As I approach the end of the course, I relish the prospect of my continuing journey as a writer. The time on the MA Dramatic Writing has raised the bar for me in so many ways. The level of teaching is superb, the standards set are the standards I will take forward. It has never been more important for me to write stories that are impossible to forget. What I have learned over these two years are now an indelible part of my work as a writer, going forward I feel well equipped to innovate, and create, work that contributes to our culture of storytelling. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity, and look forward to the future.
Working with Nina Steiger
Nina Steiger is Associate Director at Soho Theatre, which currently has an open submission for the Verity Bargate Award. If you are a writer, go the website and look for the upcoming writing workshops. Nina Steiger will be running a few, and it will be worth your time and money.
In this blog I’m going to reproduce a few questions that Nina posed in our classes, to give an idea of the ways we have been encouraged to think about our own work.
I’ll start here:
Nina asked the question: what are your own poetics as a writer? It’s worth thinking a bit about your own concerns, preoccupations, and dramaturgy. Write these down on a piece of paper. Draw a circle around it. This is your core as a writer. Now draw another circle around your core, and call this your influences. Think about your influences, whether literary, socio-economic, education, peer groups, family, politics – whatever they may be. Make a circle for each influence, with the most important nearest the core poetics, until you have satisfied yourself you are aware of all the influences wrapped around you. Now spend some time thinking of an idea you have as a writer. What makes it in to the personal poetics? How does it get there? How does it change? Where has it come from? What is peculiar about this lens to you as a writer? Does it permeate through several layers? Does it change as a result of this? Finally decide, what makes it in to the poetics?
Nina challenged us to think about Unanswerable Questions – from these provocations we can identify a good premise from which to write. Try this for yourself, make a list of questions that have no answer. Once you have found the question that provokes you the most, you have a theme. Be careful to make sure the question is unanswerable, but not intangible. My question for this exercise, which Nina said was good, was ‘what’s really happening?’ Asking these questions was a part of trying to identify what makes a good play, what gets us on the top of our game, and has resonance and power.
The work with Nina was about unpicking our process, getting some ideas about what makes us tick as writers. We spent time thinking about where ideas come from, keeping the mystery, what we put ‘in the box’ and what we do when we unpack the box, how we can be our own source material, ‘tapping the bruise’, how to generate feeling from feeling, levels of story, truthfulness, personal subtext, fresh perspectives, connecting moments of our history to the story, the universal and the specific.
This blog represents a very narrow tranche of the work we did with Nina, but I hope it gives an idea of the way Nina provokes a writer to go deeper into their process, and to bring out those themes in the work that are specific, truthful, and also universal.
Before the course I has read the book Into the Woods and what it struck me is this seemingly too systematic and strategic approach towards storytelling. Despite it does mirror some of the best stories that can be told, I found the process of digging into the subconscious is thrilling, scary and rewarding in the end.
At the start of the class, we were given a classic fairy tale story, (mine was Three Little Pigs), we were asked to analyse their structures behind, and apply the structures in our own inventive story to see how that goes. I did a draft idea featuring a mother and three daughters’ story, that the mother is the haunting wolf that’s been knocking doors and coming back to the daughters for reconciliation. Due to the lack of characters and limited time frame I was unable to accomplish them. Hence, I switched the story to a more personal one protagonist story that I am more familiar about later on.
We started by writing a paragraph of the story, encapsulating the excitement of having the stories’ final pitch vision as the start, then we broke the story line into five paragraphs, each paragraph featuring an act and telling the act in less than 200 words. Though the words were minimal, the homework involved in planning and thinking through the stories was immense.
The five act and fifteen sentences are structured in the following way:
Act 1: No Awareness – Limited Awareness – Awareness
Act 2: Reluctance to Change – Overcoming reluctance – Committing
Act 3: Experiment pre-change – Big Change (Mid-point) – Experiment Post Change
Act 4: Consequences – Doubts about change – Final Choice
Act 5: Re-dedication to Change – Final Attempt to Change – Mastery
So in a way, that every full lengths story can be told in 15 sentences, and we will roughly know the essence of the plot and see the skeleton of the story. The fifteen sentence practice sends me off to imagine what can be the next step for every act, and usually the counter reactions and consequences of the decisions a person made in the past will come back to unfold for the next step.
I found this process really helpful, and in addition to that, we have the questions that keeps us focused on the protagonist, and never lose focus on the protagonist is the drive of the story, and every attention and antagonism should be forced into him/her.
At first, I was skeptical, because of the original way of thinking would be, what is the story I want to tell and just start from there. But when I started to dissemble my original story idea into 15 sentences that’s aligned to the five act structure, I was surprised at how simple it is to identify the skeleton that’ll be able to support the whole story. I’ve done the similar structure analysis on Whiplash, Gone Girl, Interstellar and other classic films, and I was hooked by how mysteriously they are well aligned in the creative structure of the film. Even though I soon established an incurable addiction towards analyzing all films by using five act structure, and I’ve driven my friends crazy by sitting alone for an hour after watching a film, I think it’s worth it to understand the structure deeply so I can apply it into all forms of story telling. As if this is a golden elixir of telling compelling stories.
And an interesting thing is about how that five act structure is being applied in the reality. As I am progressing in my personal world, I am able to identify what time might be the time that symbolize a turning point, what time is the worst point, which point is the point of no return, and what time should that chapter end. Despite the fear that I am perhaps over complicating my life and using all the characters in my real life to analyze their behaviors and decision-making patterns, I enjoy the process of learning and thought that applies to our subconscious brain. I gained insights about myself and re-shaped myself as a protagonist of life as a journey, and constantly the question of what do I want, and what do I need is at the same level driving me forward to take actions. Leveraging the dramatic writing techniques of protagonist and antagonist, I somehow managed to identify the life’s real problem,
Every expert was once a beginner. And as John Yorke’s five act structure puts it, it all starts from the status of “No awareness”, and it will end with the “total mastery”. I sincerely wish everyone who has read the book can enjoy the thrill of seeing their accumulations of researches and sketches well slotted into every single stage of the story planning. And I am looking forward to producing the first film.
No matter how quickly we want to follow our imaginations, we will always find out, sadly, that reality doesn’t happen as fast as imagination.
P.S. Amazon Studio’s software can have the story planning well mapped out in little boxes, and it’s really helpful for beginners to use. It’s free and for everyone to use.
For three days during last term, I was given the opportunity to work with the Kevin Spacey Foundation as a Shadow Writer to Hassan Abdulrazzak. I had no idea what the role was, or the duties it would entail, but it was exciting nonetheless. The Kevin Spacey Foundation are collaborating with the Middle East Theatre Academy in Sharjah to conduct workshops and at the end of two weeks a play would be presented to an audience and the royal family. The writer was given a challenging brief that he had to adhere to in the play. One of them being to write for a cast/ensemble of 35 people which is extremely difficult.
On the first day, I read the first two drafts of the scripts in a span of 40 minutes. I was then allowed to sit in on a meeting with the director and the writer. It was really valuable to see how note sessions and feedback is handled by both parties.
I have lived in Dubai my whole life, so it was interesting to see how the writer and director dealt with the restrictions they had to work with, in terms of subject matter, as I am aware of the rules and regulations in terms of freedom of expression. I was also able to give them advice on how they could address certain issues or the way the audience would perceive certain lines of dialogue.
They were working with the Foundation students at Drama Centre as they fit the age requirement of the characters. The three days were used by the production team to workshop sections of the script. This would also allow them to have a clearer idea of the ability of the actors that they were to work with in the Middle East. Through the use of movement and sound, they were able to draw out the liveliness from the opening image of the play. The director guided the actors but also gave them the freedom to play and create images within the scene which the production team could then use to further develop with the actors in the Middle East. The exercises conducted with the actors were so useful to interpret the script. It gave me ideas on how to bring the most out of my own work.
It was a really enriching process as I learnt how to be a part of a professional team. I made some great connections and it really excites me to know that the theatre world is slowly starting to develop where I grew up.
The New Writing week has been one of the most creative and wonderful experiences of this whole Dramatic Writing learning journey.
I have been truly moved and touched – by the dedication devotion and professionalism – of all of the directors – and very strongly impressed by this group of actors.
They are certainly the stuff and magic of this thing we call theatre.
To see them through their art breathe life into the words – I suddenly realized specifically how important it was to hear and feel the beats, rhythm and lyricism of the writing.
To experience and feel the pace of the writing spoken was the most important aspect for me. We can imagine and try to feel the rhythm and pace in our heads when we are writing pieces, but to see, hear and feel it, is so important and such a treat.
It was an awakening seeing and experiencing the actor’s role – in bringing the piece to life – in living 3D – it was amazing and quite humbling – one of the greatest moments of this whole dramatic writing craft learning journey.
We toil over writing for so long so it is a joy and there is so much gratitude and thanks to them for being so great at doing this.
One thing struck me so deeply was Jordan’s story of getting up and it wasn’t moaning, but it was the stark reality of the struggle we all go through to follow our art – struggling in out having to get out of a warm bed – on a cold winter’s morning in a cold room – like all of us – we all have those days when we find it hard to get up and get out – but it touched me.
They like us give so much of their souls – yes its dedication, but its more than this – much more, its the love, devotion and light – so the art, the feeling and the emotion is lit up in the words – lit from their heart and their powerful art.
I applaud, bow, and praise you for what you create so beautifully from the soul – and I have no doubt – if the actors do stay this long course – that I suppose can sometimes can seem at times like many cold dark mornings.
I have no doubt all of them in the room – will get what they need and want.
I think for me this week has brought it all home – from finding the course online and being shown around the Drama Centre by Jonathan Martin.
Thinking then what an incredible opportunity it would be to come and learn the art of dramatic writing. In a centre that has its own theatres, actors, directors and designers.
This week has made sense of the vision and the creative potential of this academy of the Dramatic Arts.
After we worked with Philip Shelley in the first year to develop ideas for television series, we got to work with him again in a four-week set of sessions on writing for film. This second course with Philip was a chance to explore the British film industry, to write our own scripts for ten-minute short films and to get some experience of writing script reports to boot.
At the same time as working with us at Drama Centre Philip was also reading scripts to select students for the 2015 Channel Four Screenwriting Course. Talking to each other about films formed a substantial part of the teaching, which I think was fantastic as Philip stressed how important it is to watch a lot of films and read a lot of scripts as writers. Some recent UK feature film highlights we discussed were ’71 by Gregory Burke, The Riot Club by Laura Wade and The Goob by Guy Myhill.
Our discussion of the landscape of independent film was really useful. Philip gave us a very handy run-down of the major producing companies and funders and we were given the task of researching production companies for ourselves and making a dream list of directors we’d like to work with. It’s a good habit to get into, doing research and maintaining your own awareness of the screenwriters you like and also the directors and producers who create your sort of work.
In our work on script reports we got to read a script currently in development and submit a synopsis and comments. For me, the really interesting challenge in this task was trying to write a summary that directly reflected the story in the script without taking on an editorial role and making changes as I went. The creation of an objective (but readable!) summary is a distinct skill and separating this out from more subjective comments seemed like a useful exercise in critical thinking as well as practical training.
For our own short film scripts we went through the process of pitching a couple of film ideas in the room, telling the story in a paragraph, writing a scene by scene outline and finally submitting a finished script for notes. We were encouraged to write scripts without dialogue to focus on visual storytelling, which again was excellent. It really gave a good sense of the specific challenges and opportunities that come with writing a story told in pictures. Ideas in the room ranged from a man beginning a new relationship with a mannequin to a girl who fell in love with her phone, via two stories of threesomes, to a horror film featuring a frightening phantasmal little boy and a tale of the covert tensions amongst office workers bursting out into the open.
We covered a lot of ground in the four weeks and came out with a selection of interesting and entertaining short scripts. It certainly sparked some ideas for full-length film scripts in the future. There are always good interviews, opportunities and film tips on Philip’s blog for inspiration if we get stuck.
In year two of MA Dramatic Writing we’re working with Nina Steiger for the second time on the course. Last year we on original digital media pieces together, and this year she’s helping us to develop as writers for theatre, both artistically and practically.
Our first meeting was devoted to agreeing on the plans for the coming ten sessions, and to thinking about our own identity as artists. We discussed how we felt in our working practice at the time, and how we wanted to feel by the end of these sessions. We did looking inwards to crystallize our thinking about where we intended to go with our writing. We made personal iconography, drawing symbols and finding our own words for aspects of our creative work.
Over the course of the sessions we’re adding to our portfolios by trying out new ideas, writing short pieces in response to interesting creative restrictions, and moving towards making our final major projects. Through this training we’re engaged with fundamental questions about what it is to write for theatre.
In Nina’s teaching and exercises we’ve written scenes focussing on subtext, exposition and dramatic action, we’ve had a demystifying session on the distinctions between plot, story and structure, and we’ve worked on identifying and using different theatrical styles.
The practical teaching on professional skills includes how to maintain your own creative process, knowing when and where to send out your work and how to present projects. We’ve had practice in pitching ideas and had a really useful session on how to give and get feedback on works in progress.
A massive benefit to working with Nina is the work we’ve done on naming and understanding trends in our own work and expanding our approach to the plays we see. Both Symphony and Wet House were showing at Soho when we visited the building for our second session.
Symphony was a piece of gig-theatre, where actors doubled as a five-piece band to perform three short plays with music by writers Ella Hickson, Nick Payne and Tom Wells. Paddy Campbell’s Wet House, set in a homeless hostel where residents can drink alcohol, plays as an authentic piece of contemporary naturalism.
In our sessions we were able to talk about the importance of strong characters, unanswerable questions and the presence of live conflicts in the fabric of a good piece of drama.With the opportunity to explore and discuss the programme at Soho and through our own practical work it feels as though we’re getting to really understand these principles.
John Yorke is a creative genius and a master of the art of dramatic writing.
John was Head of Channel Four Drama and then also Controller of BBC Drama – responsible for shows like Shameless, Omagh, EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City to name but a few. Before going on to become Managing Director of top drama indie, Company Pictures, in 2013.
So it is a very great honour and privilege to have John as our tutor and master for the second year of the MA Dramatic Writing course at Central St Martins.
John’s text Into The Woods is a classic masterpiece on dramatic storytelling craft and structure
Part fairytale historian, philosopher and story analyst – John combines these skills in his great work that sketches the dramatic writing craft by tracing it’s form from ancient myth and fairy tale and combines these with Constructionist cinema and Jungian Psychoanalysis to create the essential craft guidebook for any budding drama writer whether for stage, or screen.
So in the first lesson John like an express train takes us through the 25 fundamental points of dramatic writing, and shows this with some great clips from East Enders, the one that really struck home for me in particular was the Mimesis, ‘show not tell’ scene created by Tony Jordan for EastEnders where Nigel has to tell his step daughter Clare that her mum has been run over by a car and is dead.
Rather than a big over written climatic scene, we watch as Nigel, sitting in a car waiting for his step daughter, says, ‘how am I going to do this’, and then walks over to her and we observe him from a distance tenderly sitting her down to tell her.
Simple and sweet, a classic scene; no dialogue and all action; a perfect example of show not tell, for me.
At the end of the first class we are each given a classic fairytale story of four pages. As our first exercise we must convert this into a concise paragraph re-setting it instead as a modern parable.
I had the Ugly Duckling and changed it to the story of a mid-life crisis man who is dumped by his wife, and so the second part of this exercise is to the consider the fairytale against ten key dramatic questions: the fundamentals; Whose Story, What Do They Need, What Is The Inciting Incident, What Does The Character Want, What Obstacles Are In The Character’s Way, What’s At Stake, Why Should We Care, What Do They Learn, How And Why, How Does It End.
John tells us if we can answer these questions well, then we may have our film.
This is such a vital piece of dramatic craft structure; whether you are writing a script, for the stage, radio or screen.
So we are here to learn dramatic writing he explains and adds that many people will say you can’t teach someone to be a writer.
We may not yet possess all the skills, knowledge, wisdom, combined with the ideas to write our pieces exactly in the most professional way; but no doubt what John is imparting to us now will be very instrumental; powerful and vital tools that will help us structure and test out our script development and writing work.
Being one who was also told at least a couple of times when I was considering taking up a place on the course, ‘you can’t teach someone to write, you either can, or can’t’, I feel now more confident to be able to say, yes you may not be able to show and teach someone how to write a great work, but what I can say most affirmatively is you can equip writers with the most essential craft tools, skills and knowledge, but then the graft- the application, the focus, the need and the creative genius stuff – will be down to them.
Ola is a live wire, passionate about storytelling and theatre and it comes across loud and clear in the first of his Masterclass sessions with the Dramatic Writing MA year 2 students.
Ola Animashawin is the Associate Director of the Royal Court Theatre and his Masterclass is on Voice and Vision. In his Masterclass workshop Ola is going through the basics, but also the fundamentals of dramatic writing; first how do you choose a title for your play.
Ola calls this workshop Open Heart Theatre – a unique idea for creating a menu of dramatic spectacle to peruse before you choose your seats in a virtual multiplex theatre space.
When we get to the end of the Ola’s Master class sessions we’ll each present ten-minute scenes to the group; no pressure there then!
Ola has as 25 years of experience of working in theatre and 15 in the field of leading writing workshops and play development.
Ola is inspirational; his passion is electrifying. He literally buzzes with enthusiasm and he says he only has one big antipathy, “a burning desire to bring theatre and theatre audiences alive”, so Ola will be taking us through the steps of bringing an idea to life in the most exciting way; the first exercise to consider – what does a title say about your play!
Being very critical writers, a vote on our titles in the group ends with none of us scoring more than a 3 out of 7.
Many of us are crestfallen and ponder this first big lesson, which is don’t always believe the first title that comes into your head is the best; test it out on your peers and don’t get too wedded to a title at this point, but if you believe in it, keep it. Or change it. But don’t prevaricate over it.
Next, audience; Ola then takes us through an exercise where we consider the difference between writing a play for a group of free thinking liberal writers, or for a provincial audience at the Bridlington Play House,
We all agreed these are very crucial fundamentals for playwrights and are the introductory exercises for making our choices about the ideas for our scenes.
First think of writing a scene to appeal to the intellect of fellow writers, or then consider the difference it would make writing a scene to appeal to the heart of the same audience.
My first scene was based on a recent experience – the first meet from an online dating introduction; this was an appeal to the head of my audience; there was a secret revealed in the date that produced real personal dilemma.
My second scene to appeal to the heart was inspired by a story I read about a man in Syria waiting for it to rain so he could clean his home; a flat where all his family, his wife and children had been killed in a chemical attack.
The journalist who witnessed this believed it was the only story in about 20 years of war reporting he felt deep really should make a difference.
These were valuable exercises in learning how to temper and style your writing for diverse tastes; two very thought provoking and exciting first exercises in Ola’s Master class sessions before we develop our ten minute scenes on Justice for our Open Heart Theatre production.