The first morning of Playmaker 2019 at Oxford Playhouse. Playmaker brings together a group of emerging playwrights (seven this time), to develop a play over a year, under the guidance of playwright and director John Retallack and participation director Mezze Eade.
The more I write, the more I realise the importance of community for writers. It’s not just about support; the instant you imagine others reading your words you begin to write for an audience and not yourself.
I know one of my fellow playwrights already; Zena Forster, Oxford based like myself. The rest are new faces. Abigail Walton is also from Oxford, Sami Ibrahim, Adam Foster and Verity Healey are London based and Corina O’Beirne has travelled from Brighton to be with us this morning. Also joining us is resident director at the Playhouse, Samson Hawkins. Everyone here loves theatre; that is immediately apparent. I struggle to keep up as I scribble down the names of plays my fellow writers recommend.
John sweeps into the Playhouse foyer and ushers us warmly upstairs with a voice made for reaching the back row of a theatre. In the glamorous Lucy W Room, we gather around a table covered with script extracts. John has brought several openings of well-known modern plays for us to read aloud and discuss.
As a playwright how do you invite your audience into the world of your play? Or do you invite them at all? Perhaps, like in Cock by Mike Barlett, you throw your audience right in the middle of rapid, brutal dialogue and wait for them to catch up? Or maybe you confront your audience- like Effie in Iphegenia in Splott by Gary Owen-with accusatory, unapologetic monologue? Oslo by J.T. Roberts begins like a fourth wall drama, until the character of Mona turns and speaks directly to the audience in an aside. Her breaking of the fourth wall deflates the intense political atmosphere and she becomes the audience’s ally. When we break for lunch my brain is fizzing with ideas. I can’t wait to take a stab at my own play’s beginning.
After lunch we present our own ideas to the group; the larval beginnings of plays we will spend the next year writing. Seven worlds stretch out before us; the bawdy slapstick of Punch and Judy, a collision of cultures in an airport holding cell, an intense female relationship spanning 80s and 90s Britain, a magical reunion in the midst of war torn Lebanon, my own Irish ghost story encompassing three generations of one family, a would be artist, reluctant revolutionary and a white supremacist shut away from the world in a caravan and a meditation on death and endings.
Our homework for the next session is to be playful; John urges us to write quickly and enjoy playing with form. He suggests we write monologues or choral sections that may never make it into the show. Starting a new project can feel intimidating and the freedom to play takes that pressure away.
We finish the day with scrummy pizzas from The White Rabbit Pub next door to the Playhouse. Judging by my cohorts’ glazed expressions, they are as saturated with information as I am. Our ideas will shift and evolve along the way, characters will show themselves, plotlines become clearer, but for now, this hazy first glimpse of seven bold beginnings is thrilling.
Rachel Mae Brady
Back for seconds!
And so our second session of Playmaker 2019 begins. We spend the morning in the lovely Lucy W Room. We start with coffee and sharing what we’ve seen at the theatre since our first session.
We then jump into a selection of script extracts John has provided – a brilliant range of styles and voices that we look at as a group. I find this thrilling. Sometimes it’s a play I recognise, sometimes I’m discovering a play for the first time.
Each play we look at is entirely different. Some create intimacy, some alienate or disorientate. We read them aloud and take a minute to scribble down our immediate thoughts. We look at The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by David Greig with it’s romp of rhyming couplets. We look at how Greig breaks up verse with dialogue - is this something we could have fun with in our own work? We move on to Nina Raine’s Stories (a play I haven’t come across before) which is series of encounters between the protagonist (Anna) and possible sperm donors. The group are struck by Anna’s lack of awareness in the scene we are looking at – she is so set on getting pregnant that she approaches her friend to see if she could ‘borrow’ her husband with the same casualness as asking for a cup of sugar.
As our discussions continue, what is most striking is that as a playwright we have the power to invite someone into a world, make them feel comfortable. We can also make the audience feel very uncomfortable and throw them into a situation that they want no part of perhaps like in The Writer by Ella Hickson. The opening scene between A YOUNG WOMAN and an OLDER MAN is utterly unnerving, there is an instant power struggle between them, the exchange is exasperating and at times threatening. But that’s the point, we should feel uncomfortable. In a similar vein, the opening to The Author by Tim Crouch makes us want to duck under our seat because it feels like literally anything could happen and that’s exciting but also quite terrifying. The stage directions themselves tell us to expect everything and anything: No stage area…No sense and every sense of a play beginning….We should get to know quite a few names over the course of the play. I feel a kind of pressure-cooker effect as the script is read aloud. I imagine how I would feel if I were an audience member… claustrophobic? Yes! Like I wish I hadn’t bought a ticket? Possibly. But then I’m drawn to the sense of anything is possible and isn’t that what theatre is about? Crouch will not let us off the hook, we are is co-conspirators, whether we like it or not.
After lunch we each have a section of our first submission read aloud. I loved reading the other scripts – I think you learn so much that you can then take into your own writing. Each of us has created such different worlds, different characters and we are all keen to support and push each other along. Sometimes you can get too close to your own work – the questions and observations of the group are invaluable.
John urges us to think big and be experimental. At this stage it is about working out who are characters are, what is possible…we shouldn’t feel under pressure to write the play now.
We finish the day pizzas from The White Rabbit Pub (yummy) and we are treated to tickets to Art at The Playhouse. We leave the theatre more than a little sleepy...but in the best possible way.