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Ravenhill on teaching people to write plays  Rating:  Rating
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 Posted: Mon Aug 7th, 2006 01:13 pm
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Swann1719
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Ladies and Gentlemen and children of all ages,

Mark Ravenhill has a short article on why writing plays cannot be taught. 

You can see it from this page:

http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/theatre/

What do you think of this?  Is he right? 

I do agree with his observation that the more you write, the more uncertain the rules become.

Best,

Swann

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 Posted: Mon Aug 7th, 2006 02:48 pm
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Boz2
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In another article further down the link: "The plays the thing...unless you're a novelist";
is a list of all the great novelists who failed or who had problems with drama.

Who taught Shakespeare?

So, perhaps what a playwright needs is the "x" ingredient, Somerset Maugham refers to in his "Writers Notebook"
Or just lots of practice.


When I began to write as a student, I was so sure, so full of confidence; now after years of trying, I constantly re-read every line I write and constantly re-write almost every line.

Boz2

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 Posted: Mon Aug 7th, 2006 06:04 pm
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nikip
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I have to say that I don't agree with him.  I think dialogue (or at least interesting dialogue) is incredibly difficult to write, but nothing is harder than writing in isolation.  Workshopping seems invaluable to me.  Yes you have to have some personal resolve about bits that you want to stay when others dismiss them as not right.  But it is an audience rehearsal in a way, and that has to be a good thing.  And also, workshopping is what we do here when we critique each others' work.  When done positively, it is the most helpful and motivational technique.  And as a teacher of English I would say to Mark R that the teaching of any genre of English is difficult!  The moment we see that as impossible or not worth it then the literacy of our kids goes even more down the tube.

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 Posted: Fri Aug 11th, 2006 06:12 pm
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Edd
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A STATEMENT OF BELIEF


I dropped out of school.  I am a self-taught playwright, however from the time I was ten I already knew I was a writer.  It was never a question of going to be one.  I believe I now have the equivalent of an MA.  I do not believe anybody could have taught me playwrighting.  I have over a dozen full-length plays and scores of one-acts -- most all have been produced from coast to coast, off-off B'way and Spain.  My work can be found in a high school and college text book.   I refuse to workshop my plays.  Often they go from computer to stage in a matter of weeks.  I have done several commissions, including a musical.  Great dialogue could never be taught.  It comes from knowing how to listen.  Playwrights, I believe, can be nurtured and playwrights can be taught history and technique.  Playwrights must read and see as many plays as possible--that is a great teacher.  However, listening remains the best.  The art of playwrighting could not be taught to me.  Little could--I walked out of school in a bi-polar huff.  I believe there is an "it" factor -- either you have it or you don't have it. 

I am well aware that there are many with the opposite point of view. Perhaps as many as half of us.  I applaud that.  It causes us to revisit and to reaffirm our convictions.  :>)

**********************************


After re-reading this I think it sounds terribly pompous and bragadosio.  In fact, I'm certain of it.  Sometimes I focus on myself and get carried away.  Most everything I've written could be doo-doo for all I know.  I am truly sorry.  It's just that this is a subject I am very passionate about.  Forgive me.
 
BTW, Edward Albee, my imaginary mentor, was also a self-taught drop-out.

Last edited on Fri Aug 11th, 2006 09:14 pm by Edd

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 Posted: Fri Aug 11th, 2006 09:23 pm
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scenedreamer
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Edd,

I totally agree.  You have more than the equivalent of a Masters Degree.  I'm sure educators differ, but I don't believe any art form can be taught.  In fact, I think the intellect gets in the way of art.  At the graduate level it can destroy not only art, but the artist.

Getting a graduate degree in playwriting, almost destroyed any talent I ever had.  I learned the jargon and I understood the principles, but the emphasis of my program was on the impossibility of what I had done all my life purely on instinct.  Prior to the graduate experience, I wrote, I was published, and my work was produced.  Critics were kind and awards were bestowed.  But after being critiqued, criticized, and demeaned for three years, I saw myself as nothing more than a pompous over-confident amateur.  I saw the same thing inflicted on others as their confidence and ultimately their talent was destroyed by the education system. 

Knowledge makes a teacher.  Practice makes a craftsman.  And confidence, even over-confidence, makes an artist. 

SD

Last edited on Fri Aug 11th, 2006 10:25 pm by scenedreamer

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 Posted: Mon Aug 14th, 2006 03:21 pm
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katoagogo
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nikip wrote:
I have to say that I don't agree with him.  I think dialogue (or at least interesting dialogue) is incredibly difficult to write...

I thought this was an interesting point, because in Aristotles Poetics there is an observation that dialogue is perhaps the easiest of the dramatists' skills to master. That there are many examples of playwrights who have interesting spoken language, but have trouble creating an active story.

I find this to still be the case, most new playwrights do have an "ear" for creating dialogue without an understanding of creating dramatic action. So, i agree with Ravenhill's observation that writing good dialogue is the easiest of the dramaist's skills to accomplish.

It is a good place to start with students; to teach them to trust their ear and their individual sense of language.

I enjoyed this article. I think it pointed to Ravenhill's own admission that he is a poor workshop leader, raher than saying that all workshops are unsuccesful or without merit.

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 Posted: Mon Aug 14th, 2006 03:46 pm
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Edd
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Kato, this is a most important thought.  The most difficult for me is certainly creating an active story--I agonize over it and tend to rely too heavily on painstaking dialogue.  Story is the greatest weakness with many playwrights.  Where do you find (or how do you find) inspiration for story? News items, personal history, pure fabrication, does it come natural for you, etc?  I'd love to hear your thoughts and so, I think,  would others.  Thanks.

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 Posted: Mon Aug 14th, 2006 05:51 pm
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Boz2
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Edd,
I, too, have a problem with the story, and with theatricality in general.

I would guess this is because I studied English Literature at University; which means I read plays as texts.

I signed up for the optional creative writing course, which in my case, was lead by a distinguished British radio dramatist- you see- words again.

My characters talk- but I forget- there's nothing for them to do- or for the audience to watch.

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 Posted: Mon Aug 14th, 2006 06:32 pm
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katoagogo
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Edd wrote:
Kato, this is a most important thought.  The most difficult for me is certainly creating an active story--I agonize over it and tend to rely too heavily on painstaking dialogue.  Story is the greatest weakness with many playwrights.  Where do you find (or how do you find) inspiration for story? News items, personal history, pure fabrication, does it come natural for you, etc?  I'd love to hear your thoughts and so, I think,  would others.  Thanks.


I use a technique that I read about that is used by screenwriters. Of course with plays the language is important because it creates imagery -- we see with our ears in the theater -- but -- what we remember is the story. the story is what happens.

That "seeing with our ears" part is what i will use to bind the language together in a later step.

So -- I get an idea for a play. Sometimes what I get first is the title. I keep a notebook where I jot down potential titles. Why titles? Because a good title will ofetn help to define the unifying principle of the playworld that I am creating. So I have this farm full of potential play titles, with a sentence or two with what the play might be about.

At some point -- maybe an hour later -- maybe five years later -- something triggers a bigger-idea-for-the-play explosion. This happens in my head. What is imperative is that I find some paper and start writing down what I'm thinking.

When I make the notes what I write down is what happens, and what happens after that, and what the next thing is after that which causes the next thing -- and so on. What I have is a string of what happens and why.

i do not write dialogue in the notes. The dialogue will be added later.

I rewrite these notes, discovering new pieces of the story, how to plot it, and what form to take. All of this is on hand witten pages in a notebook usually dedicated to this particular story idea (if it's a full-length play).

Sometimes I do an exercise where I am going to fill X (at least 5 pages) amount of pages without letting my hand stop (a technique from The Artist's Way and Writing Down the Bones). I discover amazing things by doing that exercise. It helps me "find" the play in a profound way.

When i sit down to write the text (that's when I fire-up the computer), I have my notes and I begin the work of expressing the action through dialogue.

I study language, and the work of contemporay language playwrights in particular, like Kushner, Svitch, Cruz, and Rivera. Of course, Shakespeare is the master. Oddly enough, the place I have learned the most about Shakespeare's techniques have been through books about directing Shakespearian theater. Directors have to understand how to decontruct the language and activate the thoughts behind the dialogue -- so there are chapters full of how the stuff is constructed.

For example, when a character gets to the emotional decesion reached after a monologue -- he will speak in monosyllabic terms. This is how you know that a character is speaking the truth. If multi-syllable words creep into the speech -- then the character is still thinking, or possibly lying.

I've been experimenting with the way we (people) respond to sound. I try to create a tension between what the words being spoken sound like and what they actually mean. Then at some point I allow the the sound and the meaning to come together. Because our brains respond to sound before our brains interpret the logic of a word, it is possible to create a seperate emotional resonance that is deeper than the literal meaning of language. It's a very cool dynamic.

I don't hear dialogue so much as I hear a complete soundscape -- where footsteps, paper pages being turned in a book, silverware over porcelain, the rustle of fabric, the jingle of keys, are all part of the play-world, and all hold meaning and relevance to the experience and understanding of the indivual play world.


--Kato

PS -- I am a terrible speller. Please forgive some of my errors, but I'd rather not let my poor spelling delay me from posting this response.

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 Posted: Wed Aug 16th, 2006 07:00 pm
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Edd
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Kato,

That is fabulously interesting.  I too keep a list of titles and eventually they tell me what they want the play to be about.

Fortunately, I have a natural ear for dialogue.  I cannot take credit for it.

Story is usually determined by the characters.  I always develop them first.  Then they begin to tell their story.  Eventually I go back to line one and lay in all the foreshadowing of where it is going after I've already been there.

I do keep a journal of dialogue along with titles.  However, the dialogue I tend to put in the journal generally has some sort of philosophical subtext.  And I love regional colloquialisms.

Individual approaches to writing are always fascinating.

BTW.  I was never a big fan of Angels in America on the stage.  This week I watched all of the Mike Nichols film and developed a deep respect for Kushner.  I heard the subtext and the birilliant dialogue.  He now has a new and grateful fan.  I may yet feel that way about Our Town.  I take pride in continually growing.  I'm  not dead and when one stops growing they are (that is if one can "be" dead).

Edd

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