An air of suspicion hangs over awarding an academic qualification for what is essentially an inscrutable, unfathomable act: that of writing a good play. Worries persist that an academic environment will preach dogma, whereas a thriving theatre ecology demands urgency, innovation and challenge. I shared many of these concerns when I enrolled on the MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London but soon realised that the programme’s success was built on a philosophy similar to that running through institutions such as the National Theatre Studio; namely, an emphasis on process rather than simply product.
Playwriting takes immense concentration and confidence, and having the time to explore ideas in an environment which encourages risk, scrutiny and precision can prove invaluable in strengthening a writer’s vision. Through workshops, dramaturgy sessions and detailed feedback a writer can begin to discern what they want to be writing from what they only think they should be writing, and to apply frames of thinking to help them to do just that. It’s not about learning how to write a play, it’s about learning how to write your play.
Crucial to this is having other writers on the course to provoke new ideas and challenge existing ones. Muscularity in thinking develops when one is forced to not only articulate a dramaturgical position but also to defend it and develop it further. This instils courage in a playwright, empowering a writer to lead in their thinking rather than to imitate, with the strength to not only follow their convictions but also to adapt to new strategies and remain versatile in their approach.
An academic infrastructure also brings with it access to a huge range of reading materials (plays, plays and more plays), rehearsal spaces and societies to complement one’s writing. Being surrounded by an inquisitive student body encourages intellectual rigour, whilst frequent deadlines bring discipline. Many of the teaching staff are plying their trade in the real world, such as Dan Rebellato at Royal Holloway and Fin Kennedy at Goldsmiths, and this allows for a unique insight into the theatre industry as it stands today and how a working playwright can best position themselves within it.
Playwriting cannot be taught, but good practice can. Assisting a writer in being able to ask the right questions of their script and of themselves, is what will ultimately empower them to go from having a desk full of opening lines to a desk full of curtain lines. Writing is a craft, a life-long pursuit of something inextricable. Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, is a good adage for any playwright, but for the confidence to do just that, an MA in Playwriting might just be the place to start.
Photo: ‘Ink jar and quills’ by Flickr user Charles Stanford under a Creative Commons Licence.