Scenes from a work in progress

Jonathan Croall

Jonathan Croall on a GCSEA-level project exploring the 'living process' of playwriting, devised by Manchester's Royal Exchange. We need someone to kill the baby," writer Lisa Williams says casually to the students working on her script. No sooner said than done. The actors get into position.

"It seems a bit over the top for a christening," says the girl playing the baby's mother, as the ceremony begins. She's right. A drum beats. The baby is placed on the altar. Suddenly an axe is raised. The mother screams. Freeze.

This is not the only gruesome moment to be found in the collected works of these Year 10 GCSE drama students from Hawkley Hall High School, whose work is today being tried and tested in the main hall of nearby Winstanley College, with the help of A-level performing arts students from the college. Others have written of rape, bullying, physical abuse, racism and sexual harassment. But there are also lighter offerings: a glimpse of domestic life during the Second World War, a gentle satire on football worship, a Chandler pastiche and a mildly surreal piece of wishful thinking: "Mummy, I Shot the Teacher."

The students from these two Wigan schools have come together for the culmination of a New Writing project, under the aegis of the education department of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

"This generation has very little opportunity to explore new writing," explains education director John Butterly.

"Many students think of writers as shadowy figures, and of plays just as nicely-bound finished products," says freelance director Kim Greengrass, who conceived and directed the project. "We wanted them to see that playwriting is a living process, one that involves a lot of drafting and redrafting, and often collaboration with other people."

She has already held three sessions with the Year 10 Hawkley Hall students in their own school. They looked first at the practi-calities of script writing - how you use a monologue, how much should stage directions be included, and so on - using examples of work by Alan Ayckbourn, Caryl Churchill, Mike Leigh, Mamet and Stoppard. Then the students were encouraged to have a go themselves. Working singly or in pairs, they were free to write on anything they liked. Despite a plea from Kim Greengrass not to present her with a dozen episodes of Brookside, the first drafts were disappointingly soap-bound.

"They hadn't seen what a different skill is needed to write for the theatre, " she says. "But as they worked on improving and re-drafting, they thought much more carefully about it, and their work became much more direct and to the point."

A separate session was held with the Winstanley students, who were to take on the role of directoractors. Their task was to co-ordinate the rehearsal groups during the final session and to suggest ways of bringing the text alive while also staying aware of the actors' needs and the authors' intentions.

Today, the two groups have come together for the first time, to work on a couple of scenes from each script. Rehearsals begin after a quick read-through, with Kim Greengrass moving around the hall to check on progress, ask leading questions, and drop in the occasional suggestion.

Despite the two-year age-gap, the students seem to find it easy to work together. By noon a newcomer to the hall wouldn't know that they had been strangers three hours before. Nor is it always obvious who is directing; a good spirit of collaboration and negotiation is abroad.

Eventually each script is performed, and then analysed by the whole group. The performances, while inevitably uneven, are very watchable and often engaging, with many of the scenes - not least the christening - having a raw force shining through any technical clumsiness.

Kim Greengrass has stressed all along that this is work in progress. For many of the writers the morning has been a fruitful one. With their characters at last taking human form, the actors have found ways of giving their scenes greater theatrical power.

In one play, two lengthy monologues have been ruthlessly cut, and much of their content shifted to a new character, giving the piece greater tension and subtlety. In another, what was originally a written plot-summary has become a short series of intriguing tableaux preceding the action.

Post-performance discussions raise the need to get a balance between characterisation and plot, the value of non-verbal ideas, how best to play farce, the effect of using overlapping dialogue, how a writer can show the passing of time, the use of sound or physical detail.

According to Jenny Garner, head of drama at Hawkley Hall, the project is likely to feed into different aspects of her students' GCSE course, and provide a different focus from the normal emphasis on either devised work or the reviewing of shows.

She feels her students have gained much from working with the older Winstanley students. "Once they realised their point of view would be heard, they were fine. I was pleased at the way they took their work on to another level, and learned how a play can change once you begin to rehearse and perform it. "

Her students agree. "It was good to find new ways of doing things, it helped me a lot," said Alison Smith. Michael Sharkey from Winstanley made a final observation: "Next time we work on John Godber, I'll be looking at it with very different eyes."

The project could certainly be replicated elsewhere, and perhaps extended to embrace schools from different parts of the country. Kim Greengrass believes it has been successful in Wigan: "I think the students now have a clearer understanding of how much hard work is involved in writing a play."

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