Playhouse Playmaker - going deeper

Posted by James Webster
Digital Marketing Officer, on Monday 18 January 2016

Tolula Dada talks about how Playhouse Playmaker has helped informed their writing practices...

Despite the early start, the morning is often my favourite part of our Playmaker sessions. Mornings are when we look at 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 dramatists 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 is for a humble baby-writer like myself to see the radically different kinds of narrative structure, approaches to staging and use of dialogue that are out there, 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. It gave me the impetus to break away from the very naturalistic, linear style of storytelling I have uniformly employed in all of my plays to date.

This session, John Retallack gave us 15 minutes to do some free-writing in the voice of one of our characters. After a few moments of indecision, I chose a character whom I hadn't written much for and, although I had initially intended her to play a minor role, this exercise let me find out more about her and proved quite a game-changer for my work. 

John then shared some critical questions to consider about the protagonist we'd just been writing, trying to define who the character is and what their primary wants/needs/ goals are. We also asked if they had a 'ghost': a secret or self-deception that haunts them, and how this might be resolved.

This is precisely the kind of character interrogation I really love and already the ‘map’ that forms a big part of my how I write. The map is an outline of story beats I need, 'killer lines' to include and stray thoughts that I might not have found a home for yet. It doesn’t always comes together fully formed from the offset, it percolates over time, but having a plan allows me to cherry pick the scenes I feel most excited about writing. Plus, knowing a bit about a character’s arc in advance gives me a chance to really excavate who they are, what they want and what they’re hiding. And it gives me a chance to lay a trail of breadcrumbs for the audience to follow - 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 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, but sharing my raw ideas 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. While there were a few clever ideas there, it also needed a lot more work and research. Hopefully it was interesting for the other Playmakers to see how my process compared with the character study questions we had discussed earlier .  

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. 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.

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