Me and my brother
So graduation was pretty standard, and don’t worry, I did all of my commenting on how dull and full of pomp it was on Twitter. A lot of my comments might have seemed a little snarky – and for the most part I don’t apologise for that; my BA graduation was at least free of swords and sceptres, and nor did we have to stand for the national anthem (not that I did), though both included a good deal of ‘how awesome are we?!?!’ speeches (which is to be expected) and continuous clapping (which is fine). But I have to say that I felt very little sense of accomplishment with this event, and so thought I’d take a bit of time to reflect on my experience of being on the (properly prestigious) University of Birmingham Playwriting Studies course.
I was accepted without issue on to the UofB playwriting Mphil, but after a stressful and ‘you have to jump through hoops but we won’t tell you where they are’ failed funding application to the AHRC, it really was touch and go whether I was going to be able to fund my place on. In the end it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up, and the interest I was getting in my writing made it seem like the right time to be doing it, so me and my mum both took out loans so I could afford it. To be honest the lingering debt (works out at about £150 a month for me, which on a freelance/temp wage really does sting) is, I think, the one things that’s making the experience a little painful. I’m really really bored of being poor.
On the course you don’t really feel like you’re a part of the University, you are on a disparate campus, required to be there only 2 days a week, nor do you feel particularly connected to the department. On a logistical side of things you’re frequently bombarded with training you’re supposed to attend about research, unfortunately the ‘Mphil(b) research masters’ title means that you can’t avoid it, though it is almost entirely completely useless RE the course’s actual content.
But I really didn’t mind any of that.
The course was structured into two main strands – one was a series of essays and portfolios of short creative work, which you had to pass on, but that didn’t count towards any final mark, and the other was the writing and development of a full-length play, and an accompanying 6000 word analysis of the process of writing it. This thesis play is really the main project of the year you spend studying.
What you do get, is a group of 14 or so people, from all over the world (Amsterdam, Sweeden, Chicago, Tamworth) who are all proven, and passionate about writing for theatre. The youngest in my year was 21, the oldest late 50s. There was such a wealth of experience and styles, of different backgrounds and approaches. And they travel every tribulation with you. There was one point after the first draft deadline over Christmas, we all came back looking more than a little shell shocked. I (half) joked about my very real thoughts of ‘I totally can’t do this, I’ll just give up, I can totally give up, it has to be easier to give up than write this bloody thing’ and suddenly everyone was talking quite seriously about how they’d felt exactly the same thing, that they’d been on the point of phoning the uni, or had cried on the phone to their partner, or had been working out how much of the January fee payment they’d have to try and get back… But we were also there, still standing. It was wonderful to have human proof that it doesn’t just feel so insurmountably impossible for you. It doesn’t just feel like fingernails over the blackboard of your mind for you. It doesn’t just make you feel like you want to scream, and throw something, and cry, and that every key fall is just dulling your use of the English language into a deeper, more meaningless nonsense.
This is just what it feels like to be a writer.
On this course I also learnt how to do proper redrafts, before what I thought we redrafts, were just tweaks and shuffles. A proper redraft is a ‘new document’ in word. It’s a whole new play, written about the same story.
And the writers. The playwrights, screenwriters and industry professionals who came to speak to us, Dennis Kelly, David Eldridge, Dan Rebellato, Douglas Maxwell, David Nicholls, David Edgar, radio producers from the BBC, directors from the Birmingham REP. They all came and talked, and answered all of our tremulous questions. We learnt that everyone hates writing for TV, even those who do it. That a good printer is of more use to a writer than a good computer. That writing books is fun, and that adapting them for the screen isn’t. That TV and movie writing pays a lot but everyone but Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies only do it so they can afford to write for the stage. That you should never lie down in press photographs. Douglas Maxwell actually brought a file in full of rejection letters, about a hundred of them, and told us about the whole cabinet he has of them at home. Dan Rebellato talked about getting Michael Palin to play a character in his radio play, and how he somehow balances an academic career with one as a playwright (insane idea that it – oh, wait). Dennis Kelly talked about coming into playwriting comparatively later in life, while David Eldridge swore softly about becoming a so-called overnight success. These writers were all quietly kind, answered all of our questions, were realistically encouraging, and without exception, very very funny. Story telling is something that leaks into your conversation too. There was no ‘how do you do this’ answer that came from their talks – because you can’t map creativity for anyone but yourself – but the two things they all emphasised and embodied were resilience and a sense of humour.
I would have liked to have seen more writers who weren’t white-male, but I do know that’s (sadly) a real minority of writers.
Then there’s Steve Waters. Steve was the course convener, he oversaw it all, and was our constant contact. As well as being a very accomplished and successful (quietly political) playwright, Steve is an immensely generous, thoughtful, passionate man. He saw the value in each story, in each style, he encouraged and questioned, rather than criticised. He was firm when he needed to be, and sympathetic when your voice was quavering with the weight of it all. I don’t mean this to sound scyophantic, but that course is built or broken on the back of the convener. And we were very lucky that Steve was that.
And then I wrote a play.
Set in the Future. About a group of people playing the largest online game (MMORPG) ever. And their meeting the founder of the online world, and a famous, renegade hacker. Who gives them the option of destroying the world, but you’re never sure which one. But instead they tear themselves apart. A play that took in different realities- people playing avatars of different ages, sexes and ethnicities. A play about people who live and die in virtual worlds, and what it is about this one which pushes them out.
It was very, very hard.
And I’m still not sure I got it.
I set myself a massive challenge. But more than anything, the Playwriting masters gave me the undivided time, and the tools with which to tackle it.
If you’re interested, you can read my thesis play Being Someone Else here
I think I could have progressed to where I am now in about 5 years of hard, part-time graft. I would have probably stuck at it. I don’t tend to let myself fail if I can avoid it. But what the masters gave me was a fast-track. Of course I have everything still to learn, and everything left to lose,in my pursuit of a writing career. But that year escalated my learning, built me a wider support network, and more than anything showed me that to write, is to hurt, and to write, is to laugh and carry on regardless.
To return to my opening project – of wanting to examine why I don’t feel as though I have achieved much – I think it’s because the course wasn’t meant to do that, it isn’t on the course you achieve, but (I suppose like in all university learning) your are given the tools with which to do so. But the end of this particular course also marks the point at which you are – more than before – on your own again. Which is perhaps why it feels a little sad, which is perhaps why I feel a little bereft. And perhaps why I was also itching to get out of there, why I found it a tad irrelevant, because I want to get started, I want to be heard, I want to be staged…
And sooner than all that, I must to bed, as in 4 hours I’m leaving for Paris!
Bonne Nuit, and watch this space.