Theatre Critic and Journalist

Teach First Acts – Duncan Macmillan & Leo Butler

Teach First Acts – Duncan Macmillan & Leo Butler

Published in The Stage, 08.08.2013

With the proliferation of playwrighting courses around the UK, be they at universities or subsidised theatres, there’s been a growing scepticism about the notion of teaching playwrighting. Since young writers’ groups serve as the most obvious entry-point into the profession, it’s hard to find a self-taught playwright under 35 these days. However, if everyone’s taking the same courses, the danger is that every play starts to look much the same.

At the same time, the success rate of such schemes has been undeniable. A look at the Royal Court shows a steady influx of trainee writers into its main programme: Polly Stenham, Nick Payne, Anya Reiss in recent years; before them, Lucy Prebble, Laura Wade, Mike Bartlett – and the list just goes on and on.

Go back far enough, in fact, and you find Leo Butler, who took over as course leader in 2005. He inherited a two-tier system – the Young Writers Programme for nascent playwrights and an invitation group for more experienced writers. To that, Butler added the jokingly titled Supergroup; a longer-term course (25 weeks) for playwrights to whom the theatre wanted to commit.

Five years earlier, he’d joined Hanif Kureishi’s invitation group, which was “very laid back: we drank pints, smoked cigarettes and talked about books and plays.” It all sounds like a throwback to the first incarnation of the Court’s writers’ group in the early 70s, a politically-motivated gathering known as The Activists.

These days it’s more about professional development than sharing copies of the Socialist Worker. Duncan Macmillan, now teaching at Soho Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith, says he “collected courses – mostly to avoid having to write my first play.”

Both Macmillan and Butler agree that playwrighting isn’t a syllabus-led subject. However, there is a skeleton of crucial points to cover: “scene structure, story structure, character, dialogue and form,” says Macmillan, “Form, being the one that often gets missed out.” The aim is to flag up “the things that first-time writers often get wrong.” However, over-emphasize these principles and you wind up with conformity and consensus in the resultant work. The key, both stress, is that there are no rules, only what Macmillan calls “lightbulb moments;” everything needs be up for grabs.

“The important thing for me,” says Butler, “is creating the right environment for writers to write whatever it is they want to writer – even if that play is a million miles away from anything the Royal Court would produce.”

For Butler, any group of writers will naturally tend towards a variety of work, but to do so, they need shepherding away from the power of example – whereby writers adopt the traits of successes and theatres seek to programme similar work. Once it was Sarah Kane knock-offs, now it’s Simon Stephens stylee. If there’s conformity in work on stage, Butler argues, its more likely down to “the tastes and temperaments” of programmers.

Even so, writing courses are pushing back and, says Butler, “throwing out the rule book of the kind of plays that can be written.” Macmillan talks of encouraging “the subconscious, the bit of our mind that’s got all the good, unexpected stuff” and of broadening his students’ tastes. “If they really love Beckett, you can point them towards his influences. You give them a tapas platter and see where it leads them – otherwise they’ll keep reinventing the wheel. They’ll keep writing Blasted or Crave.”

Butler, meanwhile, is introducing more practical, improvisational and devising techniques into his teaching; “exploring all the kinds of theatre they could create. It sometimes gets forgotten that playwrighting’s not a literary art, that a play is just a blueprint for something live, for bodies in space; a 3D experience.”

It’s all underpinned by respect and potential. “I feel that every group could contain a Caryl Churchill or Harold Pinter, a debbie tucker green or a Mike Barlett that I’m never going to be able to touch,” says Macmillan – even though the chances are most won’t remain playwrights. No matter, he continues: “Going on a wine-tasting course doesn’t ruin wine for you. These courses make you a better audience member.”

In the moment, however, the more credit given to student writers, the better their prospects. Butler explains that Dominic Cooke’s tenure at the Royal Court meant YWP writers were in contention for programming, not just in the biennial young writers’ festivals, but on the main bill. “You could write a script and that could end up under the artistic director’s nose with a serious chance of being produced.”

True, that has led to occasionaly accusations of youth-centricity, but it’s certainly set a generation of playwrights up to go from strength to strength. With time, says Butler, “the work gets bigger and broader and more interesting. The more investment and the more time we can spend with the writers, the better the plays will be.”

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