June 26, 2017 by David
‘A good playwriting tutor uses the group as skilfully as a good director deploys an ensemble of actors.’
This year renowned writer and director John Retallack opens a new playwriting course in Oxford. I caught up with him to ask a few questions about the course, teaching playwriting and his top texts and tips for new writers.
When did you decide to create this course?
When I am not writing or directing myself, helping individuals to write plays has become my central activity, both with Oxford Playhouse and the University. Early this year, I decided to create my own course, one that would be both inspirational and practical. My course seeks to answer the following questions: ‘How do I write a good play — and what do I do with it when it’s written?’
Why is it happening in Oxford?
It’s my home! I was born in Oxford and have lived here for different periods of my life. I returned to live here permanently in 2013 and I think that the city has an incredible range of arts activities – and a much livelier theatre scene than when I last lived here from 1990-2000.
With the Offbeat Festival, Oxford Theatre Makers, North Wall, Pegasus, The Old Fire Station and Oxford Playhouse, the city matches Bristol for the sheer diversity of activity now going on. And in this mix are a lot of writers of all kinds, including playwrights. Readings of new plays are going on all over the city. I expect half the applicants for the course to come from within the city, the rest from further afield – I have had applications from London, Southampton and Bristol.
So the time feels right, and the venue is fantastic: a large light room on the High Street which looks out over the college spires and the University Church.
What’s different about this course in comparison to the others that are out there?
My groups are limited to only 8 writers, ensuring that each individual receives maximum personal attention. Each writer will finish three plays in the course of a year – a very short play, a 40-minute play and a full-length play. I will direct readings of extracts from all these plays and I will invite industry figures to attend these readings.
There’s a well-worn phrase that you ‘can’t teach playwriting’ – how would you respond to that?
A good tutor uses the group as skilfully as a good director deploys an ensemble of actors. Peer feedback becomes as important to a good writing group as the words of the tutor.
Writers work in many different theatrical contexts these days: why is this a course for playwriting now?
My course addresses the whole collaborative nature of theatre. As well as paying rigorous attention to language and text, I look at the physical nature of performance, the place of movement and gesture, the question of music and its impact on story-telling and the site-specific opportunities that contemporary theatre affords. I also consider the wider application of drama in the field of education and other areas of social change.
How do you think your own experience as a writer and director is going to inform the course?
I’m always writing a play or directing one. Because I’ve directed as many classic as new plays, I think I have a three-dimensional ‘feel’ for the written word. I have an up-to-date sense of who might like a play or which stage or audience might best respond to one. I enjoy teaching playwriting as much as directing. And I do know that there is nothing as difficult as writing a play.
What drives you to work with new writing and new writers?
I really got into new writing in 2000 when I took my children to the theatre and they were always so disappointed with what they saw. That made me start writing plays as well as directing them. I started Company of Angels to create new work for young people.
From there I fell in love with new writing from Europe and brought a lot of new plays over to England via a project called Theatre Café. There I learnt that plays can last 10 minutes or 3 hours, they can happen in a bus shelter or a library or a theatre.
I also learnt that new writing is a brilliant way to get people talking together about every aspect of social change and that new writing for theatre still punches way over its weight in terms of media attention and personal influence on multiple lives – no one forgets the great live performance, even if it is a one-man show in their classroom.
Do you have any particular lessons from writing your own work that might be good to share here?
I enjoy writing most when I have a clear plot and a fixed time in which to finish the play. I then like to immerse myself in the play, live it and breathe it, actually enjoy writing it if possible, then put it away for a month and come back to it as if it was someone else’s work – and write it again. Second drafts are purposeful and fulfilling – it’s the first draft that feels like trying to fly.
Which plays have most informed your own work?
Ad de Bont’s Mirad, Boy From Bosnia
David Greig’s Prudencia Hart and Yellow Moon
Tim Crouch’s The Author
Suzan Lori-Parks Top Dog/Underdog
Durrenmatt’s The Visit
Shakespeare’s The Tempest and As You Like It
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun
Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls
Peter Gill’s The York Realist
Tanika Gupta’s White Boy
Richard Curtis’ adaptation of Don Quixote (parts 1 & 2) for ATC
Joel Pommerat’s This Child
Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman
When do you know you’ve come across a good idea – either for your own work or in a script from a new writer?
When the last section of the play is the best.
If you could only give one piece of advice to writers, what would it be?
Read and watch and listen to as many plays as you possibly can. Theatre is expensive so find ways around that obstacle – work as an usher in a theatre, go to the NT or V&A archives, see live transmissions in the cinema.
John’s course begins in Autumn 2017 – you can find out more about the course content and how to apply at Oxford Playwriting
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