Exploring the use of coaching techniques in the writing process.

In this blog entry, I will look at whether coaching techniques can be succesfully used in the script development process. (Part 1of 2)

Exploring the use of coaching techniques in the writing process.
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Having gone through the script development process many times, I wanted to look at whether there were different methods available which placed the writer at the centre of the process, didn't overwhelm them with notes, and supported them in the process to produce their best work. After training as a coach, I began implementing some of these coaching skills during script development sessions with writers and found them to be really useful.

Here are my questions:

  1. How does the script development process currently work in theatres in the UK?

Sub-question:

What are the benefits and drawbacks of this process for writers?


and:

2. To what degree is there a place for coaching techniques in the script development process?

Sub-question:

To what degree is a non-directive approach to facilitating the writing process effective?

As well as a literature review, I interviewed three different sets of participants, either in a written questionnaire or in an audio recording:

  • Literary Managers and Dramaturgs. (Five in total. They have all worked in senior positions in this field in commissioning theatres in the UK.)
  • Coaches (Two in total).
  • Writers. (Five in total). They are all developing full length theatre scripts.

Contributors have been kept anonymous.

In this first post, I will explore some of the current practices used for the development of theatre scripts in the UK and what the most common processes are for dramaturgs. I'll look at the role of the dramaturg and some of the more common orthodoxies a writer might encounter in the script development process.

I will look at what is meant with ‘coaching’.

In further posts, I will look for overlaps between the two disciplines of dramaturgy and coaching. I will also try to use coaching techniques in a number of script development sessions with writers, recording through interviews the writers’ reactions to this different process.

THE SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT PROCESS

When working for a commissioning theatre, the script development process is generally a ‘top down’ process. A script goes through a number of drafts before production with various members of the artistic team giving their thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of a given draft. These thoughts are called ‘notes’ and the writer is ‘given’ or ‘takes’ notes.

There is a clear chain of command in this process, with the Artistic Director having the final say. The writer is expected to implement their notes. A director and sometimes a Literary Manager/Dramaturg will also input their thoughts, and there is more discussion on these notes, although the writers in most cases is expected to adopt these suggestions into their piece. Actors, either in development or rehearsal, also give notes on the script.

This process has certain strengths and weaknesses. These notes can improve a script, but they also be contentious. They allow good collaborations to flourish but can also distance the writer from the script. When the process works well, it is excellent. When it doesn’t work it can be very damaging for the work and for the writer. Once a number of people have changed a script, it can make the writer feel less of a sense of ownership, unless the process is carefully handled.

My enquiry is as to whether coaching techniques can be used to develop a script in a way which mitigates some of these problems. Can it be used to develop the writer's own potential, their own thoughts on the dramatic piece? Can it mitigate the difficulties in the process caused by unclear methodology and personal taste? And can it produce better work, and how do we judge this?

THE ROLE OF THE DRAMATURG

During this paper I use the terms Dramaturg and Literary Manager interchangeably as it is the dramaturgical aspects of the Literary Manager role that are relevant. They are, in practice however, different:

"The principle role of the literary manager is championship of writers and plays within or between organisations (while seeking broader cultural expression of questions that demand to be asked and which have not yet found a voice). The principal role of the dramaturg is to support the writer in going with strength to places they have not been before." (Contributor LMD1)

A dramaturg/Literary Manager has a number of further roles in the theatre making process. In the UK:

  • They act as an in-house critic of work they are considering doing in a theatre, as well as the work that is in progress.
  • They are involved in reading script submissions and evaluating them.
  • They give notes on the work of writers and how to develop a piece.
  • They are sometimes one of the originating artist themselves on a project. (More prevalent on the Continent).

On the Continent and the US (among other countries) they also at times extend into these roles.

  • Research of various aspects of the play.
  • Being a sounding board for the director as well as being a presence during rehearsals.
  • Writing programmes and forewords to playscripts (which are quite extensive on the Continent.)
  • Considering the intertextuality of a script – it’s references to other works of literature or art.
  • Interrogating the work in a wider context. Why do this play now? What is it really about? Being a friendly critic.
  • Educational outreach.
  • Interfacing with Academia – they are aware of the canon and modes of analysis.

Bert Cardullo’s book ‘On Dramaturgy’ has an exhaustive list at the start of it of all the tasks a dramaturg does. This breadth of the job and the fact that theatre makers encounter various aspects of it, while at the same time not having a frame of reference for it, often leads to confusion about what a dramaturg does.

For the purposes of this paper, however, I am interested in particular in the part of the role that concerns script development, working with a writer, giving notes and critisicm.

Contributor LMD2 describes the role of the dramaturg in this sense as follows:

“As a dramaturg I work with playwrights, directors, performers, musicians (and sometimes designers or dancers) to create and shape new works: being both an inside and an outside ‘eye’ and ‘ear’ for creative storytelling, structure and content. I feed in an extensive knowledge of world theatre and other art forms that may help and enrich the artist's creative development, and give constructive feedback to the artists as the work develops in workshop or rehearsals. Overall my role is to try and help the work created realise its full potential for audiences and the artists involved.” (LMD2)

During what is commonly called the 'writer led process’ in the UK, the writer can also be given support and critisicm of their work by a Director. An Artistic Director also feeds into the process. Others are also allowed into the process, for example, actors during a development workshop.

The nature of a director's notes can be different to those of a dramaturg as they come at the play from a different angle. The dramaturg is often trying to enable the writer to make the best version of the play they can - the director often has their own vision for how it will be represented on stage, and what meaning they wish to convey to the audience, what interpretation they wish to give it. The writer/director relationship has more inherent tension in it than that between the writer/dramaturg.

An Artistic Director often gives notes, and they are coloured differently – they may have an overall view of a season and want the piece to be interpreted in a certain way as regards this. They often have their own speciality which they apply critically to the piece. Of course, everyone has their own taste as well.

Actors often give notes and these are more often than not more directly related to their own characters and are at a more micro rather than macro level. These notes can be adapted more voluntarily by the writer, although most writers take great notice of what the actors are saying as they inhabit the part in an entirely different way to anyone else, on a much deeper level.

It might be worth noting here that notes in themselves are not a bad thing. In fact, it is the engine that makes the work better, alongside collaboration. It is the quality of notes and the writer's position in the process that we are concerned with. As well as asking whether the writer can bring their awareness to what 'notes' should be applied themselves.

EXAMPLES OF SOME CURRENT DRAMATURGICAL ORTHODOXIES IN THE UK

In order to be able to apply coaching technique to the writing process, one first needs an idea of what process is currently in place in practice. I therefore asked a number of dramaturgy practitioners what the most commonly used dramaturgical process is for developing scripts in the UK.

Contributor LMD1 gives a summary of the most common overall framework and process.

"In my experience as a literary manager and dramaturg, and in relation to text-based plays, the most commonly-encountered dramaturgical approach in advance of rehearsal has been a dialogue-based, interrogatory process between writer and dramaturg (and to a greater or lesser extent, the director), resulting in revision undertaken through several drafts.

In the UK, this approach has not, largely, been based on any specific methodology or theoretical foundation - it is an essentially ad- hoc process reflecting the relationship between the writer and the production context of her/his play.

This approach is often influenced by the ethos of the producing venue, sometimes in support of, and sometimes against, the writer's intentions. Its merits are entirely dependent on the relationship of trust developed between writer and dramaturg, on the dramaturg's commitment to and capacity for championship of the script throughout the development process, and on the writer's willingness to discuss, defend or amend the text in response to dialogue and notes generated in one-to-one meetings, closed readings and/or workshops." (Contributor LMD1)

This is what is commonly referred to as the 'writer led' model.

" So, writer led, a writer with an idea is commissioned, a... the team at the commissioning theatre generally will approach that as a development, sort of, project. And no single director will be assigned to that play and it will go through various drafts where the commissioning theatre are developing it.

So it's going through various drafts in order to develop it and as a script to serve the needs, to serve the ambitions of the playwright, the ambitions of the project." (Contributor LM/D5)

It is the writer-led model I will be concentrating on, although interviews touch on experiences with other models and combinations of artists i.e. Director led model, devising model, European models etc.

I asked contributors about the strengths of the writer-led model.

"I think the advantages of, of the sort of writer led development model is the play becomes the play it should be. And once that is fixed, then directors can bring their formidable imaginations to bear on that text. And there are more, that leaves a broader scope for interpretation, for a directoral interpretation than if a director brings their vision to bear earlier in the process." (Contributor LM/D5)

This is, so to speak, Plato's ideal of how a script should be developed. The reality is often much more complicated.

HIERARCHIES

The dichotomy is that although the writer's vision is placed at the centre of the process in one way, there is a hierarchical structure in place which means that writers get notes from other people on the team, in a certain order of status, with a certain expectation that they will be adopted, even if it is against their will.

As mentioned previously, the order of hierarchy is as follows. Artistic Director notes are ones the writer generally takes unless they really disagree with them pretty strongly. Directors' notes also have a lot of weight. Dramaturgs'/Literary Managers' notes are able to be debated more. Actors' notes on the script don't always need to be taken by the writer, but often are very insightful. This framework leads to a tension between methodology, status and behaviour which colours the process.

"Artistic director trumps director, who trumps literary manager/dramaturg, who trumps playwright! (Agent tries to trump them all but often fails because his/ her ambitions for the individual project may not be in the longer-term interests of the writer, and writers often recognise this)." (Contributor LMD1)

From the writer's point of view, the process can be summarised as follows:

"Standard feedback session with a mentor/dramaturg in which they would discuss in their opinion what parts worked and what didn’t, and how to further improve upon the script with task-setting. The writer would then go away and complete a new draft for a session a few months later. This is the approach I have encountered most as a writer." (Contributor W1)

My literature review was partly concerned with finding what resources were available to writers to help them get through this process. I found nothing written which dealt with this directly (if you know of such sources, please drop me a line!). Books either dealt with how teams were organised or processes for creating work i.e. "The Frantic Assembly Book of Devising Theatre", or 'how to' guides for writers on the technical aspects of script writing. For example, David Edgar's 'How Plays Work' which deals with actions, characters, structure etc.

For dramaturgs, it was in the nain about how to analyse a work, or what the role entailed. ('Ghost Light – An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy" is an excellent overview of the dramaturg's profession, with advice on how a dramaturg should comport themselves.) But there is very little, if anything, to be found on the actual interface of the work – when a director or dramaturg gives notes to a writer. Possibly this is because the profession itself is unclear on what this involves.

LACK OF ORTHODOXIES WITHIN THIS FRAMEWORK.

Although the basic framework i.e. the writer led model, is recognised in the industry, there is a lack of recognised orthodoxies inside this framework pertaining to how the work should go in a room. Here are some comments from very experienced dramaturgs.

"I guess what I've noticed anecdotally is that there doesn't seem to be much of an orthodoxy in how it's practised." (Contributor LMD4)

"I think the weird thing is is that there doesn't seem to be a training for it, there doesn't seem to be an orthodoxy, there doesn't seem to be a methodology that I know of anyway. Could be out there, but that I don't see, so I've always been amazed the fact that I've just learnt on the job, I think most people have learnt on the job and that there isn't more of a kind of a system to it." (Contributor LM/D4)

"I mean the weird... in trying to explain what the orthodoxy is. I mean the best answer could be that there doesn't seem like there is one... I think, it often seems like people sit in a room and talk about their opinions and what they liked and what they didn't like and there's certain forms of how that goes and I think, in a very simple way usually, usually the first ten minutes you don't even mention the script, that seems to be a kind of unspoken rule where you just kind of talk about what you're doing. Then there seems to be, you know, you want to say something nice about the script and then you kind of get into your notes I guess in order of magnitude. So you come with your biggest notes first and kind of go through them and talk about them and there's a, you know, usually a kind of polite and tactful way hopefully of addressing those points." (Contributor LM/D4)

It is this lack of generally accepted methodology that can make the script development process opaque and confusing for writers. It is not surprising that if the dramaturgical profession themselves feel this way about the process, that writers can end up being confused.

This emphasis on ad-hoc notes from different parties intensifies as the production process develops.

"At the stage at which you have a kind of sense of production date and the director who's going to direct that production, then you get a more, then you get a different sort of dramaturgical process. You get, you know you might have a director who edits the... who says 'I've got some edits to make, can I make them on the script?' And then passes them to a writer. That would never happen in an earlier... earlier part of the dramaturgical process. So then, then the model shifts a bit, I think. And everything gathers momentum towards production, so everything's a bit bolder, a bit less philosophical, a bit more dynamic in the way that things are changed. Sort of 'this needs to change, this is cut...' everything's a bit sort of bolder and more brutal I suppose. But the excitement of the production date makes that not too harmful I think for the playwright." (Contributor LM/D5)

It is this confusion between methodologies and behaviour, hierarchies and status that can affect the process.

"Too often, methodology and behaviour are confused. The methodologies described above can all err on the side of being too interventionist, invasive, prescriptive, right along the spectrum to being downright unpleasant. But I would argue that this is merely an example of methodology being misapplied or by the wrong people; it’s hard to legislate for the behaviour of theatre artists."(Contributor LM/D3)

The other side of the coin is that the behaviour of the artist in the room is that it can of course also be a source of great strength and creativity, as well as contributing to the mysterious nature of the process.

"It's not a one system, if you interpret this it'll work for everything thing at all. It's very live. And it's a very active role in the right hands." (Contributor LM/D2)

In regards to how to improve the clarity of the process, one dramaturg said:

"I absolutely think it could be improved, but I think it's very hard to standardise because what you'll get is a host of different individuals will just do it in a different way, so therefore it's very hard to, nor would you necessarily want to impose a standardised system. But, if your're taking about improvement, it's either a case of individuals, or it's a case of some collective understanding. Now I'm not sure, in fact I know, there's not a collective understanding of dramaturgy in Britain. People think they understand what a dramaturg is, but won't realise it might be different to what another person thinks or to what another country thinks or different things. So, I think there's still quite a way to go." (LM/D2)

For me, this pointed towards a potentially beneficial overlap between dramaturgy and coaching - still having an artist centred structure, but incorporating some of the key aspects of the coaching process to support and shape the journey. Coaching is not a 'standardised system' but it is a method for helping people reach their full potential.

There's also a clear overlap in the key skills of listening, questioning and reflecting that seem to be reflected in the process of both the coach and the dramaturg.

WHAT IS COACHING?

Coaching is e a non-directive questioning technique. The goal of coaching is to bring out the best in a person or a team. To "establish a firmer connection with an inner authority that can guide vision and urge excellence." (Downey, 2003). To open up a space for reflection, where the coachee discovers the answers themselves.

"Mentoring or coaching has one clear purpose... the learning and development of an individual, a process that involves change." (Brockban & McGill, 2006)

There are a number of models and techniques that coaches use to try to bring this state about. Some of these are mentioned in the book "Facilitating Reflective Learning through Mentoring & Coaching" by Brockbank & McGill. The main one I will be utilising is the The GROW model (Goal – Reality – Options – Will.)

Goal - what does the coacheee wish to achieve in the session?

Reality - what is the current landscape? What are things like at the moment?

Options - What could the coachee do to achieve thir goal?

Will - How likely are they to do it?

There are also a large number of skills, which coaches call on. From the same book (Brockbank & McGill), some practice skill names are:

CONGRUENCE – "a way of being genuine, being real, sharing feelings and attitudes as well as opinions and beliefs or judgements." (p155)

SELF-DISCLOSURE – "this means you will tend to make "I" statements, owning your statements, rather than using "you", "they", "one"..." (p161)

RECEIVING FEEDBACK "As a client you will receive feedback in a way that will enable you to achieve connected and constructive learning." (p167)

There are also other techniques such as contracting and ground rules, listening, restatement, empathy, questioning, summarizing, managing emotion and giving feedback. (p174)

Interviews I made with coaches highlighted for me some further key elements of the coaching process which couldbe brought to bear on the script development process.

"The key thing about coaching, as you know, is it's non-judgemental and that to me is what I'm, what I'm doing, I really love about it. I love it because it's non-judgemental. I love it because it's about the other person and helping the other person, you know, find the truth from within them, or the truth or, you know, whatever it is within them, and all you're doing as a coach is helping them do that. You providing the environment, you're providing, you know reflection, you're reflecting back what they've said. You, you're listening." (Contributor C2)

Contributor C1 summarised it as follows

"I think if more people learnt to listen, which is one of the key elements of coaching, and asked open questions, which is another key part of the process." (Contributor C1)

"Coaching... is really about self-empowerment, and it's a system for helping you work through things yourself, because it absolutely believes that all the answers lie within. And that's something I absolutely do believe. All the answers lie within." (Contributor C2)

So I'll go into that more in the next post - whether as a writer, accessing the 'answers within' can help make your script better.