THEATRE / A touch of class: Mick Mahoney makes a comeback, a day in the greenhouse for playwrights in Birmingham, and Athol Fugard's Playland reviewed

'So you all want to be playwrights?' said visiting lecturer Arnold Wesker, settling down for a tea-break, his tone one part scoffing to two parts amiable, with a dash of amusement. 'We are playwrights,' snapped one participant in Birmingham University's MA in Playwrighting. Adding to the momentary identity crisis, David Edgar, who pioneered the course three years ago and presides over it in a skinny knitted scarf and with the clucking pride of a new father, refers fondly to his charges as 'my students', while the first letter they receive from the Department runs 'Dear Playwright'. Perhaps, at pounds 2,200 for the fees alone, the least you can expect is a little flattery and some smart marketing.

What they get is much more, though nothing will alter the fact that if you are not a playwright when you arrive, all the theoretical know-how and technical show- how in the world won't make you into one. To land one of the 12 coveted places - this is the only course of its kind in the country - the students must submit some work-in-progress which is read and second-read by the playwright-tutors. 'It's the mystery ingredient,' explains David (Entertaining Strangers, Maydays, The Shape of the Table) Edgar. 'I'm looking for a sense of the dramatic, something that isn't a short story with dialogue; tutors have a strong sense of the potential of pieces, like someone who knows from the vinegar pressing whether the wine will taste wonderful in 10 years time.' That doesn't mean an MA guarantees an RSC commission. 'I don't think we can put our hands on our hearts and say everyone who passes is a playwright.'

There is no typical student profile: the requirement is a degree at 2:1 level but in practice there are lower degrees and even no degree at all; the age range of this year's group spans early-twenties to fifties, the ratio of men to women is two to one (more men accepted the offered places) and the majority have given up secure jobs (as chef, probation officer, publisher, computer programmer, journalist, teacher) to devote themselves to writing for a year. They're an earnest bunch. If self-doubt stalks them, it doesn't show, but they choose not to dwell on their 'overwhelmingly dispiriting' prospects in what one calls 'a society that doesn't hold writing in high esteem'. Sam Mendes' (director of the Donmar Warehouse) recent comment - 'You can always trust the classics' - makes them curse. Many expect to return to their day jobs next year. No wonder they don't laugh much.

By contrast, David Edgar is a giggle. Normally he's grumpy, he declares, but he's just finished a new television play and lost two and half stone, so today he is buoyant. Edgar does the hardcore teaching, establishing the language for discussing dramatic structure and analysing Shakespeare; then he ropes in his cronies to dissect other writers' work - for example, Griffiths on Chekhov, Brenton on Brecht, Iain Heggie on Mamet, David Lodge on dialogue. If you could learn playwrighting by osmosis, it would be hard to do better. This is the nuts and bolts playwright-as-artisan part of the course, what Edgar calls 'the second draft, getting it right, the precision.'

It works in parallel with the playwright- as-artist sessions, 'the enabling part, the first draft, about finding out what you want to say, getting it good', supervised by practising playwrights, among them Clare (My Heart's a Suitcase) McIntyre. More nourishment comes from seminars with visiting playwrights who talk about their work in an abstract fashion, explaining why they wrote the plays the way they wrote them. 'Playwrights are much more generous than actors or directors because they're not directly competitive,' says Edgar. 'They know how frightening it is out there.' Howard Barker can be relied on to trot out his anti-accessibility ideas; last week Arnold Wesker fazed the group with his insistence that he had zero imagination and no ability to plot. 'But what,' asked a student, 'if you haven't got a resonant enough event from your own life to draw from?' 'Drop it,' said Wesker. The aim is to expose students to as many perspectives as possible. It seems to work, for no evident house-style has emerged (in sharp contrast with writing schools in America where, it is said, you can spot the Masters course within three pages of text). 'We have no prejudices for or against various sorts of work - historical, lyrical, social-realist, expressionistic,' says Edgar. 'We want to acquaint students with the orchestra. You needn't scrape, you can also blow and bash.'

Edgar gives the visiting playwrights the loosest of briefs. Charlotte (My Mother Said I Never Should) Keatley, primed to give a 'sex workshop', threw out a few ideas ('Theatre is the most sexy and moral place you can be') and, dropping a pen and a bunch of keys on to the floor, challenged the circle of workshoppers to create a scenario. 'Theatre is about people going into a dark place with strangers and watching live actors seduce an audience,' she continued, pacing the freezing room in red pixie boots, as the students silently ransacked their imaginations. An arrested prostitute propositioning the policeman who arrested her - and the policeman finding her attractive, suggested one. Clare McIntyre giggled, and later admitted that wild orgiastic images had flooded her mind.

Keatley's theme was sexuality and how to represent it on stage, and her advice - to oversimplify - is to throw self-censorship out of the window. 'If you are pushing anything beyond a point at which you know what is going to happen you will find it frightening. That's how dangerous it should be. That's when you know it's good,' she said. Her emphasis was distinctly touchy-feely, lots of lying on the floor, eyes shut and tracing forgotten first moments when they experienced eroticism. 'Imagine how small you felt,' said Keatley. The temperature palpably rose as the students embarked on their journeys. Paper sizzled as they scribbled down the sexiest thing they had never dared to say to anyone. Just two sniggers. A few left the paper blank.

Later, tutor Richard Pinner explained the value of such exercises. 'As a playwright you need to project your head into all sorts of imaginative processes that your life doesn't afford you. You must be prepared to delve in to your 'disreputable self' as John le Carre called it. Good drama challenges the orthodoxies, social poses and moral ground of our society. To do the mental activity of writing, there must be a nimble and ready leap from truth to imagined truth.'

At the end of the year, the completed plays are staged by the Drama Department. Each is accompanied by an essay that tells the story of how the text came to be what it is (which, one suspects, may be more helpful to the tutors than the students). For one student the moment of revelation occurred very early. 'We sat in a theatre and were told to think about the space, imagine the lights going up and imagine what you want to see. It tripped something for me. My work has become much more visual.' Another has silenced her ubiquitous talking heads; another has simply continued with his initial idea, an ambitious-sounding triptych which explores three sets of people who have lived at different times in the same house, interweaving elements from horror and thriller genres. 'I'm getting as much out of a space as possible,' he said.

'I'm much more aware of bodies moving in time and space,' said another, 'and I've started to write backwards as well as forwards.' Instinctively now they get rid of the lines they are fondest of. None is writing an issue-based piece. 'Their time has passed and they can be so dull,' said one. But the danger, said one astutely, might be a tendency towards too little content and too much tricksy playing around with form.

Many confessed to an initial resistance to the course's academic approach, but now recognise that they have more tools at their disposal than they ever imagined. When scenes go wrong, they can run through their list of troubleshooting tips: are the wrong people on the stage? Is the scene at the right locations? Should there be something else happening? Is the scene happening at the right point? With that, and some constructive criticism from fellow students or tutors, they will find a way out of their ditch. A slow spread of posters across the wall of David Edgar's office for professional stagings of plays by former MA students is evidence that within this bizarre greenhouse talent can flourish. So, too, trial and error can be dramatically speeded up and in absolute privacy. As one student said: 'Everyone of us wants to be a famous writer. This way's got to be quickest.'

(Photograph omitted)

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