Where are all the Playwrights in Dundee? Playwrights' Studio at Rep Stripped

This wasn't just the title of our evening panel discussion at Dundee Rep, but became the 'mission statement' for our day at Rep Stripped - to meet the playwrights of Dundee and discuss what inspires them about living and working in the city.

Thankfully, a lot of the work had been done for us. Rep Stripped's Directors Carla Almeida and Jordan Blackwood had brought together a whole range of local and national artists.  Our Introduction to Playwriting workshop and discussion were just a snippet of what was going on at Rep Stripped, Dundee Rep's new writing festival showcasing as-yet-unseen stories for the stage in a stripped back, intimate environment.

In the space of a week Rep Stripped featured everything from work-in-progress readings, development labs, site-specific performances, scratch nights, discussions, workshops and much more.

Here's what we had to offer:

Introduction to Playwriting

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Our day begins with a workshop led and facilitated by playwright Simon MacCallum. Simon was born and brought up in Dundee, a fact that has influenced some of his work, including Balgay Hill about the pop icon Billy Mackenzie which was produced at Dundee Rep a few years ago. One of his recent plays, A Single Good Hour, is about two siblings and the impact of gentrification in Dundee has on their sense of family and community.

Simon starts by introducing himself and asking each participant to do the same. They're in a circle and the room is relaxed and focused. The range of participants' experiences is varied. There are those who are just thinking about writing a play and at least one person who has already produced and published their work.

Simon goes right back to basics, exploring the building blocks of drama.  He believes there is only one rule of playwriting, "don't bore your audience! Once you've lost them, you can't get them back."

Together, we explore the various ways you can use the passage of time and sense of place, using examples from playwrights past and present: Ena Lamont Stewart (Men Should Weep), Gregory Burke (Gagarin Way), Stephen Greenhorn (Passing Places), Harold Pinter (Betrayal) and many more.

Simon shows us how to create character, which can be a great skill to apply when your play doesn't seem to be going anywhere. He points out that different voices can often be a good source of conflict and the characters' ambitions, wants and fears need to be explored. What do they want before they go to bed tonight? By the end of the week? At the end of the next 12 months? What is their main ambition before they die? What is the best/worst possible thing that could happen to them?

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Fair play (get it?) to Simon, he covers a lot of ground in only a couple of hours! He finishes off with what the group thought was a very sound piece of advice: when writing your first draft, keep going.  "Don't stop or go back, otherwise you'll never finish it.  Then leave it for a month, don't look at it and only then come back to read it and edit it."

Simon's concise, direct and straightforward approach to the Introduction to Playwriting is noted by all participants whose only complaint is, "I wish it could have been longer!"

Although we always enjoy seeing familiar faces at our workshops, we're always delighted to see participants at our events who we've never had the pleasure of meeting before. That's definitely what happened at this workshop!

Where are all the playwrights in Dundee?

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Chaired by Playwrights' Studio Creative Director, Fiona Sturgeon Shea, the panel discussion brings together four playwrights who work in the city. It concludes our contribution to Rep Stripped. Joining Fiona on the panel were Bob Ballantine (Standing Stanes), Jaimini Jethwa (The Last Queen of Scotland), John McCann (DUPed) and Sandy Thomson (Damned Rebel B*tches).

Fiona kicks things off by asking each of the panel to introduce themselves and talk about where their journey to being a writer began.

Bob tells us that started out writing short stories and other kinds of prose. However, it wasn't long before he turned his attention to playwriting as he found it to be a much more collaborative and less isolating process. His first play, Standing Stanes, began life as a screenplay but he soon found that the story he was telling was more suited to the stage. "Keep at it," he says, "it took 25 years for [Standing Stanes] to be produced!" Bob is involved with Dundee Little Theatre which he hopes will become Dundee's studio theatre to bridge the gap between rehearsed readings and professional productions. He hopes that people on the panel and in the audience will be interested in getting involved with this.

Jaimini grew up for most of her childhood in Dundee. She attended the University of Westminster where she studied film. After graduating, she pursued a career in screenwriting, predominantly working for the BBC. As well as playwriting, Jaimini also works in digital media production in Dundee. Her play The Last Queen of Scotland originally began life as a screenplay but Jaimini decided the story was best suited to a live format and was produced by Stellar Quines and Dundee Rep in 2017.

John has a background in working in theatre and the arts in a community outreach capacity with Tinderbox in his native Northern Ireland. He now lives in the Fife area. He began his time with Tinderbox working with marginalised groups during The Troubles, particularly refugees and asylum seekers. John always wanted to work as a writer. Shortly before moving to Scotland, he booked a spot on Zinnie Harris' Playwriting Toolkit workshop in Edinburgh, so he would have something to look forward to. It was through this workshop that John wrote his first full-length play. He then went on to become part of the Traverse 50 where he wrote Spoiling which was then staged at the Traverse in 2013 and later at Dundee Rep. Since then, much of his work has been staged in Northern Ireland. His recent play, DUPed, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and more recently toured the UK. It will make a return to the Fringe this year.

Sandy recalls getting into theatre at a young age and admits that she is probably the person on the panel with the longest relationship with the Dundee Rep building. After attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art she moved back to her native Dundee and came to work for Dundee Arts Centre as a Community Arts worker. Sandy admits she took the job as a, "stop gap," after drama school, but then came to really enjoy it. It was during this period she started to want to make theatre collaboratively and internationally. Sandy set up her theatre company, Poor Boy, in 2004 to make accessible promenade theatre, inspired by the work from elsewhere that she consumed with a passion, including in different languages and forms of theatricality.

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Fiona continues the discussion, "Dundee was just named the best place to live in Scotland. What is it like being a playwright here? What is it about Dundee that particularly inspires and/or nurtures your creativity?"

Jaimini came to Scotland as a refugee with her family from Uganda when she was a child. Her play, The Last Queen of Scotland, sheds light on a unique period in Scotland's social history and the particular story of Jaimini's community in exile that has rarely been told. She says that she's always felt at home in Dundee, fascinated at how the city still holds a strong sense of community. She is often told by friends and acquaintances that she is most Dundonian person they know. She was compelled to return to Dundee once she had graduated.

Sandy also missed her home town, feeling like an outsider during her training at RADA. Once she graduated, she returned to the place where the people and the language felt familiar. Sandy remarks that Dundee has a great sense of 'street theatre' and that there is a tremendous feeling of community in the city. It's this community and familiarity that makes the creative process in Dundee a fairly collaborative one. Local artists are always willing to work together. She goes on to say that creating art in Dundee with Dundonian artists is a democratic process. On a logistical side of things, meeting up with other artists is easy, given Dundee's relatively small size. The recent boom in city's creative sector means that there is never really a shortage of safe, creative spaces to meet.

Dundee's culture does not just lie exclusively within the city itself. Bob remarks that Dundee's industrial and shipbuilding heritage means that it has always been a thoroughly international city. The wealth from these industries helped to develop art and culture in the city as the upper classes invested in building theatres, venues and cultural landmarks. Bob has prior experience in working in economic development and notes the advantages of writing a play set in or about Dundee as the city has such a vibrant past, present and future. As a writer, he says, he has always tried to portray Dundee and its community for how it is without, "caricaturing it." 

For John, Dundee always had a, "mythical quality," surrounding it, even before he moved to Scotland from Northern Ireland. He goes on to say how his experience in working with young people with mental health issues has made him very aware of the psychological barriers to accessing the arts. He has found Dundee to be accessible because of the city's size. "It's like a city-village. Small enough to still maintain a great sense of community." He praises the Dundee Rep Creative Learning Team, in the way that they actively work to remove barriers to attendance and participation and are always attune to what the audience wants and needs. Sandy agrees that working with that team on developing a play with a Dundonian cast was hugely important.

This brings Sandy to an issue which the all panel agreed on: the difficult leap from script development to full production and, in particular, the lack of opportunities for professional development outside of the central belt. Although there are grassroots initiatives (for example in Dundee and Fife there are Scrieve Dundee and the Byre Writers), more needs to be done to nurture and develop new writing in rural areas and smaller cities like Dundee. The panel argues that it's time for larger organisations to step in and create a, "half-way house for new writing."

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As the panel comes to a close, Fiona asks the audience if they have any questions. One audience member, who is a playwright, asks, "would I alienate non-local audiences if I set my play in Dundee. Would it be weird to set my play in Dundee if it was to be on at the Edinburgh Fringe for instance?"

"Only to people in Dundee," says Sandy, "but bear in mind that most of your audience won't be." The panel then discusses how you can always find the universal in the specific and references the Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay (The Guid Sisters).

The challenges of gentrification, and rapid change through capital investment in the city, is brought up by an audience member. The latest developments in Dundee are acknowledged as generally as a good thing by the audience and the panel. However, discussion arises on how it could impact on the values and the community of Dundee.

The discussion concludes with dialogue between the panel and the audience about Dundee playwrights and how vital is for them to continue on the path of telling and writing Dundonian stories. It is agreed that, ultimately, this will help to further support the city's values and sense of community as it continues on its path of cultural and economic development.

Lu Kemp, Artistic Director of Perth Theatre, is in the audience and finds the Michel Tremblay quote, which feels like a fitting sentiment on which to end the discussion:

"the universality of a play is not found in the place in which it was written but in its humanity. I think that all human beings are basically the same - we have different ways of living and different governments but inside we're all the same. The more local, the more specific, you make something, the more universal it becomes."

Thanks

We would like to thank everyone who came along to the workshop and discussion and to our workshop leader Simon MacCallum, the panellists Bob Ballantine, Jaimini Jethwa, John McCann and Sandy Thomson. And thanks to everyone at Dundee Rep who looked after us so well - Jordan, Carla, Andrew Panton, the Rep's Artistic Director & Joint-Chief Executive, Liam Sinclair Executive Director & Joint-Chief Executive, and all the box office and front of house staff.

Playwrights' Studio is a national organisation and belongs to all of Scotland's playwrights, regardless of where they are based. It is always inspiring to meet playwrights we haven't been able to connect with before and even better when they're able to engage with us face-to-face in a workshop or panel discussion.

Although our time at Rep Stripped was brief, we came away from the day with new relationships and an insight into what makes Dundee playwrights tick. We were delighted to be a part of it.

 

Written by Rachael MacDonald at 00:00

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