A course which can be completed from an armchair gives budding playwrights the chance to put their ideas in front of those who know their stuff. SAM WONFOR talks to its first graduate
PREPARE for the worst. Hope for the best. Take a deep breath and jump in.
That’s the motivational advice for anyone thinking of signing up to Live Theatre’s online playwriting course, celebrating its second birthday this month.
And it comes from the only one who knows thus far.
Northumbria Police officer Nicola Owens is the course’s first graduate, and is therefore perfectly placed to offer a once around the process, which offers a cyberspace arena for students to learn the craft of playwriting.
Having signed up to do the interactive incarnation of the course (there’s also a less expensive, solo version which foregoes the person-to-person feedback) in June 2011, Nicola had a finished play in her hand by October of the same year.
“There are five modules and I kind of worked on the basis of doing one module a month,” says the West-Yorshire-born 38-year-old.
“I wanted to have the interactive element rather than the more individual course. It felt more motivating to do it that way, and I’ve really enjoyed the feedback aspect.”
Created by two leading theatre practitioners, Live Theatre’s literary manager Gez Casey and his former colleague Jeremy Herrin (now associate director at The Royal Court), Beaplaywright.com allows participants to watch great writers talk about their practice and learn what makes a great play from the close study of scripts, as well as being able to study from anywhere at their own pace.
The course was just the push Nicola needed to put a long-held passion for writing into practice.
“I was a good creative writer at school and then I kind of forgot about it,” she says.
“But as I’ve come to reassess thing as I’ve got older, I’ve looked back and wished I’d continued.
“To start with, it was like pulling teeth but eventually it began to come back.”
As well as leading the students through the practical modules, the interactive version of Beaplaywright. com provides webchat feedback sessions as well as a series of punctuating pep talks by writers such as Pitmen Painters and Billy Elliot creator, Lee Hall.
To celebrate the second anniversary, a new batch of clips have been added from Dennis Kelly (Matilda); Zoe Cooper (Nativities, Utopia); and Alistair McDowall (Captain Amazing, Uptopia) who were interviewed about their own writing practices.
The fact those listed above have been willing to associate themselves with the course is testament to Live’s international reputation for supporting new writing. This in itself provided Nicola with excitement and terror in equal measure.
“Presenting your writing is terrifying,” she admits. “Particularly when you know these are people with a standing in the national theatre community. Live works with and is in touch with some of the best writers in the country, so it is definitely daunting to be saying ‘hey, look what I’ve written!’
“But the comments were unanimously measured, balanced and fair and made in the genuine spirit of helping me to improve.
“I own an immense sense of personal achievement in finishing the course as well as enrichment and delight at re-establishing a relationship with the theatre in general.”
Currently on the third draft of the play she came out with at the end of her efforts: The Harrowing of Daniel O’Malley, Nicola’s words will be getting their first public outing via an extract reading on Thursday night during the Want to be a Playwright? event at Live Theatre.
She shudders with pride and fear. “It will be great to hear actors up there saying my words, but I am nervous.”
Nicola’s play tells the story of a North East soldier who is dismissed from the army because of his mental state, brought on by the wars he has been involved in.
“He comes back to Gateshead and moves in with his younger brother, Sam who doesn’t work and deals drugs,” she explains. “It’s all about what he finds when he comes back and the changes he has experienced while he’s been away.”
I wonder, given her day job, whether she was, or is, tempted to explore subjects closer to the station.
“I don’t think so... certainly not while I’m still a police officer,” she laughs. “
“I don’t read crime fiction and I don’t watch police-based dramas. The only thing I’ve watched close to it, would be Life On Mars which doesn’t really count when it comes to realism,” she laughs.
“Of course I have an interesting job and everything I do and see will inform my writing. But that would be the case if I worked in a cafe.”
Now working on a one-act play for Live’s Writer’s Group initiative (the probable next step after the playwriting course), Nicola can’t say too many good things about her beaplaywright.com experience – with one important caveat.
“It’s a complete cliche, but you get out of it what you put in. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to take yourself seriously. You must make time to write and if you’re prepared to expose yourself and take critical feedback on what you’ve done, then you’re going to get something out of it.
“It might not be an affirmation that you’re the next Tom Stoppard, but you’re going to be better than when you started...”
And the chances are you’ll have a play with your name on it.
Want to be a Playwright? is taking place at Live Theatre, Newcastle, on Thursday. Places are free, but booking is essential. Call 0191 232 1232 or visit www.live.org.uk. The interactive option of the course costs £495 and the solo option costs £95. If you’re interested in the course, but unable to attend, visit beaplaywright.com