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.

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