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Playhouse Playmaker - the tools of the trade

Playhouse Playmaker - the tools of the trade
posted 23 Feb 2016

Heather Dunmore talks about the different tools, techniques and ideas that inform the Playmakers' creative process...

People probably assume because you call yourself a writer you’re blogging all the time, but I have to admit that this is a first for me. It’s the February meet-up and our plays are beginning to take shape. We start the day with the good intention of being able to spend plenty of time looking at the work of Laura Wade (Posh) and Anders Lustgarten (Lampedusa), among others.  Quickly we become absorbed in a plethora of fascinating topics. We consider active silences, ellipses, italics and rhythm. We discuss the way a play looks on the page and how that’s informed by the choices of the writer and (later) the director. How something as simple as using different speech patterns can totally distinguish one character from another. All this and more.

I’d been fortunate to see some of these discussions put into practice when I attended a rehearsed reading of An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley at Ruskin College (directed by our tutor) earlier that week. I witnessed first-hand how asking the Inspector in the piece to adopt a Yorkshire accent (not in the text) gave him a distinct voice among the home counties voices that dominate the play.

Our minds by now are brimming with fresh ideas that – as we turn our attention to our own writing – we are already considering how to include in our bits of scripts.  I say bits of scripts because not all of the group write their scenes in chronological order - a scene at the beginning of a play may be written followed by a scene at the end or in the middle. While the writer has a clear idea of the plot, they may want to cherry-pick the most crucial scenes or, alternatively, save the best until last.  What is interesting about this process is that unless there is a dogged determination to stick to the script in your head, the characters often develop in unplanned ways and tend to go ‘off script’.  Monologues are beginning to creep in, suggesting moments of reflection and a means of expressing the character’s inner voice which solved a problem in my own play.

Each month, our imaginations are given free rein and often this means new additions like extra characters are more depth. In depth plotting is important to some writers who prefer to plan their plays in detail, adopting complex systems involving bullet points or pages of long-hand before they write a word of the piece itself.  It’s a bonus that we’ve been actively encouraged to free ourselves from some of the popular strategies we’ve felt obliged to observe and this is a freedom that is clearly being embraced by those who have chosen large casts and/or precise stage directions. It’s the freedom to create the piece you imagined. To try and make something different.

Early on I knew I wanted to write a play in real time with faith at the centre of it, not quite realising what a task I had set myself.  The support and encouragement of John Retallack and of my fellow Playmakers (I have to keep resisting the urge to call them playmates) is extremely important to me on this journey and the deadlines ensure the script keeps moving forward.  The standard is high and sharing your work can be daunting, but the feedback I have been given is considered, truthful and as a consequence extremely valuable.   It’s a great group and it’s like we’re all backing each other to the finish line. I feel very privileged to be part of it and grateful to the Oxford Playhouse for offering us this opportunity and looking after us so well while we are in the building on these cherished Saturdays. 


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