Updated: Jan 28
2020 and The Hope of the Narrative
‘Get ‘em in hot water and then get ‘em out again’. So goes the advice of Frank Craven, actor, playwright and screenwriter on structure; how to build to a climax and get your characters out of it, perhaps rather more scalded and slightly traumatised than they were to begin with.
A pretty accurate description of 2020, then.
By now we’ve all read the articles about how Shakespeare endured the plague; how it nearly killed him as a tiny genius baby and how it shut down London several times during his career, once just before he wrote Romeo and Juliet meaning the play even includes a lockdown as the key part of its plot. How none of this stopped him writing for and believing in theatre. That was encouraging in May, but on the wrong side of November things are looking slightly more desperate. As other industries tentatively head back to work theatres stand dark like gloomy relics to a cultured past, the government shrugs and an industry built on the power of the collective gasp and the rubbing of shoulders remains outlawed by necessity. At the more hopeless moments, it seems over.
And yet. Two thousand years is a good innings, isn’t it? Two world wars and one world cup. A decade of austerity cuts. Theatre’s bounced back from rather a lot. The need to tell our stories and have people experience them live is not just a bauble but a building block of society, stretching back as far as democracy and probably not about to falter any time soon.
I know this because in October I put out an idea like a stab into that darkness which I was unsure would get any response. An online venture inspired in part by my brother’s work in creativity and play therapy with young people (he had been running creative writing workshops throughout the lockdown) and by what I knew of acting, writing and directing: a virtual writing workshop. Live development and experimentation. The life-blood of theatre.
I called it ITCH because we call our undeveloped work scratch. It’d provide the two things a writer most needs: a kick to start and the encouragement and accountability of hearing your own work. It’d be the end to procrastination and self-doubt in people’s minds; the reason to start and the tools to finish. I felt very strongly that we needed to keep writing, if only to make sense of everything, and we needed to do it together because we’d all been so bloody lonely. A small but eager response came back almost immediately: ‘sign me up’.
Weirdly, our online space became the perfect medium, allowing a bit of discussion, shareable slide-shows and the functionality to switch off screens to do live writing challenges. The material itself wasn’t unheard of (I take my cues from old-school playwriting theorists like John Howard Lawson and Lagos Egri) but from the get-go something about it felt refreshing and vital. After a long period of creative inertia, hope appeared where I’d least imagined as stories and characters and ideas were brought into being in the unlikeliest of places: Zoom.
I wrote the course as I went, getting constant feedback from my pioneering members, adapting all the time to make it better, clearer, more engaging. WRITE THAT SCRIPT, a crash course covering the fundamentals is now here to stay, alongside WRITE CLUB, a live development club for writers to check in each week and keep up the frequency of their writing.
Feet will tread boards again and lights will shine on the now dusty stages. Catharsis - theatre’s raison d’etre - is required now more than ever, and sparks the impulse to write not just in the potential playwrights of the future but in folk for whom this year has been a struggle, a tragedy, a revelation. As we remember our premise we’ll rediscover our will and persist through that tricky break into act three to reach the resolution, because we have to. We’ll get out of the hot water, because the story says we must.