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Interview: Jemma Kennedy on her new guide to creative process, THE PLAYWRIGHT'S JOURNEY

Jemma Kennedy on her new guide to creative process, THE PLAYWRIGHT'S JOURNEY

Interview: Jemma Kennedy on her new guide to creative process, THE PLAYWRIGHT'S JOURNEY Jemma Kennedy started her writing career as a novelist, publishing her debut Skywalking in 2003. Now primarily a playwright and screenwriter, her work has been staged internationally, including Second Person Narrative for Tonic Theatre's Platform initiative; The Gift, part of the Hoard Festival for the New Vic Theatre; The Summer Book and The Prince and the Pauper for the Unicorn Theatre; The Grand Irrationality for the Lost Theatre Studio (Los Angeles) and Don't Feed the Animals for National Theatre Connections 2013. She has been the Pearson Playwright at The National Theatre (in 2010) and part of the Soho 6 writing scheme with Soho theatre (2012).

An experienced writing mentor and judge, Jemma has taught extensively on courses at The National Theatre. Now, she imparts her wisdom to aspiring playwrights in the exquisitely detailed The Playwright's Journey, published by Nick Hern books this year.

BroadwayWorld meets the writer to talk about how to get started, keeping the faith, and tips for turning an idea into a script you can hold in your hands.

Tell us about The Playwright's Journey: what is it's focus?

I wanted the book to be a pathway through [writing], giving you a toolbox. To be able to reflect on your needs, wants, desires, and thoughts for a play; to enable your authorship.

I taught playwrighting for many years and because I worked with so many writers, and I'm a playwright myself, having access to all this material from them has been so useful. In the book, I say that what helps writers more than anything is looking at other people's plays that aren't quite working and understanding how we can collectively make them better.

This seems to be the thing that opens doors in people's minds, and that's the basis of the book... which follows [on from] my classes. It's full of tips, asking 'how can you build on [an idea]'? You only really learn that by writing. But whilst you're writing, it can be easy to just give up in despair because if you never get to the end of the draft. You only ever learn to be a playwright by writing a play.

Every bad play you write is a step on the journey, and the [journey is] about balancing your instinct, your gut, and your sense of story with other people's advice.

Having many people contribute their different perspectives sounds like a really holistic way of learning. Did you go into this project making a conscious decision to dispel some of the top-down power dynamics that are common to theatre making and education?

Yes... I think I did. I was very aware that I had to balance my own experience - which I am imparting - through thinking about why a play wasn't working and ways to improve it.

Ultimately, the question I always return to is: 'what do you feel in your gut?'. Also, how do you reconnect to your material when twenty people (including your mum!) are saying 'well I think it should be about this!'? That's what gets overwhelming.

In the book, there's a balance between taking advice - mine or anybody else's - and always connecting this back to your central question. Hopefully, it's about having a toolbox to answer your own questions and not somebody else's. That's actually quite a fine line.

What was the first play you wrote?

One that I entered to the Royal Exchange in Manchester for their Write Now competition [in 2004], which was a precursor to the Bruntwood Prize. It was called Honesty Bar and was based on an anecdote I'd been told by friends of mine who went on holiday to Cadaqués in Spain, where they met this amazing, eccentric guy in a bar. The next night, they went out, and they met his twin brother. Only it wasn't his twin brother. It was the same guy, pretending to be his twin brother.

It was a story that stuck with me. I knocked off this mad story and I sent it in, and it got placed - and that was the beginning of my theatre journey!

I wrote that on pure instinct. I was a theatre goer, but I didn't go to drama school... I wasn't steeped in theatre culture, let's say. I'd written and published a novel before then [Skywalking, in 2003] - so I had written quite a bit - but playwriting was completely new to me. And I just loved it. That was the beginning.

What did you take from that first experience?

Tht it's always better to start writing from a place of instinct, drive, and fascination. This takes you a certain way on the path, to use the analogy of The Playwright's Journey. Then, you need your toolbox...

I got to see that [play] acted and I learned everything from that first experience. It's craft and instinct - instinct takes you so far then craft takes you so far. Also, the excitement keeps you going. It's why I've done it all these years. I've never gotten bored.

What does the beginning of the writing process look like for you?

First, you just have to put the hours in. Non-writers always say, "you really work a full day?". And I say "yes! It's my job!". You can't just wait for the muse to descend. That's why I have so much admiration for playwrights because most of us start off writing when we can in our spare time.

At the start, I would usually start to write "stream-of-consciousness". I will start conversations, write bits of dialogue, and just put words in character's mouths. I might write ten or fifteen pages over a few days and then I've got my feet under the table with the character's voices, and I can hear who they are. Then I start being more schematic about what it is, what the structure is, and the story I'm trying to tell.

It's about following your instinct and then trying to understand where you are going with [the idea]. That takes time and practice.

The playwright Luke Barnes once gave me some advice to pass on to some students I was teaching about writing practice. He said they must "trust the process". That no process is wrong - you are learning what it is, and that's so useful.

That's a really important point in the book. In writer's rooms, some people are quite early on in their careers, or you might have Simon Stephens who has years of experience, yet everyone is as nervous [as each other] at the beginning. Everyone's process is unique to them. Over time, you learn what the process is. Though it sometimes can be different for each play.

Once you've written one play, you do build up a certain confidence about finding solutions to issues. One of the things I find helpful is if I am stuck in a scene, I will write it as prose to write out the subtext. There's a chapter in the book where I show the subtext first and then the dialogue in a scene. It helps you to understand what the scene is about.

There is no wrong thing to do. No matter how weird or arduous.

In the book you write about how sometimes something can be abandoned in the process, then end up taking on a life of its own. It can even go on to be its own play.

Definitely. For everything I write I must have a hundred files. I've gone back into old files and found an idea or a scrap of something that was part of my original "brain explosion", then forgot about it. Always, always save your notes! Anything that you cut - a scene or a paragraph of dialogue - save it somewhere. It's all a map of your thought process and your feeling your way through.

Does the self-consciousness that often comes with writing get easier?

The most exposing thing is sharing a draft. Which is why it's important to have readers that you trust who will give you honest advice. Those early drafts you don't have to show anyone - but keep them for yourself.

Why would you want people to pick up The Playwright's Journey?

I would hope they pick up the book to not feel alone. To understand that everyone goes through that feeling, including successful writers like Richard Bean, who let me expose his process of getting it "wrong".

Secondly, you are the author of your own fate. This is not a book telling you how to write a play. It's a book that gives you options to explore the play you want to write. I want this book to help people interrogate that so that they can come to their own conclusions rather than have the imposition of someone else.

Everyone has moments when they want to give up. The book is a resource, so you don't have to feel alone in this.

The Playwright's Journey is out now, and you can read our review of it here

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