Setting up a writers group …. Guest Blog by Sandra Bendelow

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Publicity for the Writing for Performance Group, set up and led by Sandra Bendelow – presentation on 19th April 2012, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 7.45pm.

Kaite O’Reilly writes:

I first met Sandra Bendelow some years ago when she came to support the rehearsed readings of Travelling Light: The Mentoring Scheme I led for several years at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. We both live in West Wales and are acutely aware of the dearth of opportunities for performance writers here. Travelling Light was my way of contributing something, but Sandra has since gone above and beyond. I admire her immensely, as she has set up her own Writing for Performance Group – creating not just a community, but support and opportunities for herself and fellow writers and theatre practitioners in a place where there weren’t any, before. This Thursday 19th April the group are presenting The Town With No Traffic Wardens at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. I asked if she would guest blog about how and why she created this group, and what lessons she has learned along the way. I’m delighted to reproduce her email, below:

Sandra Bendelow writes:

It is almost a year now since the Aberystwyth Writing for Performance Group met for the first time. The reason for setting up the group was simple, I wanted a writing group to go to but there wasn’t a performance writing group in the area. But I dithered for a long time wary that running a group would distract me from my own precious writing time. However it’s been the opposite, it’s made me far more productive. Monthly meetings and deadlines for the next showcase are always on the horizon and the fact I lead the group means I really can’t get away with excuses for not writing. I have to lead by example and that means I have to be producing work.

I knew that I wanted it to be more than a monthly meeting of writers. It was about Writing for Performance so I wanted to get the work of the group produced as script-in-hand readings.

Aberystwyth Arts Centre runs a programme called Open Platform which allows anyone to propose a project to be performed in the Round Studio. Open Platform is a great scheme which allows small companies and individuals to perform their work so I knew there was a structure in place at the Arts centre that would allow us to do rehearsed readings.

Gill Ogden, Head of Performing Arts at Aberystwyth Arts Centre embraced the group right from the start, offering support, space and potential performance through Open Platform should we choose to do it.

I remember that very first meeting of the Writing for Performance Group filling me with complete fear; would I be sitting alone for two hours wondering if anyone else would turn up? if anyone turned up would I be able to “lead” the group?

Groups are also very tricky things, dynamics of groups operate around a strange indefinable vortex. Groups can often be maddeningly flat stifled things or explosive, combustible things – and that’s any group let alone a creative one!!! Also let’s face it, us writers are often freakish creatures of one form or another. Was it really advisable to take a group of writers used to secreting themselves away into lonely dark rooms, drawing them out into the daylight and putting them into a room together?

However the group has always surpassed my best expectations. It has an interesting make-up of writing backgrounds, a number of former prose writers who wanted to try their hand at theatre, a number of screenwriters interested in expanding their portfolio and a few with some theatre writing experience.

As for the dynamic of the group I literally couldn’t have created a better one, it’s supportive, it’s entertaining, it’s firm but fair. It’s an exceptionally good dynamic for a group and that is sheer luck.

At the very first group I suggested that we could put together a showcase of short plays, together we discussed a theme and came up with beginnings. The group threw themselves into it, they had no choice, a date was set, it was in the brochure. They had to get writing.

The writers were writing but also I needed to find performers and directors. Aberystwyth has a thriving community arts culture full of exceptionally talented people so this part was actually much easier than it should have been. In fact many performers and directors contacted me to say that they were interested in being involved in the project.

All performers and directors involved in the first project, Beginnings declared a wish to be involved in future projects and Town with No Traffic Wardens comprises of performers and a director all involved since the first project. The director Richard Hogger, a writer himself, is incredibly passionate about new writing and very supportive of the group. He is also extremely patient with the writers, sometimes it has to be said, more patient than we deserve.

Our incredibly talented cast Tom O’Malley. Julie McNicholls and Sian Taylor are joined by four of our writers who are also performers, Dan Rebbeck, Carmel George, Branwen Davies and Tony Jones. Again, patient is a word that springs to mind with the performers. In creating a supportive environment for writers, where the writers needs dominate, the performers do have to deal with taking a far more subservient role than is usual. The performers are actutely aware of the writers presence in the room and repeatedly tolerate the writers demands and needs with heart warming sensitivity.  The demands on the actors are hard, playing through a multitude of characters, style and tone.

Town with No Traffic Wardens began as a proposal by me that we looked at a subject relevant to Aberystwyth to root the group firmly in its location and to explore how to structure a full length play by working together. We worked together exploring the subject, the potential themes, the possible scenarios, the potential characters. Then each writer wrote their own plays, we did initial an read through of each play and shared feedback. The individual plays developed further. Some of the writers chose to respond to the themes in one plays which began to create a cohesive sense within the piece of exploring the different sides of the stories. We began to stitch the pieces together. There were a few gaping holes which had to be plugged but also we had to look to find framing devices. In the end many of the framing devices are elements that will come into play when we move the piece to full production which is scheduled to take place later this year though once the piece has been presented to the public we will look to see what else can be done from the writing perspective to frame the whole piece.

It has been fascinating to see how different writers approach the same subject. Many of the writers found it difficult, feeling the subject to close to them or finding it hard to connect to a subject thrust upon them. It is an important part of a writers skill-set to be able to respond to a commissioned subject so it was important to find ways to connect the writers group to the subject. Part of the ongoing process has been to find ways to fire that connection – continuing to discuss headlines and stories that emerged locally – looking for that spark. I think that the strongest moments in Town with No Traffic Wardens, as it currently stands, come from those writers who found a way to write their own plays whilst still maintaining the connection to the Town.

For some of the writers this is their first time writing for theatre for others it is still just their second play to be presented for public consumption. All of the writers are still very new to the world of writing for theatre, they are still very fragile and vulnerable to how an audience will perceive their work. But all of them are getting their work out there, not just writing it their rooms for an audience of themselves and trusted love ones. They are thrilled by seeing their characters come to life, they are enjoying the moments when an audience laughs at your jokes, they are feeling the power of making an audience feel the pain of a darker moment.

Town with No Traffic Wardens weaves through a vast world of interconnected stories, stand-alone stories and scenarios. Comedy plays a very strong in many of the pieces and yet also a few of them touch on darker elements which has given Town a vital balance of light and dark moments.

Carmel George, Catrin Fflur Huws and Sean Langton have explored the world of journalism including local, national and TV journalists, exploring the motives behind the stories journalists choose and questions what is “news”.

Three of the plays operate almost as stand-alone pieces, Tony Jones piece explores events spiralling out of control, Branwen Davies explores whether loneliness is actually a bad thing and my play is a journey inside excuses and justifications for bad behaviour.

I have lots of favourite things about Town but amongst the top ones are; the character of Chardonnay created by Branwen Davies for Combating Loneliness. She is such a delightfully dippy character who gets thrown into a very dark situation.  Julie Grady Thomas has written her first play, Death of a Traffic Warden for the play. For months Julie, who is a screenwriter, has been coming along to the groups, listening in the background, unsure if she was really interested in theatre and then she’s produced an incredibly moving monologue from a traffic warden on her last day before losing her job. Marit is another new member who has never written a play and yet she’s produced two surreal little stories full of amazing dialogue.

Town with No Traffic Wardens is still very much a work in progress with a a group of writers who are still very much works in progress. Writers still finding their voices, finding their feet, stepping precariously along a pathway. But most importantly they’re writing.

It’s been an incredibly successful first year, and in our second year we plan to move onto a radio writing project, a run of longer plays and a full performance of Town with No traffic Wardens, and a Writing Festival in summer of 2013.

2 responses to “Setting up a writers group …. Guest Blog by Sandra Bendelow

  1. Since posting Sandra’s article I’ve discovered that two of the writers gave their first radio interview on the BBC this morning. Sandra tells me the interview is about 2 hours and 7 minutes in.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01g7yvs

  2. Pingback: Sandra Bendelow. A One Woman Cultural Wave…. | kaiteoreilly

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