Writing the Final Project

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I’ve finished writing my play and I am very happy about it. Not because I think I was extremely good – it’s a very simple story – but because I enjoyed writing it, I liked my characters and most of all it was my first play. So the play is about Jackson Doyle, this ex-rocker who played in the band The Droners, and now is not that popular and relevant anymore. They were big in the 90s. One day, this woman calls him telling him that she got pregnant of him after a concert in Berlin in the 2000s. She had never told him about the son, but now she has some reasons why doing it: she asks him to pay for the expensive fees of the film directing school that the kid wants to attend to achieve his dream of becoming a director.

So Jackson is surpreised, but at the same time is flattered – having kids scattered around the world is a very rock ‘n’ roll cliché, right?, so he says yes, has the evidence that the kid is his, and spends a day with his son. During that day, he picks him up from school, brings him to McDonlad’s, to London Zoo, then to the recording studio of his band, to a park in Stoke Newington and then at home in Stratford. During this day, they both learn something about themselves and their lives – especially the father.

I had fun writing it, but it wasn’t easy, especially because of the word count. 5000 words are not many for a play, so I needed to carefully plan the scenes division and the dialogue. I needed to cut some parts and to readjust others. The most difficult thing to manage in this play was the backstory. The play takes place in a day, and it’s the day when Jackson and his son meet each other – but the backstory, the mother calling him to tell him about his son, their first encounter and so on needed to fit in the story and it wasn’t so easy to do. I had many notes and for every scene I had a page in which I answered to some questions: what does this scene reveal about the backstory? What does this reveal about the personality of the father or the child? Am I revealing too much or too little? It was hard to keep everything in balance.

Something that instead really helped me was giving me deadlines and a specific amount of words to write everyday. Of couse, sometimes I felt inspired and I just kept on writing, but it was good and wise to set an amount of words to complete in a day – it made me feel very productive and organised, especially when I finished, re-read and corrected the play exactly on the day I wanted to do it. I left it there, and I want to re-read it again and again after a few days because I want to be completely detached from it. I am really happy about my work and about how I managed it. The only thing that I miss now is a good title… which I guess is the hardest thing ever.

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Crushed Shells and Mud

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While I was writing the final piece for the playwriting submission, I wanted to read a play. I thought it could help me getting in the mind of a playwright, and I was also interested in reading some of Professor Musgrave’s work. When I started writing, I was reading a short stories collection by Anais Nin, Delta of Venus. So I left it for a while and started reading Crushed Shells and Mud by Ben Musgrave. The play premiered at Southwark Playhouse, London, in 2015, and was directed by Russell Bolan. I found it extremely interesting. I enjoyed it and I desperately wanted to see how it ended.

The most interesting element of this play is the fact that it is sets in our days, but a devastating epidemic is killing people in England. I like how this element, which could be extremely hard to manage, is crafted in the story. In fact, there are no “scientific” explanations, no references to what happened in the rest of the world. We only know that there is this epidemic that is very dangerous and people that have it are very much excluded from the community. There are some volunteers and people who want to help them – but then there are also people like Peter, the man who seems to be the chief of a pacific religious movement but is instead a violent extremist.

The story is set on the east coast of England, where this boy Derek lives. Then he meets Lydia, who seems to hide something – which is, in fact, that she is ill. Derek has a friend, Vince, who is the typical bully who suffered abuse from his father and has secretly a tender heart. I really liked the relationship between Vince and Derek and how Vince is always on the edge of going to the dark side, but at the end he stands with his friend agains Peter. I really liked the character of Lydia, who seems very sketchy at the beginning but is very strong and powerful especially at the end of the play.

I managed to see some pictures of the production and I found them very poetic. I would have liked to see this play staged because the scenographies seem very beautiful. The dialogue between the characters is very simple and very powerful at the same time, and at the end of the play I really couldn’t stop reading.

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Starting the Playwriting Project

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Professor Musgrave as well wanted us to do some individual tutorials. I sent him an email with everything I had in mind – I had a clearer idea because I got inspiration from the SCAMPER exercise we had done in class, but I had many questions anyway. I am going to write down the email I sent him with his kind responses and then I am going to write down the notes from the tutorial.

I am writing this email because you wanted to have an idea of what we are going to write for our Final Project. My idea is very embryonic, but I have decided to expand the exercise we did in class about SCAMPER and getting inspired from the newspaper article.
I had written about Patsy Kensit, Liam and Lennon Gallagher. The newspaper article was about Patsy Kensit saying that her son with Liam wants to be a theatre actor and is not interested in exploiting his father’s fame.
You wanted us to change the story to make it more interesting – so I decided to write a story about a woman, an ex-groupie, who got pregnant of a famous rockstar but never told him about it. She brought up the son by herself, trying to make it as a single mother. After getting pregnant, she abandoned her rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and taught him politeness and good manners. When he expressed the wish to study in an expensive school (I definitely want to change the fact that the kid wants to study acting), she decided to contact Liam and exploit his money to guarantee her son the best future he could have.
This backstory already triggers many questions which I need to clarify by myself – is it legally possible to do something like that? I need to do some research about it and if you have any suggestion please tell me.

I don’t think it would be legal, especially (beyond the sense that when paternity is proven the father may have certain responsibilities). But far more interesting I suppose is: ‘how does she MAKE Liam go along with the plan?’

Anyway, the play is divided in 5 scenes and it starts right after any conversation and negotiation that “Liam” and “Patsy” (I will of course change the names and the band he played with) could have had. I want to write a play with two characters, who are the father and the child, but the play would be about women, and in particular about their relationship to “Patsy”. The play is set nowadays in London and takes place in only a day.
In this day, the rockstar is trying to spend some time alone with his son to get to know him better and he organizes every “cliché” activity that he thinks would suit a 11 years old boy. So he takes him to McDonald’s after school – and I need to think carefully about how to stage something like that. This triggered other questions. How is it possible to stage a scene that takes place in a public space?
Yes, absolutely. You create a sense of multitudes in the audience’s mind, rather than spending a fortune on extras. Or a table in a busy restaurant can just stand in for a busy restaurant…


How can I give the impression of people coming and going into the restaurant? If you have any suggestion, please tell me.

Sometimes this is done with sound design… more often you can do it through what the characters say, eg:

LIAM: Look at that tosser over there… he thinks he owns the place
SON: Stop staring, dad!

In the first scene, the father and son’s personalities clashes and “Liam” shows that he really has no idea about how to interact with a kid. They are very different and the rockstar would like a more “macho” kid, while “Lennon” is very kind and polite. The second scene would be set in London Zoo, where “Liam” takes him thinking that that’s the perfect place where a 10 year old boy would love to go. The third scene would be set in his father recording studio, where the boy meets all of his father’s collaborators and band mates. The fourth scene would be set on the steps of Trafalgar Square, and the last one is set in front of the house of the child’s mother in Stratford.

Great.

In the play, the son and father’s personalities and lifestyles continuously clash with each other, but the focus of the story is their relationship to a strong woman who had dreams and ambitions but decided to keep her son and bringing him up by herself. The mother does not appear in the play, but she’s at the centre of the two characters’ conversation.
During this day, the father and son get to know each other and they both learn something from the other. The rockstar gains some “sense of reality” by seeing how difficult for the mother and the son it is to do what they want, and the son gains some confidence seeing that his father has realized his dreams and has made it as a rockstar.
I hope that this is a good idea, even if I have the feeling that it’s a bit banal. I wanted to write something simple because this is the first play that I write.

Sounds good…

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After the email, I realised I hadn’t expressed exactly what I wanted, especially about the role of the father. I want him to seem annoyed about knowing that he has a child, but what I really want him to be is flattered and happy that he has a role now. He’s not that young anymore, and his band is not as famous and popular as it was. So now he is flattered that he has such an important role. He thinks he gan give wise advice to the kid, to make him become a small version of him. He’s a rockstar, so he can make him become cool and all. The kid, instead, has a natural curiosity and wants to see what’s so fantastic about fathers – since he has always lived with his mother and he’d like to know what it’s like to have a male parent.
When we discussed the fact that I feel like my idea is banal, he told me that originality doesn’t lie in the story, but in the voice of the writer, and how they express and tell that story. So originality is how the feeling inside a writer’s head is expressed. That’s where poetry come from. I also had issues about staging the play. Professor Musgrave told me to write what I see in the world of the play, and not to think much about the stage. This was a very useful advice. He also gave me some useful advice about the graphic features of the submission (dialogue and stage directions must have a very different aspect), and we discussed my idea of dividing the play in 5 scenes. He told me that TV is more used to short scenes and theatre can have long scenes.
A part from all this, I want to note down how the tutorial started. As soon as I sat down, Professor Musgrave asked me: do you normally read plays? … It made me really uncomfortable because I thought he was going to tell me that I suck, but I answered yes, that I’ve always had, also for university. He told me that I can do it. That I have a personal slant and that I can write plays. I think that was one of the happiest moments in my stay in London 🙂
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Playwriting Exercises - CREATIVE CUP OF TEA

For our last class, Professor Musgrave wanted us to prepare 5 minutes of a scene to stage. So the class wasn’t all about writing a scene, but trying to set it on stage, to calculate the times, to think about the lights and sounds. This is my attempt. This is the second scene of the play that I am going to write for the final project. It follows the scene inspired from the story about Liam Gallagher.

The lawn in front of one of the monkeys’ cages at the London Zoo. The weather is perfect, warm and sunny with a nice breeze. Jackson Doyle and his son are sitting on the grass. They are looking at the monkeys’ cage, facing the audience. Monkeys are invisible. The father has his legs spread on the ground, while the kid is composedly sat. Behind them, some signs and features of the London Zoo.

JACKSON (looking at the monkeys). I’ve always liked monkeys. I need to buy one some other time.

BERLIN. They’re very intelligent animals. They can even count and things like that.

JACKSON. Just imagine all the stupid shit you can make them do. Like selling drugs, deliver dirty messages to birds and annoy the people you don’t like.

BERLIN. Mmm.

He picks a blade of grass and puts it in his own mouth, starting to chew it.

I guess you’re right on this point.

JACKSON. I’m bloody right indeed.

BERLIN. Well, if you try to see it more rationally, probably you’re not. Monkeys don’t do well in captivity.

JACKSON (turning to Berlin) How do you know it? Have you ever had one? Or is it just that you’re a fucking know-it-all? Monkeys are bloody entertaining and I’ll have one sooner or later.

BERLIN. I’m pretty sure it’s against the law.

JACKSON. Fuck the law.

BERLIN. The more I get to know you, the more you sound like a perfectly adjusted human being.

JACKSON (staring at his son). Have you really just said it? That’s a pretty great insult.

BERLIN. I can be cruel. But always politely.

JACKSON. Sounds good to me. That’s my boy.

Pause.

JACKSON (shaking his head and looking at the monkeys’ cage). I can’t believe your mother didn’t tell me about you for all this time.

BERLIN. Hasn’t told.

JACKSON. What?

BERLIN. You probably meant that you can’t believe my mother hasn’t told you about me for all this time.

JACKSON. And what the fuck did I say?

BERLIN. You used the past simple of…

JACKSON. Don’t fuck with me, you little asshole.

BERLIN (shrugging). You’re a public figure. I am pretty sure that the way you talk really matters to your popularity.

JACKSON. Well, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore now that I’ve discovered that my son is called Berlin. I don’t know how I’ll get away with the press. They’re going to mock me until I die.

BERLIN. Have you at least asked her why she called me like that?

JACKSON. Honestly, when I was told I had a son, I was too busy not to kill myself.

BERLIN. You’re the most honest dad ever.

JACKSON (shrugging). I try to do my best.

BERLIN. She called me like that because that’s the place you two had sex. At a music festival in Berlin.

JACKSON. Oh wow.

He raise a little, as he is trying not to look taken aback as he is.

She really told you everything.

BERLIN. I’m not a eight years old brat. I know how things work. Even if you think that the coolest place for a twelve year old boy is the London Zoo.

JACKSON (rolling up his eyes). You’re a fucking bore. I love zoos, and I’m 43.

BERLIN. That’s because you are a rockstar and have no sense of reality. In 2016, everyone knows zoos should close down.

JACKSON. Shut up. Don’t tell me you’re one of those.

BERLIN. One of those what?

JACKSON. Listen, kid.

He opens his mouth to speak, but a couple walks before them and stops for a short time before the monkeys’ cage. Jackson closes his mouth as he watches the couple. He waits for them to get out of sight before starting to speak again.

If your mom is a hippy vegan who tries to put this kind of progressive shit into your mind, you’d better say bye-bye to me paying your stupid school fees.

BERLIN. I’m not a vegan.

JACKSON. Good.

Pause.

JACKSON. And anyway, this is the stupidest thing ever.

BERLIN. What?

JACKSON. Calling you like the city where we conceived you. That’s sick. Especially if the city is as ugly as Berlin.

BERLIN. Berlin is not ugly.

JACKSON. Have you been there?

BERLIN. Nope, but I have the habit of reading a lot. Especially about the city that has my same name.

JACKSON. Right indeed. I should have expected it, little wise guy.

BERLIN. I have seen some documentaries about Berlin. It’s a great city.

JACKSON. I’ve been probably too stoned to realise it.

Not finished, but I guess the scene to bring to class should have lasted 5 minutes.

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When we staged my piece, I felt like I needed to work on some things. In fact, I think the scene was not as active as I wanted – there was too much dialogue and I wanted more action. Then Rob, one of my classmates, told me that David Beckham called his son Brooklyn, the place where he and Victoria Adams conceived him – so, instead of taking this thing out, I think I will use this Beckham story in my play – Jackson could say “your mother called you Berlin as the place where we conceived you as that fucker Beckham did…” etc.

Professor Musgrave told me to discover more about this people, to ask myself what they want and what are their reasons. What’s at stake today? What does the father need? What does the boy need? Does the boy wants his father back? Why is this day going to matter? He also told me that this story is an archetype and that he didn’t mind that it looked similar to About a Boy by Nick Hornby etc., he wanted to see my slant, my voice in it. This was a very useful advice. He told me that nothing is completely new and original, and voice makes writing good. Also, he told me that the more questions I ask to myself, the more answers about the play I get.

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Building Up A Scene

Playwriting Exercises - CREATIVE CUP OF TEA

Our workshops included insights about character, dialogue, monologue, setting and voice. It seems that we have all the elements to start writing. Professor Musgrave wanted us to do an exercise which led to us building up a scene in class. He asked us to think about a thing that we know a lot about, or that we can do. An area of expertise. I thought about playing ukulele. He asked to think about five words that can be associated with that thing.

  • Rhythm
  • Chords
  • Tune
  • Adaptation
  • Jam

Then he wanted us to write five facts about that thing.

  • You need to listen to a lot of music, often the same songs many times, to learn how to play well.
  • There are different kinds of ukuleles.
  • Not all the songs are good if played with the ukulele.
  • Sometimes, even if you’d like to sing and play in the same tune as your favourite singer, you can’t because 1) you can have different voice extension, especially if he’s a guy and you’re a girl and viceversa 2) you’re not half good as they are
  • Sometimes your fingers will hurt as hell after playing

Write down five values that you need to have if you do this thing.

  • You need to love what you do to be good at it
  • You need to listen carefully
  • You need to feel like playing with each other, not only by yourself
  • You need to be corageous, spontaneous
  • You need to be patient

Now choose one value and expand it. I chose courage.

The opposite of courage is fear and anxiety. This could lead us to having no voice. But having the motivation of singing and playing with a group of people can give you that courage. Also, musicians always have a special appeal. These are all good reasons to be corageous.

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Now choose another value and expand it. I chose patience.

The opposite of patience is impatience, which can mean the arrogance of thinking that you can get good results very soon. But being patient means to take on the pain, the sweat, to spend time alone in your room practicing for hours.

Now create a setting in which this activity happens.

Summer evening on the beach. Group of friends singing Tender by Blur. They’re shouting the chorus and are completely drunk.

Now write down five sentences or words that people in this scene could say.

  • Oh my babe, oh my, oh why
  • Sing, asshole!
  • I got the E chord wrong
  • I lost the rhythm
  • I’m fucking pissed

Now write down five values that these people probably have.

  • Love
  • Friendship
  • Courage
  • Passion
  • Sense of group

Now write down the opposites of those values.

  • Shyness
  • Closure
  • Uneasiness
  • Anxiety
  • Indifference

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Now write the scene. The dialogue must be between two characters. One is positive, the other one is negative. The activity you described must be present. Use all of the 5 sentences that those people would say.

Summer evening on the beach. The sea is in the background, with big rocks emerging from it. Night. There is a group of seven people singing Tender by Blur. They’re sitting on the beach, on some colourful towels, surrounding a fire. They’re all drinking. One has a guitar, another one as an ukulele, another has a drum. Three are just singing and drinking happily. One is not singing.

EVERYBODY.         Oh my babe, oh my babe…. oh my, oh why!

                                   JAMIE, the ukulele playes, looks at TOM and sees that he’s not singing.

JAMIE                       Sing, asshole! Why are you looking at us with that face?

TOM                          Because I just want to sink into the ground now. You sound like drunk 

                                    monkeys in the mating season.

JAMIE                       That’s a pretty good description of what we are, actually.

GUITARMAN           Oh, fuck, I got the E chord wrong!

JAMIE                        (To Tom). See? You’re making us lose the rhythm.

                                    JAMIE takes a sip of beer, but half of the beer falls into his ukulele.

TOM                          This is just gross.

JAMIE                       Come on. I know that you’re only too shy to sing, but don’t worry. Even

                                   if you suck, no one will realise it.

TOM                          The only thing I’m realising is that you’re fucking pissed and that you

                                   sound more like a dying hound than like Damon Albarn.

JAMIE                      You can bet on it. At least I’m having fun! Come on!

                                   JAMIE punches him on the shoulder.

                                  Relax.

                                 TOM shrugs, then stands up.

TOM                        Go on.  I’ll just go for a walk.

JAMIE                     Alright, but you’re a fucking fuss. God, I’m drunk.

Everybody            Oh my babe, oh my babe…

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This exercise helped me realising that stories can really come up out of nowhere. Exercises in class can be considered a bit difficult because it’s not easy to come up with good ideas if you have only a specific and very short amount of time, but actually when Professor Musgrave told us to come to class with a good idea for a story, it was even more difficult. This led to another exercise.

Take your idea and write it down in 3 sentences.

  • A guy sitting on his bed. The bed is under the window, with some pictures on the wall.
  • The guy is playing the ukulele. He has his head on the pillow and legs against the wall, like he’s upside down.
  • Sound of rain outside.

Now write it in one sentence.

A guy is sitting upside down on his bed under the window, playing Feels Like We Only Go Backwards by Tame Impala on the ukulele and singing softly, without covering the sound of rain coming from outside.

How does your character change?

The story is between the guy and his roommate, who always wants to go out. The guy prefers to remain at home for many reasons. Here is the conflict. The one will accept the guy’s strangeness, the other will love London his own window, playing the ukulele as his soundtrack of the city.

This is just a very embrionic idea. Professor wanted us to think about how the characters change and evolve, what happens in the story, what is the plot. A good, romantic scene is not enough to make a story. There must be something building up, developing, changing.

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New Writing

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What is New Writing? Authors of New Writing face contemporary and modern themes, trying to throw down the old forms of theatre. In 1956, the play Look Back in Anger premiered. It was written by John Osborne and was one of the expressions of the movement called “angry young men”. The play is gritty, and is about the role of working class, gender roles and the fall of traditional values. The contrast with the high society and dressing gowns that charcterised the plays of the past. Terence Rattigan’s sad plays, for example, were about the secrets of the upper classes. Look Back in Anger premiered at the Royal Court Theatre. The play was written in a new style, engaged and contemporary.

The vision of the playwight, their voice and sense is the heart of British New Writing. The actors, lighting and design only make manifest the writer, while in Germany the text is not as important as in British theatre. After WWII, there was an important moment when it was considered important for the nation to provide funds to make art and to make it affordable to common people. It was quite easy for everyone to have publicly funded works, and original voices of the lower classes were born. Theatre did not produce only revivals or Shakespeare – the new writing began. There were places devoted only to new plays.

After the part about new writing, Professor Musgrave gave us an insight about how to send our plays to different theatres. Today, theatres look for plays that express with bite and vibrancy the British culture now, as the Bush Theatre says. Royal Court Theatre looks for plays that deal with the problems of the moment. Finborough Theatre is looking for plays that represent unique challenges to ideological assumptions about community. These theatres in general look for contemporary styles, contemporary issues and contemporary forms. But there are other resources for the playright – maybe you can send your script to touring companies and festivals, prizes and competitions. BBC has a “writers’ angle” where you can find these opportunities. Sometimes, plays are commissioned and you have to write a new play for a strict deadline. Professor Musgrave told us, anyway, to be well ready for the typical refusal: “It’s good, but I’m afraid it’s not for us”.

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Monologue

Playwriting Exercises - CREATIVE CUP OF TEA

After the workshop on voice, Professor Musgrave wanted us to write a monologue based on the character we had started to create in the workshop about characterisation. Pieces are starting to come together, and we are beginning to create characters, voices and stories. This is the monologue that I wrote. Professor Musgrave wanted us to “perform” it in class, but I wasn’t very good – I hadn’t printed it out, so I needed to read it from my cellphone and I didn’t manage to do it very well. Also, I think that my monologue didn’t work out too well because it was supposed to be a monologue with an audience.  I came to this conclusion because Professor Musgrave made us perform our monologues and as I had one of my classmates in front of me while I was reading the monologue, I felt like I needed another person before me. So I need to make it more realistic. This is a small part of it:

Actually, I was really looking forward to a wedding. I couldn’t wait to get drunk and disruptive and go about ruining everything just as it happens in those shitty American comedies. To harass someone, to offend some of the bride’s relatives. Or to go and say something very embarassing about you, just to spite you. Like the fact that you put your slimy tongue in your cousin’s mouth.

This exercise was helpful, especially staging and performing the monologues in class. Keith, for example, stood up. He memorised his monologue and he performed it brilliantly: it felt like something was happening inside him as he spoke those words, like he was recalling the monologue and was telling a story. Acting is very much based on storytelling. I like how Rob’s character was raging himself up. Amanda’s monologue had a problem similar to mine – her character is insulting someone for a long time, but it is not clear what the action and the reaction are. If you write a monologue with an audience, they need to give some sort of response. He told me that the audience is not really present and apparently is not reacting to the things that Cosimo is saying, that are quite strong. The difference between a monologue and a soliloquy is that the monologue needs an audience, while the soliloquy is spoken alone.

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