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Writers' retreat

Now aspiring young bards can get away from it all in a truly creative environment. Nicki Household reports

There is excitement and apprehension as 24 Key Stage 3 pupils gather in the spacious drawing room of NorthCourt, a Jacobean manor house near the south coast of the Isle of Wight. They are about to spend two days exploring drama and writing a short play to perform on the final afternoon.

They come from several of the island's high schools, and their tutors are a father and daughter team, John and Charlotte Goodwin, both experienced professional scriptwriters.

Such writing retreats are the brainchild of the Isle of Wight's literature education development officer, Lydia Fulleylove. The sessions have been running successfully for seven years.

"What makes this unique is the beautiful setting combined with the experience of working alongside professional writers," says Lydia.

"NorthCourt really is the perfect place to explore your creativity - the house and garden provide lots of lovely, secret places to sit and write."

The first morning begins with an ice-breaking game in which players take turns to say their names while making a quirky physical gesture. It's fun, and barriers quickly dissolve.

Then comes a brainstorm about what makes good drama. Ideas are mapped on a flip chart: conflict, action, twists, dilemmas, suspense, strong characters, feelings. Then pupils listen to a specially written monologue called "Gillian". The eponymous character is consumed by jealousy because her boyfriend has gone off with another girl, but we know nothing else about her. Charlotte and John ask the students how old they think Gillian is, where she is, and what they think she might do next.

They split into groups, and each develops its own Gillian tableau. These reflect the groups' ideas about Gillian's identity. In the feedback, one group has given her a touch of EastEnders ("The bitch, the slag... She's gonna pay.") while another has her in a secure unit, fantasising about her revenge. The group discusses the purpose of a monologue and the gap between what is thought and what is said.

After that, students go off on their own for 45 minutes to write a half-page monologue that explores "a dilemma". The results range from a girl torn about whether to tell the boyfriend she doesn't love that she is pregnant to a scared character hiding in a cupboard to escape an intruder.

At feedback time, John reminds the group that comments should be constructive, and that when you have just created something "you feel protective of it".

After lunch, we listen to a radio play that sparks a discussion about dialogue. Then the tutors read some short, ambiguous dialogues and invite students to choose one of them as the starting point for their own plays.

They choose a brief exchange between "A", who is thrilled about something, and "B", who clearly isn't. Working in small groups, they improvise short scenes, using monologue and dialogue, and they aim for a turning point, a climax and an outcome. Day one ends with sharing of the scenes and some feedback.

Next morning, we talk about how to engage an audience, and the groups produce two-page written versions of their scenes. By lunchtime, they have evolved into a five-scene play about the reading of a will. In the mid-afternoon, the play is performed to an enthusiastic audience of parents and visitors.

Glowing with a sense of achievement, the students meet for a final brainstorm about strategies for continuing to write.

"I'd like to have carried on for five days," says one writer. "I was nervous at first, and I didn't like being split up from my friends. But it was great to work with new people, and we had much more freedom in our writing than we have at school."

Young people's writing weekends at NorthCourt are partly funded by South East Arts and the Isle of Wight Council. Cost: pound;40 per student. Some schools finance the weekends using funds for gifted and talented pupils.

Lydia Fulleylove also runs adult and teachers' writing days, in-service sessions and days for "able" primary writers. Contact Lydia Fulleylove:Tel: 01983 529790;email:

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