Monthly Archives: April 2015

Why Screenwriters Should Consider Theatre

Screenwriting is often said to be storytelling through pictures. And what lies at the emotional heart of most visual storytelling are characters; the actions and reactions of people. All our stories are about people going through an emotionally challenging time, be that in outer space (Gravity), on an urban housing estate (Fish Tank) or the Cornish countryside (Poldark). At the heart of all of it is the screenwriter’s ability to write for performance and where better to hone those skills than in the theatre?

august osage county writing for theatreThe same is true for comedy writing. All comics try out their material in small venues to find out what lands and what doesn’t – then they go away and rewrite it. There is no better way to judge your own comedy or drama writing then by getting it up on its feet in front of a real audience. One way to do this is to hire a group of professional actors, like The Watermark Collective, to provide a table-read of your script.

You can also try to get a theatre to put on your work as part of their new writing programme. Getting a commission from a professional theatre company not only gets you that experience of seeing and hearing your writing come to life but it also gets you those all-important professional credits as a writer.

Theatre writing has the added advantage of being far more open and accessible to new writers than either film or television, and it’s the place many a producer looks to discover new writing talent. So, why not check out the following theatres and their new writing programmes around the UK:

The National Theatre
The Royal Court
Paines Plough
Bush Theatre
Hampstead Theatre
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Soho Theatre
Finborough Theatre
Theatre 503
White Bear Theatre
Back Here! Theatre
Tamasha Theatre Company (specialising in new British Asian writing)
Talawa Theatre Company (specialising in Black British writing)
Kali Theatre (specialising in new writing from South Asian women)

South England:
New Venture Theatre, Brighton
The Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
Watford Palace Theatre
Bristol Old Vic
Show of Strength Theatre Company, Bristol
Theatre West
Barbican Theatre, Plymouth
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Birmingham Rep
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

North England:
Everyman Theatre, Liverpool
Royal Exchange, Manchester
Shred Productions, Manchester
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Red Ladder Theatre Company, Leeds
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Live Theatre, Newcastle

Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
National Theatre of Wales

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
National Theatre of Scotland, Glasgow

Druid, Galway
Sunday’s Child Theatre

Out of Joint Theatre
Sphinx Theatre Company (specialising in strong roles for women)
Clean Break (new writing commissions on women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system)

Good luck!

What Drives Your Characters? By Phil Lowe

Regular readers of this guest blog will have realised by now that the world of psychology – where I work when I’m not writing – has limitless models to offer those of us who struggle to create believable characters. It’s been a few months since I last covered a motivation-related model (You can’t have forgotten surely?) so this time I bring you one of the simplest ever devised.

character driversEric Berne, a Canadian psychoanalyst, has made several contributions to the world of personality profiling. Rather fittingly for someone whose models are a gift to writers, he regarded our lives as a script written for us by our parents. His book Games People Play is worth a read; it looks at how we pay off our psychological needs through the way we set up our dealings with others. He is also the father of Transactional Analysis (known to cod psychologists as “that Parent-Adult-Child model”), which I may return to in a future blog. Today, though, we’re looking at his related work on personal “drivers”.

Each of us has at least one driver – so called because these are the scripts in our subconscious that drive our fundamental approach to life and work. Think of them as the messages you heard most often when you were little; instructions designed to set you up for life (“I will be OK as long as I…”), but which can hinder as well as help. Fictional characters, generally being more dysfunctional up than the average, frequently suffer from excessive or inappropriate use of them. There are five drivers, and for each I’ve suggested an example from film or TV:

Be Perfect. If this is your primary driver, you’re likely to be driven by the idea that nothing you do is ever good enough; you set high standards for yourself and others, and criticise yourself if you don’t meet them. You value achievement, success, being right. In your head is a voice saying “Don’t mess this up”. Miranda (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada shows how this driver can be an antagonistic force; her high standards cause repeated problems for our heroine Andy.

Please People. This driver seeks the approval of others, making you considerate, kind and service oriented. “Don’t upset people” is the warning; you might be easily persuaded and avoid conflict. Please say you’re not too hip to have seen Elf; if you are, ask your cognoscenti friends about the character of Buddy (Will Ferrell), who just wants to make everyone happy, and as a result is obliging in the extreme.

Hurry Up. If this is the main voice in your head, you may always have lots of things on the go, be generally impatient with yourself and others, and feel like there are never enough hours in the day. You’d rather get on with the job than talk about it (“Don’t waste time”). After Elf, my head’s stuck in family entertainment so I have to give a nod to Twitchy the squirrel in the animation Hoodwinked, whose inability to do anything slowly is a hindrance to the others, until it becomes useful in Act Three (sorry, no plot spoilers).

Be Strong. This driver will prompt you to control your emotions and never to show weakness. You’re unlikely to ask for help, and look to be the one that others depend on. Remember the scene in American Beauty where Carolyn (Annette Bening) starts crying and responds by slapping herself round the face and telling herself to stop? A typical Be Strong reaction (if a little de trop for the average office worker) and a glimpse at the ghosts of her parents speaking to her as a child.

Try Hard. (Wouldn’t Die Hard have been a very different film with this as a title? But I digress.) This driver discourages you from ever letting go of something. Maybe this time it’ll work…? You might start more things than you finish, because it’s more important to try than to succeed. As a result you are full of persistence and determination. Stories in which an apparently weak protagonist takes on the system frequently rely on our hero or heroine possessing this driver; and it doesn’t have to be a conspiracy thriller – witness Elle (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde.

Of course, the first thing they teach you at writing school is never to create one dimensional characters – so do what most people’s upbringing does and give your character two drivers. Back to Buddy the elf: he wants to please people; he also Tries Hard and keeps going. This makes him a more interesting (and funnier) protagonist because nothing puts him off. His biological father discovers that like a punchbag, he just swings back from every blow trying to be even more helpful. Replace the Try Hard with Be Strong and you get DS Miller (Olivia Coleman) in Broadchurch, whose impulse to Please People and defer to others vies with an impulse to not show weakness. The warrior patriarch Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) in Game of Thrones combines Be Strong with Be Perfect, and demonstrates in the process how parents’ own drivers are passed on: his messages to his children tend to be that they are weak and “not good enough”.

Remember there’s not much point giving your characters a driver if it’s not going to cause problems for themselves and others. And also remember they may mask their true driver, only for it to show through when they least want it to. But do at least give it a go, otherwise you won’t be good enough/I’ll be cross/It’ll take you twice as long/You’re weak/You won’t be giving it your best shot (delete whichever don’t apply to your own drivers).

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.