Resituating the Writer’s Workshop: Collective Strategies for Playwriting Pedagogy
George Pierce Baker introduced the idea of the “writer’s workshop” in his Harvard English 47 class in the early twentieth century, and since then it has become an entrenched pedagogical model for training playwrights. Contemporary manifestations of the workshop, however, have resulted in writers who have become isolated from other theatre artists and are therefore potentially ignorant of their creative processes. This article looks at the history of the writer’s workshop and makes an argument for a new model, which is both collaborative and accessible, and better responds to contemporary performance practice.
Keywords: playwright, writing pedagogy, George Pierce Baker, writing for performance, postgraduate writing programmes
A group of people sit in a circle. Not all participants are white and under 40, but a majority are. There are eight women and four men, one of whom is subtly indicated as leader by the slight increase in space between his chair and the others. The others, student writers, hold a stapled group of papers in their laps; some are reading it over, some are not.
|Workshop Leader||Let’s look at Jared’s script. Does everyone have a copy?|
|Jared||I might not have printed enough.|
|Workshop Leader||Does anyone mind sharing?|
|/Two of the female members of the group nod and one passes her script to the leader. They move their chairs together so that they can share the script./|
|Workshop Leader||Can you assign roles please, Jared? Remember, you shouldn’t read anything yourself—just listen.|
Jared assigns roles to the writers. The two men are given the leading male roles, and because there are more male roles than men, some of the women are also assigned male roles. There is a disabled character in the script, but because there are no disabled people in the group, an able-bodied writer reads the role. The two women sharing the script are not given roles to keep things simple. The Workshop Leader appoints himself to read the stage directions.
The group reads through Jared’s script. Two of the students are actors by profession and read with conviction, layering their spur-of-the-moment character interpretation onto the words of the script. Some of the non-actor readers attempt to copy them in enthusiasm, whilst others read the lines deadpan.
Readers are occasionally troubled by punctuation and stop; Jared explains that three colons represent a pause with quick psychological shifts, which should be obvious in the actor’s performance, but when the group continue, this is largely ignored. Jared reads along silently. The Workshop Leader frequently forgets to read the stage directions.
The above scene may be familiar to those who have participated in a “playwright’s workshop.” Whilst presented in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, and not representative of everyone’s experience, it does take note of a significant feature: work is shared in a group largely made up of other writers. In the more than one hundred years since George Pierce Baker formalised the idea of a playwright’s workshop in his English 47 class at Harvard, there have been many writers who have benefitted from the approach. However, it has evolved into a process which largely neglects Baker’s original intention, which was to provide writers with a collaborative space where they could hone their craft with the input of other types of theatre artists and informed spectators.
In their 2013 article addressing how playwriting is/could be taught in the twenty-first century, Anne García-Romero and Alice Tuan ask the question “How do we encourage the contradictory skills of solitary creation and collaborative expansion?” They state that “esteemed and experienced” professional mentors should support students in pedagogical environments where “methods and philosophies gain traction through praxis.” What that praxis consists of is not precisely noted, but it can be assumed they mean the practical application of theory through script and/or performance writing. A distinction can be made between work which follows the conventional layout associated with playscripts, with defined lines for characters and stage directions, and text which is written for the purposes of (mimetic or non-mimetic) performance but may depart greatly from traditional layouts or indeed function. However, the majority of playwriting courses, whether they be for the purposes of undergraduate or graduate study or operate independently of higher education, focus on crafting scripts in the conventional sense. Does “praxis” rest solely in looking at the script on paper (or screen), or does it include a working through of the script with artistic collaborators, and the usual fruition of the writing: performance? And if performance, what do we mean by this—an unrehearsed, in-class reading, a rehearsed reading with audience or, perhaps, a full production?
Evidence suggests that opportunities for writers to engage in the “collaborative expansion” wished for by García-Romero and Tuan are limited; whilst students might develop their writing in an environment called a “workshop”, the collaboration that takes place there generally happens with the participation of one kind of artist only: the writer. Les Hunter’s survey of playwriting syllabi in American universities suggests that 76 percent of classes have a “writing workshop” (70). Reporting on his survey of members of the Playwrights Program of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), Michael Wright reveals that as much as 80 percent of class time is “used for reading student work in class” (97). However, only 40 percent of syllabi reference a requirement for students to revise scripts (Hunter 70), which suggests that the presentation of work in a workshop format does not always result in a student redrafting after hearing a script read aloud and receiving feedback. Additionally, none of the syllabi surveyed indicated that students were introduced to collaborative devising methodologies, although 20 percent—a relatively small number—indicate that “students will develop an understanding of playwriting as part of a collaborative process with others,” which, as Hunter suggests, is likely to mean working with other artists as part of the production process, rather than “collaborative script creation” (72).
It should be noted that some institutions, such as the Yale School of Drama (where Baker took his 47 Workshop pedagogical model after leaving Harvard) and the New School, offer a curriculum which actively requires playwrights to work collaboratively. Former Head of Playwriting at Yale Jeanie O’Hare stated that the programme had “no playwriting pedagogy”; instead, the department was run “like a small theatre” (Morash 97). However, if Hunter’s survey is accurate, this approach is unusual.
There is a similar reluctance to engage with other types of theatre artists in British playwriting courses. Whilst the workshop is a common feature of university degree courses, and short courses that operate independently of higher education institutions, these offer little opportunity to collaborate with any type of artist apart from other writers (Morash 82–85). A survey undertaken of British graduate courses in 2014 showed that (521–22), out of 12 institutions who ran distinct playwriting programmes (as opposed to more generalist Creative Writing courses), opportunities for devising/collaboration only featured as a major component in two (Goldsmiths and Royal Holloway), and a minor (and non-compulsory) element in four others. Returning in 2022 to information available online on the courses originally surveyed, plus newcomers to the field, the picture is no different and, significantly, a number of these courses have closed or been absorbed into general Creative Writing graduate programmes, including the University of Birmingham and the University of Lincoln, where there is likely even less opportunity to collaborate with other theatre makers. Of all the graduate playwriting programmes currently running in the U.K., the only institution which explicitly mentioned the opportunity to develop work with actors was the University of York (2022), whilst the seminar and playwrights’ workshop remained the dominant pedagogical forms.
Outside of the U.K. and the U.S.A., there are few dedicated graduate degrees in playwriting; writing for the stage is generally either contained in a Creative Writing programme or a more general Theatre/Drama degree. However, there is a small selection of undergraduate playwriting programmes, such as the Lund University’s Bachelor’s Programme in Dramatic Writing in Sweden (2022), taught in conjunction with Malmö Theatre Academy. Intriguingly, this programme has elective elements which allow students to undertake an internship in a theatre and/or to develop work in collaboration with a director and actors; perhaps the longer length of an undergraduate degree offers more scope for allowing writers access to other theatre artists. In addition, two graduate programmes in Ireland offer writers the opportunity to work with other artists: the University of Galway’s MA in Playwriting and Dramaturgy (2022) is an “intensive one-year immersion in an ensemble-based learning environment” and the University College Dublin connects their MA in Writing for Stage and Screen (2022) students with members of a professional theatre company.
Liz Tomlin suggests that writers often train in isolation from other performance disciplines and pedagogies, particularly those which focus on collaborative creation, because the specialist skills of playwriting are difficult to fit into an already broad curriculum (120). However, this approach, a “pedagogical process that isolates the writer from the collaborative theatrical context,” can lead to a regurgitation of tried-and-tested principles of writing, with a heavy emphasis on dramatic realism, rather than experimentation and consideration of newer forms of performance (121). In order to understand how playwriting pedagogy has become ossified in its current state, with its heavy usage of the playwright-only workshop format, it is important to consider its modern origins.
George Pierce Baker’s 47 Workshop
Baker, specialist in rhetoric, theatre industry figure and minor playwright, first began teaching playwriting skills in the late 1890s at Radcliffe College and Harvard as part of classes on English composition and then refined his approach to one specifically focused on the craft of playwriting for his “English 47” elective class at Harvard. At this point, apart from a class on dramatic technique run by French linguist Alfred Hennequin at the University of Michigan in the late nineteenth century and William T. Price’s turn-of-the-century school of playwriting in New York (Grebanier 85), a formal pedagogy of dramatic writing was non-existent. A small number of instructional texts on approaches to playwriting had been published, including Hennequin’s The Art of Playwriting in 1890, but, by and large, writers were expected to learn their craft through observation of other plays and simply by writing.
Christopher Kempf makes a compelling connection between the development of Baker’s workshop and the growth of the American Arts and Crafts movement, which “challenged the distinction between manual and mental labour”; Baker had both “material and ideological ties” to the Society of Arts and Crafts (246). At the same time, Baker was interested in the growth of “New Drama” in Europe, influenced by Ibsen and Chekhov, and emerging in the aesthetic challenge to the conventions of commercial theatre seen in the work of playwrights such as W. B. Yeats and G. B. Shaw. It is no coincidence that William Archer’s highly influential text Play-Making, A Manual of Craftmanship, which heralded the emergence of New Drama within English-language theatre, was published in 1912, the same year that, in correspondence to Elizabeth McFadden, Baker chose the term workshop for his experimental approach (which would be included as part of a second semester of English 47, for advanced students), whilst staying at the home of Lady Gregory (243).
Baker’s goal was not only to introduce his students to new forms of drama (mainly dramatic realism and naturalism), opening their eyes to the possibilities beyond the melodrama which still reigned supreme in commercial theatres, but to introduce them to a rigorous writing process, which included working with scenic artists, technicians and actors (Kempf 244). In shifting the pedagogical approach of the class from one which only involved examination of text and scrutiny of composition to the workshop, where students wrote, shared and developed work with their peers, which was then performed for a select, critical audience (who were vetted and obliged to provide feedback), he allowed them to have more insight into the collaborative processes of theatre making. As he wrote in 1919, the playwright who has “assisted in lighting” will be less likely to “ask the light man to provide the atmosphere and subtler gradations of feeling which it is his business to provide by his text” (qtd. in Kempf 246). In addition, he recognised that “the dramatist never works directly, but through intermediaries, the actors and the producer” (Baker 12), meaning that it was important that the playwright understood that their words would be interpreted through the bodies and creative minds of collaborators.
In addition, whilst he felt that no “textbook can do away with the value of proper classroom work,” he believed that an essential part of the dramatist’s training was to read and see “past and present plays, probably in large numbers” (Baker 1); he did not do away with the study of dramatic composition entirely in his workshop. He considered the “three great Masters” for students were “Constant Practice, Exacting Scrutiny of the Work, and, above all, Time” (Baker iv); writers must realise that craft develops gradually. However, it can be questioned whether this “exacting scrutiny” of what has already been written might lead to more of the same. As Kara Reilly argues, “his methods wouldn’t allow for the radical experimentation in form that has been so critical for theatre of the twentieth century” (111). Still, Baker’s acolytes include writers such as Eugene O’Neill, who was credited with creating a new and distinct form of American drama (although with clear European influences); in the right circumstances, which include opportunities for experimentation, the study of existing forms can create the right environment for radical responses.
Contemporary Manifestations of the Playwrights’ Workshop
Since Baker’s time, the idea of the playwrights’ workshop has evolved elsewhere to mean something quite different. Hillary Miller revealed that whilst in 1975 there were 15 creative-writing MFA programmes in the U.S., by 2013 this had ballooned to 153, and the “contemporary workshop model” had become “entrenched as the standard fare of the MFA writing programs” (33). My own research reveals a significant growth in postgraduate playwriting courses in the U.K. since David Edgar established the first British MA in Playwriting at the University of Birmingham in 1989 (Morash 94–95). These courses sit alongside short courses and writers’ groups run by organisations such as the Royal Court, which also predominantly use the workshop approach, combined at times with specialist one-to-one mentoring and other forms of teaching.
Most workshops follow a similar pattern, in line with the scene at the opening of this article. Liz Almond describes the process she uses when workshopping with writers:
Exemplary texts are often used as a starting point for discussion and are chosen to provide a model for what you may subsequently be asked to write. A large percentage of the workshop may well be spent writing and the advantage of being made to write rather than waiting until you feel like it, is that by allowing the pen to move quickly across the page you may access material you didn’t know was there.19
The group/course leader will usually draw on established/canonical plays, although sometimes also introduces the work of more experimental writers (as was my experience in an advanced playwriting course I undertook whilst completing my MA at RADA). Some leaders may also assign readings from “how-to” books; David Edgar’s How Plays Work and Steve Waters’s The Secret Life of Plays are both popular choices in the U.K. (Morash 101). In Hunter’s survey, 90 percent of classes required that students either watch or read “established” plays and 86 percent required students to consult secondary texts on “playwriting, creative writing or dramaturgy,” though not all of those classes would have used a workshop model (70). Students produce their own work, usually writing in isolation (at home or in their own space within the workshop room), sometimes in response to an exercise or brief.
In many workshops, the writing is then read out loud by group members (who are usually not trained actors, though a few might be), often without preparation, or sometimes the student will read it themselves (particularly if they are only sharing a speech or brief excerpt). They, then, often provide feedback to the writer (Morash 95). Some courses or groups include showcases of work, where the writer might have a play performed by professional actors, but this does not happen with all or even many. Devising also rarely features; Hunter revealed that none of the syllabi he surveyed specifically “suggest that the class introduces students to devised work” (72), and only a small number of British institutions actively require playwriting students to engage with devising in their graduate playwriting programmes (98). In all, there are rare opportunities for student writers to engage with and learn from any other artists than writers within the workshop model that currently dominates.
Kathleen George’s Playwriting, The First Workshop outlines what she sees as best practice for workshops. She states the “workshop experience . . . is important because discussion, controversy, and disagreement about what works and what doesn’t is crucial to developing your opinions [about drama]” (xiii), and that it is particularly useful for playwrights because “theatre is an active art, meant to be heard, meant to be performed” (25). She provides rules for workshops, which state that the “play may [initially] be read aloud by the playwright who reads all the stage directions as well as the character names” and who “should not try to act the play”; eventually, as the class progresses the plays “should be read by members of the class, taking roles” but again they “do not try to act the plays.” When the group gives feedback afterwards “the playwright should not speak” (25), presumably so that the writer listens carefully and openly to the commentary of others, without trying to interject to explain or argue.
However, as playwright Romulus Linney points out, this approach can be problematic because students “have so many personal agendas, conscious and unconscious, that they can’t sort them out” (62). In other words, students’ personal preferences, as well as what they have previously been exposed to performance-wise, may colour their ability to provide useful feedback, particularly if a peer’s play is not in a style they enjoy or about a topic they are interested in. Minorities, women and others from marginalised communities may be particularly vulnerable to unconscious bias when receiving peer feedback. This may be mitigated by a good workshop leader, but teachers and tutors are not free from bias themselves. There is also the problem of who is permitted to participate in the workshop in the first place. Often, admission is through application with a sample of writing. Whilst there may be some desire on the part of the workshop facilitators to look out for raw talent, educational and family background, financial issues which result in limited exposure to live performance and a general lack of confidence might mean that the voices needed on contemporary stages, including those of working class, ethnic minority, LGBTQ+, disabled, female and others, either count themselves out or are overlooked by gatekeepers because the applicant is unfamiliar with the conventions of stage writing or, again, due to conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the reader.
Linney is not the only person to find the conventional structures of the contemporary playwrights’ workshop concerning: Micheline Wandor states that, for playwrights, “the conventions of the academic ‘workshop,’ in which creative writing is predominantly taught, are unsatisfactory and need to be reconsidered” (5). Similar to Linney, a key drawback for her is that the “main pedagogic issue” is “criticism,” but there is often little time to establish “shared criteria” for this (77–78). If this is true, there is also little time for experimentation and improvisation in the playwright-only workshop, trying things out and putting the script on its feet. This is the type of important work that might happen in rehearsal, or a devising workshop which includes multiple types of theatre artists. As Christopher Durang points out, actors are often highly valuable sources of feedback:
. . . sometimes the actors’ comments helped me with my writing more than comments from my fellow writers. My fellow writers have their own personas and, at their worst, would basically tell you how they would write it, while the actors usually were just about telling you when they were having trouble going from moment to moment.qtd. in Norman and Durang 88
Actors are experts in translating written word into embodied action; playwrights may have some insight into this if they have previously performed themselves, but this cannot be guaranteed.
Additionally, as Tomlin observes, traditional modes of teaching, including workshops (she refers to “seminars”) are “very good at enabling students and new writers to follow the well-established principles of the broadly realist dramatic playtext, which have already been proven to work ‘in performance’” (121); indeed, as explored above, Baker’s original workshop model was built to promote this particular form. However, the twentieth century saw the emergence of many new and exciting forms; Tomlin asks:
how can the new writer begin to make informed decisions about how divergences from [realist] principles will function in performance? They may look like they “won’t work” on the page . . . but that’s not to say they might not find their own form in the space and time of their own performance model.121
The nature of a realist play, and its dependence on dialogue to move the action forward and develop character, means that it can function like a piece of literature and is usually easily understood, even when read by seated, untrained performers. Plays which are dependent on more physical vocabularies or use complex language and experimental dramaturgies, which incorporate a multi-layered usage of media, or defy realist tradition in general may be difficult to grasp when read in workshop conditions. As Tomlin says, “the ‘stage’ itself is too often . . . inexplicably absent from proceedings” (121). In addition, the isolation of playwrights from other artists can negatively impact the latter group. Actors, directors, composers and designers can benefit from working closely with writers; if they have a better understanding of the key considerations for the writer of the text they are working on, they may not overlook important aspects and may gain a more complex understanding the script.
If the playwrights’ workshop process, as it now generally exists, is largely unsatisfactory both for writers and their collaborators, what is a better process? In order to approach a new workshop model, it is useful to examine examples of writer development processes which challenge convention.
New Models for Playwright Development
Whilst, as established, the original workshop model has limitations due to its primary focus on dramatic realism, a return to Baker’s interest in craft and collaboration might offer opportunities for a revitalised workshop approach that speaks more to contemporary performative contexts. If we treat playwriting as a craft, this means that the writer is in a constant process of development. They may train alongside other writers (and potentially actors, directors, designers and technicians), but the learning does not stop at the end of the programme, nor does the collaboration. The workshop, if structured thoughtfully, exists as both a physical (or potentially digital) space and a psychological one, the latter of which the writer continues to inhabit throughout their career. As Andréa Onstand states in her discussion of the ground-breaking Padua Hills Playwriting Workshop, founded by Maurice Mednick and led in part by Maria Irene Fornes, when a playwright encounters a revolutionary pedagogy, it results in a “lifelong shift in dramatic aesthetic” (7).
This lifelong influence of the collaborative workshop aesthetic can be seen in the work of writers who emerged out of the second wave of devising, including Bryony Lavery and Caryl Churchill. During this period, in line with the second wave of feminism, a number of female-led theatre collectives came to prominence, such as the Women Theatre’s Group (later Sphinx) and Monstrous Regiment, and practitioners Ariane Mnouchkine, Judith Malina and Joan Littlewood (Syssoyeva and Proudfit 16), who were well-versed in devising methodology and the concept of the “workshop” (as it applies to the development of devised work, which generally brings different types of practitioners together). At the same time, women were taking on significant roles and responsibilities within male-led companies, including Churchill’s collaboration with Joint Stock and Lavery’s work with Gay Sweatshop (of which she would later become Artistic Director). Both Lavery and Churchill are known for their innovative writing styles and experiments with form. This is not to say that collaborative devising was the sole source of inspiration for their innovation—Churchill, for example, was highly influenced by Brecht—but the opportunities to work with actors and directors at very early stages of productions provided them with the right conditions for experimentation and the opportunity to integrate the exploratory work of actors into their writing.
For many women, collaborative devising has been a more accessible entry point into writing and has provided the right environment for alternative dramaturgies. As Tomlin argues, collaborative practice can open up “genuinely innovative aesthetic possibilities of slippages between actor/character and dramatic fiction/theatre event, or an understanding of how the text itself might develop very differently when required to negotiate other performance vocabularies” (121). It is difficult to explore these possibilities in a setting devoid of collaborators who might offer alternative expertise and insight into performance-related disciplines and vocabularies.
In 2011, I was a participant in a week-long workshop called “Making It Up” at the Jerwood Space in London, hosted by Improbable, a theatre company well-known for its devising practice. Participants included writers who wanted to learn more about improvisational performance strategies and performers who wanted to experiment with writing, along with musicians and directors. This meant that there was a mix of backgrounds, expertise, and experiences; the leaders included Improbable founders Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, associate artist Matilda Leyser (who conceived the workshop) and collaborator Stella Duffy, who is a writer, director and deviser. The week provided the group with the ability to engage with both improvisational performance and writing practice, and take note of the connections between the two. There was no formal script writing as such, but opportunities to develop written work which might have a future life. Interestingly, feedback was not provided—we simply shared our work (if we wished) and the leaders would thank us for sharing, rather than offering a critique. However, we did engage with exercises which helped us to expand our understanding of our role as our own critics. This chance to work with other artists, to play, experiment and listen to the contributions of peers fundamentally changed the way I wrote and helped me to develop an approach to scripting that forefronts embodied practice and a flexible dramaturgy. Katalin Trencsényi’s recent Critical Stages article reveals concerns about a “dramaturgical monoculture” heavily rooted in Aristotelian principles and patriarchal structures. Breaking free of this monoculture is often enabled by being witness to, or participating in, the creative work of people from different disciplines, cultures, and life experiences.
My own pedagogy has been very much influenced by workshop experiences (“Making It Up” along with other playwright-only workshops), along my engagement with devising methodologies. I am the Lead Academic Tutor on the BA Theatre Studies at Rose Bruford and specialise in teaching modules about the craft of playmaking (including script writing). It is unusual as an online-only performing arts-related programme. Many assume that the nature of digital learning means there is little room for the kind of collaboration one would expect from a course based in non-digital spaces, but I actively seek out creative ways of including it. Students operate in two overlapping spaces on the course; their home/study space and the digital space and, if we think of both as performative (whilst keeping in mind important considerations about privacy), there are many opportunities for creative collaboration, including devising.
Online teaching can be more accessible than campus-based learning. I have students from across the world, including those who struggle to access non-digital spaces for financial, family or physical reasons. We also have a high number of neurodiverse learners. Whilst I address the students who have chosen to undertake the elective playwriting modules as “playwrights,” they may also be actors, theatre programmers, directors and so on, and bring that expertise with them into our collaborative learning. Peer feedback and development of work is shaped by this diversity. Webinars are active places of experimentation and students are also tasked with collaborating outside of webinars. Whilst there is much I would still like to explore in terms of pedagogical practice, teaching writing in a digital space has expanded my thinking about the possibilities we create for our students when we think beyond traditional modes of delivery, particularly the standard playwright’s workshop model.
Conclusion: Proposals for a Revitalised Workshop Structure
Trencsényi’s provocation suggests that “the structures we create when telling our stories also reflect our values”; I would extend this to the structure of the workshop in which playwrights learn and create work (which then might be reflected in the stories they tell). To return to García-Romero and Tuan’s question, the contradictory skills of solitary creation and creative expansion can be taught, within a revitalised approach to the concept of a workshop. There is much to be gained by allowing writers to investigate important dramaturgical conventions and the work of other playwrights—particularly those who redefine those conventions—in the same way that actors must train in the specific skills of performance. However, it is also important that opportunities are presented for collaboration with other artists, from the earliest stages.
What might this look like in terms of a pedagogical structure? There will never be one perfect format for training writers; space must be allowed for innovation. However, I propose the following:
- Writers have the opportunity to study aspects of their particular craft in the presence of other writers/specialist tutors.
- Writers also have the opportunity to train alongside other theatre artists, learning the basic skills and approaches of directing, acting and design.
- When reading work, playwrights have access to actors and other artists who can not only perform the work in a skilled way but provide feedback that is rooted in the knowledge of their particular discipline.
- The concept of a “workshop” for writers is expanded to include devising practice so that writers can learn how their skills can be utilised within collaborative theatre making but also gain a more intimate understanding of the practice and processes of other artists.
- Writers also learn to be dramaturgs (this does happen in a number of writing programmes already) and are taught to look at each other’s work through the lens of spectatorship, rather than their own personal preferences.
- Access to the workshop must be carefully considered; submission on the basis of a sample of writing can be problematic as this might eliminate those with potential but a lack of knowledge about conventions. In addition, decisions about physical access have an impact on who can participate; can some of the work be done online so that students are not restricted by geography, and are able to meet others with divergent experiences and backgrounds?
- Workshop leaders should engage in reflective practice to ensure that they are passing on their valuable knowledge whilst not privileging certain dramaturgies more than others.
These proposals will require a shift in the way courses are conceived, administrated, taught and marketed; in many institutions, this would mean an entire structural reconfiguration rather than simply adjusting those modules or courses which focus on performance writing. It might also involve a shift in attitude towards the opportunities presented by digital pedagogies. However, in a time where the teaching of the arts is in crisis, it is worth considering a revitalised workshop approach not only for the opportunities for creative expansion it offers but also from an efficiency point of view. Collaborative approaches benefit from shared teaching and resources; much can be gained from avoiding overlap. Students may also develop working relationships that will continue beyond the course, something which is unlikely to happen within the format of the playwright-only workshop.
Courses that offer collaborative experiences for writers do exist, where they replicate the experience of ensemble and collective structures (for example, Royal Central School’s MA/MFA in Advanced Theatre Practice), but they do not always offer the discipline-specific training. Wandor argues “each imagination and intellect must come to terms with its own resources and the skills entailed in writing cannot be collapsed into, or confused with, the skills entailed in performance and production” (86). Whilst there is value for the writer in investigating aspects of performance/designer/directing training that may overlap with playwriting and offer important alternative perspectives, a balance can be struck; writers still need to be specialists. In his conception of the workshop, George Pierce Baker envisioned a space where both craft and collaboration were emphasised. Although it is important to expand our approach to include and encourage alternative dramaturgies, we can retain Baker’s core principles and encourage our students to see themselves as lifelong learners, who will continuously hone their craft in response to divergent influences and an understanding of artistic practice beyond their own.
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*Karen Morash is a playwright, poet, dramaturg and academic; she is Lead Academic Tutor on the BA Theatre Studies at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in London. She has spoken and written about creative strategies for online teaching for organisations such as SCUDD and ATHE/Digital Theatre. Her 2018 practice research PhD focused on the role of the writer within collaborative theatre making practice, and she continues to explore alternative pedagogical practices for writers. Her performance writing has been featured in fringe theatres such as the Southwark Playhouse, New Diorama and the Cockpit and published in print in Bare Fiction and Understorey. She has a chapter on Bryony Lavery in Women, Collective Creation and Devising (Palgrave, 2016), along with articles focusing on pedagogical approaches to playwriting for Body, Space & Technology (2022) and New Theatre Quarterly (2022).
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