Day four - a chilly January Saturday - and one absentee from our number Padraic - and his wife - have been busy on their own production and have brought forth a healthy eight pounder called Gráinne. The Littl’Un has, apparently, been giving ‘em Hell every night since, so poor Padraic has entered the zombie kingdom of sleep deprivation. Solidarity, Padraic - and, of course, congratulations. Another of our group bears the breathlessly exciting news that one of her plays is to be published in a real book made of real paper! Jodi’s hugely entertaining/alarming play Peep is also being performed in Dublin in February.
We muster in the Playhouse lobby and then troop upstairs to the very beautiful first floor Lucy Room, complete with period windows looking out onto the Regency terraces of Oxford’s Beaumont Street. It’s all unbelievably civilised and the days are very elegantly compered by Grand Homme du Théâtre John Retallack and his trusty lieutenant Mezze Eade - who makes sure the whole thing run impressively efficiently. The mornings are usually spent discussing what we’ve seen, liked or loathed on the stage or screen in the previous month. This being panto season, John had wisely changed the format to have us bring in and discuss an extract from a favourite play. So there was a read-through of scenes from Pinter’s The Caretaker, Lot Vekeman’s Poison and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Our competence as “actors” on the read-through varies wildly: you can certainly tell who went to drama school.
There’s a generous break for lunch. Some of us head off to continue earnest discussion over a coffee or a pizza. Me, I need a break so I slope off guiltily to watch football in a nearby pub (week one - Liverpool playing) or stare into space in a greasy spoon (week two - Covered Market) or nip home on the bike - I’m one of the three on the course who live and work in Oxford. Plus, I know what’s coming in the afternoon....
From 2pm onwards, we each present a new scene or two from the piece we are writing while on this course. There’s again a read-through and then twenty minutes of discussion/critique/suggestions/guidance from the group. I can’t believe how nice and encouraging everyone is. I’ve come from rather a more cut throat, brutal world of broadcast telly so this makes a very refreshing change. Today, I’m also completely bowled over by Doug Crossley’s complete tour-de-force reading of one of my characters - he got a fully merited round of applause. As I say, you can tell who went to drama school.
My approach with my particular piece is to have a rough idea of what happens during the play and then to get on with writing scenes - juggling round post-it notes until I’m happy with the order. I’m amazed at the contrast in approaches within our small group: I see others working out storylines, characters and their backgrounds and motivations in huge detail before putting a word into dialogue. Others are closer to my splurge-it-out approach. There’s a very positive, constructive spirit in the room. Every week, I emerge enthused and I’m sure it’s the same for the others.
At six o’clock sharp, there’s a knock on the door and, hey presto, dinner is served! I do feel sorry for the chef thinking his way round the rather forbidding list of dietary no-nos but every week he turns out something imaginative and nourishing. Usually there’s a companionable chit-chat over the evening meal and then most of us go on to watch the evening performance at the Playhouse - a real treat cos we get to sit in the grown-up seats in the stalls. But something about New Year and its various trials and lurgies has made us less chatty and more tired than normal and we depart into the cold night bearing with us the glow of the encouragement and guidance we’ve been given.
After every session, I’ve come away not quite believing my jolly old luck on being on this course and that’s more than enough to keep me warm on the ride home.
By Nick O'Dwyer, Playhouse Playmaker participant