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In March this year, when the world moved into its first Covid- 19 lock-down, none of us could have imagined the devastation on the Theatre Industry. As we tentatively stepped back out into the European summer, we didn’t foresee we’d be back for a second lockdown as we head toward the new year.
And while the Theatre industry has run perilously close to collapse over recent months, and there is still concern over the viability of the Christmas pantomime season, companies have found ways to persevere and keep their doors open, often in unexpected ways. Theatres through the course of the year have been able to create and survive, whether that be taking work out of the theatres and into the public domain, digitising performances or using empty theatre space for the good of the community.
The Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre have responded to the pandemic by taking their theatre outdoors for this Christmas season. Their socially distanced creation Present is a set of four ‘handcrafted, pop-up’ Christmas Shows, each one a unique performance that will be held on the doorstep or back gardens of community nominated Dundonians.
Oxford-based Creation Theatre will be taking their work digital after being awarded £165k in funding. They will create a digital repertory company and a new online theatre platform including the development of projects that aim to “pave the way for new approaches in the industry”.
Some companies with empty theatres have found ways to raise income while helping the community. Manchester’s Lowry Theatre has set up a temporary court to help ease the legal backlog while their theatre was empty. Dubbed the ‘Nightingale Court’, the venue has acted as an additional Magistrates’ Court to deal with excess cases in the criminal justice system, and in doing so provided income for the gallery and theatre.
Another great example is Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, which has converted its traditional theatre space into a hub for the Highland Council to deliver humanitarian aid as well as turning over their box office system to become a community helpline.
Some theatres have been able to live stream their performances, allowing at least some of their annual programme to go ahead, albeit digitally, including the upcoming Philip Ridley’s Poltergeist at Southwark Playhouse on 20–21 November.
The good news is that in this lockdown rehearsals can still go ahead, meaning shows in development should be ready to go live as soon as the lockdown is set to end December 2nd. Stephen Fry and a group of actors will celebrate the reopening with a charity performance of a semi-staged rehearsed reading of The Understudy at the Palace Theatre on the 7th & 8th December with proceeds going to Acting For Others, the Equity Charitable Trust and The Theatre Development Trust, run by the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre.
Let’s hope this ingenuity, flex and collaboration will keep our spirits and the curtain up and see theatre companies thrive again in 2021 and beyond.
A common question around writing is “Where do you get your ideas from?” I guess ideas usually come from being somewhere -a place or an event where I’ve been immersed in a situation or a destination. So, the stimulus of an environment helps. Then I tend to ask myself the ‘What if” question. What if x happened here right now, or what would happen if that person over there wanted z etc. Once I’ve got a rough idea of something that sparks an interest, I then play with the idea, trying to make it more resonant.
Robin Mukherjee wrote in Art of Screenplays, that you need to test your idea for that deep resonance. “Do you feel something move in the deeper, darker aspects of your understanding of what it is to be human….if (so) then it is likely to make others respond in the same way.,,if not….focus the beam a bit more.”I think this quote is really key. If I can’t find something about an idea that connects, I can’t get writing. It’s hard to explain and it’s a gut feeling, but it’s really important.
But, it doesn’t mean you throw out all ideas until you get that once that chimes with you. If you’ve got the semblance of an idea, just keep digging a little deeper to see if you can hit on something.
In filmmaking, there is much debate over the script, what it constitutes and who owns it. The inherent difference between a script and a novel or a play is that, ultimately, the script is a blueprint, a starting point, and inevitable collaboration, compared to the sanctity of the play or novel.
That understood, it is still hard not to get riled up reading the first chapter of Mara’s text on Autuer theory. While interesting to understand that the “ politique des auteurs was itself a response to a deeper problem that still has implications for film workers today: namely the separation of conception and execution”, my first question was, why is this a phenomenon, when in comparison to arguably it’s closest artform, playwriting, no such phenomena occurs?
While cognisant and accepting that a screenplay is a looser and less absolute form than a theatre play, it still seems a giant leap from the reverence of the playwright in the theatre world to the subversion the writer and exultation of the Director in screenwriting.
A quick Google search of Autuer exemplars shows a pictorial gallery of present and past middle-aged white men- Anderson, Tarantino, Scorsese, Wilder, Nolan, Hitchcock -it’s hard to ignore the gender politics here. So is Autuer theory just a construct of Hollywood elite, a flexing of their power to portray their talent as more far-reaching than it may actually be ? It reminds me of conceptual artists like Jeff Koons, whose works are often physically created by a team of artists employed by Koons, but the artist concept and kudos belongs to Koons himself. The difference between this example and the auteurs is to me the hub of the argument -it’s about here the story idea is conceived.
For me the fundamental argument starts before a script evolves at all. At the beginning of any creative process, an idea emerges from somewhere. In the case of the screenwriter, it is a story idea that almost always originates from the writer. The writer then brings that idea to life, then shares it with collaborators to be brought to life. Would the autuers have projects at all if every writer decided to put their pens down?
WRITING ABOUT ART: Heavy Artillery is the latest exhibition from White Rabbit Gallery, as founder and director Judith Neilson continues to build her legacy of collecting and exhibiting works of 21st century Chinese Contemporary Art.
This exhibition is curated by David Williams and surveys 30 works of new and established Chinese artists. The art historical dichotomy between East and West continues to be explored in this exhibition as these artists take the western import of contemporary art and create their own zeitgeist.
Leading the exhibition is a Xu Zhen’s EuropeanThousand-armed Classical Sculpture (2013-2014). Reaching over three metres tall, this pure white sculpture is created with 19 individual figures, single file, on large plinths, high above our natural eyeline, forcing viewers to look up uncomfortably to take in the magnitude of the figures in front of us. The individual sculptures include recognisable figures of Athena, The Statue of Liberty ,Jesus along with other greek and roman statues. The sculpture as a whole, when viewed from the front, bears a resemblance to Guanyin,a Buddhist bodhisattva religious figure representing compassion. This combination of recognised western religious and cultural figures displayed within an established Eastern religious iconic formation, raises considerations of the relationships between the East and the West and questions of counterculture balance/absorption and peace/conflict.
He Xiangyu’s Tank Project (2011-2013)
The question of conflict is also explored through He Xiangyu’s work Tank Project (2011-2013), a life size copy of a Soviet T34 tank, the same tank used by the Chinese military in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The work takes up a large space in the centre of an empty room, where immediately on entering the area, we are struck by the strong smell of luxury Italian leather. The tank has been constructed and hand stitched using this leather, raising considerations of the thousands of designer handbag copies that flood Chinese tourist markets. The tank is without structure, deflated, in the same way you would expect if it had been flattened by a large force.
There are many particularly striking sculptural works in the exhibition, including Library (2008) by Polit-Sheer-Form Office, consisting of 25 bookshelves containing 8,000 books. The books reference Mao Zedong’s ‘Little Red Book’ and raise questions of uniformity and collectivism, and show parallels to Wilfredo Peito’s White Library, (2004) ,an utterly blank room of more than 5,000 identical ,blank books.
Chou Chu-Wang, Four Bliss Stones (2014)
It is not just sculpture that features, Liu Chengrui’s performance video Guazi Moves Earth (2008) is hypnotic, as are Chou Chu-Wang’s oil on canvas The Hours (2015) and Four Bliss Stones (2014), meditative dot paintings on river stones. Shinji Ohmaki’s work Flotage-Tectonics (2013-2015) uses traditional silk screen techniques with a contemporary turn, creating elevation maps that could be mistaken for thumb prints.
There is much to savour in this exhibition, and much more to contemplate. Heavy Artillery is exciting, engaging and confronting in equal measure.
Recently, I handed over one of my plays for development to a producer and a group of professional actors. I say handed-over, because it as done with some reluctance and internal struggle before I could do so.
On the one hand, as with every scriptwriter, I really wanted to hear the play come to life. I wanted to hear the characters, to test the pacing and the dialogue and see what audience engaged with, and what didn’t work. I needed to know if the play worked as well outside my head as inside it.
On the other hand, I was full of fear. Fear that the work was terrible, that everyone who worked on it knew it too, but was too polite to tell me. Fear that the audience would feel sorry for me and avoid all eye contact, knowing I was just the crappest writer ever.
Keep in mind, I’m in a country that is not my own, with actors accents and intonations that are totally different from the ones I’d heard in my head as I wrote the play. I worried the words were going to get lost in the subtleties of interpretation, colloquialisms and regional accents. It is also a story I’ve carried in my head and worked on for years. I’m so used to having the main character around, he feels like a friend. I almost couldn’t bear to hear him change, at the hands of an actor who didn’t know him as well as I did. Weird, huh?
Overwhelmingly, I felt like I was putting my heart on a plate, and handing it to a group of people who I didn’t know, to let them gently dissect it between them.
The development process culminated in a live read to a public audience, to get as broad a view as possible on the work. That’s when all the limiting thoughts rolled in, the imposter syndrome, the self-doubt.
I didn’t sleep much the night before the reading. Small grabs of rest were filled with different disaster dreams. The first was that I’d given the producer the wrong version of the script. In the second dream, the actors refused to perform the play because of its poor quality. In the third I watched audience members walk out mid-show.
Friends who were attending the reading, received last-minute texts I’d carefully constructed, advising that I was totally ok if they couldn’t make it to the show, it wasn’t going to be a big deal at all, hardly worth leaving the house for, in fact. I turned the stress on myself and told my husband three hours beforehand that I didn’t think I could attend the performance.
Luckily, in his brilliantly nonchalant way, he just said, “Oh no you don’t. You’re not sabotaging yourself on my watch. We’re going.”
When the time finally arrived to start the show, I took my seat in the far back corner and curled myself into the foetal position, muttering quietly to myself that I really needed to grow a thicker skin.
As it turns out, it was much more educational and far less scary than I’d expected. Actually, it was completely exhilarating hearing brilliant actors bring the words to life, far better than I’d written them. I can’t express enough the value that great actors bring to scripts, it constantly blows my mind.
For the script itself, it was clear some lines worked better than I’d imagined, but one line I thought was pretty funny just wasn’t. A couple of character interactions needed some reworking and a few issues needed resolving.
I can fix the problems, and hearing it live was like putting a magnifying glass to each page, showing up the things to tweak, and the opportunities to dig a little deeper. It’s such a valuable process, even if we go through such angst to get there. The audience feedback was better than I expected, encouraging and helpful. There seemed to be an authentic interest in the story, which gave my confidence a boost.
I know that scriptwriting is a collaborative exercise, and writers need to know when to let their scripts go, but I still can’t help but direct my plays as I see them being performed. This is a control freak character flaw I know, but at least I keep those thoughts to myself.
Hopefully one day I’ll learn to hand over scripts with ease. Maybe I need to meditate away the control freak. I definitely need to stress out less.
But then again, maybe it’s all just part of the writing roller-coaster.
Artifice/realism, detachment/immersion – I’m definitely interested in audience engagement. Making audiences feel is critical for writers. I also want the audience to be critical, to think, to question, to be uncomfortable. I think theatre should call for active participation by the audience, otherwise, they may as well be sitting in front of the television.
Risk/control – My preference is dependant on the type of work being created. In a fringe theatre environment, or theatre as social practise, audience participation and using random stimuli makes sense. In more conventional theatre, a certain about of improvisation and development during the rehearsal process also makes sense, but this is more about contextualising the work to the time the place and the context it is being performed.
Linear/non-linear – I tend to prefer non-chronological narratives but I tend to write more chronological circular narrative, I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s a more accepted convention. I need to think more about this and try to break the habit.
Near-far/scale –In film scripts I tend to use a wide view and use urban settings. In plays, I tend to create urban or domestic scenes, much more close up than films and much more internally focused.
Soothe/disrupt – I think I fit in a cynical, provocateur storyteller category, or at least I aspire to be.
Collusion/manipulation – Technology is really important. The digital disruption that seems to have occurred in most areas of our lives still hasn’t deeply affected theatre. This is inherently risky, with audiences of the future being digital natives, there are questions to be answered on how to harness technology to both engage these audiences, and to keep theatre craft current. The challenge is, I’m not sure it’s possible in film at least, to use technology in a way that keeps the work current but doesn’t badly date it over time.
Physical/intellectual – how important is accessibility to you? Accessibility should be a standard consideration when creating and producing work. In truth, I don’t think I consider it as much as I should in the writing process. Something to work on.
Rough/glossy? Familiar/exotic? Heightened/realism? Comedy/tragedy?Black comedy seems to be my default approach, with characters that are a bit gritty, with lots to say, and loads of feisty women!
Individual/community – I love the idea of art as social practice, and am inspired by its use in history; the happenings of the ’60s, and the all the political theatre prior, from Brecht to the ancient Greeks. In previous years, I would have firmly put my interest in this space, but over time I’ve moved more towards the hero’s journey, with social/political themes, but in a more mainstage theatre style.