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Free Writing Course

I’ve created a free short course exploring the process of writing a short play. Many of these techniques are applicable to longer works. –

What I’ll be covering includes:

Techniques for how to begin, gather your ideas and begin working them up.

Learning some of the key concepts you’ll need to write as well as going over the main questions that others that might join you in the process will be asking (directors, writers and dramaturgs.)

Solid techniques on how to develop your dramatic structure and characters.

The concept of action in playwriting – as well as looking at the approaches of major theatre artists I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with.

I’ll point you towards further resources to continue your learning, as well as helping you get to the end of a draft.

Get in touch if you’d like to find out more – www.facebook.com/iainfmacleod.

A Conversation with David Greig

I led a week long course for writers and non-writers at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye a while back. As part of this we were very lucky to be joined by Scottish writer David Greig. He has written plays such as ‘Outlying Islands’, ‘Dunsinane’ and ‘The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart’. Ten writers were present and we started off with some questions from myself, then opened it out to the floor.

David is a great teacher, not just because of his eloquence and knowledge, but he also tells us his doubts and some of the difficult learning he has done himself.

When he started writing plays, he didn’t feel confident writing certain Scottish accents and so pretended he was writing in translation – setting his plays in an unnamed central European country. This allowed him to write in his own voice and gave him a freedom. This approach also came out of the plays he himself was interested in such as those by Brecht, which he said he has only ever accessed in translation. He also touched on, in the early days, copying the styles of writers he loved.

This then led to a discussion of method, and his belief that as soon as you think you have cracked a method, that is when it stops working for you! He let us in on his current working method of using cards to build up scenes, then picking them at random and writing what comes, then reconstructing the cards and finding an order. With some editing of the material he can make a large step towards a first draft.

This importantly also stops the staring at the blank page and the difficult first lines. You might of course be writing the first lines, you just don’t know it at the time.

David has a lot of techniques to avoid the first empty ‘blank page’. To start, he’ll just write. Simple as that. He tries to ‘open the channel’. He writes a lines of dialogue, not attributed to a character. This demands a response of course. And then he lets it, without judgement, continue. This dialogue then starts to move and hopefully starts to bubble.

The main thing is to allow yourself to write without too much stressing and judgement, he says. David also sets two hour portions aside where all internet is off, for his writing.

We discussed other areas such as the importance of need in a character. Without need, there is nothing, he says. Sometimes a character isn’t going anywhere and he tries changing it about – changing it from a man to a woman. He also stated that he had a sort of rep company in his head, about ten actors of different types, that he wrote for.

He also writes a number of scenes debating what the play is about – some of which finds its way in to the actual play. He believes that you should attack it head on in a play, or else you’re not giving the audience what they want. This also relates to the place of the taboo in theatre, and we had a discussion about this, David stating that this is what people want to see when they go to the theatre – that if it was something we could just discuss in polite society – we would discuss it in polite society!

He introduced us to two critics he created which live in his head – a caveman who he must explain a story to, and a pushy Hollywood film mogul who doesn’t believe in writer’s block. 

David mentioned the fact he has an office for writing in Edinburgh, partly so that he can avoid going to the office and go and write in cafes where the background noise lets him zero in easier. There are multiple ways he has to trick himself into writing, even discussing the fact that there’s nothing like the posters being made to spur someone on to write.

He interrogates the play with ten questions he always asks. For example, what is the question this play asks and do I know the answer to it? (If the answer is yes, maybe he doesn’t need to write the play). What is the title and what does it say? Where is the music? Are you really interested in the subject? 

What I really like about David is that he seems to spend a lot of time thinking of the process of writing, how to trick himself into writing and silence his inner critic. He develops methods to interrogate what he is doing.

It freed the group up and hopefully began the process of allowing them to start constructing their own methods. David never said ‘this is how to do it’, rather he laid out for us how he has done it in the past and how he tries to do it now, and that although he’s David Greig, writing is still bloody hard work. Very inspiring.

Finally, David said if you get to the end of a play, you are ahead of 99 percent of other people who have said they want to write a play. And that once one gets to the end, often something happens. Not always, but often. 

Hopefully this short blog about the approach of this great writer will hep start you on that journey.

Tools for Learning

 

In this post, I’d like to go over some ideas and resources I’ve found useful, transformative even, for developing my ideas about learning and how to learn.

I think there’s a lot of truth in Joi Ito’s comment that ‘education is something someone else does to you, learning is something you do to yourself.’ We generally go into the school system and try our best to adapt to it. We try to learn skills and sometimes it’s hit or miss depending on what teacher you end up with. There are plenty of times in the past where I’ve thought “I’m just never going to learn this. Maybe I just can’t” and then given up. But some of these people and ideas I’m going to talk about have totally changed that.

First of all, I’d like to encourage you to think about some of the teaching models you’ve come across.

I’ve been running a two day workshop with the aim of helping musicians who work as music tutors to develop their teaching practice. I ran one of these sessions with a number of young people who were just leaving school. There were two fairly simple questions which opened up a lot of discussion. The first was a discussion about teaching models – to discuss a bad model of teaching they’ve encountered, and a good model.

The good models got people thinking about the kind of teacher they want to be and what effect they want to have on others. They all encountered teaching which had inspired them. It doesn’t take much to light a fire in someone, to make them believe that what they’re interested in matters.

Some of the bad models of teaching people brought up have been pretty unbelievable. People being hit across the knuckles while learning a bagpipe tune. Bullying behaviour I thought had died out long ago. I took part in this exercise with others of similar ages once and it wasn’t a happy place for anyone. This kind of teaching can develop self-limiting behaviours which can be hard to get rid of.

I then asked the young people what they thought about what and how they had been taught. And the surprising thing to me was that it was the first time they had been asked that. All of them were extremely bright and able. They learnt things outside school. Most had stories about subjects they felt/were told they were terrible at. This gap between the talents of a group of young people, and the learning experience they had, was sometimes considerable.

Why is school like this?

I quite often start off sessions by watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk – “Do Schools Kill Creativity”. In it he makes the point that we routinely squander the creativity of young people. If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend you do that right now. He also makes the point that creativity will be increasingly important in a world where we don’t know what the world of work will look like in twenty… thirty year’s time.

One of the aims of the school system, when it was first developed, was to prepare a workforce for the developing Industrial Revolution. Children sat in lines at desks, time was ruled by bells. And one sort of learning was favoured above the others – the logical-mathematical. This is changing somewhat, for example, the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland employs a very different approach. But, as Robinson says, the pinnacle of the entire education system in the UK seems to be to produce University Professors. That seems to be the ultimate desired expression of our education system. Not everyone wants to be a University Professor.

I know a lot of people who came through school thinking they weren’t very good at very much at all. I’ve talked to plenty people who experienced this, and one person I talked to, now a very experienced singing tutor, said that what changed things a lot for him was learning about Multiple Intelligence Theory.

Before talking a bit more about this, remember that this is a theory, and as such, there are counter-arguments against its validity. But personally, I think it gives a good framework in which to examine your own learning style and experiences.

Dr Howard Gardner, Harvard University, published his theory in 1983. He posited that there were different intelligences that people draw on – not just the one we’re most used to strive towards, the ‘logical-mathematical’ intelligence of IQ tests and School exams.  Gardner says “students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways.” Here’s a an (affiliate) link to his book.

Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice

Here’s a video on the different intelligences he laid out, although I believe that this list is not exhaustive and closed. Like I said, its a theory. These intelligences are:

  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence
  • Spatial intelligence
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Interpersonal intelligence
  • Intrapersonal intelligence
  • Naturalist intelligence

Why is this important for your learning? It hopefully gives you a much wider context in which to consider your talents than that which you encountered at school. It also says that maybe there are ways that you could learn things which would be more successful than other methods you have been trying. Your talents, whatever they are, are worth a lot.

We’re also maybe encouraged to see intelligence as a fixed thing. We judge people by IQ Tests – although the inventor of the I.Q test later said that the way it judged intelligence was too narrow. A good book to read in this area is called ‘Mindset’ by Carole Dweck. Here’s an (affiliate) link:


Dweck talks about how to develop a ‘growth’ mindset.  She posits that those with a fixed mindset develop an aversion to failure as they believe criticism is connected to their intrinsic intelligence. Students who concentrate on process, learning from mistakes etc can continue to grow into a skill. It’s the difference between thinking that your intelligence is fixed and deep seating, rather than something that can be developed. Here is an interesting Google Talk she did:

It’s a good thought. That whatever you want to learn, you can. If you consider how best you learn, gather learning materials around you that work with those strengths, you can learn anything. If you cast some daylight on your self-limiting behaviours, you can overcome them and build your learning confidence.

That’s quite a lot to start getting one’s head around, so I’ll leave it there for this post. But I’d like to leave you with one more suggestion – the Ken Robinson Book called “Element”. I’m a big fan of Ken Robinson, and in this book there’s a lot of inspiring stories on how people found what they should be doing in their lives, as well as finding how much their talents were really worth. (spoiler – sometimes… a lot. Of success and money.)

 

As an exercise it might be worth doing the following:

  • Explore what kind of models of teaching you encountered in your life and which had the greatest effects.
  • What has been your reaction to failing at something that was important to you, and also, what was the reaction of those around you.
  • What kind of learning styles have you leaned towards? What has and hasn’t worked for you?
  • What kind of intelligences do you think you favour? Examine them in different contexts ie school/hobbies/work.
  • Are you aware of any self-limiting behaviours you encounter in relation to your learning?
  • What do you like doing, above all else?

 

 

 

 

 

Build your Online Portfolio

I’ve been working lately with a great portfolio building site called Fabrik. Before I start with the praise, this isn’t an advertisement or an affiliate link.

They’re a wee company in London, and their company is focused on giving artists the tools to create beautiful websites, showing off their work. The back end of the site is easy to use, as regards organising your work, and if your work is visual – photography, art, film-making etc, it’s a really good option.They have different themes, with different customisation options, and moving between the themes is effortless.

Check them out at https://fabrik.io/.

It starts at £6.25 a month. I’ve found the support to be excellent. My friend had to wait twenty minutes once on IM, but I’ve found it pretty snappy. And they take the time to help. It has a nice look, different to WordPress etc, and like I said, it’s nice that they’re concentrating on giving artists the means to properly show off their work. You can link to Vimeo really nicely. There’s also no messing with plug-ins and all that WordPress ‘mines of Moria’ type stuff. (What fresh hell is this?)

You can add custom code, but really, the site is there to make you look good and save you time. It’s not set up to be a web shop – but I still use it to showcase products for another of my businesses – Breanish Tweed. If you’re a writer or you don’t work visually much, it’s probably not for you. But if you do, I think it’s a good looking little tool.

They have good guides for doing trickier stuff, so you can take care of most things yourself. You also might have to maybe get someone to help with the mapping of the site to your URL, when that day comes. I’d recommend Alex Tearse at Reefnet.com for this kind of work. The guy is a marvel. Yes. Like if there was a webmaster super hero comic, he’d be in it.

You can have your site based at www.myfantasticsite.onfabrik.com – but if you want your own domain, I’d recommend this company – All Simple. (this is an affiliate link). I switched to All Simple a while back when the web host I used sold up, and I’ve been genuinely impressed by their level of service. You can message them during working hours and they come back quickly. They also have a good interface, where you can do all of your websitey things like buy a domain or… other stuff.

So, a pretty cheap, lovely looking website which you can change at will, rather than relying on someone else. Like I said, check out some of the artists on the Fabrik site, and see if it might suit what you’re doing.

 

Some resources to start your business

I was talking to a friend the other day who really wanted to get a small business up and running, but wasn’t sure where to start. So I thought I’d put up some resources I’ve found useful both for myself and for others I’ve helped get up and running.

It can be daunting to start something new, but there’s plenty of free resources which can help. In this post I’m going to concentrate on some resources that will get you up and running, and some writing from some inspiring people. This is just the bare bones, really, but I hope it’s a start for building your frame of reference.

Beginning…

A lot of artists start off as Sole Traders – the accountancy is less onerous, as is the reporting of this information to the tax authorities. Here is some information from HMRC on setting up as a sole trader – You can also trade under a different name, as long as you make it clear ie Joe Smith t/a (trading as) Island Recording Studio.

If it’s involving others, and you feel it would be good to keep it separate from the rest of your financial life, you might want to start a business partnership or a Limited Company.  Setting up a Limited Company is straightforward in the UK, but as you are then a Company Director, you have various, rather more serious responsibilities.

You can set up your company at Companies House (information here)  then you need to register for paying tax at HMRC.

I’d then recommend asking friends for a recommendation for an accountant. An accountant can also go through the process to get you up and running if you’d rather not do it yourself. Being a limited company has its benefits for sure, one of the main ones for me is that if you’re embarking on a business idea with others, it keeps it separate to the rest of your financial life. It affords you some protection ie limits your liability, in case things go wrong. And as it grows, it’s good that it’s its own entity.

Some questions to ask before you do this.

Why do you want to start a business?

What product or service do you want to sell?

What will it cost to make or deliver this product?

What can you sell it for?

Who will you sell it to? Why should they buy it and how will they hear about it?

What will starting a business provide that you can’t get from being a Sole Trader?

Why would you rather start a business that work for someone else?

What will you live on while you are working on this business?

What’s the end goal for your business?

They might sound like simplistic questions, but it’s good to really get into why you want to do it, because a lot of the cliches are true. You will have sleepless nights if you start your own business. If you’re doing it by yourself, you have to quickly learn a number of important skillsets. Making mistakes can be expensive.

But there are upsides of course. You’re in charge. You get paid for your success. It’s a real thrill when you have an idea, make something and then sell it.

Here are a couple of learning resources I’ve found useful, regarding learning about the financial side of things. Sometimes it’s only when you’re doing it in earnest that one gets a better understanding, so it’s good to run your learning alongside the doing.

EdX have a lot of great free online courses – fancy studying computer science at an Ivy League University for free? Don’t mind if I do. English Lit at Berkeley? Why not.

I found this EdX course really helpful for explaining accountancy basics – Introduction to Accountancy at University of British Columbia.

And this book is really good for learning how money works – its called How Money Works.

it tries to use simple language and explain things visually, which helps. Sites like Investopedia are pretty good for getting further into a topic.

Then you need a Plan!

A business plan.

Business Gateway are a great place to get advice and support if you’re based in Scotland, and sometimes even financing. Here is a link to their Business Plan template.

It’s worth going through this and seeing how you feel afterwards? Are there holes in your plan? Will you make a profit? Interrogate your plan thoroughly. To get more of a feeling for what it’s like to start up a business, there’s a great podcast called ‘Start Up’ from Gimlet Media, you can get it on iTunes. They document the ups and downs of starting… their podcast company.  It’s entertaining and pretty insightful, they show the good and the bad.

For Marketing, I’d look at the writing of someone like Seth Godin – he has a great blog and has published some fantastic books on the subject. It’s a way of thinking rather than a list of technique or formulas to follow. This is his latest book, also worth checking out ‘Purple Cow’ and ‘All Marketers are Liars’.

He also does a great podcast called ‘Startup School’ which you can get on iTunes. He really helps clarify thinking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

This is probably quite enough to get going. In the next blog I’ll go over some resources for getting your website up and running. If you’re a glutton for punishment and you want something comprehensive, this book – How Business Works – should give you enough food for thought. I like the style of these books – the simpler a concept is explained, the better.

If you’ve gone through most of the process and research, you think your idea has legs and you’re prepared to work hard on your passion, go for it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three days with Thomas Ostermeier

Three days with Thomas Ostermeier.

I’m going to try and give you an idea of the ground we covered in a three day workshop with director Thomas Ostermeier. There are also two great books you can use as resources – one published by Routledge (Clink on the image to see the book in Amazon. This is an affiliate link):

and the other is this one:

(Clink on the image to see the book in Amazon. This too is an affiliate link):

So. I’ve written a good number of plays and worked in theatre for a good time. And a number of times in the past, I’ve tried to educate myself a bit more (I’ve mainly learnt on the job). Reading about major theatre makers, their theories etc. And a lot of times, I’ve come away with no real idea of how to translate these things into practice.

That’s the first of Ostermeier’s gifts to us in this workshop. He makes that link. He simplifies and distills what you need to know and how it applies practically.

A second gift is just to see how a person like this works, how he is in the room. He’s articulate. He asks a lot of questions and he is thoughtful and challenging. He often doesn’t go off on a spiel unless asked a question himself.

So here are some of the main things I gleaned. I’ve got three sections.

The first:

Was about the nature of drama.

We did an exercise on the first day, where we all act as if we’re in an airport waiting lounge. The flight is called. Then we’re told there is a delay. Time passes. We’re told that we can’t leave the room. Time passes. We’re told that there’s a bomb scare which is being investigated. Time passes. We start running out of food and water. A night passes. We’re told that it’s a dirty bomb etc

This was to show something about the nature of drama. For Ostermeier, it’s the situation that drives the drama. Our reactions to these circumstances, trying to adjust the outcome, something changes, we again re-adjust expectations and our strategies to get a better outcome for ourselves… it was quite illuminating. The mask of civilised behaviour slips and the situation becomes dramatic.

This relates to how he examines a scene. He uses a bit of Stanislavsky here – he collects the circumstances relating to the scene ie it’s night, we’re tired, there’s a bomb scare… and then he arrives at what he thinks is the dominating circumstance. This is what is then given to the actors to play. He doesn’t ask the actors to pretend to be emotional. And interestingly, when we started talking, all the dialogue was active. Every line was someone wanting something. The ‘characters’ using language to modify the situation.

To come at the circumstances needs a deep reading of the text. The situation… is the sum of given circumstances. And his main question – what is the most important circumstance of the situation?

The dominating circumstance is that which ‘makes me take up action’. So when he comes to this, and agrees with the actor on what the character wants, then he leaves this space for the actor to achieve using their skill.

What is character? You can’t know that at the start. It’s only when it adds up that you know.

Pretty cool, huh? There’s more.

The second section:

Was about your life as an artist. About what drives you to make theatre. Interestingly, on going round the circle, everyone gave their own answers. For him, it was to see things which were taboo, behaviours you couldn’t access elsewhere, a place where we can examine the darkness.

We did an exercise about creating a ‘concept’ for Macbeth. What would be the bones for our own version of the play? What would the three witches looks like? Again, everyone had very different idea. Again he was very concrete and practical. He made the point that we tend to have concepts that nobody can read when they see the show.

He also asked – what was it about? What was Macbeth about? What was Hamlet about? Everyone gave different answers. But he encouraged to link it to our own lives, what we as artists want to talk about.

What have you go to say? Why are we doing it? Why are you doing it?

The third section:

This was where we got to see how he worked – which he said was a combination of approaches. This was one of the most interesting parts of the workshop, when he talked and made connections between how these approaches sat together.

So here goes.

He uses a bit of Stanislavsky, analysing the drama in a certain way. Collecting the circumstances. Coming to the dominating circumstance. Doing all that underpinning with the actor.

Then he might do an exercise with the actors, where they do an improvisation drawing on their own experience. After this he makes comments such as – “notice the speed you are talking at” (much faster). It brings a more real way of acting to the piece.

Then he uses a bit of Meissner. All that means is – look up.  The actors look up and react to what the person in front of them is doing. Instead of creating feelings inside you which you call up, your head is up and you’re in the moment, reacting to the person in front of you.

So the scene of Macbeth they were doing started to sing along at this stage.

He talked about Eiseinstein – another influence. You can see this in his plays from how he creates montage. (Eisenstein wrote about how this worked in film).

And he talked about Meyerhold, that is, bringing a physicality to the work ie it’s not just words. How to work with actors on a score of movement.

All of these elements he fitted together to create a really interesting, practical and useable approach to directing. He created tools out of theory and he was kind enough to share them with us.

So, I really recommend that you read the books, and also on the Scahubuhne website, there’s a paper in English on directing Ibsen which is also very illuminating. All these resources go deeper into his thinking on theatre, but like I said, it’s the simplicity, practicality and effectiveness of how he works that really made an impression on me during the three days.