I’m delighted to welcome playwright Stephen Brown to The Writing Coach team as a mentor for playwrights. Stephen is now available as a consultant through The Writing Coach. Stephen was my own tutor in playwriting, so it gives me particular pleasure to welcome him. I interviewed Stephen about his approach to playwriting and mentoring and do hope you enjoy the interview.
Stephen Brown is a playwright, dramaturg and creative writing tutor. His adaptation of Rory Stewart’s bestselling memoir Occupational Hazards will have a major London production in 2016. He is currently working on a commission for the National Theatre.
Jacqui Lofthouse interviews Stephen Brown
Jacqui: Stephen, can you tell me what led you to playwriting as a career?
Stephen: I could scroll back and say I started writing plays when I was a teenage boy, about 16 or 17 years old. I’d always been writing short stories and poetry. But I loved the theatre and something happened to me aged 16 or 17 in a way I’ve only much later understood. I was really drawn to the particular writing challenge of writing a play. I think that’s to do with there not being, in a play, unlike in a novel or a short story, a single voice – and what I like about the play is this 360 degree fractured world in which different voices clash and fight for their interests, their wants and – yes – just that essence of the dramatic of these different viewpoints and worlds colliding. In retrospect, that’s what drew me to playwriting: a love of dramatic conflict.
It became something that I got paid for about a dozen years ago. I didn’t set out to have a playwriting ‘career’, I set out to write and try to get paid for that and have had some success – although the playwriting world is not awash with money. I didn’t think ‘let’s have a career’, I thought ‘let’s write what I want to write, let’s work with people I want to work with, let’s bring my vision to the stage, let’s try to get these things produced and write them as best I can’. And then I’m lucky that various theatres and production companies have really wanted to work with me and pay me to do that.
Jacqui: I’m interested in what you say about the fact that you chose playwriting over prose. We’ve worked together and I’m primarily a novelist. Do you find that people who have written fiction and then come to playwriting have any particular challenges?
Stephen: Not necessarily. There are some notable authors who have had success as playwrights, like Michael Frayn or Mikhail Bulgakov who wrote The Master and Margarita but also wrote some terrific plays – and you can see in the work of some novelists, that they have a strong dramatic sense, like Dickens for example who was obsessed by the theatre and became a one man theatre show traveling round Britain and America as well performing semi-dramatised extracts from his novels. It depends what kind of novelist you are. If you’re a novelist for whom punchy, exciting dialogue scenes come relatively easily, you’ll find the leap easier than one whose strengths are more to do with the continuity of an individual authorial voice for example. The two forms are very distinct.
The nature of a play is really different – the degree of the difference surprises people. In a play, you’re watching people’s behaviour in worlds, essentially externally, and you’re seeing a piece of live performance, actual bodies on stage in front of you interacting. It is so different from the much longer form of the novel, which is like a private voice whispering in your ear, which is creating something in your imagination. As a writer writing a play, you’re writing a set of instructions for another group of artists, for them to go away and explore those and out of them create the final work of art, the performance. It’s such a different beast. I’ve generally found the students I’ve worked with who have written novels… some of them are the best students I’ve worked with, so it’s not like I think ‘oh, novelists, they’re going to have difficulty.’ But it IS a different world. Henry James was obsessed with the theatre and desperately wanted to be a playwright but made a total hash of it… it can be a tricky transition for some people.
Jacqui: I’ve worked with you on your course at The Rose Theatre and you are now also available as a mentor to playwrights via The Writing Coach. But can you outline your approach, in relation to how you help beginners to first get something down on the page?
Stephen: Confidence is key. Something I say to all my students is that writing is partly just about the management of fear. Creativity is about the management of fear. Creativity brings up in us its shadow side which all the fearful negative carping voices saying ‘you can’t do that, you’re not good enough, somebody’s already done it before.’
I seek to create a safe and creative space where the basic rule of conversation and how we receive each others’ work is that we say ‘yes’ to the points that people are bringing forward and the work they are offering and perhaps add something more or bring something out or add a suggestion for the next stage of development. I do exercises that are about unleashing creativity in structured ways, getting people to write quickly. In the first lesson I talk about the word ‘playwright’ – the first part relates to playfulness, the unleashing of the imagination, the second part, the word ‘wright’ suggests craft or craftsperson, so it’s not just creating a positive environment and splurging and learning to trust that the unconscious will reach a hand-up from the murky depths and offer something interesting. But we also work through the technical and structural ideas and ‘rules’ of what is a scene and what is dramatic conflict and how do we develop characters and how do we put subtext into dialogue etc. Part of the challenge for all writers is to hold in balance our technical understanding of what a play is with our dreamworld, our imagination, which we need to unleash when we sit down at our desks and allow ourselves to write.
Jacqui: That makes a lot of sense. In relation to that technical side, for example, dramatic conflict – can you elaborate on that and how it relates to writing scenes? Does it become more instinctive the more you write?
Stephen: I do think it becomes more instinctive. I also think that if you just set two people talking, very often something like dramatic conflict will begin to emerge. I start talking about it in the very first lesson. We look at the beginning of two plays, a Greek Tragedy and a more contemporary comedy and look at how the same thing is going on – what emerges from that is that drama is this thing that happens when people with different wants come into collision with each other and through how they behave and what they say, they push and pull to negotiate, trade, seduce, persuade, threaten – all those things that people do in order to get people to get what they want. It might be getting you to lend me a thousand quid or do more for the care of my mother.
In the Greek tragedy, Antigone effectively says ‘will you help me bury the body of our brother, break the law of the city and help me?’ I put it in stark terms like that, that’s a simple version. In plays as they develop, it becomes very complicated: you can have more than one conflict happening at once, more than two people in a scene, some of the conflict happening in subtext. In a love scene for example, what exactly is at stake in that conflict won’t be the same in a seduction scene or a break-up scene. What’s at stake in that conflict won’t be said, but the central point is that in drama, people are on different vectors coming into collision. They need something from each other. The stakes are always high. There’s no low stakes drama. Drama is about pressure, those moments when we’re on the back foot , when we are forced to make difficult decisions, when we realise that actually ‘oh, I don’t know which way to go.’ Another fundamental experience of watching drama is dramatic internal conflict, watching characters wavering and wrestling with their inner decision making process – like Macbeth – ‘do I murder the king?’
Jacqui: That question ‘what’s at stake?’ is something that has really stayed with me, even as a novelist and when I read manuscripts for clients. I had a sense of it, but it was a strong thing for me, to think ‘what is at stake here?’ If there’s no dramatic tension, the scenes fall flat – in a novel it’s easier to ‘get away with it’ effectively…
Stephen: Yes, novels are different and there are lots of parts of novels that are not in a simple sense dramatic scenes. I’ve just re-read Moby-Dick and there’s such richness of language – and it gives you a picture of this entire extraordinary world in the 19th century, but there are also some really strong dramatic scenes, scenes of conflict between Ahab and Starbuck where they really are wrestling with what to do – or there’s a scene where Starbuck thinks about murdering Ahab to save the crew and it’s very much like the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is considering murdering Claudius when he’s praying, and he has this extraordinary doubt, this uncertainty. But that I think is one of the injunctions – it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master: always be dramatic. Understanding what that means, but you know, beware the bit where people are just giving people information. There are always forces at play within a dramatic scene, forces of tension.
Jacqui: I wanted to focus now on the individual attention you give to people in terms of what you offer to people that you mentor. Tell me about your approach to feedback.
Stephen: I tend to give pretty extensive feedback, as you know. I usually read through what a mentee sends in a couple of times, I’ll do some local notes, picking up on particular issues in a particular line, on a particular page. But really I’m looking to enter into where you’re at in the creative process. I will identify at the beginning of the feedback what is working well so far and then I will enter into some detail under a number of main headings where I think you have things you need to resolve and I’m definitely somebody who, giving feedback – I’m less about saying ‘that’s not working’ and more about firing at you five suggestions about how you might develop it. And none of those suggestions may be the right one but my hunch is that generally by thinking through those five, you will lead yourself to whatever is the right answer for you – to enable you to make those choices and discoveries.
I try to give the kind of feedback that I’ve found most useful as a writer. One of the things about professional writing is that professional writers still need feedback, seek out feedback, find their good readers, themselves have mentors… We all need from time to time those good readers who reflect back to us the things that we perhaps know a lot of the time…’hmm, that’s not quite right, but I just can’t see beyond it’ – and you can send it to somebody else and they offer you new possibilities. My feedback is detailed, extensive, creative and positive. So it’s definitely the feedback of a fellow writer. I’m trying to push you too, I will quite happily say ‘well, maybe the character will do this’ – which is not me trying to do your work for you, but to jog you in different directions and explore ways out of whatever is blocking you at the moment or whatever the next stage of development is.
Jacqui: I also wanted to ask you whether there were particular traps that people often fall into – or notes that you often give.
Stephen: Yes, there are quite a few. Having said it’s a central challenge to always be dramatic – I often say ‘Is there enough conflict? Enough of people seeking thing?’ The note against inertia! And what is perhaps, on the scale of the whole story or whole play, the corollary of that is, ‘is there enough happening, is the script moving forwards?’ I often find myself saying ‘choose a protagonist’ – quite a few people perfectly reasonably start off not quite knowing who the protagonist is and they may change their mind about that.
People get themselves tied up in knots with exposition, feeling as if they need to lay out things about the characters and the world, get them established – yet you can just plunge an audience into the action without any explanation and they will really enjoy running a little to catch up. Obviously you can go too far with that – and we miss the dramatic force because we don’t understand it. But usually it’s in the other direction. Drama is a compressed form, time limited, partly just by the endurance of the human buttocks . That’s one of our great controlling factors. When people are sitting there, they need the piece to move forwards. A novel is 10-15 hours of peoples’ lives, often in half hour bits. In theatre, compression is key.
Those are common notes that I find myself giving, but there’s a pretty big range of notes. Writers I work with come with a really wide range of issues, people struggling to get their story moving, struggling to shape a scene, struggling with dialogue. I find myself giving notes right across the whole subject area.
Jacqui: To finish, I don’t know if you’re able to reveal what’s next for you in your own work as a playwright?
Stephen: Yes, I can say some things. I have a play which is based on a true story by a guy called Rory Stewart which is a memoir based on his story as a young British diplomat being dropped into a province in Southern Iraq, aged 30, in the chaos post the invasion of 2003. It’s about him being dropped into a very chaotic and uncertain political situation, in a city where there are gangs of criminals stealing all the copper electricity wires and things like that. It’s about someone trying to create the beginnings of a democracy and trying to get the lights working. I say it’s like the West Wing with Kalashnikovs and that’s going to be at the Hampstead Theatre – probably late 2016/early 2017. I have a couple of other projects, one I can’t say anything about in development at the Bristol Old Vic and another script I’m handing back into the National, commissioned by them, and we’ll see what they make of that. So yes, a number of different things going on.
Jacqui: That sounds very exciting. I look forward to seeing the play at the National and more beyond that. Thank you Stephen.
Stephen is available through The Writing Coach as a mentor for writers. Please contact us directly if you are interested in working with Stephen as your mentor.