Giving writing a go

At the start of the year, I ran quick-fire creative writing workshops with LIP Theatre Company, who are the University of Dundee’s drama society. LIP Theatre Company gives students the opportunity to get involved in all areas of theatre – from acting, directing and backstage, to sound and light, and writing new plays.

At their Give It A Go sessions for the past few years, I’ve run the writing part of the evening, which consisted of a few rapid exercises in a 20 minute timeframe to groups of about 15 at a time. It’s challenging to introduce people to creative writing in such a short space of time, so I thought I’d share a little about what we did in those sessions.

When I ran the writing workshop initially, I brought in a selection of portraits which I’d found online and printed out. Each group was split up into smaller groups of two or three (to make four ‘mini’ groups) and in those groups they were given about five minutes to decide who the person in their portrait was. To help them with this, I also printed some prompts for their biographies, which included things like:

  • Name
  • Job
  • Ambition
  • Greatest fear
  • Sexually attracted to
  • Earliest memory
  • Guilty pleasure
  • Hobbies

The prompts weren’t exclusive, and everyone was encouraged to use their imagination. At the end of their time, each group was asked to share a bit about the person they’d created with the whole group. It was always surprising to see how different groups would interpret the same photograph over the course of the evening.

The second part of the exercise was to pair up the four ‘mini’ groups, and ask them to write a very short scene between the two characters they’d created. They were given about 8 minutes to do this, and also provided with another selection of prompts to help them think of a scene that could take place.

  • Love at first sight
  • Funeral
  • Job interview
  • Wedding ceremony
  • Breaking up
  • Hospital ward
  • Goodbye forever
  • Ordering food

At the end of the time, I asked those who felt confident to perform the short scene they’d written for the whole group. With such a short timeframe, everything was rough and often not finished, but it had been stressed throughout that this was absolutely alright.

I rethought the exercises when I ran the workshops again earlier this year, to see if I could use the 20 minutes with each group more effectively. Each session followed a similar structure, but with some differences. The group was split into pairs of two, or groups of three, and each ‘mini’ group chose both a forename and a surname from a hat. With their randomly assigned name, they created a quick biography using prompts similar to before.

For the second part of the new workshop, I asked each ‘mini’ group to chose a scenario from a hat, and write a short monologue in the voice of their character. Some of the scenarios included:

  • Winning the lottery, gone wrong
  • A pet’s funeral, gone wrong
  • A live TV news report, gone wrong
  • A blind date, gone wrong
  • A trip to the zoo, gone wrong

Something I had found the first time around when asking groups to write a scene was that even with the prompts I’d offered, they weren’t sure what should happen in the scene. This time, each scenario ended with the words ‘gone wrong,’ giving them a point of departure: what went wrong? How could this go wrong? It was something for them to think about quickly, and got them straight into writing their scene once they’d decided. It was also quite interesting to see how long it took the groups to work out their scenarios all ended the same way.

I haven’t had an opportunity to run the workshop again since rethinking it, but I think in future I might like to combine the two versions. I loved working with the portraits as it helped give participants a visual on the person they were creating, which is useful when working so fast. I preferred using the ‘gone wrong scenarios,’ for the second part for the same sort of reason: it was a quick entry into the scene.

Ultimately the main difficulty remained the short amount of time, which was unfortunately down to the nature of the evening as the groups also had an acting workshop, a backstage workshop, and an icebreaker workshop to go to. Alongside Shaun Falconer and Craig Watson, who helped me run the sessions, what I think we were able to show each group in that time was that even with such strict limitations, they were all able to create an interesting character and something remarkable to happen to them. There might even be a germ of an idea that could go on to grow into something special.