A short cut to writing better plays: Nick Pullen watches from the wings as the North West Playwrights' Workshops work over another new play

Click to follow
WEDNESDAY: Crisis. It's Day 1 and there's something seriously wrong with Scene 2. Playwright Alex Barr explains that there's a lot of technical stuff about constitutional issues to be got over to the audience. Director Chris Honer leans back and ponders while Tony Benge, the dramaturg (of whom more below), scribbles furiously. Five minutes' discussion and they all agree: it's confusing and the scene is too slow. Another major re-write for tonight.

This is North West Playwrights' Workshops at Manchester's Contact Theatre - a fortnight's celebration of new writing for the theatre in a region where new plays are produced at a rate four per cent above the national average.

Barr's play, Richard IV, is one of five new plays selected for several days of workshopping with professional actors, directors and a dramaturg, culminating in a script-in-hand performance. It's a writer-oriented process, run by playwrights for playwrights, and Peter Flannery reckons they have just about got it right.

Flannery, best known now for Singer at the Royal Shakespeare Company and for his much-acclaimed five-part television series Blind Justice, was himself a struggling playwright when he helped found the workshops 10 years ago. He maintains a strong paternal interest, and has been instrumental in refining the crucial role of the dramaturg - a more experienced dramatist who acts as the new writer's 'firm friend' during the workshopping process.

'The actors and director naturally want to get on and give the play a trip round the bay,' he observes. 'But often this is not the best thing for the writer. The writer needs to know whether this speech, this scene, this act, is working. And the dramaturg is there to ensure that the new writer gets what he needs.'

Bringing writer and dramaturg together several months before the workshop allows maximum time for re-writes. In the case of Richard IV, a structural problem emerged. It's a comedy about a newly-crowned king of Britain who once vowed to give all his wealth to the poor. Should the audience know early on about Richard's vow? That was how Barr had written it, but Benge, looking to maintain the dramatic drive through the play, felt that the audience would not be interested in what happened next.

Barr re-wrote it, turning the revelation about the king's vow into the climax to Act One, and, he now feels, giving those early scenes more dramatic edge. The play had improved significantly before it even got to the workshop.

Structure, so fundamental to all dramatic writing and particularly to writing for the stage, is a pervasive concern throughout the workshops. Flannery insists that it really only becomes clear in performance - one of the major benefits of the workshop. New playwrights, he insists, shouldn't get bogged down in endless re-writing.

'After a time you become blinded by your first play,' he says, 'and lose the ability to re-write creatively. I think you learn much more quickly if you try to churn out a number of plays. Then your virtues and your faults will begin to become apparent.'

He is disparaging about the 'pernicious' influence of film and television. 'Structure is the connection between content, form and style. A lot of writing is just a line of sausage meat periodically squeezed into sausage shapes. It's not a structure that can carry meaning in complex and elaborate ways.'

THURSDAY: Cuts, cuts and more cuts - especially laughlines which held up the flow. Barr is unruffled, agreeing to most but standing his ground occasionally, the perfect exemplar of Flannery's dictum that the playwright must have courage and look after his own interests (a tiro Sam Shepard, having his script workshopped at the Connecticut O'Neill Center, is said to have once pulled a gun on the director with the warning, 'Don't fuck with my play').

Barr is discovering the great contribution of the actors: 'Why do I say this?' they keep asking, or 'I don't understand what I'm supposed to be doing here.' They need to know the motivation for every single line they have to utter, and any lack of clarity is soon flushed out. A confusion about the king's state of mind in Scene 7 can't be resolved - it demands another major re-write.

No question is too basic, says Flannery. 'You just have to keep on asking: Why does a character come on at this point? Why does the scene start here rather than there? Why not later? Or earlier? These are the important questions. And sometimes the writer just forgets simple things: he's already said something twice, so why is he saying it for a third time? It usually comes as a huge shock for writers to find out just how much they've overwritten.'

Later that evening, though, Louise Page said she was speaking from bitter personal experience when she warned her audience of fledgling playwrights that all cuts made in the first week of rehearsals are reinstated in the second. A point worth knowing - so far more than 80 plays by writers workshopped at the North West Playwrights' Workshops have gone on to receive full productions on stage, radio or television.

FRIDAY: The impossible - even more cuts than yesterday. They're working on the last section of the play: it has to be tighter, faster, build more surely to its climax. Losing a page, just lines here and there, does the trick: the conflict between the king and the attorney general becomes sharper. But what about the ending, is it clear? Perhaps the abdication speech needs re-writing? It does.

Climaxes and endings are always a bitch (the language is freeing up now, too). Witness Peter Crossley's first play, Maude and Me, performed the night before. Months earlier dramaturg Kevin Fegan had suggested that something was missing - it didn't peak, there was no confrontation. Crossley added a whole new scene - not in fact a confrontation but a celebration. Perhaps that didn't work either, said Fegan, but it was certainly better.

SATURDAY, 10AM: Tonight's the night. They're rehearsing on the Contact stage now, and director Chris Honer quickly takes the actors through the re-writes. Yes, the ending is better: the audience is left in no doubt about the king's intentions - by reshaping the scene, it has become clear that, though he may have broken his vow, he is still going to be a thorn in Parliament's flesh.

Charlotte Keatley (with Jim Cartwright and James Stock, one of NWPW's most illustrious graduates) recalls writing two new scenes overnight when her award- winning drama, My Mother Said I Never Should, was workshopped here back in 1986. She says that the play - now translated into 11 languages and studied at A- level - had already existed quite fully before the workshop. 'But the structure and use of time were different from any play I'd seen. I just didn't know if it would work. The workshopping, the constant questioning of the actors, and especially the audience reaction, showed me that it did.'

Even so, she continued to work at it, cutting ('20 pages to every one used'), endlessly asking questions of herself and rewriting scenes, until it was premiered at Contact the following year. Yet, for her, the workshopping still remains an absolutely essential part of writing and NWPW one of the most important training grounds for new British playwrights. 'A play is a map for other people to find a landscape and inhabit it,' she says. 'You only know if the map works when other people try to use it.'

SATURDAY, 10.30PM: Now for the post-performance discussion with the audience. They pull a lot of articulate denim, these workshops, much of it other writers, actors and directors. Numerous caveats, but the audience liked it - the humour, the twists, the inherent rigour of the structure (thanks, Tony), the satire.

And then, suddenly, it's all over: the house lights are going down before the public has even left the auditorium. Yet, for a few days, as Charlotte Keatley puts it, the playwright has come out of isolation and insecurity, and other people have been saying, 'Yes, it's true. You are doing something. You're writing a play, and we believe it exists, even if, at the moment, it's not quite there.' No problem. Tomorrow is another re-write.

North West Playwrights' Workshops 1992 continue all week, including public sessions with Val Windsor and David Edgar, at the Contact Theatre, Oxford Road, Manchester M15. Details: 061-274 4400 / 4747