By Gayathiri Kamalakanthan, May 2022
I began playwriting at the start of our first lockdown. Time in my room felt slow, anxious, but also restful. I started with an exercise offered by Lakesha Arie-Angelo in a taster workshop. We were asked to write 3 words per line, in a dialogue between 2 people. The limitation was really useful for me as I find it easy to overwrite. When I feel stuck, I go back to this prompt to ease the pressure.
I spent that year exploring my first play about a non-binary Tamil child reimagining a period party. I was pulling from experiences I’d had or witnessed so it wasn’t as research-driven. The play I’m writing with Playmakers, Green Gold, is set in present day Sri Lanka, in a tea estate. I’m thinking about the colonisation of tea and the relationships on the tea estates, particularly between women who pick the tea. There’s also the context of queerness being criminalised – a hangover from British colonisation.
This play pushes me far out of my existing knowledge and experience so researching the story has been a new process. At times, it’s felt like essay-writing and it’s a new challenge to weave the historical with the dramatic and playful. At the start of Playmakers I had 2 different play ideas. I came with them both to the first session and a great question from the team was, ‘which play could you start on your own, and which play would you want support with?’ Being Tamil, from the diaspora, I was unsure of my place in writing this play. Another useful offer was, ‘what if you wrote from that distance, from Sri Lanka as (not) home?’ So there’s a theme of diaspora experience too, and a question around appropriation by the diaspora. Tricky! And I definitely don’t have answers, mostly more questions…
I’m about 50 pages into the play and there’s still a lot to be decided around structure, narrative voice and plot/ending. I want my writing to feel hopeful, joyful, a practice for building more freedom into the real world.
What’s great about the Playmakers group is that our writing styles/processes are quite different. It’s useful to hear how people come to their next 10 pages – whether it’s planned, more like a diary, or written backwards. I feel vulnerable sharing my DRAFT ZERO (I like to remember that this is what it is), but vulnerable can be a good thing. Especially when you feel like the other writers are rooting for you, interrogating and questioning your choices in a really caring way!
In our April session, we had more time to read each person’s next 10 pages. The writers are generous and thoughtful with offers and references. I feel new to the theatre world and it definitely feels like data-gathering – names of plays, writers, exercises to try at home. A couple of offers that have really stuck with me this month: ‘That character feels too good. What’s going on with them? What’s real?’ and ‘Does the narrator have skin in the game? Do we have reason to mistrust them?’
At the end of the session, I told the group that I didn’t really like my play right now. And it felt really good to say out loud. I think we all have these phases of not vibing with our plays, not feeling motivated to stay in it. The group got what I meant and reminded me about ‘DRAFT ZERO’, about the pleasure in discovering/rewriting…away from the pressure of ‘completing.’ What if I wrote the most absurd, implausible ending? Where would that take me?
So…that’s what I’m practising this month – I’m trying on different futures for the play, I’m thinking about what freedom could look like on stage, and how these possibilities make me feel.
By Anna Angerman, March 2022
After three workshops in person, here we are, in January 2022, meeting on Zoom. Computer screen is a barrier, but anyway it’s nice to see familiar faces, atmosphere of the workshops is as always friendly and supportive.
Playmakers are sensitive and attentive readers. They not only get what I’m trying to put across, but they immediately detect what I would prefer to hide – all my hesitations, dilemmas, and unresolved problems in the play.
Sharing work in progress makes me feel vulnerable. I recall a writing workshop from the past, when discussing the treatment of my script dismantled it to such an extent that I was never able to pick up pieces and complete that story. I hope I’ve learned from that experience, and I know better now how to handle feedback. Another skill is giving helpful feedback to others. As much as it sounds cliché, when you put seeds in the ground, you cannot just dig them out constantly to check how they’re growing, you need to trust the process, avoid overanalysing.
At this point, my play has a sort of a treatment, or scene-by-scene. But it feels fragile, like teeth after a few months of wearing braces, not as firmly sitting in their sockets as you would like them to. Yes, my script feels wobbly. And that’s ok, I tell myself.
For me, it’s not helpful to rewrite the text that is not finished yet. I prefer to get to the last page before I start editing. How to know when the text is finished – that’s another question, but let’s not go there now.
English is my second language; I rely a lot on my trusted proofreader. I notify her that soon I’ll have something for her to read. I’m lucky to have her, my angel, my ally. When I’m agonizing over the finished draft, she will support me with her never ending enthusiasm and reassurances. Giving me enough hope so I can start another re-write. But this time she’s not my first reader. So here I am, exposed with all my typos, grammar, and spelling mistakes. How terrifying.
Reading Elinor Fuch’s ‘A visit to a small planet’ – my play’s idea started with the choice of a location and a specific time in recent history. The story came out of the setting, the world was there, waiting. As I continue writing, I continue reading, watching, and researching. I go through old photos on my phone, to bring back memories. I walk, I drink coffee, drink chamomile, then peppermint, then tea, then a second and a third coffee. That’s a line taken from a novel by Italo Calvino. I identify with his writing routines. Kettle always on. Hydration is my compulsion. Another issue is fitting my writing around a non-writing full-time job. I like it this way, easier to stay in touch with the outside world, easier to maintain creative integrity. But harder to find time, and when you finish your ‘day job’, there’s always homework waiting.
Four months into the play. The time came to make some serious decisions. I want to rethink my characters, define again their ages and backgrounds, clarify their backstories. There’re a few themes emerging. It feels like too much distraction. I need to get rid of something. The plot? The dramatic structure? Anna, do you know at least what’s the tone and mood of this story? For some reason I feel like writing a musical. What? Musical, really? Yes, that’s how I feel today, my characters want to burst into singing and dancing. And who can stop them?
By Carla Grauls, February 2022
This blog is a little bit about how I work as a writer and what writing challenges I have experienced in this process.
It always begins with an idea.
Then I research, draft an exploratory scene and see if it has potential to become a full play.
I’m drawn to concepts, landscapes and the ways that people don’t belong. I usually work with two big ideas and find a way to weave them together to create a world for the characters, and crucially, create a conflict for the characters. I’m interested in how an environment creates problems for characters and how they try to adapt (or not) to their setting.
In the beginning, I didn’t know what to write. I started three plays from three different ideas that interested me but after a few pages they would just die on the page.
Sometimes a play is just not ready to be written and it can be shelved for a long time until there is something that unlocks it: something in the news, a play or exhibition, some hidden world I stumble on or some research rabbit hole I’ve fallen into.
Eventually, I started writing a play about a subject I have long been interested in. I read an article about how increased chemicals in the environment has led to a decrease in men’s fertility over the past decades and I wondered how this would shape a future world and affect societal norms.
The middle is always a difficult place to write for me. After drafting the beginning 20 pages, my play started to feel quite locked in, I had a beginning and an ending but no idea how things progress in the middle.
Over the Christmas break I had days of struggling and failing to think of what happens in the middle. When I started to repeat scenes and dialogue, I knew it was getting bad.
I went for a walk. It’s probably quite obvious, but getting out of the house really helped and I saw some things on my walk which created new ideas for scenes. I also started to think about how to connect different threads of the story and connect different characters, weaving together a more satisfying whole.
I wrote lots and lots of scenes, even scenes between characters who may never meet, and scenes that may not exist in the final version of the play. This helped me see which paths I wanted to pursue and which ones I did not. It also made the play richer in that all characters had more fully realized worlds of their own.
I need a lot of variety and stimulation to write a play. Typically, I will be doing a lot of reading, watching, listening and going to different places so that I have enough in the ‘mind bank’ to generate more story. I am always analyzing, associating and asking questions and this helps me create a richer story world.
The best part of the Playhouse Playmakers scheme for me are the people, the writers and their work. I really look forward to reading their work every month and seeing how their stories take shape. Talking about their work also helps me interrogate my own play.
To be in such a brilliant group of people with vastly different ideas and viewpoints has had a hugely positive impact on my writing after struggling with writing during previous lockdowns when I was completely blank for weeks, for months.
This is a kind of writer rehabilitation for me. And it’s just what I needed.
By Rhianna Ilube, January 2022
I got into playwriting during the pandemic, which meant that I got very comfortable at writing scripts without having to cope with the tension of anybody actually reading them aloud. During my first session with Oxford Playmakers, I learned that each month we would have our latest pages of script read aloud by our classmates. This terrified me, but has turned out to be the greatest aspect of the course for me so far.
This blog reflects on our second session, which took place in November 2021. I had spent the previous weekends researching and writing my first 10-pages to submit to the group. At this early stage of the writing process, I am in “splashing about” mode. This means that my first submitted 10-pages of script were… messy. It was scraps of dialogue, a mash-up of two different play ideas I couldn’t decide between…plus random things I’ve overheard, some jokes, a few distorted news stories. I had thrown everything at the page, and was curious to see what would land.
Having my words read out at this earliest stage turned out to be really defining in terms of where I now want to take my script - in a way that would not have been possible without this process. I spent my teenage years playing jazz saxophone; a hobby that has largely disappeared now. But something of the musician in me re-emerged as I assigned the ‘voices’ of my script to my fellow classmates. Having sat through all the read-throughs of their excellent scripts, I had a good sense of their voices, rhythms and intonations.
Sitting back and listening to the first scraps of my script come to life through their voices, I learned that the fragmented style of the script actually.. worked. It felt like music, it was funny, it was repetitive, jarring and almost hypnotic to listen to. I had thought that the rest of my time with Oxford Playmakers would be focused on ‘tidying up’ my ideas into something with a proper narrative. But after listening to it, and receiving the feedback, I realised that there is also strength in leaning into the rhythm. One of my classmates said they would be “sad if it was neatened” in future iterations. So I’m going to embrace the messiness for now, and keep splashing around with my ideas within the safety of the group, until I can do no more!
My play is a strange love letter to… Germany. I lived there for a few years previously, and this play is somewhat of reflections of things I learned / experienced there. It is inspired on a lecture about German memorial politics I attended during a Queer History module at Goldsmiths. It is inspired by a year of dating, and finding queer women in the archives who have fallen in love in very different circumstances. It is about memorial politics, and inherited / present day guilt. It flings between different time-periods and memories: present day, the noughties, and the lead up to the second world war. My classmate described it as ‘cheeky’ which made me happy. I don’t want to say too much more about the play; I’m still finding out about it myself. But I can’t wait to see it come alive with actors in Oxford in June!
A great writing tip
Last spring I took the Introduction to Playwriting group at the Royal Court, led by playwright Miriam Battye. At the end of the course, Miriam sent us a quote by the writer Clare Barron about desire. The gist of the quote was that, ultimately, theatre should be about desire. “Wet, hot, dangerous desire”. The idea that plays should be about ‘want’ - all the things you want to be on the stage, to hear spoken aloud, even if it is a little bit embarrassing or painful or private. This word ‘desire’ really helps me. I'll keep it with me as I continue with the playmakers group. I sit at my laptop and I think, what do I want to put here? I make my head blank and I just write. I think: what would I love to hear aloud next week? What do I desire, like really really desire, to write on this page today? Then I’ll write it and… assume that somewhere in the future, I will have to face whatever the outcome is.
By Tom Ryalls, December 2021
We’ve just had our first session as part of a year-long attachment to Oxford Playhouse on the playmaker programme and I thought I’d share a bit about what we got up to.
We kicked off the day with a tour but pretty quickly got into the heart of the work and started telling each other about our play ideas. Mine is set in Blackpool and it’s a story of one family with a secret hidden at the centre which is slowly revealed throughout the play, so the first challenge was to explain what I wanted to write without revealing the secret. I don’t want to give them the reveal before I’ve actually written it.
I also find it hard to explain ideas at the beginning of my process. I generally get a sense of shape and some feelings and characters, but it’s not until I get to the writing that I really wrestle with what’s happening. I find it difficult to theorise how characters will interact without just putting them in situations on a page - and seeing where the writing goes. For this show I know a protagonist, I know a shape and what I want it to feel like, I know where the magic is (there is always something magic in my plays), and I know where the heart is / who it’s for and I think that’s about enough to get writing.
It was quite strange for me to be in Oxford trying to explain this play to the group, I began to see so many similarities between the place I was in and the place I was writing about. So many people know it as a cultural city but my best friend lived there for a while and I mainly know the (pretty bad) night clubs. Oxford is full of dualities, it’s one of those cities which has one public image but as soon as you move a few streets away from the centre, the reality is very different. It is known for the university, which owns most of the city centre and houses some of the wealthiest people in the world. But streets away from the city centre are some of the poorest areas in the country with staggeringly high poverty rates. The presence of academia exposes the duality more, if you google “Oxford Poverty” to find statistics, you’ll see that the top hits are all for the Oxford University research centre for poverty so the statistics are buried in later pages.
I’m writing a play about Blackpool, it’s a town that is known for tourism, the Blackpool illuminations every year make it seem glitzy and exciting. I grew up in Doncaster and my parents took me every year to see the lights, I used to love it and stand on the backseat trying to get through the car sun roof while we crawled along. But, 8 of the 10 most deprived areas in the UK are in Blackpool, poverty lives just metres away from the lights on the seafront. When they turn off the lights at the end of the season the stark reality of Blackpool is revealed and I want to explore what this does to people who live there. It feels almost like a film of magic is pulled off of the town at the end of the season when it goes dark.
It really hit home explaining my ideas in that room that the show I’m writing is about how this kind of place, where the interior and exterior views are so different, affects everything from our memory to the kind of love we inherit. What kind of truth (if any?) can exist at the centre of a beautifully constructed lie? How is it compounded when passed from generation to generation? Is it possible to break out of the lie when it’s been compounded so much?
These are questions my writing has floated around before, especially this relationship between class and inheritance. I grew up in one of the other poorest areas of the country, and that always manifests in both the form and content of my work. I think the entire first third of this play is told through Blackpool cabaret / entertainment acts, because that’s how the history of Blackpool has often been told and I don’t think I have the right to steal the story from the context it has been built in. Maybe that will change, I’m not sure yet, I tend to write large amounts really quickly and then make massive changes when I re-draft so it’s all up for grabs right now.
I’m really excited for the rest of the programme, we’ve got to write 10 pages before the next session and I love a deadline, my ADHD reacts really well to someone else holding me accountable.
Tom is a writer and fundraiser. Their most recent show “Education, Education, Karaoke” was performed at Camden People’s Theatre November 23rd – 27th 2021.