Features Published 28 January 2016

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting

Central St. Martins’ investigation into the teaching of playwriting bears innovative fruit in a brand new writing competition.

Poppy Corbett

It’s the most innovative playwriting competition I’ve come across in years. Big claim, but I think it’s true. No other creative writing competition has such a diverse range of outcomes, not only for entrants to the competition, but for all writers, and the industry too.

The Student Guide to Writing is an initiative developed by the MA Dramatic Writing at Central Saint Martins, the Bush Theatre, Writers at Work and Oberon Books. Ten lessons plans will be published weekly for schools, universities and students to use. Following this, writers can submit a play to the competition – (deadline is 1st March). In April, five winners will be announced. But it doesn’t end there. In May, the winners take up their places at Central St Martins writing bootcamp (I’m assured it’s not like the X-Factor). During bootcamp they will be mentored in collaboratively writing a play. This play will be performed in July at the London Writers’ Week. At the end of 2016 the play and lesson plans will be published by Oberon. Phew…

I spoke to Jennifer Tuckett, Course Leader of the MA in Dramatic Writing at Central St. Martins to find out more.

Poppy Corbett: How did this very unique project come about?

Jennifer Tuckett: It came out of the years of experimentation – that was our two-year investigation into the future of dramatic writing training. We started it as part of the new MA Dramatic Writing. Over the two years we worked with twelve ‘masters’ who were people we chose who had really led the way in the industry in terms of dramatic writing training. And I guess one of the things that came up a lot was about having access to this industry training in a wider context because so much of it hasn’t been published: Ola Animashawun founded the Royal Court theatre’s Young Writers’ Programme but he’s never published a book of his training. We wanted to forge a relationship with Oberon so we could really disseminate that industry training to people beyond Central St. Martins.

PC: Why do you think there’s been little published by industry professionals? Why is it important this is addressed?

JT: I feel like we’re still in early stages of dramatic writing training. If you live in London you can do things like the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme, or you can go to Steve Winter’s Old Vic New Voices’ events but I think it’s so tricky if you are a student and you don’t live in London.

PC: Why do you think it is important for students to also have industry input alongside their academic degree, as you’ve achieved at Central St. Martins?

JT: It’s about access. It’s about feeling “I understand how the industry works, I have met the people who work in the industry, I can see these people who are like me – that I could have the same career path as them and I understand that career path.” That makes such a big difference. We thought a lot about diversity as well. If you’re going to have a more diverse writing industry we thought one of the ways to do that was to let everybody have access to the best training. So whoever you are, you can feel you can be a part of it.

PC: In my experience, having industry professionals work with students gives them motivation and a focus in understanding what they can then go on to do in the future.

JT: I think it changes the mindset. Suddenly these things become such a real possibility.

PC: It also makes them take their work more professionally, more seriously.

JT: Yes, students then think “I could get this commission, I could be produced by the BBC…” For the competition we’ll choose five winners, so I hope it will be the same for them.

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Tools of the trade

PC: Your project is unique in that you’re not just publishing the guide, but trailing the guide with the competition. What was the decision behind this?

JT: This is the first competition in a partnership with Oberon books that we hope will be ongoing. This year we’re doing playwriting, then we plan to do film, TV, radio and digital media. I guess it seemed to us what would be the most useful would be to make it a three-stage process. We’ve got the lesson plans which will be released via the Student Guide to Writing website. Everyone at the end of the lesson plans can submit their work. Then the competition winners will write something new – a play to a special brief, which is under wraps at the moment! One winner will be from a schools category, one from a university category, one will be an emerging writer and the last category is general so anybody can have the two final places. We thought it was really important that anyone can be a student of playwriting. Then we’ll publish everything together at the end of the year.

PC: The three-stage process sounds so much nicer than anonymously sending a play off somewhere into the dark! You’re really nurturing the people who are going to submit as they write their plays.

JT: I hope so. Even if you don’t win the competition you still can follow the lesson plans and come out with a great play you can send to other competitions.

PC: Entrants can submit a play of any length. Usually competitions stipulate full-length plays, which can feel quite daunting. So that’s to do with access as well – you’re opening up the opportunity to someone who might have talent but not be confident in writing a full-length play just yet.

JT: We wanted to make it very flexible. But if you think “I always wanted to write a 120 minute play and this is my opportunity to follow the lesson plans, enter the competition and also have a play I believe in at the end of the competition”, I think that would be a really good outcome.

PC: Having the choice to submit something shorter sounds lovely!

JT: It felt important. We just sat down and thought “how can we make this as useful as we can?”

PC: What would you say is the single most important thing you learnt from the years of experimentation?

JT: How important it is for universities teaching creative writing to work with the industry. It’s so important that we work together and not in opposition.

PC: It seems important that you didn’t choose just one industry leader to write the lesson plans. There’s a real variety of teachers (including Rob Drummer, John Yorke Lucy Kerbel and Caroline Jester). These are radically different teachers that you’re bringing together for the guide.

JT: What we tried to do is choose people’s specialisms. So John Yorke is on structure because his ‘five-act structure’ is so useful to know about if you’re a student. Ola’s is the same – the exercise that I did when I was on the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme I use again and again for coming up with ideas that I believe in. We really wanted to share these with students and teachers.

PC: What do you hope the UK’s creative writing landscape will look like in ten years time?

JT: I hope that it will be universities and industries working more closely together. I think if we do move towards that direction then we’ll create a more diverse writing industry. And I think if we create a more diverse writing industry we’ll create a more sustainable writing industry as well. I didn’t come from a background at all associated with creative writing and I felt for a long time it was something I couldn’t be part of. It was only when I started meeting people in the industry that I felt “I can be part of it!” I hope that’s where we’re going… 

The lesson plans to The Student Guide to Writing will be released weekly over the next couple of months. The first few are already up on their website. Application information for the competition can be found here.

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Poppy Corbett is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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