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Features Essays Published 6 October 2017

On Supporting Playwrights

"How do I mentor a playwright when every time I write a play I feel like I’m starting from scratch?" Tim Crouch on joining the growing band of mentors and dramaturgs who hold up a mirror to the playwriting process.
Tim Crouch
Frau Welt is on at Hackney Showroom. Photo: Holly Revell

Frau Welt is on at Hackney Showroom. Photo: Holly Revell

Leaving aside the messy business of producing a play, has there ever been a better time to write one? Look around you, playwrights. What a time to be alive.

Have there ever been more incentives? More competitions? More prizes? More writers’ groups? More courses? More mentorship programmes? More script services? People are falling over themselves to help you write that play. Some award schemes even offer workshops specifically to help you get ready to submit that play to them. I know writers who schedule their writing around award submission deadlines. Plays, plays, plays. The Papatango New Writing Prize had 1036 entries this year. In 2016 the Theatre 503 Playwriting Award had 1629 submissions.

A writer writing a play nowadays rarely needs to go it alone – unless they want to. Help is never far away – a tutorial, a workshop, an outside eye. There’s an industry of support that can guide and motivate the writer as they write.

This year I have become part of that industry.

I’m the playwriting mentor on the 2017 Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Programme. This year I’ve been getting to know four Arvon writers and working out what I can offer them – four brilliantly distinctive voices who are each at different stages of their development.

How do I mentor a playwright when every time I write a play I feel like I’m starting from scratch? I know I’m not there to tell my writers what to write. Their stories are their own stories. I know I’m there to ask them questions – the same questions I ask myself. Questions around structure, story, form, character, representation, liveness, audience.

I know I’m there to offer encouragement. I distrust the Whiplash school of teaching. It doesn’t work for theatre. Just because something is not quite my ‘tempo’ doesn’t mean it won’t be someone else’s. Loss of confidence is the biggest hindrance to creativity. My job is to lay out options but to let the writer choose their own way and to keep them positive. I don’t know the answers. There are no answers.

It’s also my job to help writers think about the practicalities of getting their work staged. It may be a good time for writing plays but it’s a terrible time for getting plays produced. I imagine the discrepancy between the number of plays being written and the number of plays being staged is at a record high. But that doesn’t stop the writers writing.

This year, alongside being a mentor, I’ve also embraced the title ‘dramaturg’. A dramaturg is another part of the support industry for the playwright – and the theatre-maker. A dramaturg is a little nearer to the processes of production than a mentor – their questions have a greater sense of urgency.

I’m credited as dramaturg on a solo show that is currently running at Hackney Showroom. Frau Welt is the work of the performer Peter Clements and the director Oliver Dawe. Frau has a cult following as a cabaret act and Peter and Oliver took the decision to make her into a play. My offer has been to read a little, ask questions; watch a little, ask questions. My questions had a more interrogatory tone that those to my mentees, but they were still questions – why that? Cut this? Tighten this? Loosen that? I’ve been in the rehearsal room with Frau Welt and my dramaturgical voice has been struck dumb by Peter Clements’ luminous ability.

I can’t claim that my mentoring and dramaturgical activities this year have had profound effects on the people I’ve been working with. I don’t really want them to. I don’t want to fundamentally change the plays these artists are writing. I don’t want my input to dilute their individual voices. I’m not a collaborator or a co-author in these relationships. Thankfully, what I’m learning is that the things they’re writing are the things they were going to write anyway. All I’ve done, maybe, is make these writers a little more aware of the process. To show them options. To applaud their efforts.

You don’t need a mentor to write. You don’t need a workshop or a dramaturg or a prize. Nothing’s changed. You just need a story.

Frau Welt runs at Hackney Showroom until Oct 21st. More info here

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