Staging your Story

I gave my first course yesterday for Big Smoke Writing Factory as a guest teacher. I’ve attended courses there before and was familiar with the lovely building and nice facilities (There is tea! There are biscuits! There are lovely clean bathrooms with effective hand-dryers! Anyone who wonders why I’m prioritising the effectiveness of the hand-dryers probably hasn’t spent a lot of time schlepping between rented offices.) But most importantly, there’s a welcoming atmosphere and a wonderful mix of participants. I was delighted to get a wide range of answers to my opening question, ‘What would you like to achieve from this workshop?’

As the workshop was relatively short and I was meeting the participants for the first time, I decided to concentrate mostly on dramatic structure, i.e., how to tell your story for the stage. I chose this topic as it’s something people tend not to start to think about until they’ve written half a play and hit an insurmountable obstacle.

I recently read an interesting short essay by playwright Anthony Nielsen where he spoke about teaching creative writing workshops. He would invariably come across students who were excited about writing on certain themes: ‘I want to write a play that tackles the issues around gay marriage/ the recession/ clerical abuse.’ When they were asked the simple question, ‘Yes, but what story do you want to tell?’, their faces would fall. Many people have a passion for writing and want their work to have a big, punchy message, but find it difficult to create a story which acts as a vehicle for these themes. ‘Story’ and ‘plot’ have almost become dirty words.

However, think about new plays which have been successful lately – or indeed, over the past 20 years (by writers such as Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh, Marina Carr, Jez Butterworth, Simon Stephens, Enda Walsh etc etc). Yes, they have dealt with weighty issues and some have been rather light on narrative, but most of them (I am open for debate on this point by the way) have had a gripping story, well told. Good structure disappears in the weave, so it becomes an almost intangible thing, but some of the most complex plays are the most simply structured. The challenge is not just to create a story which acts as a vehicle for your themes, but also to present it on the stage in a way that makes visual sense. The usual questions about good storytelling apply: Is each scene pulling its weight? Does the pace flag anywhere? Is there a strong narrative through-line? While these questions usually preoccupy the writer during the redrafting process, might it be helpful to try to consider them from the very beginning? We discussed various techniques for working out the play’s narrative arc before you set pen to paper.

Alongside this discussion we talked about the very nuts and bolts of theatre-making: how long should a scene be? How do you format a script? How long should your play be as a whole? Which theatres read unsolicited scripts and what kinds of writing are they looking for? I love discussing these questions as playwriting can be a mysterious art, but it’s a form of writing that appeals to so many people. A little bit of demystification will open up a new pool of talent for writers and for theatres.

Strokestown Festival Round-up

This is very belated, but I’ve been flat-hunting, living between two houses, writing an article on a tight deadline and having the usual bewildering new-flat experiences (Why are there no teaspoons? How will I hide my cat from the landlady when she comes to collect the rent?) While considering these and other lofty questions of existence, I like to cast my mind back to Strokestown to calm myself…

Strokestown, for those of you who haven’t been, is a very small town. It’s a crossroads, a big house and not much else. But don’t read that ‘not much else’ as pejorative; in small Irish towns the ‘much else’ is usually miles and miles of bungalow blight and ghost estates. Strokestown remains intact and architecturally coherent. The houses at the crossroads are all small Georgian buildings which echo the architecture of the big house – a small but perfectly formed mansion displaying the almost obsessive symmetry of its era, but with what I imagine Jane Austen might have deemed a ‘very pleasing aspect.’

When we first arrived at the house, everyone was in the lovely courtyard café, so we were free to snoop around the various rooms, which have that air of ramshackle elegance that speaks of generations of use and love; this place doesn’t feel like a museum. The room in which the readings took place has two French doors either side of the lectern allowing the audience to look out at the swallows skimming the grass-tips. We stayed for the afternoon reading on the Saturday, which was Liane Strauss and Seosamh O Mhurchu. After hearing how well they both read I panicked and ran back to the apartment to practice (and wind down by drinking half a bottle of wine while watching Die Hard on TV.)

I vill help you mit your po-et-ik vo-cal delifery

I was reading first on the Sunday morning at 10am and was in great company. Jim Maguire (who came first in the competition) was the first reader and gave us a beautiful sequence of poems on music, the nature of the creative process and loss of that ability. Lovely to hear stand alone poems that interweave together thematically in such an organic way. Liam Ryan (who came third) read after me and his poems were witty, elegantly sparse and built up a lyrical and resonant picture of everyday life. I had a very warm reaction to my own reading with lots of people asking where they could buy my book (publishers everywhere take note!)

The drawing room where the readings were held

So I spent the rest of the day seeing as many poets read as possible. Highlights were Shirley McClure, Isobel Dixon, Lydia McPherson (I’m sorry to say I missed the rest of the shortlisted poets as I only made it to the festival on the Saturday – if I hadn’t, they’d be on my highlights list too.) I didn’t win a prize, but got really positive feedback from both judges and spent two days in the most beautiful surroundings listening to poetry and chatting to poets. I’m going back next year and may decide to haunt the place when I die…