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Oxford Playhouse Playmaker writers meeting with director John Retallack Credit Geraint Lewis.
From left to right – Ayad Andrews, Charlie Howitt, Carolyn Lloyd-Davies, John Retallack, James Baldwin, Phil Darwin and Karim Khan – the 2016/17 writers on attachment.
Playhouse Playmakers meet at Oxford Playhouse.
This scheme began in 2015 when new and emerging playwrights were invited for the first time to submit their work to be considered for a place on PLAYHOUSE PLAYMAKER, the Oxford Playhouse Writers on Attachment Programme – 90 writers applied from all over the country and from this number, 7 writers were chosen.
The selected writers attended 8 day-long Saturday workshops, from October to June, led by John Retallack.
Workshops take place in The Lucy Room of the Oxford Playhouse.
The workshop days take the following shape:
In the mornings, the group looks at extracts from a range of contemporary plays that focus on a particular theme or technique – opening a play, constructing plot, the protagonist, the infinite possibilities of stage directions…and so on. In the afternoon, each writer has the opportunity to present a new idea for a play and to share this with the group. In the intervening weeks, each writer then writes a 20-minute extract that every member of the group reads and then discusses the following month.
John Retallack and the group read all the extracts before the next Saturday workshop.
Over the course of the year, each play demands more time and attention from the group, until by the 6th session, the whole day focuses on the almost-finished plays. By the 7th session, in May, the writers present their first drafts and on the final session, professional actors perform a staged reading of a 20-minute extract from each play.
The Oxford Playhouse then has first choice on whether to take a play further – ultimately, the Playhouse intends to not only foster but also to produce new plays that emerge from PLAYHOUSE PLAYMAKER.
Oxford Playmaker is indebted to Louise Chantal, Chief Executive of Oxford Playhouse, and Mezze Eade, Participation Programme Leader, for their enormous help and encouragement in bringing this project to life and to their generosity to the writers in every aspect of the programme.
The programme is FREE to the selected writers
posted 24 Jan 2017
Karim Khan gives us an insight into how this year’s Playmakers have been getting on…
We’ve reached the halfway point already. It’s our fourth session of Playhouse Playmaker. Our original ideas have evolved into a disparate collection of fascinating, bold and exciting scenes. We each have a glimpse of the kind of plays we might end up with at the end of the programme. It’s an exciting process, not least because it allows us to regroup every month and to review what we have done, as well as to talk through any issues or problems we’re having with an engaged group.
The importance of subtext…
Each session revolves around a particular aspect or quality of drama, so in the past we’ve explored the monologue and protagonists. In this session we discussed subtext. John Retallack brought in a collection of different play extracts. We looked at scenes from Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, Checkov’s The Chery Orchard, and Zeller’s The Truth, and particularly focussed on the way writers used subtext dramatically in their works. What we realised at the end of the session was that subtext is essentially the foundation of all drama– that tension that lies between what one says and what one means, or what one wants and what one does. Even in everyday conversations, we use subtext both knowingly and unknowingly – so while subtext can be used to create ambiguity as in The Visit, it can equally add an authenticity to a play, as shown in The Truth. The morning discussions are always very inspirational and allow us to consider how we can deploy similar techniques and devices in our own work.
To echo one of the greats:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.
T.S Eliot, The Sacred Wood.
The signs of progress…
After lunch, we returned to look at our own work. We had a month to write, whether that be scenes, synopses or stream of consciousness – anything that gave us a greater understanding of the plays we’re making. A few of us thought it would be a useful exercise to put our disparate ideas and thoughts into a synopsis, to help guide us through the writing process in subsequent months. Others experimented with the style and themes of their plays by writing some more scenes. One of the gems of this process has been watching other writers gradually develop their plays: random ideas about characters and themes evolve into intricate narrative sequences in the matter of months. And some of the scenes that we have read during these sessions have been brilliant – characteristic of some of the plays I’ve read published by Faber & Faber – dazzling us with a unique and authentic voice and compelling characters.
A writing community…
One of the best parts of the whole process is having a sounding board – an opportunity to discuss concerns and issues we have with the other writers. We’re all on the same journey, so our understanding and experience of the writing process allows us to help and guide others as they encounter some of the problems we may have in the past. The whole programme has been enriching and enlightening – we have come across new plays, styles and approaches to drama while discovering our own in the process. It’s a huge privilege to be a Writer on Attachment with the Oxford Playhouse, and I have no doubt that I’ll be a more confident, enriched and inspired writer when I leave.
Giles Fernando (14/10/2015)
Playhouse Playmaker Writer
“I feel like it’s my first day of school. Only with one difference: I couldn’t be more excited. School to me was always a bit mundane. I remember being horrified when told after my first day at school that I had “another 13 years of that”. I calculated that, even if they served my favourite pudding everyday, 2,600 portions of roly-poly jam sponge and custard would not compensate for the thousands of hours of my life spent chewing pencils or reciting facts.
Now I can’t wait to get on the train to Oxford. And it’s 6am. On a Saturday! There was a time when I was only up this early because I hadn’t been to bed from the night before. How things change! This is my first trip back in 20 years, but something so wonderful is about to happen that I am being drawn to Oxford: the Playmaker scheme.
The Oxford Playhouse have decided to launch a scheme for playwrights, to nurture and develop a cohort of writers. I am one of the lucky seven, and will be writer on attachment at the Playhouse for a year. As part of the scheme, we have day-long workshops with award-winning playwright John Retallack, we’re fed, watered and cared for by the fantastic Playhouse staff and then we get to see the latest productions on the main stage. And after that, if not completely exhausted, a well-earned drink at the White Rabbit to discuss ideas and run through the day’s excitement.
In the morning session, we were introduced to the works of playwrights from around the world. By about 10.30am, my head was overloaded with possibilities, inspired by the plays we’d been given to read. Two works particularly stood out, This Child by Joel Pommerat and Sense by Anja Hilling. In fact, This Child has haunted me since that first workshop. Some great lessons for us emerging playwrights in the power of silence and pared-down language.
The afternoon session was even more exhilarating. We got to discuss and refine our ideas for the plays that we’re intending to write in our Playmaker year. I’ll leave you guessing as to what’s in store, but I know you won’t be disappointed. My fellow writers bowled me over with their inventiveness in storytelling and their ability to hit the emotional jugular. Stock up on Kleenex and watch this space for news!”
Mark Ralph-Bowman (05/11/15)
Playhouse Playmaker Writer
“The scary stuff starts. But more of that later.
John Retallack has brought some examples of different approaches to writing for theatre. Doors into possibility open. It’s a sort of Narnia. I’ve been in the wardrobe riffling through familiar, musty apparel. Now the invitation to step through into a place where any and every sort of clothing is up for grabs. No rules. Nothing determined by fashion. And that is so liberating. And mighty scary. “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” [unprofitable for sure] the ways in which I write in comparison with some of these examples. That’s the invitation.
And that’s the morning. Challenging. It’s tempting to write in some unconventional style simply to be different and new. And wind up like the football supporter wearing a comedy outfit of Bugs Bunny or The Incredible Hulk and looking a prat because I’m trying too hard and it’s not real.
In the afternoon, scary followed challenging. A month ago, we’d all “pitched” our ideas for the play we wanted to write. The glorious freedom of spraying scenarios into the air, making magnificent cloud formations. And then home to the task of pinning those ideas into words on the page. We had to write the first ten pages, or the last, or whatever suited our purpose for the play we’d pitched. These ten pages all go into Dropbox and we all read each other’s work. I imagine them opening the pdf and reading with mounting incredulity or hysteria or, even worse, a deepening sense of ennui. I mean, it’s stupid because we’ve met and we know we’re all struggling with a shared challenge. And whatever our initial response to what we read, together we’ll find the diamonds in all of the material; but it’s amazing how close to the surface the Great White of paranoia lurks.
The process that John follows is salutary. The great temptations when responding to others’ work are to make value judgments and/or to “help” them to write the play you would have written [which, it goes without saying, would always be much better]. John’s approach means the risk taken by the writer in sharing is also taken by us in responding. We’re encouraged to speak from our response to the material, how it makes us feel and think. And this exposes us as much as it does the writer. But it’s also the way that an audience responds. And that’s crucial for us. Audience members will speak honestly to each other about how the play made them feel and what it made them think. We must learn to do likewise but at the same time in a safe place of trust and shared risk. In this OP Playmaker world, “That’s tosh” wouldn’t be the last word. It’s an act of exposure because it leads to “So, this is what I was feeling/thinking that made it tosh for me.” As we get better at this process, we should be able to cut out the “That’s tosh” and get straight to the creative nub of things.
But I’m guessing there will be “interesting moments”!”
Tolula Dada (12/12/15)
Playhouse Playmaker Writer
Despite the early start, the morning is often my favourite part of our Playmakers sessions, where we look at a variety of extracts from established writers to open our minds to new forms, styles and ways of storytelling. Some are by playwrights we are familiar with, but we’ve also read work by renowned Dutch, German and Swedish playwrights too. This part of the day not only grants us the opportunity to discuss the work of a writer who isn’t seated in the room, (and gives me a few hours grace before I have to share my own attempts!) but it has often resulted in some of the most fruitful moments of the sessions for me. I’ve been surprised at how liberating it’s been for a humble baby-writer like myself to see the radically different kinds of narrative structure, approaches to staging, use of dialogue and even a total absence of stage directions and the impact those factors can have on audience perceptions and how the story unfolds. After reading the opening scenes of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Mirad A Boy from Bosnia by Ad de Bont in our November sessions, I left with a number of ideas for how I might try to stretch myself creatively, being keen to break away from the very naturalistic, linear style of storytelling I have uniformly employed in all of my plays to date.
This time, John Retellack gave us 15 minutes to do some free-writing in the voice of one of our characters, and after a few moments of indecision as to which voice I wanted to explore, I chose a protagonist who I hadn’t written much dialogue for up until this point. Although I had initially intended her to play a minor role, by allowing her to just talk in this way and find out more about her, this exercise proved to be quite a decisive, game-changer for my work.
John then shared with us some critical questions for us to consider when editing our plays, in relation to the protagonist we’d just been writing. For example, having a clear idea of who the character is, their primary wants/needs/dramatic goals, and also asking if they had a ‘ghost’: a secret or self-deception that haunts them, and how this might be resolved in the drama.
This is precisely the kind of character interrogation I really love and already forms a big part of my process. Whilst some writers just sit down and write and see what happens, I like to have a map. Comprised of story beats I need, ‘killer lines’ I need to include and stray thoughts that I might not have found a home for yet, it’s all in there. The outline doesn’t always comes together fully formed from the off set, it percolates over time, but having a plan allows me to cherry pick the scenes I feel most excited about writing each time I sit down to work. And setting out what happens to a character gives me a chance to really excavate into who they are, what they want, what they’re hiding from themselves and those around them and really lay a trail of breadcrumbs for the audience to follow throughout the story. It lays a rich foundation for me to add layers of texture to the characters; to set out all those random details that only really make sense after you’ve seen the twist at the end.
Ahead of this session I had sent John my outline (mainly to prove that despite the handful of out-of-sequence scenes I’d actually written thus far, I had been doing work, honest, sir!), and was surprised when he asked me to share it with the group. It’s daunting enough sharing scenes from a first draft with others, but having to share my raw, unvarnished thoughts was very exposing. Despite my attempts to tidy it up beforehand, it was still a typo laden, mish-mash of typed up post-it notes, napkin scrawl and midnight emails to myself. Some of it was as clever as I had thought when I wrote it down, but elsewhere it needed further research and finessing. But by sharing it with the group he wanted to show how my process compared with the character study questions he had discussed with us earlier on.
The truth is, that tense knot of anxiety never really goes away, whether you’re sharing an extract from a first draft, or a ‘finished’ work performed on stage. And thankfully, my fellow writers knew that, which is one of the great things about the playmaker scheme, having the support of people who’ve been there, and are still very much in the thick of it themselves. And thus far, reading out my work has actually been an affirming experience, reassuring me of what I’m getting right, and what I already suspected might need a re-think. It’s still early days, but it’s nice to know that I’m on the right track.”
Mandy Constance (01/15)
Playhouse Playmaker Writer
The living room of a cottage. Oxfordshire. Winter sunlight seeps through a window USL, it strikes a small table DSC. On the table, surrounded by tinsel and discarded wrapping paper sits a tin of Christmas chocolates. A woman (of indeterminate age) approaches the tin with purpose. She looks at the chocolates for one last time, picks up the lid of The third session and I was eager to cast off the Christmas Quality Street and get back to playmaking! I was also dying to find out what everyone else had been up to with their plays. I must confess to getting very excited about their appearance in the Playmaker Dropbox. Being a naturally nosy person, I’m always excited to discover what has happened to the characters my fellow playmakers have introduced me to. I’m beginning to know and care about them all now; it’s like having my own personal box sets.
A Country Road. A tree. Evening.
This week we were looking at stage directions and how they combine to, not only serve the director and actors with information about the setting and the movement of characters, but also how they give an indication of the writers’ voice. For me it was eye opening and entirely fascinating. We read extracts from An Inspector Calls, The Price, A Raisin In the Sun, A Streetcar Named Desire and Footfalls. We were hearing – it seemed for the first time- the writer’s tone and attitude coming through the stage directions before any of the characters had even spoken. There followed a discussion on how Samuel Beckett was fiercely protective over the integrity of his directions, never wanting them to be altered a jot. As a writer who often gets to direct what I have written, I get this. If I have spent time conjuring up scenes for my characters to inhabit, I care about where they go, what they are doing and how they get there. If I don’t care, I most probably haven’t written a play, but some dialogue and random notes. If a writer is specific about what is in the scene and it is part of their vision and the rhythm of their play, why shouldn’t we take them seriously? We take the dialogue ‘as read’, why not the stage directions?
We then spent some time thinking about how to use stage directions to tell our own stories in interesting and evocative ways. This really helped me focus on what I would want to see on stage in the play that I am writing, but more than that – it reminded me how precious time and space is and how we should choose not just our characters’ words, but our own (writers’) words with special care.
We read through the next instalment of the plays after lunch and had a chance to feedback to each other. This is always nerve racking, but also such a thrill to have your words read out, knowing that the people reading them for you genuinely care about helping you to develop what you’ve written.
Following this week’s session, we met at The Bush Theatre the following Thursday to watch Pink Mist by Owen Sheers (Directed by John Retallack and George Mann). This was a truly inspiring lyrical play, beautifully written, expertly performed and meticulously directed. It wasted not a drop. The stage was bare save two props, but Pink Mist filled the space completely with sound, light and movement. The fusion of these elements was impressive and completely engaging. It was a story about war with hard hitting imagery and a profound sadness, but I found myself smiling a lot at just how beautiful it all was.
‘Ah, so that’s how it’s’ done!’ I thought, ‘I’d better get back to that drawing board!’
A study in a cottage. Oxfordshire. Present day. A woman (of indeterminate age) sits at a small cluttered desk DSLtyping onto a laptop. The room is full of inspirational junk and useless ornaments. Books tumble out of bookshelves as if half–read or ready to leap into service. She types furiously for 20 seconds and then stops. She looks up, and around the room as if searching for an idea that is playing hide and seek with her mind. Her face registers a thought, and her eyes narrow as she tries to capture it. Absent-mindedly she lets her hand wander to the left of the desk and to an open tin of Christmas chocolates.’
Clare Bayley (05/16)
Playhouse Playmaker Writer
Our May meeting came after a two month gap for writing. To all of our amazement, a mere eight months since we all met for the first time, here we are with first drafts of full length plays completed. Even our tutor/mentor John admits to being amazed we’ve all done it. We all know that a first draft isn’t a finished play, but even so, eight months is good going for all of us to get to this point.
It also means a lot of reading, and consequently a lot of thoughts, questions and discussion. As Neasa said in the last blog, we already had too much to say about 20 page extracts of each others’ work. So for full drafts it is wisely decided that we’ll deviate from our usual practice, and each spend an hour one-to-one with John for focused feedback. Meanwhile, we agree amongst ourselves that we’ll mirror this process by giving each of us a full hour of collective responses to our draft, to make the most of the resource that we have become for each other.
This is the final session before our June meeting, which will be dedicated to short extracts performed by actors. The ruminative, exploratory tone of our previous meetings is starting to evaporate, and there’s a new urgency to proceedings. John has rightly said that whatever the merits of each of our drafts, they all can improve significantly before next month. We’ve had a week since handing them in and that’s enough for us to begin to perceive the wobbles and weaknesses. Some of them we know how to fix; others remain elusive. Time is running out now, and we are all ravenous for suggestions.
One of the great achievements of this Playmakers programme is that it has taken seven very diverse writers (in age we represent every decade from 20 to 60) and has formed us into a cohesive, mutually supportive cohort. We genuinely admire each other’s work, and enjoy watching it develop. We learn from each other. We notice that some peculiar synchronicities have emerged from our collective unconscious: shared imagery, subjects or motifs – such as bells which chime in one play, peal in another and ting in a third; seductions and slippages of memory which resonate around different characters in different scenes.
One writer friend of mine, hearing about our collective feedback warned me against jealous rivals deliberately sabotaging work with malign criticism and misleading suggestions. I’ve been in some writing groups like that, but this is not one of them. For that we have to thank our mentor for setting the tone as one of fairness, openness and generosity. It’s contagious. But now we know each other well enough, and are confident in our plays. This allows us to be direct and to-the-point about what works, what doesn’t, and which precious babies need to be killed.
Our eight-hour days of intense focus are always exhausting; somehow the intensity of this one is even more so. For the first time we writers don’t all have lunch together, and I slip off into the familiar streets where I spent my Townie teenage years. There is a celebratory feeling among the Gownies – through a Balliol entrance I get a glimpse of marquees being erected and students lying around on the grass with empty bottles of wine. Later, in the early evening noisy bands of dinner jacketed youths can be seen parading with self-conscious young women in cocktail dresses. I’m relieved I can escape from their world back to the theatre. For a playwright, going into the stage door of a theatre offers a different but equally potent sense of entitlement. Oxford Playhouse, with its labyrinthine backstage passages and corridors, holds a particular charm.
John throws some of us a curve-ball just as we are packing up to leave: titles! Some of us have landed on working-titles which we’ve got used to, and haven’t realised are not very good. The criticism is brutal: it’s unmemorable, he says, generic. I wouldn’t remember that play. So that starts a frenzy of brainstorming which continues via email periodically over the next month.
It’s almost over already; we have just these weeks now to fine tune our drafts before submitting them. None of us wants it the programme to end. But we’ll head off with new insights, honed craft and lasting connections.