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. If we are going to recover from the experiences of the past 12 months, we are going to need playwrights. That is a remarkable endeavour and a huge responsibility – something for which we all have the utmost respect and admiration at the Bruntwood Prize. That is why we are always striving to find ways to support playwrights and encourage people to have the courage to write.
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 – will inspire and support you to be creative and to find new possibilities for your work to be realised.
This week Kieran Knowles checks in with us on the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and exercises to get back to writing.
Now, where were we?
Science just saved us, but art was what we lost. What we missed. What we craved. Humanity, contact, love.
Art saved us too, in a way. The promise of it. Or the stories we could watch in our homes. The dream that we’d be in a theatre again one day, watching something that would hit us. Or take our breath a little.
Where were we? And where are we now?
In thirty years, we can count the personal scars left by this pandemic. We can stop and reflect. But for now, we have too much to do. We have move on. We have to move on together, with speed, urgency and with determination. We have to rebuild our community, our industry, and we have to encourage and support the work it creates. And we have to do it now.
We are the generation of artists that come out of this, that get people back into theatres, that’s our job. Good God that pandemic led to some great art though – that’s us!
And that’ll be the legacy if we get it right.
If you wait to see how this story is told, it will have already happened.
So, write what you feel. Write from the heart. And – write it now. But make a cup of tea first – I’m not an animal!
So, where were we?
My first exercise is a simple one. And everyone can do it. Write your bio.
“Kieran trained at – “
Write it all, every project you’re proud of, or were part of, every stage you’ve written for, acted on, everything you directed, designed or produced, every chance you have had to be part of something live. Write it down.
Play name, in italics then open brackets, name of the theatre, the tour, the company, the festival. Close brackets.
“Chicken Soup. (Sheffield Crucible),”
Then take it further. Not a bio anymore a little history. A short essay on why you are where you are. What was the first play you saw? What is the best play? The best performance, the best moment? Write down all the things that got you to think theatre is what you think it is. How those thoughts came about.
Then write what you think theatre is. What it is to you. Get rid of the insecurities, the agents you wrote to that rejected you, the people who didn’t like your work, the auditions you didn’t get, the schools who said no, get rid of all that, just write the things that have got you to this point. The point where you are going to write a new play. Now.
Then read what you’ve written. Save it.
Open a new document, and call it “New play”
That’s where we were. Where we’ve come from. The things we’ve put on hold. This is where we are.
Exercise Two. The first page.
My Mum passed on the phrase “Write about what you know” to me, she isn’t a writer, but she was trying to encourage me when I was failing to write anything. I’d figured no one wanted to see the play about a drama student who was broke, so I’d have to write about something I didn’t know.
But actually, I see now that the phrase isn’t necessarily about your specific circumstance or experience, it is about the emotion of the situation you find yourself in. And to access it, you can ask yourself a really simple question.
What’s pissing me off?
That’s my exercise. Just ask yourself that.
Try to be really specific about it though, if everything is an issue – nothing is. What is really getting on your nerves? What makes you react every time you hear about it?
There’s plenty out there at the minute. Plenty of examples. But find the thing. The one thing. The thing that makes your teeth clench every time you hear about it.
And start there.
A few years ago, I found out the biggest killer of young men was suicide. The biggest. Not cancer, or road accidents. They kill themselves.
That pissed me off. Really pissed me off.
Now, jump down an internet rabbit hole, buy books, read articles, listen to podcasts with one aim, find a quote. Something that gets to the crux of what is pissing you off. It doesn’t have to be swanky; you can even write it yourself. Just put it in speech marks to make it look official.
“This is what is pissing me off” Jane Doe, The Guardian.
It can be from anywhere. The best one I found was from a newspaper in Warrington quoting the local vicar.
Then I want you to place it on the front page of your new document. Just under the title (if you have one).
By Kieran Knowles
“This is what is pissing me off” Jane Doe, The Guardian
If there are a couple of things pissing you off, or if you feel that one quote doesn’t fully articulate your anger, feel free to add a few more.
Sometimes, when I am fleshing out/ battling with a play, I find what I am trying to say gets lost a little in the process, but if I place the quote at the start of my document, I have to scroll past it every time I open the file, and my theory is, it keeps the thing I was trying to say at the forefront of my mind. I may not read it in full every time, but if I catch a few words as I scroll, I remember the rest.
It might not work for you, but it’s something I do, and I thought I should pass it on.
In many ways, I am the worst contributor imaginable to something like this, as my process is very much the “throw enough shit at a wall and hope that some will stick” approach.
But I thought there might be some people out there who go for a similar style.
If you are really stuck for a starting point, I find monologues are useful.
Did you ever play the Christmas game where you wrote a word, then folded the paper so it was hidden, passed it to someone else, then they write something else, fold, pass, another, and on and on and at the the end you read the story?
Well, it sort of works in a getting your brain going way, but you need someone to help you.
Write a character’s name.
Where are they?
What are they waiting for?
Who are they speaking to?
What is their secret?
You can add as many questions as you want.
Then read it. Write down their story, their experience, the world from their point of view in that moment you just arrived at. Let the surprises take you somewhere, the responses you hadn’t predicted. Let them inform where you take the character.
Set yourself parameters, so many monologues are direct address, don’t let yours be, or do. Are you in a moment, reacting to a moment, or describing one? If you can talk to the audience then what are they? Why are they there? What do they allow the character to do that they couldn’t do before? Where has the character come from? What happened when they were there? What is the subtext of the moment?
It’s not perfect, it doesn’t have to be, if the info you received wasn’t good enough, change it riff off it, make rules and break them.
Don’t just address all the things that are on the piece of paper, choose what to honour and what to throw away. Your voice will sit somewhere in between what it is you have to say and how you go about saying it. Go with your first response, or your gut reaction. Or write the exact opposite but respond to it. Use it as a springboard.
In truth, I’m not sure I can tell you how to start to write, or that I can even write myself. But I know that if you sit down with the ambition and determination to tell a story – you can do that.
When I was at drama school, I was taught how to embody a character as a colour, an animal, an element, an abstract thought, a piece of music. I sang lines, mumbled them, whispered them, shouted them, pronounced only the vowels or the consonants. We were taught to deconstruct a character, to test it and then to reconstruct it in our image. Not all of it worked, I would say 90% felt a bit wanky, but it demonstrated that there are many ways to crack the same egg, and that different people respond to different techniques. For me, I liked it when I could just be myself and imagine the situation I was walking in to was happening to me, but others would do an elaborate dance move, or push a wall, or over articulate the lines. But we all found our own way to walk on stage, utter lines and embody another person for a while. Often, you just need to smack the egg on the side of the bowl and see what comes out.
You can always fish out the shell if it lands in the mix. That’ll be your second draft.
Kieran trained at Loughborough University and LAMDA. Previous work for theatre: Some People Feel the Rain and Red Brick, Render (Royal Exchange) Chicken Soup. (Sheffield Crucible Theatre), 31 Hours (Bunker Theatre), Operation Crucible (Finborough Theatre, Sheffield Crucible, UK Tour and Brits Off Broadway Festival, New York), Comet (Pleasance Theatre). Radio: Cornerstone (BBC Radio 4), Operation Crucible (BBC Radio 4).