TOOLKIT SERIES 2- WEEK 2 Chinonyerem Odimba on Not Writing
Writing a play takes huge dedication. It takes time, head-space, leaps of imagination plus vision, bravery, commitment, compassionate enquiry beyond your immediate experience and perhaps…
Writing a play takes huge dedication. It takes time, head-space, leaps of imagination plus vision, bravery, commitment, compassionate enquiry beyond your immediate experience and perhaps most of all creativity. It is important that we bring compassion and understanding to the situation we find ourselves in. This continues to be a tremendously difficult time for theatre and the artists who make it.
Whether you have been able to be creative or not, we want to try and find ways to support you to continue to be engaged with the craft of writing for performance, engaging with an audience, telling stories and taking people on journeys. We truly hope that this series of on-line workshops – the Dramatists Toolkit #2 – will inspire and support you to be creative and to find new possibilities for your work to be realised.
This week and next Sonia Jalaly, Testament and Nickie Miles Wildin address writing for and with community. To start- Sonia considers devising, and how to work with a group of young people to create a play.
So you’re writing a play with a group of young people. Firstly, that process can take on a load of different shapes and forms:
The way you’re making this play is probably going to be reliant on a few factors: the brief given to you by the theatre/ company/ school you’re working for, the kind of artist you are and how you like to work and above everything, the needs of the young people. So of course there’s no one size fits all step by step guide to writing through devising with young people, but there are some things that I have found useful no matter what the brief is or who the group are. So here they are. Feel free to keep what works for you and chuck what doesn’t.
Unity through radical joy
I was on a writers group zoom recently and Emily Lim* was the guest speaker and she said she makes the work she makes in order to create unity through radical joy** and I was like YES. That’s what I set out to do when I make work with a group of young people. I thought of a show I made with Company Three called How To Be a Year 7. I saw the year 7 performers and the mostly adult audience unite over how funny substitute teachers can be and how silly detention can be and how utterly joyful it is to throw your blazer in the air to the Greatest Showman soundtrack. So unity through radical joy. Maybe this is why you want to make work with young people. Or maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is that’s driving you, I definitely think it’s worth naming it so i you get lost, you can always come back to that.
*.If you don’t know Emily’s work, look her up. She is the Director of Public Acts at the National Theatre and makes all sort of brilliant community work with truth and heart and JOY.
** it’s sad that joy should ever be radical. But I think joy in the face of adversity is radical.
And flipping heck a lot of young people experience adversity. ESPECIALLY now.
I think our job is to listen. Even when we’re talking. Even when we’re playing a 90 mile an hour game of Wah* whilst mentally dividing everyone into groups for the next activity. We have to listen all the time. Because I think the best work made with young people is the work that they have chosen to make. If I’ve got a group that have loads to say about sausage rolls**, then we’ve got to make a show about sausage rolls. Young people are the experts on what it’s like to be a young person and they know better than me what they need to say.
*Since working with Company Three, Wah has become my go to game and they play it as an Olympic Sport. Here are some instructions if you don’t know the game:
**I have never met a group who are passionate about sausage rolls but if you find them, please send them my way.
I’m nicking this one from Ned Glasier*. The edgelands are often where the most honest, interesting and funniest conversations happen. In the breaks between activities, outside the rehearsal room when you’re waiting to go in, on the coach on the way to residential. Be present as much as you can. You never know when someone is going to surprise you with the key that unlocks the whole play.
*If you don’t know Ned’s work, look him up too. He’s the Artistic Director of Company Three and he knows this work inside and out. Everything I know about working with young people I have either learnt from young people or Ned. He also shares his practice on twitter (@nedglasier and @company_three) and on the Company Three website.
What do they need?
When you get stuck ask yourself, what do the group need? One person might need to be given their moment to shine, some else might need the safety of working with others, someone might need a break, someone else might need more of a challenge, the whole group might need to chill and do solo work for a bit or they might need to come together for a massive shout and a dance. Let the needs of the group be the compass that guides you*.
*I’m so sorry for this level of cheese.
Competence. Relatedness. Autonomy.
Copyright Ned Glasier. As per, Ned introduced this into my practice and I have come to see it as the bare bones of the process. So let me explain what I think it means.
Competence – being really good at something and knowing that you’re good at it too.
Relatedness – feeling part of the group.
Autonomy – having the confidence and the opportunity to make your own choices.
I start with competence. The first thing I do is teach the group something and give them the space to get really good at it. That might be a physical warm up routine or a game *coughs* Wah. Once we’ve all got good at the thing and we’re riffing off each other (maybe we’re adding moves to a routine or increasing the speed of the game) then we get that wonderful feeling of relatedness. We’re a chorus, a team, we can do this. And if we ever feel like we can’t, we crack on the warm up song again and do the routine. Now we can share ideas in devising exercises and learn to build on what each other offers. We can trust each other and we can take risks. Risks like sticking your head above the parapet and making your own autonomous choices. Basically for me, competence + relatedness = autonomy. And when the young people you’re working with are able to be autonomous, that’s when the work gets really interesting.
A GAME – “White socks”
There are different names and versions of this game. I learnt this one from Leo Butler*.
Everyone sits on chairs in a circle with one person stood in the middle. The person stood in the middle gives a statement that is true about them. Eg “I’m wearing white socks”. Everyone who is wearing white socks has to switch places. Whoever’s left in the middle gives a new statement that is true about them. And so on and so on. As the game continues you can steer this into whatever territory you want to. For example now the statement has to begin with “I want to change…” or “I love it when….” or “I hate it when…”
Adapt for Zoom – Everyone takes turns to give a statement. If a statement that is said is true for you, keep your camera on, if not, turn your camera off.
This is a great game for relatedness. A group can really bond over what makes them tick.
*More wisdom from Leo here: https://royalcourttheatre.com/playwriting/writing-exercises/leobutlersexercise/
Questions are great. They let me be indecisive and non-committal which I LIKE. Finding the answer to a difficult question can be a great motivation for making the work. Lots of playwrights use narrative questions in their work, a difficult question that the play is asking of itself and its audience.
“Is it better to never grow up?” – Peter Pan
“Can true love overcome any obstacle?” – Cinderella
When a show I’m making begins evolving and as a group we’re becoming aware of the themes at play, I often like to boil this down to a narrative question and name it for us all.
“Is competition a good thing for society?”
“Can we change the price of nandos?”
“Will someone ever make a show about sausage rolls with me?”
This narrative question can help guide the group through the work and makes us active in the process – we’re all making a play to find an answer to the question.
A STARTING POINT – “Questions to…”
Cover the room with the following headlines:
The Prime Minister
Give everyone a stack of post its and 30 seconds with each headline to write as many questions as they can that they’d like to ask that person.
Adapt for Zoom – using the chat function, give everyone the same headline eg “The Prime Minister” and get everyone to brainstorm as many questions to that person as they can in 30 seconds. (Doing this on zoom chat takes away the anonymity though so just remind them to share what they feel comfortable sharing)
This can be a great starting point with a new group as not only does it give you an insight into the kinds of things they’re thinking about, but it gives you space to take this off in a number of different directions if you want to. For example everyone could choose the question they’re most interested and do some freewriting on that. Or you can work in pairs and devise an interview scene out of the list of questions. At the very least you’ll get some funny headteacher impressions.
As with making any work, it’s helpful to ask yourself what is the gesture of your play? What is your play trying to do? When making work with young people, I think that the gesture has to come from them. There’s no point deciding you’re going to make a play that campaigns for rent caps if all your group wants to talk about is lowering the price of nandos. Make the show about Nandos. I want to see the show about Nandos*.
*And sausage rolls
This is how I think of form. As a container. Specifically as a Tupperware box. It’s like we’ve got a narrative question, we’ve got our gesture, what are we going to put it in? The clearer and simpler the better.
A play about nostalgia in the container of a children’s party.
A play about being in year 7 in the container of a conference.
A play about competition in the container of a series of competitive games.
If the group are experienced and confident then you can find the container together. If it’s an inexperienced group who have never worked together before, it might help for you to give them the container early on so they have parameters to work in.
Name your process
I think this is good practice no matter what but I think it’s essential when making work with young people. If a young person doesn’t know why you’re asking them to do something, then there’s good chance they’re not going to do it. Sometimes this is the most difficult bit of the job. Sometimes, if I give the direction to try the scene again but this time do it as if you’re all slugs, then I just want you to do it as if you’re all slugs. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I need the slugs. But you’re not working with professional performers who have spent three years in drama school where you’re conditioned to take on any direction no matter how pointless or degrading. If you ask a young person to do the scene as a slug, then they’re probably going to want to know why. So know your process and be able to name it. Whether it’s giving the play a narrative question, finding the gesture of the play, choosing a container for the play or acting like a slug. Name it and explain it.
A PROCESS – “Source to Performance”
Again copyright Ned Glasier, sorry. The Company Three process always sits within the same framework. There are additional stages you can use but for me, the basics are:
source > research > development > rehearsal > performance
SOURCE – the source is your starting point for the play. It might be the housing crisis, nandos, a family of slugs, whatever. In this exercise, let’s say the source is “you”.
RESEARCH – this is where we blow the source apart and learn as much as we can about it. Make sure everyone has something to write with. Start with getting everyone to write lists about themselves. For example:
5 things you can see from where you are
5 things you wish you could see
5 things you’ve done today
5 things you want to do in the future
Move on to freewriting. Put two minutes on the clock and get everyone writing from the same sentence starters. For example:
Remind everyone to write as much as they can in two minutes. Write messily, spell badly, don’t waste your time with grammar. If you get stuck, write the sentence starter over and over until something else comes.
DEVELOPMENT – This is the crafty bit where you turn your research into art. We now have lists of stuff about you and a bunch of freewriting to work with. Get everyone to read through their work and highlight the three words and three sentences they find most interesting.
Write these on post it notes and stick them on the wall or put them in the chat box if you’re using zoom.
Get everyone to read each other’s. Find one of someone else’s that stands out to you and write it down. You now have three of your own words, three of your own lines and something someone else has written to play with.
PERFORMANCE – We’re going to skip the rehearsal stage of the process and skip straight to an improvised performance for the sake of this exercise.
One by one everyone reads a line or a word. There is no running order, people speak when they want to. You can repeat words or lines if you want. As this goes on you can encourage the groups to really start listening to each other. Look for connections between your words/lines and the words/lines other people in the group are saying. If you need to you conduct the group as if they are choir, pointing at people in turn to speak.
Process and Product
The process of making the play is as important as making the play itself. You do not have to choose between a process that is kind and fulfilling and a play that is high quality. These things are not mutually exclusive. Actually, I would argue you cannot have one without the other. If the work is shoddy then that’s not fulfilling or kind. Equally, you’re not going to make an excellent piece of work if your performers are miserable. If things are getting challenging, that’s ok. Go back to the needs of the group. Maybe they need to feel competent again by achieving something small and simple reminding them that they’ve got this. Or maybe they need to relate to each other again. I really believe that putting the needs of the group at the heart of the process, will always lead to the most satisfying work.
AND FINALLY, some work to check out:
Coronavirus Time Capsule – Company Three’s first lockdown project. This is a digital project that saw youth theatres all over the world collaborating together to platform teenagers voices and experiences during the first lockdown – https://www.coronavirustimecapsule.com/
Take The Stage at the Donmar – Phil McCormack’s team make really great work in schools in response to Donmar productions – https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/discover/take-the-stage/
The Herd put young people and families at the heart of their work. They also made an amazing play about slugs if slugs are your thing – https://www.theherdtheatre.co.uk/
Sonia is a writer and theatre maker from Manchester.
She is currently on attachment with Kiln Theatre as part of ETT’s Nationwide Voices and has recently completed a year on the Royal Court’s Long Form Writer’s Group 2020. She was a member of BBC Writersroom Comedy Room 2018 and has since written for a number of CBBC and CBeebies shows including Class Dismissed, Justin’s House and Biff and Chip.
She is currently co-writing a new audio comedy-drama for Whistledown Productions and Audible and is under commission with HighTide and the Royal Exchange Theatre.