Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Looking back at the pilot
How new writing in schools might be about to take off

Last month saw an unusual set of play readings at Soho Theatre. Featuring school students from east London performing alongside professional actors, these mixed casts were also interacting with recorded video footage and animation. This was the culmination of a unique and exciting collaboration - the first glimpse of an experimental partnership between Tamasha and Mulberry School. As I sat in the audience in Soho’s intimate upstairs space, I felt the warm glow of seeing months of planning and hard work paying off – and that wonderful feeling when you realise that a creative project which, until that moment existed mostly in your imagination, has suddenly taken on a momentum of its own. It felt like the start of something really special.

In fact, it was barely six months ago that the whole thing was just a paper proposition. It was a rainy December afternoon when filmmaker Tanya Singh and I got together in a Kings Cross coffee shop to discuss putting in a joint application for Associate Artists at Tamasha. We’d been colleagues for some years, part-time artists-in-residence at Mulberry School, as their filmmaker and playwright respectively.

So when Tamasha advertised for one of each of these artists, we applied together, suggesting a pilot writer’s scheme in which eight playwrights would come into the school, receive training from us both, and then take part in sessions with the students coming up with ideas for short plays.

What this was all about, for me, was two things.

The first was evolving the work at Mulberry. My involvement with the school stretches back to 2004, and in that time we’ve founded a theatre company together, written and performed new plays at Half Moon Theatre, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Southwark Playhouse, won an award, received national press coverage and had a book of plays published. Mulberry is always seeking to create new opportunities for its students. When I first started it was taking plays to Edinburgh. Then it became offering apprenticeships in stage management or theatre design, filmmaking or radio – every year there was something new.

Forging a partnership with a professional theatre company like Tamasha felt like the next logical development. I wanted to bring a whole new cohort of playwrights into the school, with all the exciting new ideas that entails.

But secondly, it was about an ongoing interest of mine, increasingly to be found in the professional theatre industry, and that is about the relationship of professional theatremakers, particularly playwrights, to the society of which they are a part.

I believe the model is changing. I predict that the next few years will see a lot less of playwrights developing work on their own, isolated from the world around them. Too often this gives the impression that we are like poets or philosophers, abstract intellectuals observing the world without taking an active part in it. Playwrighting, for me, is a lot more down and dirty than that.

It involves leaving the house. It involves talking. It involves opening yourself up to new and sometimes scary experiences. Like the living, breathing art form it is, it involves empathy and active participation and embedding yourself within the world you are investigating so that you can truly understand the hopes, fears and dreams of your characters.

This is what Mulberry has offered me over the years, and it has been a real pleasure to be able to open up its doors to a new generation of writers.

Tanya and I were appointed in January and immediately set about planning and recruiting for our scheme. I was commissioned by The Guardian to write a feature looking at playwrighting in schools, linking it to other events such as the Bush Theatre’s schools season. There seemed to be something in the air surrounding playwrights and schools, and the article expanded on some of my aims for how our scheme might contribute.

To our amazement, nearly sixty writers applied. With some difficulty, we whittled this down to a shortlist of twelve, of which we recruited eight.

The standard of all eight writers was very high, though they had not necessarily had high profile productions at any major venues. One of the side effects of this recruitment process was a realisation of the sheer amount of playwrights out there forming a ‘critical mass’ of writers at a certain stage of their careers. Many have done all the new writer’s schemes, had readings and short plays on, and done everything literary managers have asked of them, but haven’t yet had a break in terms of a full production on one of the major stages. This is a side effect of the new writing theatre culture much discussed among playwrights. Corresponding with some of them during this recruitment process reiterated to me just how enthusiastic they are, and how under-used. They would be a great resource to tap into for some future movement.

It also made me aware just how much of this sort of schools - and community-based work was already taking place out there – though largely ‘invisible’ in terms of critical coverage. Moreover, writers engaged in this work tend to do so on an ad hoc, word-of-mouth basis; they are not centrally organised nor really all that in touch even with one another. There would appear to be potential here for some sort of structured network for writers engaging in this kind of work. I would hope that our scheme might be the first step down that path, and may one day end up offering these writers an institutional hub for their work.

Interviews for the scheme took place in January and February, the eight writers received a full day’s training from Tanya and I during February half term, and child protection training from the school the following week. They then had four after school sessions with a lively group of mostly Year 10 Drama students during February and March, with an optional dramaturgy and filmmaking sessions with myself or Tanya prior to their first draft deadline.

Each writer was asked to deliver a 10-15 minute play written for up to five parts which could be played by Mulberry students or recent alumni. Other than that, the brief was completely open, and writers were free to follow their own creative instincts and be led by the students’ ideas and interests.

There’s an interesting question here about how the playwrights’ role differs from that of a normal playwrighting process. The model we kept referring back to was the Edinburgh plays I have written for the school, and which were published last year in The Urban Girls’ Guide To Camping and other plays. Clearly, I am neither female, Bengali, Muslim, a teenager, nor am I from east London. In that sense a degree of self-effacement is required when writing plays for, about and inspired by the girls of Mulberry School. But just as clearly, rarely will a 15-year old, whatever their background, be able to offer a fully formed play idea to a writer that needs no developing. The trick, I find, is to take the spirit of what they are offering you in these sessions, and read between the lines to divine the hopes, fears, dreams and values that lie behind the copious material generated by your discussions.

You also have the legitimacy to aestheticise. You are the professional writer after all. They provide the raw material. You discuss with them ways in which it might be shaped, talking them through what the implications of each direction would be. Then, week by week, you bring something in. Each week it comes a little more into focus. You show it to them, check they’re happy, listen to their suggestions, make changes accordingly – even at times passing the whole thing over to them for a while to do their own work on. Back and forth it goes, until eventually you have produced a creative product of some sophistication, which neither of you could have created on your own.

All this was supported by a large stock of creative exercises I had passed on to the writers during their training, which I had developed over many years at the school. Some of the writers used these verbatim, some adapted them according to their own interests, while some invented completely new exercises in response. One of the real joys of the scheme for me was to be able to pass some of these skills on, and see how they were adapted, evolved and put back into use with a completely new set of writers and students. Tanya is producing a set of short films showcasing some of these exercises and featuring interviews with both the writers and myself. We’re going to upload them onto teachers’ websites where they will be available for download along with the exercise sheets they are describing. (Keep an eye on the Tamasha blog, we might put them up there too.)

Tanya’s whole multimedia offer was enthusiastically taken up by many of the writers, and seemed to particularly tap into some of the students’ interests. Indeed, more than one of the plays ended up putting new media at the heart of its concept. There was also some imaginative use of technology in exercises to generate creative ideas. For example, with Tanya’s help one of the writers spent a session getting the students one by one to record private pieces to camera outside on the balcony, the idea being that they were contributing to a time capsule about life in east London, that would be opened in the distant future. The resulting footage was then reviewed by the writer, much of which fed into her final play. (Unfortunately the time capsule part was just a ruse – though one the students were in on.)

Mulberry’s students really deserve some credit here. They’ve been such an inspiration to me over the years, and I could see them working their magic every week with our writers. All the writers spoke glowingly of their student groups, with one saying she had never come across such self confident girls, and another describing her renewed respect for the ideas and opinions of young people. They all described how useful it was to bring in ideas week by week and gauge their group’s reaction. One of the writers described the process as like writing for their ‘first audience’ each week, while another admitted to having been worried about not finding a story, but in fact finding the problem was she had way too many. All of the writers agreed that bringing in new work to share with the students each week, based on the previous weeks’ exercises and discussions, was key to keeping them engaged and moving things along. But in terms of the creative product this also allowed students to shape the play ideas at a formative stage, which is a real USP of the Mulberry model.

All the writers said it was unusual to have a scheme with them as writers leading the sessions, as opposed to the directors or actors. Those with experience of young people’s projects that were led by others said how easy it was to step back as the writer. Leading the session yourself allows you to be more reactive, to jump on something that’s said and tease out the point.

There is an ongoing question about how useful or practical it is to team writers up with actors or directors as co-tutors, to generate dramatic material through improvisations rather than paper-based exercises. This is something I’ve still got an open mind about. Three of my four full length plays for the school were created in this way with a co-tutor, though as noted previously many of the writers on this scheme preferred being allowed to lead their own sessions, and almost all stayed at their desks. This does involve more concentrated work from the students though, and sometimes a few ‘up on your feet’ exercises at the start can be good to get some of that energy out of their system. But I wouldn’t expect or insist that playwrights had the skills to lead these exercises. Some will, some won't. It does also have cost implications for future schemes if other tutors are involved. But it occurred to me afterwards that perhaps the writers’ training at the start could involve a session with a director, drama teacher, or youth theatre leader to give the writers a set of these sorts of exercises, to add to their toolkit. It’s always good to have a stock of drama games up your sleeve to fall back on.

One practical thing that worked well was pairing the writers up for the duration of the scheme. This was primarily a practical response to not being able to recruit a group of 4-5 students for each of the eight writers (this would have meant an unwieldy group size of nearly 40). But what it did mean was that the after school sessions had to be split into two halves, with one writer leading the first half while the other observes, and vice versa after a short break. All the writers said that being able to observe both how another writer works, and the students’ behaviour from a position outside that of session leader, was very useful.

In anticipation of a potential problem, I instigated a rule that creative ideas that came up in one half were the first refusal of the writer whose half it was. But in the end this didn’t really come up as a source of conflict. Both writers became quite happily involved in each other’s halves, and many spoke later about how great it was to be able to jump in. It didn’t ever seem like they were cramping each other’s styles.

Afterwards, some of the writers suggested a mid-way session without the students, where they can share their experiences with each other about what is and isn’t working. Unfortunately, the sheer demands of delivering a project like this week by week generally mitigate against having time for much critical reflection. We did some of this afterwards, of course, in an evaluation session, where some interesting debates began, for example around the usefulness of sharing a cultural background with the group that they are writing for and about and, relatedly, what the ‘culture’ of the Mulberry students actually was. One of the writers suggested that they were “not their religion or their ethnicity or their gender but they were just their age”, to which another writer strongly disagreed. While we did talk about these things individually over the course of the project, looking back we could have made some more focussed space for these debates, and maybe even recorded them somehow. As it turned out they mostly took place in the pub. Both Tanya and Tamasha’s curator Orlagh Woods pointed out that artists from other disciplines, such as visual or live art, much more routinely engage in these processes of self-reflection and theorising. Playwrights don’t so much, and I’m not sure why that should be.

Once the first drafts came in there was one in-class read through which took place in a timetabled BTEC and GCSE Drama class. We were lucky in being able to neatly tie this in to a module on professional practice which the students were working on anyway (this was a total stroke of luck – and the brainwave of one inspired drama teacher. Though we would certainly factor it into the plan next time.) Then there was just one more draft to go before the plays were rehearsed up for presentation at Soho.

The plays themselves were great. We had one about the death of a cousin, whose memory is artificially kept alive on recorded smartphone clips. We had another set in a near future dystopia where all stories were banned by the government. One was about a girl who mathematically conjures into existence her digital double, who proceeds to take over her life. Another was set entirely on Facebook. Yet others took place on a live TV chat show, or in a fantastical hospital ward that conducts operations to remove your responsibility. They really were a terrific range of ideas and styles.

We paired the plays up according to cast size, so that one cast and director could work on two plays. It was agreed to cast four professional actors, one per play pairing. This was not because each play required an adult part – many didn’t – it was felt important to give students the opportunity to work alongside professionals.

Tamasha did a great job of recruiting four young actresses who were all excellent role models for Mulberry’s students. The four directors were also good choices, and all had trained under Kristine at one or more of the Tamasha Developing Artists workshops. It was a good opportunity for trainee directors to put this training into practice in a schools environment. This combination of everyone learning something was absolutely in keeping with the Mulberry ethos of developing artists as well as students, and created a warm and mutually supportive working environment.

The writers had an open invitation to drop by whenever they could and some were able to. This was an important learning experience for them about what in their writing did and didn’t work once it was up on its feet, and some further changes were made in the rehearsal room. Kristine from Tamasha came in on the final day’s rehearsal and offered notes to the directors on what she saw.

There was strong interest in the Soho event and it was well-attended by theatre professionals. The Mulberry girls did us proud – some were actually so good that they had people asking after their availability! Alas, most have to finish school first. But one of the sixth formers was recruited for a reading at the Blue Elephant Theatre earlier this month.

I know from my own work for Half Moon Young People’s Theatre over the years that the ultimate test of any play is to go in front of a teenage audience. I hope any future scheme will find a way of doing this. It is an important part of the writers’ development.

There were some unexpected spin-offs from the partnership which give some indication of the range of possibilities which a future collaboration between Mulberry and Tamasha could contain. Tamasha’s Artistic Director Sudha Bhuchar has been in discussions with some Bengali parents sourced through the school, as part of a new play she has been developing. Mulberry was also host to a Tamasha workshop on careers in professional theatre, in which students heard about a range of careers in the arts including stage management, lighting design, costume supervision, and marketing.

Tanya has also been in contact with Sita Brahmachari, a Tamasha writer and Artistic Associate, regarding a possible creative writing and online multi-media collaboration around her new children’s novel, working with Mulberry students via English, Media and I.T. classes.

All this indicates a two-way aspect to the Tamasha-Mulberry partnership which could continue to benefit both organisations in the future. For example, Mulberry students could be involved in Tamasha through its productions and Tamasha Developing Artists programme and there are possibilities for Mulberry to host placements or engage artists in their ongoing school shows.

In their final evaluation meeting with us, the writers expressed delight at the confidence this scheme had imbued them with in going into schools and cultural contexts different to their own. Yet they were also hesitant – unsure about precisely how to go about creating those opportunities for themselves, from scratch, without the institutional support and access of a managed scheme like ours. Tamasha and Mulberry are uniquely placed to broker these opportunities for these and future writers, and to take the Mulberry-Tamasha working model out to other schools across London.

Conversations are ongoing between both organisations about exactly what form that might take. But watch this space. Our pilot scheme might be about to take off.

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