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Studying Writing
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Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
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Coming up with the goods
Thomas, Carolyn
Carolyn Thomas writes about studying on the Postgraduate Diploma in Dramatic Writing at the University of Sussex with tutor Richard Crane.
I'd paid over £1,000 for the Diploma in Dramatic Writing. As a working student with a family to support, it had to be something special. I soon got to know the friendly, diverse group of fellow students and three dedicated tutors. This was no ordinary creative writing class: each student was to be treated as a 'commissioned' writer. We had to come up with the goods - meet deadlines, learn to pitch without going to pieces, and complete a polished script ready for performance by professional actors. The pressure was on... this was not a course for the feint-hearted.

I'd been dabbling with writing for a few years and had attended the usual writing classes and one-day workshops. Whilst my enthusiasm was maintained during these courses, as soon as they'd finished, my motivation did too. It was a bit like that hungry feeling you get shortly after finishing a fast food meal. By comparison, the one-year part time diploma offered the satisfaction of a five course meal, and helped me to sustain a long-term goal.

From our first session we knew we had our work cut out. We had to start thinking of a major project that we felt driven to write. We were given clear handouts detailing all the information and recommended reading material we could possibly want, and more, so that we could organize our study around our busy working lives and plan ahead. Each weekly session involved a three hour evening workshop under the excellent guidance of the course convener, Richard Crane, former resident dramatist at the Royal National Theatre.

Our first brief was to create a fifteen-minute one-act play using only three characters, one of whom must be 'dead'. We could interpret this in any way we wished and it lent itself to a diverse range of pieces from surreal ghostly offerings to harsh glimpses of the plight of women in Afghanistan. As a group we gave constructive feedback on each piece and heeded advice on how improvements could be made to further develop them.

A more formal preparation for this task saw us dissecting Hamlet, Chekhov's Three Sisters and Becket's Waiting for Godot, to examine structure, theme and impact. Our thoughts on how we would stage these plays today were presented in the form of a brief essay. For some members of the group, this was their first academic piece of work in many years as our ages ranged from 23 to 73. However, we all rose to the challenge and gave entertaining presentations of our ideas.

Our sessions were also peppered with masterclasses from visiting speakers. They included inspirational talks with writers Marks and Gran and from Cherry Potter, author of Screen Language. We felt very privileged and informed after such talks.

The first term focused on 'watching and listening' - basically to see and hear as much new material as possible across all media, in order to get a feel for the current market. This would also give us experience of what works in modern drama, before we largely fledgling writers launched into our major writing project in the following two terms.

Whilst the emphasis of this course was on the practical side of writing, we could not escape another essay requirement and it came in the form of the title: 'What's setting the pace and lighting the way in 21st Century Drama?'

No problem, except that we were asked to imagine we were writing a 2000 word commissioned article for a broadsheet paper which should aim for 'seminal, idiosyncratic, provocative, must-read' content. We would need to draw on all the new productions we had seen or heard to select one from each medium which we felt was a marker for the future. Christmas was fast approaching and I had reviewed structure, presentation and impact in all but the radio category. It was pantomime season so ground breaking 21st Century drama was scant and I was left with the rather disturbing choice of analysing a wacky sketch show or an ancient repeat. Luckily, I was saved by a delightful new radio comedy as I peeled the vegetables for Christmas lunch. I was suitably motivated to submit a reasonable essay in time. Treating us as commissioned writers gave us all a clear insight into this challenging yet exhilarating career, especially when it came to deadlines.

The hard work was balanced with many pleasurable times and in mid-December we attended a residential weekend in the glorious setting of Herstmonceux Castle. We thought we had turned up at Hogwarts - it really was an inspiring place to write. The purpose of the weekend was to 'pitch' our main script project ideas which would form the focus for the next two terms and culminate in a showcase performance. We also learnt about writing a 'treatment' for our intended script and more about the industry for which we had chosen to write. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on our work so far and to prepare for the demands of a substantial piece of writing. It was also a time to relax, exchange ideas and enjoy each other's company. We took part in seminars and a physical theatre workshop led by Clive Mendus of Complicite. These sessions helped us to sharpen our writing skills and explore new forms and ideas to extend the boundaries of dramatic writing.

In the Spring term, a 'Critics night' was held and we felt very informed about the current trends in dramatic writing after speakers from The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph passed on their knowledge and experience. It also helped us to develop a more critical approach to our own work!

In these final terms of 'Writing and Presentation', we were split into two tutor groups depending on whether we had chosen to write for theatre/radio or TV/film. Each week we were to develop and improve our scripts having heard feedback from the group. We also had frequent individual tutorials to monitor our progress. Professional actors joined these sessions in the final weeks and each was assigned a script to rehearse. This was a useful and exciting experience as we had the opportunity to direct our work. Such close liaison with actors helped us to understand how a script comes to life. We also began to appreciate the practicalities and limitations involved in taking a piece of writing from page to performance.

The showcase of our work was a memorable day with the invited guest list reading like a Who's Who for the media industry: producers, agents, directors, critics, writers. This was the moment above all others that made us feel truly professional and gave us a chance to make an impact. Interest was shown in all of our scripts to varying degrees and for me it resulted in an invitation to attend a workshop with TAPS (Television & Performance Showcase) in London. Whilst I wasn't snapped up by the BBC, I did receive an encouraging letter from their comedy unit which in turn has given me useful pointers for further development.

Just when we thought we were safe from essays and assignments, it was time to hand in a 6-8,000-word dissertation on any area of dramatic writing. In some ways, not working to a given title made it harder because the choice was so wide and subjects ranged from a detailed analysis of Star Trek to the films of a particular director. I settled on examining how James Fenimore Cooper's book Last of the Mohicans had translated to Michael Mann's film version. The research for this was fun and I even received some email help from the wife of Russell Means who played Chingachgook in the film, in response to my questions about the portrayal of native Indians.

This diploma is described as 'a practical career development programme' giving students 'the opportunity to write under professional conditions and to develop their writing with the help of professional writers and directors.' Much more than this, the course has given me direction, determination, confidence, numerous writing contacts and that all-important slice of a writer's life.

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