Are you experienced?
By Michael Ross
Photo: Michael Ross (foreground)with Chipo Chung (director) and Kerry Hood
In October I was one of four playwrights selected for the Plays of Innocence & Experience project organised by the Writers’ Guild and RADA, an intensive two-day workshop collaborating on a play script with a professional director and the Academy’s acting alumni.
In addition, each writer was assigned a mentor by the Guild; an experienced writer who would accompany the playwright throughout their workshop and serve as their ally and confidante. All four plays were workshopped over the two days, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, so if your play was not being worked on you could pass freely between the other two as an observer. This was as valuable a part of the experience as your own workshop, as you were able to see how the process worked for other writers.
Different writers will have different, equally valid experiences. Some may go in wrestling with big problems in their scripts which the workshops will hopefully help them resolve by testing out new ideas, and they may cut whole scenes and write new ones, or it may send them back to the drawing board for a much more radical rethink. Or else they may go in with a script they are tentatively pleased with, but about which they have some lingering doubts, and they just need a runway on which to set the play off and see if it takes flight.
My script is about a young man who survives a close encounter with a serial killer and is haunted by the experience for the rest of his life. The first act (which we focused on during the workshop) consists mostly of letters between the two men, one in prison, the other coming of age and going to university. Through the correspondence the two form an unlikely friendship, both isolated in their different ways; the young man increasingly identifying with the killer and feeling able to confide in him secrets he can’t tell anyone else, whilst the killer’s curiosity is sparked by this young man who seems to bear him no grudge despite almost becoming one of his victims.
As it took the form of letters, it was very dense in terms of monologue, and this was a worry for me. Although I had worked hard to make the monologues alive and compelling and felt the correspondence was an integral part of the story, I did fear they might turn out to be dramatically inert in performance. But as soon as the actors got up on their feet and began performing, it became clear that it would work. Rather than just literally reading out their letters, we looked at non-naturalistic ways of representing the communication between the two. They peered over each other’s shoulders, invaded each other’s physical spaces, confronted each other face to face. The script came alive, and it became apparent that I should include this sense of interaction in the scene directions of the play itself.
The director Chipo Chung also got the actors to improvise scenes that weren’t in the play, and ‘hot-seated’ them – getting them to answer a string of questions in character. This was hugely enjoyable to watch, as well as reassuring to know that the actors had been able to grasp a well rounded sense of their characters from the script, drawing inspiration from little details, as well as adding their own insights. It’s not necessarily the case that I will add those ideas or scenes to the play, but it was exciting to see the actors respond to the play in such an intelligent way and it offered further reassurance that I was on the right track.
Phil Cheadle & Iain Batchelor in Michael Ross's play
For me, the greatest benefit of the experience was working with the actors. If I ever doubted the point of drama schools like RADA, these workshops proved just how necessary an intensive and disciplined drama training is. These were some of the best actors I’ve worked with and they threw themselves fearlessly and selflessly into everything they were asked to do, without hesitation. This rigour is clearly instilled in them by the knowledge and experience of the school’s teaching staff, and we saw much evidence of that from RADA’s dramaturge Lloyd Trott who oversaw all four workshops and was an incisive analyser of each script.
Ultimately it was all geared towards the needs of the writer and their script. In rehearsals for a production, tough decisions might have to be made because of time or budgetary constraints, but here the only concern was the script and how best to realise it for the writer as we now take them forward and submit to theatres.
I hope the Writers’ Guild and RADA continue this collaboration as it seems to me an experience that hugely benefits both playwrights and actors. In these times of reduced funding, it’s essential that playwrights are still given opportunities to develop their work with the help of actors and directors, and it is surely equally beneficial to actors at the start of their careers to have the opportunity to collaborate with writers at such an early stage in a play’s gestation.