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Guest Post: "Up Close" workshops by Helen Bang

Bang2writer and aptly-named Helen Bang has kindly provided us with the insights she learnt at a workshop this weekend just gone. Enjoy!
Up Close was a day of free workshops organised by the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland held at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. I attended the workshops on radio drama, further skills for playwrights and demystifying television.

The radio workshop was led by BBC radio producers David Ian Neville. He began by outlining the stations which broadcast radio drama (Radio 3, 4, Radio 7 and Radio Scotland, and asked how many people in the audience listened to radio drama (several brave souls admitted that they didn’t, most claimed that they did).

David related, how waiting to collect his kids from the cinema recently, he noticed for the first time how energised the audience emerging from the multiplex screens were, and used this to ask what drama was for and why people watched and listened to it. To be entertained, informed, engaged and experience new things were some of the answers offered.

He said that the main radio audience is for The Archers. Other outlets are the 15 minute episodes on Woman’s Hour, the afternoon play, the Saturday play and the Sunday adapted classic novel.

David explained that, especially in radio drama, the writer has only a couple of minutes (sometimes less) to engage the audience. He demonstrated this by playing the opening of Broken English by Frank Deasy, a play based on a true story about a family of Kurds held in detention for a year before being deported. In the first minute a voice-over from a young girl said that her father had always talked of taking them to Scotland. The action then moved to a chaotic (ie ordinary) family breakfast scene which was interrupted by the police bursting in and arresting everyone. Despite this dramatic opening several participants in the workshop said that they would not continue listening, citing inauthenticity (the police didn’t sound like police or Scottish – in fact I think this scene was supposed to be in South East England – the family was later moved to Scotland) and the level of noise being too distracting (family breakfasts usually are pretty bedlam-like, in my experience but it was interesting that this could put off some listeners).

David then asked us to list six personal characteristics – three private and three to be made public. We also had to write a first name on one piece of paper, and a surname on another. These were then jumbled up and redistributed so that one person would call out a first name, another a surname, a third a characteristic and so on. It was not clear exactly how this related to radio drama particularly, but it was useful to be reminded how decisions about characteristics could influence the drama. David said drama was revealing things about people, putting them into situations and seeing what happened. He also reminded us that radio takes place inside the listener’s head and could be very intimate.

He played another extract from a play called Best Friends which opens with a woman receiving a tearful phone call from a friend who has been arrested for the murder of someone called Emily. The friend says “that’s absurd, that’s obscene.” Many participants said they’d turn off, again saying that they didn’t believe it was authentic. I was more interested in the fact that she seemed shocked her friend had been arrested, but not surprised that Emily was dead, making me wonder if it was one of those cases where there’s been a death but a family member isn’t arrested for some time – in which case I might respond as the character did. I don’t know the play, but again it was interesting how quickly a listener can decide ‘this isn’t for me’.

David took some questions at the end. Between one and six characters seems to work for radio. More is problematic. The length of radio pieces is entirely dependent on the slots available – 45 minutes for the afternoon and an hour for Saturday plays.
The “Further Skills For Playwrights” workshop was run by Chris Dolan who has written for theatre, television, and radio as well as novels, short stories and documentaries. He recommended David Mamet’s book “A Whore’s Profession” for a stimulating view of writing.

He began by posting a situation – a woman in a hotel lobby. Each participant then had to add one line of action to the story. It was a sort of Consequences string, sometimes the story was a thriller, then a comedy, then suddenly a horror, then surreal, then a thriller again. Too many cooks spoil the broth did come to mind though. Too many minds are not necessarily creative, IMHO.

Partly it was to illustrate that writer can write anything and it comes down to choices. What genre are you in?

The next exercise was to ask two participants to be living statues in response to instructions from the audience like “put your left foot forward, put your right hand on your head, etc.” We then asked the two ‘statues’ to face each other and had to come up with a scenario. Deliberately discounted were too easy get-outs such as “they’re children in a playground or contemporary dancers”, writers should make their characters’ situations as difficult as possible. We came up with a female captain finds a male stowaway in her cabin on a cruise ship.

Chris then asked people to read out a short scene from a play and asked us what we thought of it. It turned out to be the scene in Fatal Attraction where Glenn Close turns up at Michael Douglas’ house pretending to be a pregnant woman looking to rent a flat. What on the page seemed a not very dramatic scene turned out to be very dramatic when shown on screen, but I’m not sure that it was subtext in the way I usually think of it. (I’ve never seen the film, it was one that you felt you’d seen having read the hype and I resented the description that “Glenn Close plays the AIDS virus”.)

Chris talked about how characters should be allowed to tell their own story and said that novelist Ian Rankin claimed that he never knew who had done it when he started writing his Rebus novels. (I’m not sure how well this would work in dramatic writing when structure is apparently everything!)
The “Demystifying Television” session was a panel of the following: Amy Roberts, a script editor on River City, Waterloo Road and involved with the BBC Writers Room; Stuart Hepburn who is a former actor and now a writer who teaches at the University of the West of Scotland. Television work includes Taggart, Rebus and River City, Chris Dolan (see earlier), Vivien Adam, a writer on River City and Family Affairs, Anne Marie Di Mambro, writer on Casualty, East Enders and River City who also teaches at Caledonian University.

They talked about how storylining is very much to do with the industrial process of producing returning drama. It has to do with which actors are available and when as well as the arcs which are determined for the whole series as decisions always have to be made in advance.

In the UK it is producer, rather than writer, led. There aren’t showrunners as in the US model. (NB Stuart recommended a recent article on by Dominic Minghella dealing with this subject).

The participants related some of their happy and not-so-happy experiences working in television. This showed how it has to be treated as a job and how writers have to be able to fit their work to the requirements of the show as well as the obvious need to meet deadlines etc. Highlights included Anne Marie’s disappointment when an actress was miscast in her monologue and Stuart’s nightmare on the Black and Blue Rebus episode where it was decided at the last minute that a violent opening scene was too close to the watershed and had to be omitted (I’d just read the novel when I saw it and did think it was odd!)

As far as writing time goes, usually a writer has a fortnight to produce a step by step scene outline and then three weeks until the first draft. After that the deadlines get shorter.

Asked for advice to new writers, suggestions included writing a play, getting a group of actors together to stage it and inviting producers to see it. Also, not asking your auntie to comment on your script, but getting feedback from other writers, but also not to listen to too much advice from other people and trusting your own work. Not sending in the first thing you’ve written, but having a number of scripts to show producers was another suggestion. Also Jemma Rodgers, the new head of Comedy at BBC Scotland, is looking for new Scottish comedy.

It was generally agreed that it’s a tougher market to break into at present than it was in the past when producers seemed to have more freedom to experiment with new work – Dramaorama, a show of short dramas for children, was cited as an example. It now seems virtually impossible for new writers to get their own work produced. The only way in seems to be writing for established series. In fact, of the winning entries in the BBC Scotland Writes drama competition it seems none of the scripts are being developed further but that some writers are now being considered for River City.

The whole day was very well organised at a very pleasant venue. It was more about the experience of being a writer rather than how to write, and I was expecting more of an emphasis on how to get a play staged, but it was a chance to network and hear different views on drama.
Thanks Helen! Remember, if you go to a seminar or course or have something to say about scriptwriting, filmmaking or anything else, please get in touch!

ALSO BY HELEN ON THIS BLOG: Helen’s notes on The Story Engine conference last year (three posts, scroll down)

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