Friday, June 21, 2024

Writing for Theatre - Guest Blog by Brian Woolland

The Black Madonna from Brian Woolland's
DOUBLE TONGUE. Painted by Nisha Walling.

Anyone who writes – in whatever medium – knows all too well that feeling of being stuck. Writers’ Block, Blank Page Syndrome, call it what you will. Sometimes it’s not knowing where to start. Sometimes you’ve got a great idea, but then, after the initial enthusiasm, you’re not sure how to develop it. Sometimes the cop in the head whispering, that because the words on the page (or computer screen) don’t read brilliantly, the idea isn’t worth pursuing. Often it’s a case of not knowing what’s at the heart of what you’re writing. It came as something of a relief to find, when I talked about this with other writers, that even the most successful writers experience the same struggles. 

DOUBLE TONGUE was the first play of mine that Border Crossings commissioned. The discussions we had while I was working on the first draft were immensely helpful because director Michael Walling instinctively knew to ask questions about the play as it developed, rather than to make suggestions. He then organised and gently directed a rehearsed reading of an early and rather clunky draft. I knew it didn’t quite work, but couldn’t put my finger on why. The discussion with Michael and the actors during the preparations and rehearsal for the reading, and with the small, invited audience afterwards, raised further questions which I could address in the rewrites, but crucially they also enabled me to understand something in the play I’d not seen before. Writing is usually a solitary business. The great joy of workshopping a script is that it gives other perspectives in a supportive environment, it enables you to identify the key questions that need addressing, and to bounce ideas around. It’s precisely what I find so invigorating about writing for theatre. When it moves from the page to the studio it’s a collaborative creative process. 

And that is what my colleague, Rib Davis, and I wanted to create when we established Write Theatre: an environment which gives writers support and encouragement, and enables them to experience and actively participate in the development of material, to learn from others and to see their own work brought to life by excellent and very experienced professional actors. We set up Write Theatre in 2013. Our first course ran in November of that year. Our aim was to provide a stimulating, supportive and nurturing environment for people who were interested in writing for theatre. Until the pandemic and lockdowns we ran at least two courses a year. Almost everyone who’s attended has talked about how the Write Theatre experience has left them feeling invigorated and able to find their own way through and past their own writing blocks – as evidenced in the numerous unsolicited testimonials people have sent in.  

What we do on the course

The first weekend of a Write Theatre course takes the form of a series of workshops in which Rib and I lead alternate sessions. People work individually and in pairs, undertaking a wide range of writing exercises to explore elements such as: 

  • Generating material and ideas
  • Writing effective dialogue
  • Finding a voice
  • Characterisation and character development
  • Narrative, structure and plot
  • Visualisation, imagery and setting
  • Stagecraft
  • Editing and rewriting

There’s then a two week gap in which each participant writes a short scene. In the second weekend Rib and I work with three experienced professional actors to explore these scenes, encouraging and enabling further development. The course ends with short script-in-hand presentations of the re-worked scripts and discussions about how each of them might be developed further.

Many courses about writing for theatre borrow an approach which might work for Hollywood films, but is often inappropriate and unhelpfully constraining for theatre writing. One of the great joys of theatre is that good plays can take many forms. From the start of the first weekend we state clearly that we DON’T offer a rigid, prescriptive formula for how to write plays. We aim to enable participants to USE what we offer to find a process (or processes) that works for them, and will stand them in good stead when working alone.

If you’d like to enrol on our next course at The Cockpit Theatre on the weekends 12th - 13th and 26th - 27th October, please contact us at Please send us two short paragraphs about yourself.  In the first, please give a brief account of your writing experience to date. In the second, please state what specifically you hope to gain from the course. This information will help us fine tune our planning. We will then respond within two days telling you whether you have been accepted onto the course.

We are offering a 15% discount to anyone signed up in response to this blog or the Border Crossings newsletter. Quote BC24.

Friday, June 07, 2024

The Land Acknowledgement


Back in 2017, we brought Cliff Cardinal's HUFF to ORIGINS. That's a year before this five-star review, which the show received for its Edinburgh run, on the day it closed. With Cliff's work it seems you have to be in the know.... His latest piece, THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, which opened LIFT at the Southbank on Wednesday, started off in Canada during 2021, under the title William Shakespeare's As You Like It. As Cliff explains in this version of the show, especially (and necessarily) re-worked for London, that was a ruse to get "rich Canadians" into the theatre. The performance begins with a traditional red curtain in place, and Cliff comes through it to begin a "land acknowledgement". This is one of the things he has to explain in a bit more detail for his London audience: in Canada it's common practice for events to begin with an acknowledgement of the Indigenous people on whose land the event is happening. So the original 2021 audience would have thought his speech was just another tokenistic prelude to the main event, which would of course be the Shakespeare production. They got a bit twitchy as it went on rather longer than usual. Eventually it became clear that there wasn't going to be a Shakespeare production. The land acknowledgement is the entire show. 

I wish I'd seen that original version, and been able to observe the ruse in action, and the extraordinary actor-audience dynamic that must have evolved through the evening. In London, the ruse couldn't work in the same way, and so the title has changed and Cliff is honest from the start about what he's doing, telling the story of those original audiences as part of his performance. But here too, the relationship with the audience is deliberately and deeply uncomfortable. There's laughter a-plenty - the format is essentially a stand-up comedy set - but there are also winces, gasps and moments of profound and disturbed silence. At the Brighton Festival, there were walk-outs. After all, as Cliff points out, a Land Acknowledgement is basically an acknowledgement that the land has been stolen. Usually, when someone acknowledges that they have stolen something, they give it back. But here, the acknowledgement alone seems to be considered sufficient. That must have been very telling in Canada, and it hits home in Britain too, albeit in a slightly different way. The oil companies, the banks, the mining companies...  all those head offices that sit in the City and profit from Indigenous land while poverty wreaks havoc on the res.....  

In Australia, the conventions that have evolved are a bit different. The land acknowledgement there is known as a "welcome to country". Elders are asked (and usually paid) to welcome people onto their lands. But, as an Indigenous Australian activist explained to me, this protocol misses out one crucial aspect in the Indigenous tradition of hospitality, which is that the visitors used to request permission to come onto someone else's lands, and that permission had to be granted before any form of welcome was offered. Nowadays, permission is taken for granted and hospitality has been commodified. It's only by performing a land acknowledgement that you can raise the vital questions about their validity.