I’ve always considered myself a writer of sorts, but until now I have limited my efforts to writing short stories, journalistic articles, marketing copy and multiple abandoned efforts at writing a novel. My love of theatre and, particularly, my current actor training on the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School, has awaked a desire to write for performance. So you can imagine my excitement when I went along to a workshop run by award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, called How to Shape a Play: Narrative Structure.
At this point I feel the need to say this workshop actually took place over a month ago (drama school = limited free time = a backlog of unwritten blog posts), but I felt it still worth writing about, especially as I thought it was a really useful and inspiring day. The workshop was organised by Actors and Performers and took place at the Bloomsbury Publishing offices in London.
Simon strode in clad in a trendy suit yet with an air of something rather rough-and-tumble and not so trendy about him. As is the custom with most people in this business he swore passionately, fidgeted and fiddled with his hair, a habit he happily drew attention to. I instantly liked him. There was something very human and not at all ‘award-winning playwright’ about him, but then, how many award-winning playwrights have I actually met?
The day was fascinating, and not only did I feel very inspired speaking with Simon, but also being in the room with so many other writers from different walks of life. There were some brilliant and original ideas zipping around, and an air of excitement and enthusiasm hung in the air like a thick electric cloud, generated by the coming together of so many creative minds and our shared passion for theatre. I came away with so many useful tools for developing characters and plot. I don’t want to set down everything here as it would spoil the fun of doing a workshop with Simon – and I highly recommend it if you get the chance – so I’ll give my top five nuggets of food for creative scribblers from the day:
Playwrights organise chaos and ask the question: what is it to be human?
“I am not a writer, I’m a write” (in the words of Mr Stephens) – the word ‘playwright’ comes from the word ‘wrought’, not ‘write’. ‘Wright’ was an old English term for a craftsman, so a ‘playwright’ is someone who has ‘wrought’ words into a dramatic form i.e. crafted plays.
ACTIVATE, don’t CONGRATULATE – make sure each line of speech has an action behind it (what is one character trying to do to the other?).
Structure is music – plot the structure of a play on a chart with one vertical line per scene, spaced out as they are in the play (i.e. if scenes are set far apart time-wise draw them far apart, and if there are some scenes that happen a few hours apart draw them very close together), then if each line is one beat/tap, tap out the sequence of lines (i.e. scenes) and you’ll find the rhythm of the play. This worked brilliantly with Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.
CONTENT-STRUCTURE: your play and its gesture lies in the relationship between the content and the structure (music – see above).
If this has fizzed up your creative juices and you want to read more about the day (and don’t mind a few more spoilers), you can read a thorough account of the day by Actors and Performers web editor John O’Donovan on their website. The Actors and Performers blog is worth a read too.
You can follow Simon Stephens on Twitter at @StephensSimon.