Unrivalled Landscape is a series of short plays written by the Orange Tree Theatre’s Writers’ Group and directed by its Trainee Directors. Playwright Caitlin Shannon tells AYT how to process of writing collaboratively opened her up to new ways to working – and why she wouldn’t have written her play without the discussions it prompted.
Last autumn, Henry Bell, the literary manager at the Orange Tree Theatre, asked the resident writers’ group to develop a single evening of theatre. Our brief was simple: six plays, centring on five characters in and around Richmond. Beyond that we could create who and what we liked. Part of me wondered if this would lead to creative tensions. I’d never been a part of a collective process before, I’d never had to share a character, I’d never even had to work with another writer. I thought collaboration was something people did in Hollywood, where writers’ rooms and screenwriting by committee are the norm. The process seemed wholly foreign and unfamiliar. I soon discovered, however, that two heads really can be better than one.
As we began sharing and swapping plot outlines, character sketches, locations and backstories, I was struck by how energising and creatively surprising the process was. With the help of our directors, Alex Lass and Nadia Papachronopoulou, we gave each other permission to leave our comfort zones, and to tackle characters we might never have dared to voice. Through discussion, characters were adjusted and amended, sometimes incrementally, sometimes dramatically. Archie Maddocks originally conceived his main character as male gang leader from Laventille, but in development ‘he’ became ‘she’ – a Trinidadian woman working at Kew Gardens. This process of give and take was surprisingly harmonious and as one of the writers, Will Gore, said: “only a small amount of blood was shed”.
By the time the brainstorming was over and we retreated to write our individual plays, we seemed to have developed a bit of a collective consciousness. Our final plays not only shared characters, they were also thematically linked in ways we didn’t voice or plan.
I admit I’m now a bit of a collaboration bore – encouraging fellow writers to work together, telling them how exciting it is when creative propriety is left at the door, and how unexpected stories emerge. Maybe I have a rose-tinted view, but I can honestly say I would never have written my play for Unrivalled Landscape if it weren’t for the collective process. I would never have written about the Richmond park warden, Gary. I would never have found my story. Now, as I sit down to write my new play, it feels a bit solitary. I can’t wait to get back to the writers’ group next season. Who knows what will happen next.
As a member of the Orange Tree Theatre writers’ group, Caitlin Shannon has written six short ‘response’ plays, all performed on the Orange Tree stage, and developed her first full length play, Einstein and Mileva, which went on to run off-Broadway at the Clurman Theatre. In addition, her other short plays have been performed all over London, most recently at Southwark Playhouse, the Arcola and the Pleasance. She has also developed screenplays, treatments and television episodes for Ross Media, Lightworkers Media and The History Channel – most recently she was a staff writer on The History Channel drama The Bible, currently airing in the US. Caitlin’s Victorian web series sitcom Wimpole Street will be released in August 2013. For more information please see caitlinshannon.com