The best writing advice we heard at London Writers’ Week

In the first of a series of posts exploring the most useful highlights of London Writers’ Week, our friend Frida Stavenow asks her peers and fellow festival-goers for the best pieces of writing wisdom they’ve learned this year.

“Be bold,” says Titilola Ige, author of the MA Dramatic Writing Graduation Showcase opening piece Down Hair, when I ask for her advice to budding London Playwrights. “Ask your masters out for a coffee. The worst thing that can happen is they say no, and a no, honestly, is not the end of the world.”

Titilola knows what she’s talking about. After two years at the Drama Centre, where she’s received training from masters such as Ola Animashawun, John Yorke and Kate Rowland, she’s working with Tamasha Theatre, publishing a play with Oberon Books and assistant-producing at the Soho Theatre.

“I can’t believe it’s been two years already,” she says as we sit down after the showcase, waving her hands in front of her face. “Poof!”

She’s not the only student at London Writers’ Week to feel, shall we say… nostalgic.

Make sure whatever you write is entirely heartfelt, wholly original and completely irreplaceable. Piece of cake, right?

“Are you happy?” I ask Jorge Hernandez Jimenez, co-graduate and author of surreal musical-drama Aura.

“Sure,” he quips. “As happy as one can be at one’s own funeral.”

Considering the theme of this year’s showcase is “Beginnings,” that’s an awful lot of talk about endings. Yet nothing can begin without the end of something else, and as I watched the showcase from my row of dewy-eyed first-years, I couldn’t help but feel that we were witnessing a sort of academic memento mori. This, I said to my classmates, will be us in a year. What do we want to have achieved by then?

If you were to be run over by a bus tomorrow, what’s the one piece of dramatic writing you’ll want to have written?

Make no mistake – it’s not like we thought we were gonna live forever (even though we were performing arts students; spot that ref). “If you were to be run over by a bus tomorrow,” course leader Jennifer Tuckett had asked us as on our very first day, “what’s the one piece of dramatic writing you’ll want to have written?”

No pressure, then. Just make sure whatever you write is entirely heartfelt, wholly original and completely irreplaceable. Piece of cake, right?

In a pre-emptive strike against future graduation blues, I asked the leaving writers for their advice to new students.

“Collaborate,” said Rachel Coombe, author of Labyrinth-esque brotherhood drama Feathers. “Put your work out there, feedback, pitch, pitch again. Read each other, listen to each other, support each other.”

Plays are about unanswerable questions

“Figure out what your play is about,” said Margaret Perry, author of possession-probing ghost-piece Turf. “I may have stolen this quote from Nina Steiger, but it’s like reducing broth to a stock cube. Your work can’t be about everything.”

“Kids today are always accused of spewing intellectual bullshit from their soapboxes,” said cross-platform piece The Drama’s author Alexis Han-Holdren. “So we forget that, in the midst of all the performance anxiety, there’s a lot of truth to what they say.”

Fear of being a cliché, or if not then pretentious, intentionally oblique, or a hypocrite – sound familiar? It’s breakfast for anyone who’s ever tried writing something they care about.

But then, if you truly understood a concept – why would you need to write about it? Nina Steiger once told us that plays are about unanswerable questions. That is, worthwhile themes are literally impossible to master. All we can do is explore them, and invite the audience to come with us on the journey. If you wait for the moment of complete understanding, chances are your idea babies will drown in the haunted swamp of artistic potentiality, next to that great film idea you had on the night bus and your uncle’s abandoned memoirs.

The stock cube of the graduating MA students’ advice? Be bold, dear London Playwrights. Forget about knowing, and focus on learning. Help each other, get back on your soapboxes, and remember that the next bus could always be your last.

London Writers Week (http://londonwritersweek.com) is hosted every year by the MA Dramatic Writing at the Drama Centre at Central St Martins (http://www.arts.ac.uk/csm/courses/postgraduate/ma-dramatic-writing-drama-centre-london/). 

Frida Stavenow (http://huvudstupidity.tumblr.com/) is a first-year student on the MA Dramatic Writing at the Drama Centre. She’s just finished a novel about sorting your life out on a Mexican horse ranch, and is writing a screenplay about young women moving from performing to exploring their sexualities.

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