Provocations, tips & tutorials – with Nell Leyshon

We are really excited to bring you a series of tutorials by different writers to help you with your script and shape your writing practice.

Our third tutorial is with award-winning playwright Nell Leyshon – Theatricality & the world of your play

Nell is an award-wining playwright and writer of Bedlam – the first play written by a woman for Shakespeare’s Globe. Nell has provided us with an insightful provocation and an exercise to help spark ideas, find your writer’s voice and begin to create a theatrical world for an audience.

The role of the playwright has changed over time and has become very varied. A playwright she can find herself working on very collaborative projects, perhaps as a dramaturg, or story shaper, for people who have generated an idea but lack the overall structuring and story telling skills needed. However, it is important to state that the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting is for writers who are working at the other end of the spectrum of playwriting, that is, writers who are generators of ideas and texts. It is the writer’s voice the judges are looking for.

A writer’s voice is her sensibility, her inner world which teems with ideas and thoughts and has a unique perspective. Part of that voice is how a writer creates a world. In theatre that means a theatrical world, which means addressing the issue of theatricality.

To understand what theatricality means, the first question we need to ask ourselves is why are we writing plays, rather than novels or poems or television/film drama? And we need to ask what it is that differentiates these visual mediums.

The thing that makes theatre unique is that a play takes place in the real time that an audience is watching. And theatre is also a two-way exchange. The audience is live, just as the events on the stage or space are live.

This live dynamic is what leads to a shared sense of excitement and event. When theatre is working, and a piece of writing is working, there is a sense that the air between the two components of audience and stage, is electrified and charged.

This is what I mean by theatrical. An exchange. Something is happening, in real time and in this one space.

To achieve this, the events need to be processed through a writer’s voice. They are not as they are in the “real” world, but are compressed and seen anew. The events become heightened. The time span of your play is the time it takes to perform. Don’t make the mistake of only representing real time passing with no charge or stakes. Make every moment count.

There are different ways to heighten reality. Time and events are compressed and changed, made more important. Conflict and dramatic stakes add to tension and subtext. And language itself is sharpened and transformed. The theatrical world that is created is re-envisaged and re-imagined.
Theatrical Worlds:

A theatrical world is not the same as the real world. It is a world created for the play, and as each play is distinct, each world is distinct.

A writer creates a world when she writes a play. The world is a geographical world, and a physical world in terms of settings. It is also a linguistic world, and can have its own very distinct language. But most of all, a play is a piece of the writer’s own inner world.

The world of the play doesn’t have to be realistic. A lot of playwrights now are informed by television, where the worlds portrayed are realistic and leave little for the viewer to do. Instead think of theatre as a different medium: allow your audience to use their imagination, and stretch their understanding of the world.

A world can be a metaphor for something else. Or the world of the play can be a microcosm which represents another, larger world. The apartment in Death of a Salesman feels as though it represents the whole of America at a certain moment in its development. The estate in Cherry Orchard represents more than mere land, but a class of people when faced with tumultuous socio-economic changes.

Geography can be heightened. It doesn’t have to the London that belongs to all, but can be your London. London as only you see it. The physical world of a house or another physical setting can also be heightened: the house can represent more than just four walls. The language the characters speak can be the way you think they speak. Don’t be a slave to reality.

So be bold. However, being bold is not easy. The inner voices will try and persuade you to be safe, but don’t. When I wrote Comfort me with Apples, I thought no-one would be interested in my own re-imagining of the farms of my village. People kept asking me when it was set. When? Where? Who are these people? I had no real answers for them. This was what I wanted to write, this was how I saw that fading world.

When I made choices about how to portray this world in my mind, I tried not to lean on reality, but allow my imagination to create something else which was a mixture of times and places. Ask yourself each scene, have I pushed this as far as I can go? Have I been bold? Have I written something which isn’t a poor imitation of television writing?

If there is something in your mind that you feel passionately about, that is exactly what you should write. Being bold is being true to yourself. Your play should come from your imagination and your voice. Trust it and try it. See what happens. Find out what you really have to say, what really excites you. Write to please yourself. Write to fill those moments of stage time. Create worlds which inspire you.


Write a scene with an object at the centre of it which represents more than just itself. It may be a key or a photograph. It may be a book. Make sure you know why this object is so important. Think about what it really represents.

Take a scene – let’s say character A wants to go out but character B doesn’t want her to. Write it as a naturalistic TV drama, where A just wants to go to the pub for a drink and B is possessive. Then having done that, re-write the scene in a more theatrical way with much higher stakes, where A wants to go out, but it’s not just to the pub. Think about that world outside and make it represent something. Is there a war on? What will happen if she leaves this place of safety?
About Nell Leyshon

Nell Leyshon’s plays include Comfort me with Apples, which won an Evening Standard Award, and Bedlam, which was the first play written by a woman for Shakespeare’s Globe. She was playwright in residence at Hay Festival, 2012, and is currently writing a play for the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic. She also writes drama for BBC Radio 3 and 4, and won the Richard Imison Award for her first radio play. Her novels include The Colour of Milk, published by Penguin.



Published on:
28 Jan 2015


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