Module Insight: Playwriting
So, 2019 is already here; January is nearly over – and we can now say that term 2 is well and truly underway. As I near the midpoint of my time at Warwick (how scary!) it’s really nice to reflect over my experiences in the Theatre department and so I thought today it would be good to take a closer look at one of the modules I have been delving into this current academic year: playwriting (otherwise known as TH222: Writing for Theatre and Performance).
Why did I take Writing?
For many reasons, this module was top on my list of optionals – I have always enjoyed creative writing in many forms and also love to read plays, so it did seem like a natural choice. I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories growing up but had done very little in the way of plays, so I was really keen, albeit quite nervous, to delve into playwriting. I’d also heard great things about this particular module from students in the year above, so felt reassured in my choice! On a different note, most of my other choices this year were strongly ‘academic’ and theory-based, so it felt important to balance that by taking a more creative and practical module. Now that I’m nearly halfway through the year I am so so glad I decided to do this. Having balance in your study life is incredibly important and it rarely feels stressful doing my Writing work, as it’s something I enjoy and don’t ever really see as ‘work’ because of this.
What are weekly classes like?
I wouldn’t call our sessions ‘classes’ so much as workshops: we meet weekly as a group with Silvija, the module tutor, for 3 hours on a Friday afternoon. A typical workshop involves an initial sharing of work – this is fantastic as it’s a real opportunity to try new ideas out or air something you’ve been working on or redrafting, and gain constructive feedback from peers.
We will then explore different practical writing exercises, either individually or as a group. Recently, we had to respond ‘in-the-moment’ to stimulus words, writing a string of our own words that came to mind. Once we had done this numerous times, we broke off into groups and pooled the words/themes we’d all come up with, the aim being to form a new ‘script’ / poem using all of these. The twist was that we had to perform our pieces and that they must have some kind of a visual aspect! My group came up with a rap about America using a mix of solo and choral voices. It’s little, often really fun tasks such as these, which go a long way in shaping your skills and your voice as a playwright.
We will often be set a small writing task at the end of one class and have to go away and complete it for the next; this can be useful to give us a bit of direction in developing our writing, often forcing us to be brave and try new approaches or techniques that we may not otherwise have attempted!
What kind of plays do we read?
As you might imagine, we do read a lot of plays for this module; the idea being that you have to read from the point of view not just of the writer but of creating something that is going to be performed live and not just read as it is on the page. The set texts are wide ranging and have included classic playwrights such as Sophocles, Ibsen, Pinter, Caryl Churchill and Simon Stephens. We usually have a couple of plays to read per week and then have discussion as a class about what makes these plays work, deconstructing them to understand what makes a good play (or not!) We’re encouraged to read as many plays as we can in our own time, so there’s lots of room to explore personal interests too.
How are we assessed?
I know that the idea of assessing creative writing can seem confusing to a lot of people; and I myself was mystified as to exactly how work would be marked, but having now completed and received back 2 assessments for this module, I am feeling a lot clearer about the processes behind this. Although things like imagination and originality are obviously going to lend some dramatic flair to a piece of writing, we are primarily assessed on things like quality of structure, dialogue and character, and how all these things come together to form one piece with an arc of its own. There are 4 assessments throughout the module:
(1)A group playwriting project producing a 10-15 minute piece.
(2) A playwriting portfolio of 3 short pieces & a critical review of the group play.
(3) A full-length play.
(4) Another critical review.
Just to note that a critical review is basically just an essay reflecting on something, usually a creative or practical process. It’s a really good way of getting yourself to engage in what you’ve actually been doing technically and how all the different elements come together to make the final piece, as well as critiquing what went well and what could maybe have gone better – and most importantly, what you could do to improve it in future. I always find this helpful.
What has been the biggest challenge?
The group play always seems to stress a lot of people out at first; probably because writing as a group can seem counter-intuitive as it’s something so personal. I was admittedly worried about how this assessment would work out. However there was much to be gained from this exercise; it had its challenges but working through negotiations of style and voice between members of my group helped me learn to be flexible and adaptable in my own work as a writer, especially when working to a set brief. We were also able to bounce off each other & so never hit a dead end when writers block struck: this is the joy of collaborative work.
What has been my favourite experience on the module so far?
By far my favourite thing was the ‘DollsHouseMachine’ task we were set over reading week in term 1. Having read and discussed Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine, we had to go away and adapt the story of A Doll’s House in the abstract style of Hamletmachine, the catch being that the latter play is written using a combination of fragments from many existing sources, all of which are reconstructed to form a new play. This was really challenging but ultimately very rewarding, and the fun all lay in searching for my sources; I drew on poetry, songs, Shakespeare plays, even films. It was much, much harder actually putting all of this together into my own play, but I really enjoyed it and felt like I learned a lot. I am used to writing in a much more naturalistic way but here I discovered how fun abstract or surreal modes can be. It felt fantastic after all the hard work to get a 1st for this when I included it in my playwriting portfolio for assessment!
Experiences still to come…
Now that we’re around halfway through the year, it’s time to start thinking about the individually written full-length play we will eventually be submitting for our final assessment in May! This is a daunting yet hugely exhilarating prospect and I can’t wait to see what I end up creating. It’s a big step going from short-form writing exercises to a much longer (around 90 minute) piece of work but we’ve definitely been eased into it and I feel much more prepared after all the workshops we had last term. We have free rein to write on any topic or in any style we like, so there’s a wealth of possibilities: the sky quite literally is the limit here. Very exciting times….