Playwrighting Top Tips: Part Three

Part three of our Top Tips series comes from Nina Steiger, Senior Dramaturg at the National Theatre. This series is inspired by the book Dramatic Writing Masterclasses and here, Nina talks about writing for digital media and the unexpected route her own career has taken. 

You started your career as a playwright. So, why is it that you do what you do? What was the trajectory of that?

Nina Steiger: I think the first ten to fifteen years of any career are about the balance between trying to find your feet, make money and get as close as you can to what you feel is the heat source in the room. For me, as a writer, I was like, “Oh my god, I like people who make theatre and it’s fun to take things from page to the stage”, and that was the heat for me as a writer, as well as a way to express my intelligence, problems and creativity. As I carried on, it became more about directing as that heat source felt stronger. It was as though it was the next level of authorship and a different level of control and interpretation. It was one that was creative, exposing and deeply connected to my interests and issues.

Then I started working at a theatre that worked with new writers, and I discovered that what I really loved was not the nuts and bolts of directing. Because from the time a play got cast and the script was locked, I pretty well lost interest, which is not a good thing for a director. Also, by the time the play had opened, I not only had lost interest, I wanted to leave. I actively never wanted to see the thing again or the people involved, and I took that as a sign that I was not meant to be a director. I’m joking of course, but what I mean is that from the time the script was locked, I felt the heat begin to diminish. For me, the magic was around the tussle for story and style and the possibilities in that.

Another sign early on was that I was often told when applying for jobs in theatres “Please don’t have aspirations as a writer or director yourself.” I very willingly dropped those aspirations to take on some really great jobs working with and for writers, and I didn’t significantly regret that compromise.

I feel that writing will always be there for me. I feel that expressing myself verbally and through images and ideas is something I adore. But I think that’s what helps me work with writers. I discovered that the greatest heat, for me, is understanding the soul of a play, what it could become, starting from this fragmented pencil written recipe that arrives on pages and is turned into a live event – to me, that is the ultimate excitement. That’s how I discovered what I was.

Nina Steiger

Do you have some examples of times where that’s worked well?

Nina Steiger: There are examples of where my talent-spotting, which is a big part of my job, has worked well. I have seen people soar into successful and secure careers, and quickly.

For example, one of the first writers I worked with at Soho Theatre was Matt Charman who had never written a play and was working as a valet sorting cars out, and he wrote a wonderful play about that. His writing has taken him to the top of the game. That’s a sign to me that I put the right person in the path of the right opportunity.

When I think it’s the best is when a piece of theatre has gone from a conversation with an artist over a coffee to something that really catches fire and begins to change the culture. One of the pieces I’m most proud of that I’ve worked on is by Bryony Kimmings, called Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model. It’s not a traditional play but very much a piece of theatre about the dearth of appropriate role models for young women and girls in our society and the way they’re sexualised. It’s the least didactic and preachy kind of evening.

That to me was one that went from “This is what I care about the most” to, within a year, it being on and changing the world around it. So, that’s a great example for me.

How does that theatre work link to digital media?

Nina Steiger: A lot of people who I work with in theatre don’t know that I’m wild about the convergence of dramatic writing and digital media. It’s not something I bring to bear every day in my job, in my work with various theatre companies or with artists. But I think it’s the most brilliant marriage. I always start with this question when I do workshops on this area: “How many people have been on the internet today? How many people were on the internet before they left their house to come out? How many people were on the internet before they got out of bed?” Now

some people are going to be like, “Isn’t that a bad thing?” And, that’s not what we’re debating, but it is a bad thing obviously.

However, I believe it’s also a really cool thing. I then will ask “How many people have one smart device on you right now? Two? Three?” There’s usually three or more – I’m talking about your phone, your iPad and your laptop or something like that. Because it’s not unusual that ordinary old us are wired up from the minute we wake up in the morning and, ready to go, we’re available. To me, that suggests something very interesting about the way there are performance spaces embedded in that – we are getting stories all day long and it’s a space that isn’t totally owned by artists yet but there’s an amazing opportunity there.

Then there’s this other side of it, which is, if that’s your life, it’s also the life of your audience. I feel I want to say “get in there you artists, and populate that really interesting over-inhabited but under-explored space”. So one of the things I thought was that, in theatre and in storytelling, we are so amazing at liveness and uniquenesss and experience, there is a real opportunity to bring the two together.

That’s how my interest started. What I hope my Masterclass exposes is that I’ve learnt a lot about theatre and storytelling and liveness through exploring what happens when digital media is part of it. I’ve learned a lot about what digital media can do through trying to apply what I know about theatre to it. That was the purpose that I thought I should bring to the fourweek investigation with the students, and what I’m going to talk about in my Masterclass.

Thanks to Nina Steiger and Jennifer Tuckett for their contributions to this blog. For more Top Tips, follow this blog over the coming weeks and months, and pick up a copy of Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters.
You can still read parts One and Two on our blog. 

Black Lives, Black Words

Black Lives, Black Words premiered in Chicago in July 2015. This international project has since explored the Black diaspora’s experiences in some of the largest multicultural cities in the world, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Toronto and now London. Over sixty Black writers from the UK, USA, and Canada have each written a short play to address Black issues today. This blog is taken from the introduction to the book, written by Madani Younis, the Artistic Director of The Bush theatre where the pieces were performed last month.


It’s on us. It’s always been on us.

From Claudia Jones to Michael X, from Frank Crichlow to Darcus Howe to Doreen and Neville Lawrence, there is a rich and fierce tradition of resistance that has defined the past century in this great city.

2016 was a significant year in the UK. Following the Brexit vote to take us out of the European Union, few of us could have predicted the steep rise in racially motivated hate crime, or the vitriol that was unleashed on the ‘immigrant’, a term which became a dangerous and charged catch-all and scapegoat. And a term that, in the eyes of the dominant right-wing media, is almost always defined as non-white. That exists outside the bubble of privilege and power occupied by wealthy, white Europeans.

It has been a 12 months in which our world seems to have shrunk around us, to have become smaller and more insular. Many of us who had always called this country home, suddenly began to question what home really meant.

Eight years ago, when the first presidency of an African American was in its infancy, many looked forward to a new horizon, to a post-racial reality. Instead, the list of Black lives violently ended, of justice miscarried, has only grown longer and more terrible. Against this backdrop, we’ve seen a rise of right-wing thought in both volume and acceptability, from the anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant rhetoric of a new breed of populist politician through the proliferation of the Alt-Right, to the very different president now squatting in the White House.

Black Lives Matter is different in both form and function from the civil rights movements of the past. As Jeff Chang notes in his extraordinary book We Gon’ Be Alright, this was not a movement which formed around one forceful, charismatic male voice. It was started by three women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. It is an insurgent movement; a reaction; a disruption. It has a sense of urgency, of crisis and of place. It represents the latest form in a continuum of struggle that stretches back as far as slavery, a new, horizontal, open source resistance.

It speaks to an American reality, a 21st century reality, to the prison-industrial complex, urban poverty, and the frustration of an underclass who found themselves left in limbo and threatened by systemic violence even under Obama.

I have been struck by how the media perception of the Black Lives Matter movement has seen it framed as a negative force for change, and I would fervently argue that instead it gives a voice to the voiceless in political debate, debate no longer centred on New York, Washington DC and the Houses of Parliament. That it opens up a creative space for Black activists and artists to fashion and articulate a response.

In a year in which the Bush Theatre has been nomadic, in which we’ve spent the last 12 months working in and alongside the lives and communities of West London, it seems appropriate that we return to Black Lives Black Words. Initiated in 2015 by poet, playwright and producer Reginald Edmund, Black Lives Black Words is a conversation held across continents, where we come together to speak to the vital question of what is the value of Black lives in America, the UK and across the world.

Madani Younis, Artistic Director of The Bush theatre

I was 15 years old when Stephen Lawrence was murdered, a Black British teenager killed in a racially motivated attack. The ripples of that watershed moment in media and public perception of Black lives in the UK flowed through my late teens and my early 20’s. The Macpherson Report, the growing awareness of institutional police racism, the killing of Christopher Alder, and of Mark Duggan, and the subsequent 2012 London riots. Since 1990, a tenth of identified deaths in police custody were people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. There is a concussive effect of turning on the news each day and seeing men and women who look like you portrayed so negatively, and violently. There is a concussive effect to daily reminders that in the eyes of some, you do not belong, and your voice is not welcome. So it is no surprise to me that we have seen the emergence of our own Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and across Europe, as a vital shared form of resistance to a conservativism that is wrecking lives and silencing dissent.

As a theatre, we have always existed in Shepherd’s Bush, on one of the country’s most multicultural roads, but also a place of extreme contrast, where some of the city’s greatest deprivation exists a street or two away from its most valuable housing. And these are extremes which so often break down across racial and class lines.

When we first welcomed Reginald and Black Lives Black Words to our theatre, where together with Artistic Directors of the Future they brought these vital voices to the UK, we felt a kinship with their concerns and their strategies. So it seemed only appropriate that now, as we prepare to re-open our building on the Uxbridge Road, that we should mark that with a statement about the kind of work we want to enable, the kind of voices we want to amplify, the kind of world we want to live in. To return to the words of Jeff Chang

The horizon towards which we move always recedes before us. The revolution is never complete. … All that signified progress may in time be turned against us. But redemption is there for us if we are always in the process of finding love and grace.’

– Madani Younis, March 2017


You can find out more about Black Lives, Black Words HERE, and more about Black Lives Matter HERE. With thanks to Reginald Edmund and Madani Younis.

 

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting: Part Three

Jennifer Tuckett, Course Leader for the MA Dramatic Writing at Central St Martins, and head of the new ‘The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting’ competition, has kindly come back as a guest blogger for Oberon Books to update us on the next stage of the competition, what’s coming up for the winning playwrights, and how you can get your hands on the lesson plans and the wonderful writing they inspired… 

I’m pleased to be writing to let you know that The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, the new competition from the Bush Theatre, Oberon Books, MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins and Writers at Work Productions has announced the production of the winners’ play.

The winners’ play will be on the theme of what it means to be a student in the UK today, drawing inspiration from the Cultural Learning Alliance’s recent figures showing a decline in the number of students studying the arts at school level, the announcement of the end of the Creative Writing A level last year and the forthcoming debate on whether arts subject should be part of the EBACC, scheduled for July 4th in the Houses of Parliament.

The winners, hard at work on their play

The winners, hard at work on their play

The production will take place as part of a Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting day at this year’s London Writers’ Week, and the day will also feature free workshops with Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre Rob Drummer on how we can create a more diverse theatre industry and Senior Editor of Oberon Books George Spender on how theatre publishing works, continuing the competition’s aim to provide access to the leading training coming out of the industry for writers everywhere to benefit form.

Winners include Vee Tames, a 17 year old student from Colchester who used the lesson plans from the competition to write her first play, Titilola Ige, a MA student from Croydon who also works in a charity for young people, Monique Geragthy, an undergraduate student from Queen Mary’s University who also used the lesson plans to write her fist play, and emerging writers Miriam Battye from Salford and Mufaro Makubika from Nottingham.

Jennifer Tuckett and winner Titilola Ige

Jennifer Tuckett and winner Titilola Ige

We’re delighted to be launching stage two of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting competition. We hope the day on July 5th will provide an opportunity to showcase the work of the winners of The Student Guide to Writing, alongside a second opportunity to offer free workshops and access to the leading training, this time on why its important to provide access and how theatre publishing works. Rob’s workshop will also offer tips on rewriting and where to send your work so all entrants to the competition can get further free advice.

We’re also particularly excited about the theme of the play – with the forthcoming debate on EBACC, we’re pleased to be giving the student winners a chance to have their say on this subject matter via their winners’ play, in-keeping with the theme of the competition to empower students and young people and encourage more diverse voices to be heard by providing access to the leading training coming out of the industry.

Lesson Plan writer - Fin Kennedy

Lesson Plan writer – Fin Kennedy

Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company and one of the lesson plan writers said: “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting provides important access to the leading playwriting training coming out of the industry and I am delighted to be involved. The innovative online format empowers writers, teachers and groups across the UK to take the initiative and start writing, whatever their circumstances, using new media to democratize vocational training. The implications for access and diversity are very exciting indeed, and I hope it inspires other initiatives of this kind”.

Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers’ programme said: “Craft, diversity and well told stories from a vast range of perspectives, experiences and individual voices capturing what it means to be human – these are my passions. Hence, The Student Guide to Writing felt like a great match.  The more people we can inspire to add their voice to the canon, the more we increase the chances of creating a more open, enlightened, incisive, insightful and equitable world for us all to play a part in.”

Lesson Plan writer Ola Animashawun

Lesson Plan writer Ola Animashawun

Vee Tames, schools winner: “Writing for the stage had always been something I wanted to try for a long time. However, I lacked the knowledge to know where to begin and the particular demands of the form. The lesson plans were very concise and provided you with exercises you could use immediately to spark ideas and clarify each element of your work such as structure, dialogue and character. The competition deadline itself is what gave me that final boost of encouragement to enter! I was pleased when I found out I won the Schools Category with my first ever play; it is immensely gratifying and such a confidence boost.”

Jennifer Tuckett and lesson plan writer Lucy Kerbel

Jennifer Tuckett and lesson plan writer Lucy Kerbel

Miriam Battye, emerging/general category winner: “I want to be a really great writer, the best I possibly can be. I’ve been given sage advice to just read, read and read. It’s a foolproof way to get better. Studying is much the same thing. It’s just getting as much stuff in your head so you’ve got more thoughts to work with.

Mufaro Makubika, emering/general winner: “This was a great opportunity to learn about craft from highly respected industry figures. It’s a fantastic honour. To me, all a playwright wants to do is get their work out and work more.”

 

For more information on the day or to book tickets, please go to: https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/festival/the-student-guide-to-writing-playwriting-day/

Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters” is also available to pre-order at http://oberonbooks.com/creative-writing/dramatic-writing and “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting” will be published at the end of 2016, which will include the lesson plans and winning writers’ work in one volume to provide permanent access to the lesson plans and the leading training for the first time. We hope you will join us in July to see the winner’s work and for the second stage of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting and the opportunity to get further advice and feedback on your plays.