Playwright and Dramaturg – David Lane

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Creator of the invaluable resource for playwrights ‘Lane’s List’, David Lane has inspired me with his creative energy and insights. David Lane is a playwright and dramaturg currently an associate artist with The Egg Theatre. ‘Stalin’s daughter’, David’s latest script, has just finished touring, receiving four stars from The Times ‘Vivid, disturbing and utterly fascinating… Lane’s writing has a hurtling power’.

David went freelance in 2004 and has been working since in a wide variety of contexts as dramaturg, playwright and associate tutor to various universities, to familiarise yourself with his impressive list of achievements and to sign up for ‘Lane’s List’ go here.

I have worked in community theatre for 18 years and am now venturing out to write my own stories, however it feels instinctive to me to work with the devising process. How do you bring these sides of theatre together, the writing and devising?

Somebody wise once said to me that devising is just writing standing up, and writing is just devising sitting down. That’s been a worthwhile piece of advice, as in terms of your perspective on the two disciplines, one can often loosen up the other. Sitting with a piece of paper and pen or laptop carries with it tremendous pressure, perhaps because we come from such a writer-centric culture in this country and the script carries so much agency as a finished product: whereas playing games with actors or doing countless improvisations and explorations or physical routines to develop ideas and characters away from the page often feels like it carries less import at an early stage – it can be a bit more throwaway. That’s not to denigrate the art of the performer in any way at all, but I think as soon as you treat the written word with less sanctity and with the same fast and loose irreverence that one might be prepared to treat explorations on the workshop floor, the easier it gets.

I think we need more playfulness in our approach to writing, and to remember that writing can happen at the beginning of a creative process, not just at the end. A more blunt answer to your question would be to make a piece of theatre – that will necessitate the bringing together of writing and devising. In a rehearsal period with a finished script actors will no doubt bring in devising techniques to help explore the terrain of their character or the story, trying and failing and trying again. Similarly, if you’re devising without a script, writing can manifest itself as a structuring force or a series of narrative choices, not just what one might recognise as a ‘script’. Every piece of theatre needs a structuring force (though not necessarily a traditional ‘story’ structure) and that’s why an understanding of the function of dramaturgy has always fascinated me as a practice that crosses both disciplines.
What do you think are the best networks for Bristol writers for script development?
South West Scriptwriters, Writers Forum at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol Old Vic’s Playground Sessions, Theatre Writing South West and Inkling Production. They all have different access points for writers, but each will inform the way you might go about developing your script in different ways. Playground Sessions are group readings and discussions around professionally produced plays; Inkling Productions are writer-producers; South West Scriptwriters have weekly round-table readings of radio, TV and theatre scripts; Theatre Writing South West will plug you into regional networks of other writer-oriented theatre-makers.

Is writing a solitary or collaborative process for you?

It’s both, and you need to work out for yourself when you need to occupy which working space, and to what extent. I recently decided to garret myself as a writer in a belief that I had to get to grips with my ‘solo’ process. Within two days I was going bonkers and in dire need of creative conversation – but I wanted to retain ownership of my ideas and early, fragile wonderings. So I asked trusted friends and colleagues if I could buy them coffee and cake and talk to them for 45mins, with no agenda other than wanting to empty my head at them. Each of those conversations sent me back to my solo writing invigorated, refreshed and with new insights, but I still maintained solo control of the play as a whole. Different plays require different inputs, and different performance environments require different processes. I’ve spent the last couple of years exploring collaborative writing practice both through working as a dramaturg with a devising company, and working as an associate with an inter-disciplinary and site-specific arts company as a writer.

What inspired you to start the ‘Lane’s List’?

See here: http://www.davidjohnlane.com/lanes-list-fee/

Do you believe you write for yourself first and then re-draft?

I’m always writing for myself in the sense that I am writing to work something out for myself, to explore something, follow a personal hunch, and make sense of it. Yet there’s no point in writing just for yourself if you’re writing for theatre, because you are always offering your work up to other people to collaborate with their imaginations. You’re offering something that has the potential to create a moment of live performance, a moment of live exchange between real human beings. If you’re not thinking about that and just writing for yourself, I think you give yourself a much harder re-drafting job to do.

How do you start writing, do you have a commission or a brief? Or from your point of view do some stories just need to be told?

Until recently I’ve been commissioned or ‘briefed’ to write, which can be very light touch, or can set up very definite creative limitations. I’ve just been reflecting on this in my Arts Council Blogs (see the recent Blogs 1 – 4 on my website). I’m not a writer that has a burning desire welling up inside me to tell particular stories – I’m not as impulsive or impassioned as that. I often get piqued by something, or invited to explore something and then have a little look around it, a bit of research, some thinking time, some notes and conversations. Then see if something emerges that is worth putting in front of an audience; I’m quite cerebral in my process in that sense. I know the passion and urge will come later – it’s rarely what leads from the outset though.

What has led you to being associate artist at the Egg? What does the role entail?

I had a close relationship with the Ustinov Studio when it still catered for new writers and local artists and companies, and set up their Writers’ Forum (which has now moved to the Tobacco Factory Theatre) and around the same time that programme was running, I had a play for teenagers tour into the egg from Half Moon Young People’s Theatre. I was also working as a script reader for the Ustinov and had written a chapter in my book Contemporary British Drama on the process of writing with and for teenagers, and was writing young company plays at the time for some South West-based groups. That all led to a conversation with the artistic director, and shortly afterwards I spearheaded a suggested series of projects that could work across their young people’s and community engagement strands, one of which I worked upon as dramaturg. From my point of view I hadn’t set up that role particularly strongly, so when the Writers’ Forum moved on, I decided to try and pursue my identity with The Egg primarily as playwright. I was invited to pitch a show for their young company during the Shakespeare Unplugged Festival, and around the same time they set up an Artistic Associate programme which you had to apply and interview for. I got through, and since that time have written a professional/community cross-over show, an adaptation of a short story for young people, delivered workshops on their and 5x5x5’s School Without Walls scheme and run workshops on playwriting for young people too.

Thank you David for your time, much appreciated. 

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