Saturday, 27 August 2011
ARVON THEATRE COURSE, THE HURST, 15 – 20 August.
What a busy, amazing week! Here are a few notes, scribbled hastily on site, when I wasn't either creating the next stage sensation (!!) nattering with the other students,reading, walking, eating, drinking or sleeping...
Tutors: Laura Wade, a highly successful playwright, and
Ola Animashawun from the Royal Court Theatre, who also runs Euphoric Ink, check it out - a hotspot for tuition and play development ...Here is his short intro to playwriting, courtesy of the BBC
The week went like this:
MONDAY: A long drive from Sussex. Correction. A long long drive from Sussex. (5 hrs including 2 stops.) My room, a single study-bedroom named after Wilfred Owen is in The Clock House, (the social hub of The Hurst) and has the most wonderful view.
We are fifteen students, a good mix of male and female, and of all ages. Most have already written plays in one shape or another. I haven’t. Unless you count the play I almost got expelled from school for, in early 1066 – but let’s not go there.
The Hurst is looking really lovely – I was last here in late 2007 on a fiction course – the place feels familiar, the subject not at all – I am uncomfortably at sea.
The first dinner is cooked for us – curry, fruit salad. After tonight we will be cooking dinner ourselves, in teams of four. You wash up on the night before you cook, and I notice the first difference between now and 2007. Washing up is much more of a chore – they have taken away the dish-washer.
After washing up is a Health and Safety talk, followed by a ‘breaking the ice’ session with the tutors, Laura Wade and Ola Animashawun, both of whom seem very nice, supportive, fun and full of info.
Bed early, in Wilfred Owen. This is oddly appropriate, as my play has to do with WWI. Spooky!
TUESDAY: Workshops with both tutors are held each day from 10 am to 1 pm – today's is a mix of writing exercises, warm-ups, interrogating our thoughts and our initial ideas for plays. It seems different to the fiction course, in that there is no sharing of our own creative ideas, the plays we are wishing to write - unless someone volunteers what they are working on. We are actually encouraged not to share...good for them, much kinder!
Interestingly, we talk about premise, setting the ‘message’ of our as yet unwritten plays into a single sentence that encompasses character, action and outcome. The fourth element of premise is the writer’s passion for the subject...
It seems that there is far more advance planning, at least as regards structural stuff, and premise, - less to discover as you write, only that might be a bad perception.
During the afternoon, we have free time to write, or to do whatever we like. I take a copy of Caryl Churchill’s ‘Far Away’ into the grounds, find a seat with the most fabulous view over Houseman’s rolling hills, and read it at least three times. A real eye-opener. Surreal, strong, wacky and frightening. Love it.
I start my play. Well, I write some dialogue between two characters, before wondering if I am writing the right play. Then I feel that this must be the good old imp on the shoulder who tries to stop plays getting written as well as stories and novels. I have a kip and try to ignore him.
Join in the cooking, and make a very boozy tira misu for eighteen. There is a special guest this evening, April de Angelis, who, if I was more into the world of play writing, I would realise was a very well known and revered figure. She is very funny, generous, interesting and entertaining about the work she has done for about thirty years! The best thing she says is that she writes to discover – sets out with minimal idea of what’s going to happen. I sigh with relief. Here's a link to some of her plays, from Faber and Faber.
But I also realise that there has been talk several times today about young writers – excitement about young writers. Talk of plays written for older actresses – but no talk of older women starting out as writers of plays...ho hum. C'est la vie. As with fiction, I guess you just have to be as good as you can be, and hope for a modicum of luck!
I revise a poem before bed.
Hornets invade the bathroom outside Wilfred Owen, attracted to the light. They are vast – never seen these things before. Real four-engine jobs. It transpires there is a nest and the Hornet-Exterminators of Clun have been out once already. They can’t be very good at it. I chew my toothbrush instead of brushing properly. Sacrilege.
WEDNESDAY: Today’s workshop is an introduction to the structure of plays. We look in some depth at Caryl Churchill’s ‘Far Away’, which I liked very much. We dissect the play, look at its unusual structure, see how it is absolutely right. We do a great exercise, looking at the life of Michael Jackson, and deciding how we would individually create a play about his life. It quickly becomes obvious that you need to be aware of the premise of your play before you can attempt to write it...and once I’ve realised that, I invent a play of great genius set during the inquest into his death, with Elizabeth Taylor as one of the major characters...Broadway here I come. Another eye-opener.
We are asked to consider our own main characters, for tomorrow’s session – and possible structural decisions.
I have my first one to one tutorial this afternoon, with Ola. I am now able to articulate the premise of my play, and the setting, and when it takes place. It is met with approval, I am given loads of encouragement, and when I ask, am warned of possible pitfalls.
I spend a happy couple of hours on ‘my’ seat in the grounds, reading ‘Blood Wedding’ by Lorca. Then had a lovely walk on my own up out of the grounds on to a track through hills, and farmland – this really is the most gorgeous countryside. Clun, the village nearby is meant to be one of the quietest places in the UK. Apparently, although A E Houseman wrote A Shropshire Lad in the 1890s – his poems were among the most popular for WWI soldiers to take away to war, to remind them of England...although for many, it must have been an England they had no experience of. Lots of thinking about my play, en route.
Tonight, the tutors are in charge of the evening’s event – Laura goes first, helped by Simon, one of the students, and they read us a play she has been commissioned to write by the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra, based on the Kreutzer Sonatas of Beethoven and Janacek, and Tolstoy’s novella of the same name. And Ola, who does not write plays himself, does a sit-down comic turn, introducing two articles he has written – one about how to read plays –fascinating! Loads of time for questions and natter.
Hornets are back after dark - on the landing outside Wilfred, holding a loud conversation about light fitments. Yikes. I leave them to it. (No, they aren't quite that big. That is a queen hornet, apparently.)
THURSDAY: The workshops are on characterisation. Two thirds of the morning is spent on exercises and games, all of which feed into the recognition and development of character, the importance of a character’s objectives and obstacles to their achievement thereof. In one game, called ‘Touch and Go’ – we are all in a circle round one person, crouching in the centre. We have to touch them, and wait for the instruction ‘Go!’ and run – the person in the centre has to try to ‘catch’ our hands before we do so. If she succeeds, whoever is caught joins them in the centre. Much laughter and tension – and afterwards, we analyse the major components of the game, and come to the conclusion they are the major elements of drama. Tension, progression, anticipation, collaboration, using the senses...and so on. (Delighted to find I can still bend in the middle and kneel on the floor...) Another walk...
I begin to write my play in earnest during the afternoon, finding the voice of my main character, and selecting a scene from what will be close to the end – I start to write a short soliloquy to leave for the final evening’s celebration, tomorrow. I won’t be there, sadly, as a family holiday starting Saturday means I have to get back home tomorrow evening.
I have my second one-to-one tutorial, this time with Laura Wade, who asks some very pertinent questions, and opens up all sorts of possibilities for my main character.
Most of the team go off to the pub in the evening, a few of us don’t – me included. Spend the evening writing that short soliloquy - what a goodie two shoes. But it definitely isn’t easy, this play writing stuff. I struggle to get it to say what I want to, in the right way.
Hornets? Yup. In the kitchen...We persuade them into the back pantry and lock the door on them. The Hurst is a beautiful estate, way out in the country. There are old buildings aplenty, several old residential/smallholding properties, and too many ancient trees to count. A few hornets is nothing! Its a privilege to be here.
FRIDAY: This morning, we take a look at dialogue. There I was thinking it is approached the same way as direct speech in prose – again, I’m way off beam. We do an interesting exercise (again – they were all interesting, actually!) in which we recall phrases we associate with someone we know well and write them down. Someone else has to guess who the person is/was. Good game! Then we chat to our main character – us, we, the playwrights. (Or not...) and that really was good. Both voice-wise, and also for attitude, personality. A focus on sub-text came next, and an in-depth analysis of Scene 1 of ‘Far Away’ – useful, eye-opening stuff. Then we have a look at classic play structures, and the last half hour or so is spent on a sweep-up Q&A session.
I have to leave after lunch, sadly, as I’m due at Heathrow early for the start of a family holiday in the morning, and don’t fancy getting up in the early hours to do the drive. I have to leave a thank you note for the tutors – and also I leave a couple of pages of script with Nick, a 20-year-old fellow student who has done some acting, and is exactly the right age for my main character. He has very kindly agreed to read for me this evening – I am sad to miss this occasion, very much. It will be the only chance to hear what sort of things some of the others have been working on.
I leave at 2.30 pm. I forget it is an August Friday afternoon, and get stuck on the M 42, discover you can’t get off and then on to the M 40 easily – despite it being about half an inch away on my map. I visit the outskirts of Stratford, then Warwick, entirely by mistake, eat Kentucky Fried Chicken at some point, drive on autopilot and get home at 10.15.
As I go to sleep I wonder if the hornets are outside Wilfred’s door again.
I was on autopilot because I hadn’t realised just how tired I was. It has been a really fantastic week at The Hurst - it’s been challenging, interesting, fun and inspirational. And a lot of hard work – right out of the comfort zone, but the feeling of being at sea got better as the course progressed! The company has been excellent, the tutors absolutely great. I’ve learned a lot, I hope - and now it’s down to me.
One of the unexpected benefits of the course was rediscovering how scary it can be for a student on a writing course, and how vulnerable you can feel. I hadn’t forgotten – but it is always useful to be reminded...