “great place to store bad ideas”. I got very hacked off with my notes recently and decided to start keeping my notes in the crappiest, cheapest, scruffiest notebooks possible. That way, whatever I wrote felt temporary, and I would judge it as such. I found it hard to open up my nice hardback notebook and look at what was in there and not see it as permanent. Get a crap notebook, scribble on it, deface it, stick stickers on it!)

      …and then gradually the structure will form.
      This “feels” like a ten scene play.
      Or a two act play.
      Or whatever.

      Then I’ll feel like I’ll have these buckets (scenes) to pour my scraps of ideas into it, and that’s my starting point for planning properly.

      Inspiration-wise, I will listen to certain songs repeatedly.
      Each of my plays has a song linked to it in my head.
      I’ll also read and watch anything that has similar themes, or a “feel” or whatever. e.g. If i’m writing a rainy play, I’m going to watch Blade Runner. (This is also to help me counteract accidentally retreading what others have done – e.g. If I’m writing about brothers, I have to read True West, because if I don’t, I will end up ripping it off even more, since it’s the ultimate play about brothers, and it’s drilled into my subconscious.)

      I’ll also go on long walks round my neighbourhood, staring at my feet- somewhere in between the self-loathing and daydreaming, I might come up with something I wouldn’t have done sat at a desk.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:30 pm, 15 May 2015
  5. What is your favourite piece of your own work and why is it your favourite? Also what is your least favourite of your own and why is it your least favourite?

    by May
    12:12 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi May,

      That’s quite hard – you both love them all, and are disappointed by them all. A lot like children.

      I would have to say Talk Show holds a special place in my heart, partly because I think, personality-wise, the main character ended up being closest to me, and also because the production at the Royal Court was hugely important for me, and a big life-learning time for various reasons good and bad.
      It’s maybe not my favourite, but I’m particularly fond of certain things about it. I think it’s quite a good mix of funny/sad.

      My least favourite? HOW DARE YOU. Just kidding.
      I wrote a very big, long play a good few years ago which I think I really ballsed up. I was too angry about the subject matter, and too intent on writing A BIG SERIOUS PLAY ™, which are always very bad places to start from (in my experience). You need to write with love and out of enjoyment. That play didn’t have enough of either.
      I won’t tell you the title because it was a bad one.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:36 pm, 15 May 2015
  6. Do you always know your ending or do you discover it as you go along? Or is it a mix of both?

    by Ella
    12:13 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Quite often I know the ending from the very beginning.
      This is usually a very strong place to write from – a play should always be barrelling along to a specific point. It gives you drive and determination.
      The end should be “built into the beginning” as the saying goes.

      I can’t think of a time when I didn’t have the ending at the beginning.

      I think generally, I’ve always been alright at beginnings and endings, it’s the middles I struggle with sometimes.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:39 pm, 15 May 2015
  7. Is there one big specific mistake you made as a writer in your earlier scripts that you had to fix to make professional progress? If there was, what was it and how did you recognise it and then fix it?

    by May
    12:17 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. You’re really drilling me on the bad times May!
      That’s good though, they’re usually interesting moments.
      Let me just dry my eyes before I answer –

      I can’t think of one big moment where I fixed something and everything came together – writing tends to be built up of thousands and thousands of little realisations that eventually add up.
      Here’s a few:
      – Deciding to plan properly, deny myself writing any scenes until I was absolutely desperate to, packed with material ready to attack the play.
      – Realising I was absolutely terrible at structure, reading 5 or 6 Edward Bond plays back to back and working out what I needed to fix and how.
      – Realising I was not cool, never would be, and to stop trying to be on the page. Honesty and truth are captivating to all of us as audience members. Show offs are not.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:43 pm, 15 May 2015
  8. Dear AlistAir, so I have the idea for a fantastical play. How do I get past that voice in my head saying my idea is too out there?

    by Louise
    12:19 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Louise,

      Theatre is for fantastical ideas!
      If your fantastical idea is the play you want to write, if your heart and drive and passion are on board, write it.
      A theatre will never say to you “This isn’t commercial enough”.
      If the play’s good, it’s good. Even if the characters are all centaurs with laser hand-cannons. (That’s my idea now, bagsy)

      Theatre’s a forum for magic.
      Read as widely as you can, find plays that have attempted the impossible and got there.
      Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph is a recent play about death, war, and the meaning of life.
      It has a talking ghost tiger as the main character.
      Fantasy is often an invaluable tool for getting closer to the truth.

      My plays have had time machines, ghosts, monsters and have on occasion been set in space.
      I’m not trying to “write weird”, I just let my imagination take me where it needs to go.
      Just make your mission the capital-T Truth, and if you need to go fantastical to get there, go there.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:48 pm, 15 May 2015
  9. How do I make two worlds e it’s at the same time on stage?

    by Louise
    12:20 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Louise,

      You just have to read as widely as possible.
      Find plays that have done it.
      I’d also say try not to be literal-minded with staging.
      If you need two worlds, work out the basic rules, name them, put them as scene headings, then get on with the important job – characters, stakes, events, etc.
      Leave space for collaboration. Build that world with a director, designer, composer, actors.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:51 pm, 15 May 2015
  10. Hello! I was wondering how much thought you put into choosing character names? I always find this difficult and spend too much time thinking about it. Do you have a process? Or do you always just know what they will be called?

    Thanks, Tiffany.

    P.S: I really enjoyed “Brilliant Adventures” at the Royal Exchange :)

    by Tiffany
    12:26 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Tiffany,

      Glad you enjoyed Adventures!

      Character names are tricky.
      I do put quite a bit of thought into them; a Dave feels very different from a Danny, and so on.
      Sometimes it’s tempting as well to give everyone flowery, show-off names.

      Don’t spend too long on it though.
      What defines me are my actions, not my name.

      I would also say think about getting a big book of names! I have a book for surnames because I often find surnames very difficult – they’re so strange.
      Saying that, I often don’t use it.
      The right name, 9 times out of 10, will slot into place once I get to know the character.
      It will also sound right coming out of the other characters’ mouths, too.

      by Suzanne Bell
      1:56 pm, 15 May 2015
  11. Which writers work (drama or otherwise) do you think most inform your work?

    by Joshua Val Martin
    12:37 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Joshua.

      lots of debt to a lot of people. HEre’s a few:

      Playwrights:
      Sam Shepard
      Sarah Kane
      Harold Pinter
      Kenneth Lonergan
      Thornton Wilder
      Caryl Churchill
      David Mamet

      Novelists:
      Richard Yates
      Jane Austen
      Cormac McCarthy
      William Faulkner

      Other:
      Laurie Anderson
      William Carlos Williams
      Raymond Carver
      PT Anderson
      Spalding Gray
      Dennis Potter
      Fassbinder
      Fellini
      David Foster Wallace
      Charles M. Schulz

      by Suzanne Bell
      2:02 pm, 15 May 2015
  12. Question for Alistair: Do you think the future of British theatre is going to move away from the script as a starting point? If so, how do you feel as a playwright? Do you think playwrights need to change their game?

    by John
    12:50 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi John,

      Think I answered this kind of in an earlier one.
      I don’t like the absolutes of the argument.
      Sometimes I want to write a precise, one room chamber play set in the 19th century with curtain falls and all.
      Sometimes I want to write a completely open stream of text with no characters all in a made up language.

      I want to do everything, and I think everyone should experiment in all kinds of ways.
      It keeps you fresh, and excited about the process.

      by Suzanne Bell
      2:05 pm, 15 May 2015
  13. How do you stop yourself from going bleary eyed after a second draft and seeing things afresh? When I read my new draft my eyes just jump from line to line without taking it in and reading it like I read somebody else’s work/a published play. Then you’ve reached the end of the play and realised your mind has been blank throughout! Help!

    by Arthur Miller
    1:09 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Arthur Miller!

      I know what you mean.
      I generally try and get some distance – Leave the play alone for a week, two, a month!
      And not just time-wise, get yourself some distance in your head too.
      If you’ve just finished your first draft of your play about Italy, then stop watching and reading Italian films/books, listening to Italian music, etc.
      Crack open your big russian book, or read a comic, listen to some heavy metal, go to a different art exhibition, etc.

      Try and cleanse yourself of it a bit and then hopefully when you return to it, it’ll surprise you.

      by Suzanne Bell
      2:12 pm, 15 May 2015
  14. Hi Alistair
    In terms of your characters’ voices, how do you reconcile their individuality with making sure that ‘every line counts’ in terms of serving the themes of the play? Hope that makes sense.
    Denise

    by Denise
    1:10 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Denise,

      Character voice will come to me pretty quickly – I write quite rhythmically, so my characters will often be defined by how long or short their sentences are, how fast they talk, how often they go off track, lose their point, etc.
      All of this stuff is really useful, but as you say, not if it’s just filling time and getting away from the whole point of the play.
      I would also say I don’t really worry about my “theme” too much, I let that happen naturally.
      I want to write human stories about human beings, which means the theme will appear organically.
      A play I wrote called Brilliant Adventures was about two brothers trying to reconcile their childhood and their relationship with each other.
      The “Themes” ended up being regret, loss, urban decay, poverty, north/south divide, etc, etc. But none of that was forced, it just came from me (hopefully) truthfully representing who those people were and what they wanted.
      Take care of the big stuff and the rest will come on its own.

      by Suzanne Bell
      2:16 pm, 15 May 2015
  15. Are there any writers or plays you have found particularly inspiring for your own work, or that you think everyone should read? What kind of things do you find most exciting, or would like to see more of, in new writing?

    by Kate
    1:46 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Kate, I already gave a very rushed list of some folks I like a lot. I’ve pasted it below again.
      I’d also add Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alan Moore to that list to keep it fresh.

      I never know what I want to see until I see it!
      I’m always extremely sure of what I want, but in the end what I really want will catch me off guard.

      by Suzanne Bell
      2:18 pm, 15 May 2015
  16. Hi Ali,
    Your play Brilliant Adventures provided me with one of the most thought provoking experiences I have had watching theatre. It really stayed with me and was one of the reasons I wanted to try writing for theatre myself. What pieces have you seen that you couldn’t get out of your head? Thanks.

    by Ginni
    1:50 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Ginni, that’s absolutely lovely, thank you so much!

      Plays that I saw that I will always remember:
      An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch I saw quite early on when I was at University. It convinced me you could be incredibly conceptual and incredibly moving at the same time. I thought it was a practically perfect fusion of head and heart.

      Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth – I don’t think there’s much else to add to the mountain of praise this got, but it’s a rare time I saw a play twice. I thought it was absolutely wonderful, and would have entertained and engaged practically anyone. I grew up in a very similar rural place to the setting, and wished it had toured village halls. It would have been received rapturously up and down the country.

      I saw Taylor Mac perform The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac at Edinburgh one year. He’s a performance artist who does all kinds of weird and wonderful things.
      I cried throughout the entire show, even when it wasn’t sad. That was one of those shows that reminds you what’s possible just with one person on a stage in front a roomful of people. Electric.

      by Suzanne Bell
      2:22 pm, 15 May 2015
  17. Hi Alistair! I am writing this on v low battery at work so apologies for any grammar issues. How do you feel about including personal details and experiences in your work? and titles – I find them very difficult! How do you title your work?

    (I took my mum to brilliant adventures and she still mentions it frequently)

    by Katharine
    1:54 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. Hi Katharine, big time thanks to you and your mum!

      I try not to intentionally include personal stuff. That’s just because I’m so ridiculously over-sensitive I find it harder to actually write the play and be objective about what works and what doesn’t.
      I really dislike it when you can tell a writer has written themselves in as the coolest character on stage.
      Pretty much every single character I’ve ever written has just ended up being a version of myself, but this was always accidental, always disappointing when I realised I’d done it again, and the characters are always hopelessly awkward, reclusive and weird. Go figure…

      Titles are hard. I’m a bit obsessed with them.
      Brilliant Adventures is an almost intentionally bad title meant to conjure up childhood, fun, old adventure stories, etc. It also helps towards the clashing elements of that play.

      I wish I could give you tips on titles, but I never know where they come from, and they usually come very early on.
      Just don’t worry about it too much, focus on the play and maybe a phrase or a moment will stick out to you and reveal itself as the true title.

      by Suzanne Bell
      2:28 pm, 15 May 2015
      1. Thanks for your questions everyone, hope my answers were helpful in some small way.
        Best of luck with your plays, keep going!

        – Alistair.

        by Suzanne Bell
        2:31 pm, 15 May 2015
  18. Hello! I was just wondering, do you ever have to deal with Writer’s Block, and if so, how do you get past it?

    by Tiffany
    1:56 pm, 15 May 2015
    1. (Sorry, premature sign-off!)

      Hi Tiffany,

      Writer’s block is a bit of an illusion I think.
      It does happen, but it shouldn’t have a special name given to it- That suggests there’s one solution.
      If I’m struggling it could be because:
      – My idea needs work
      – I need to plan more
      – My heart’s not in what I’m doing and I need to change
      – I’m stressed out for some other reason
      – I’m not sleeping enough
      – Eating badly
      – I’m sleeping too MUCH
      – etc
      – etc

      If you get stuck, don’t imagine it’s WRITER’S BLOCK.
      Just see it as what it is – a moment of difficulty.
      Try and find a different way around it.
      Skip ahead, skip back.
      Plan more.
      Read what you’ve got.
      Leave it a few days.
      Go for a walk.

      All of this is easier said than done when you’re starting to freak out, but it will help you even less to consider Writer’s Block some kind of dragon-like monster that’s plaguing you.
      You’re just a bit stuck.
      Don’t stop.
      Keep going!

      *

      That’s me properly signing off now, thanks again, it’s been fun.
      Hope it was useful.
      Keep going with your writing and best of luck!

      – Alistair.

      by Suzanne Bell
      2:36 pm, 15 May 2015
  19. Thank you to everyone for joining us this lunchtime and a HUGE THANK YOU to Alistair McDowall for taking the time to answer questions in such an open, honest, supportive way! Hope you’ve all found it useful in getting your scripts ready! THREE WEEKS TO GO!

    by Suzanne Bell
    2:58 pm, 15 May 2015