An interview with John, first published in Lane's List, July 2018:
What do you think has worked best on the course?
I was clear from the outset that I am primarily a ‘coach’ – I help writers to find what they want to say, how they want to say it and who they want to say it for.
The two groups of eight writers were interesting people and they made stimulating ‘ensembles’. They really helped and cared for each other. The youngest writer that I had last year was 19 and the oldest was 70. This year I have launched subsidised bursaries that make the course available at 50% of the fee to two writers under 25. One is taken and one is still open.
The course takes place every week over nine months. As a result, each member of the group wrote three distinct and separate pieces, including a full-length play. This regularity focused us all – everyone kept writing throughout the year, knowing that they had a group to share it with.
We all enjoyed reading contemporary work and seeing it performed – these plays became our reference points. Over the nine months, we read 15 contemporary plays, from Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott to Gill’s The York Realist, from Raine’s Tribes to Zeller’s The Truth, from Franzmann’s Mogadishu to Churchill’s Top Girls.
The course happens in a beautiful room in the centre of Oxford that we use both for our weekly sessions and also for our Performance Workshops. This space is home for the writers and it is a place that they can stay and socialize in after the session. I think that this space has contributed positively to the overall experience.
What breakthroughs have people had and where has development of people’s work been challenging?
One young writer experienced a serious block with a play and just didn’t know how to proceed – what was as important as my own advice was the support and faith of the other writers in the room.
This writer did finish the play in question and it was worth the wait. Of course, everyone said how hard it is to write a play! The Royal Court Playwrights Podcasts are illuminating in this regard. David Hare says something along the lines of ‘any fool can start a play but you have to be genuinely smart to finish one’.
Another gifted writer worked as a paediatrician by day and wrote plays by night – what vexed her was whether to write about her ‘real life’ (often very demanding and tough) or whether to ‘escape’ to other worlds in her dramatic writing.
In the end, she wrote a fine work-place drama in which she explored issues that could not be raised at work. Another writer, after some false starts, discovered that she had an uncannily accurate recall of the language and culture of the country she grew up in some 50 years ago – and wrote a brilliant (and very funny) political drama set in Dungannon at the time of the first Civil Rights marches.
What it’s like to work with a range of experiences in the room?
A range of experience is clearly desirable. There are also certain qualities that one wants all the writers to have; an ability to listen well as much as to talk well, a real burn to write (and finish) a play – and an engagement with the world at large.
How have the writers built their ideas through collaboration?
I have found both groups of writers to be conscientious in reading the work of their fellow writers before a session. This has proved invaluable to everyone involved.
There are also some excellent actors, based in Oxford, who have performed in all three of the Performance Workshops. As a result, they have got to know the writers well and are uniquely placed to articulate their reactions to plays as they develop over the year.
Next year, we will have an ‘in camera’ session with just the actors and the writers.
What you might shift or change in this coming year of the course?
All sessions will be two and a half hours, rather than two – that proved to be a ‘natural’ length for each session, with a short break in the middle. And I will try to make the end-of-year Performance Workshop an event to which we invite the public – we had over forty for the last two sessions this year and we can build on that for next year.
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An interview with John, first published in Lane's List 2017:
When did you decide to create this course?
I have run a course, Oxford Playmaker, with Oxford Playhouse for experienced playwrights for the last two years and I have loved doing it.
Along with teaching at Ruskin College and on the Oxford University Mst Creative Writing course, helping individuals to write plays has become my central activity – when I am not writing or directing myself.
Early this year, I decided to go it alone. I have created a non-academic course that is fully alert to the potential that each writer brings and the audiences for whom they could write.
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.
I'm always learning.
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 is 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 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. But 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
Harold 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
Martin McDonagh's The Hangman
Florian Zeller's The Father
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.