Tag Archives: mentoring

Being ‘green’ as a playwright and 4 stars for Woman of Flowers

I’m in Cork mentoring Orla Burke, funded by Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Disability Ireland. Over the coming six months Orla will be developing a play, and I will be supporting her and advising her about the script and the profession. Orla will also be writing about her adventures here and I wanted to share some of our conversations this morning about process and creativity.

I always advise writers not to throw anything away. It is hard to ignore the chastising inner critic, but often ideas jotted down and kept become seeds for the future. Going back over my old notebooks have opened up new possibilities. I feel writing can be the greenest profession there is, once we learn to recycle and develop ideas instead of sending them away to landfill. I remember sitting in on a lecture once when researching archeology for ‘The Almond and the Seahorse’ and discovering the priceless tomb of Tutankhamen was unearthed under the debris from other digs. Keep your notes and ideas and excavate – you never know what treasure you may find.

Delighted at lunchtime to see a 4 star review from Remote Goat for Woman of Flowers at Cheltenham Everyman this weekend, then touring to Exeter and beyond next week.

‘..an exciting play that featured clever design choices, powerful performances and a creeping, unsettling sense of claustrophobia and fear. 
…[Sophie] Stone uses sign language to stunning effect, trailing off in the middle of her sentences to draw the audience into her own private world… her emotions… expressed through a combination of mesmerising signing and dance.’

Full review here – http://www.remotegoat.com/uk/review_view.php?uid=11380



London Sinfonietta’s Blue Touch Paper: Call for expressions of interest

Paul Klee Angelus Novus

Paul Klee Angelus Novus





In April last year I posted a blog revealing the correspondence between Kelina Gotman and I whilst she embarked on a project with London Sinfonietta: ‘Working towards clarity – excerpts from a mentoring process for dramaturg geeks.’  https://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/?s=working+towards+clarity

Kelina and composer Steve Potter were collaborating on London Sinfonietta’s Blue Touch Paper programme, which nurtures and promotes the next generation of composers and inter-disciplinary collaborators. I was working with them as mentor.

London Sinfonietta have just announced their latest call for composers, artists/writers and scientists interested in being involved in the next round of projects. Full information is available on the website: londonsinfonietta.org.uk

Meanwhile, any dramaturg geeks intrigued by Kelina and my correspondence of one year ago, can find a video of the work in process, 100 Combat Troupes on the London Sinfonietta’s website:

Blue Touch Paper work-in-progress preview: 100 Combat Troupes

The Blue Touch Paper preview event on 16 May 2012 at Village Underground showcased the culmination of a year-long collaboration between 3 groups of composers and multi-disciplinary artists.

This film features a work in progress preview of 100 Combat Troupes, by Kélina Gotman & Steve Potter which stages the urgency and ambivalence of dreaming other possible worlds, from the technicolor fantasies of Disney to the anarchist trenches.




In praise of mentoring and creating a community of fellow writers







Ty Newydd: The National Writers Centre of Wales and former home of Lloyd George.

I recently wrote about the joys and symbiosis of mentoring playwrights through my association with Ty Newydd, The National Writers Centre of Wales. In this capacity, I was the tutor, the dramaturg, the reader who wrote encouraging reports on works in progress with the occasional sting in order to jolt the writer (I hoped) out of inertia or unproductive habits and into focused activity. One of the strengths of working with writers you have known for many months, and in some cases several years, is the mutual trust this sharing of time and processes brings, and the knowledge of what works best for them in this most particular dynamic when deadlines are approaching and new drafts need to be delivered – the carrot or the stick.

The other tangible benefit from this kind of close engagement is the potential creation of community. Writing is a notoriously singular activity, requiring long stretches of solitude and solo focus. Unlike other forms, theatre has its moments of social activity, for it is a blueprint for the stage which needs the massed imaginations and skills of the collaborators (actors, director, scenographer, lighting designer, dancers, musicians, etc) to bring it to fruition. It is often a relief to move into this engagement after the solo slog – and enlivening (at the least!) to discover other interpretations and imaginations responding to a work which has perhaps until this date existed only in the voice in your own head.

But meanwhile before that – when perhaps a script is still emerging, or relationships have not yet been forged with a company to move the script into this next phase of development… what happens then?

You create the company for yourself, utilising whoever is at hand.

I am a great believer in people power. Perhaps it’s the old punk in me, but I’m an exponent of ‘doing it yourself’.

For years I have been gathering friends who, if not professional actors, are willing to be drawn into reading my script aloud. And often the carrot of wine or food once we have done this task isn’t always a required inducement. Of course such homemade workshops may not be as effective as working with an experienced cast and director or dramaturg, who have an inkling of what they’re doing… But when you are stuck in a strange sort of hiatus, hearing those words in the room rather than inside your head can often move the work forward.

Tom Wentworth, one of the participants on my recent Mentoring Scheme, has written about the joys of peer review and this kind of workshop exploration on the DAO website, link below. He outlines some of the processes we went through over the scheme, and the joys of sharing extracts of the scripts in progress in the beautiful, tiny theatre of The Lloyd George Museum in North Wales last month.

I hope that this group will continue nurturing and supporting each other. We have a well-established private google group where we urge each other on, or share opportunities in the flick of an email. We have created our own small community of fellow writers – and I hope we will continue to observe each other’s development and success of careers over the coming years.

For Tom Wentworth’s article, go to: http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/?location_id=1951

The myth of waiting for inspiration: Things I wish I knew when I was starting out (7).






image courtesy of http://www.123rf.com

“Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”     Nietzsche.

One of the more troubling questions I get asked when people know I’m a writer is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’  In India, the UK, Korea, the US; at festivals, in taxis, at workshops, even ‘talkbacks’ after a performance of a script I’ve written, this question has appeared, usually from a tense-looking individual who, when pressed, reveals personal artistic ambitions but a lack of belief in their own creativity and imagination. Why else would they ask such a question, unless they distrusted their own inspiration, or felt there was a secret to be let in on, a better, faster, more guaranteed way of accessing that seed that grows into artistic projects?

I love the fact that the word ‘inspiration’ has its roots in breath – ‘being breathed upon’ in one online etymological source – as though artists were blessed or touched by some form of supernatural or divine grace. A thirteenth century source is even clearer: ‘immediate influence of God or a god’ (www.etymonline.com).

However, this lovely but romantic notion promotes the myth that we create through an external inspiration – a fickle force, sometimes favouring us, sometimes not – as though it is something other than the potential within each of us. Such persistent but old fashioned ideas suggests some people are creative and others not, and we must wait until the muse or inspiration strikes. It promotes being passive rather than active and making our own luck, our own inspiration, our own work.

I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the difference between writers and would-be writers is the former gets on with it, whilst the latter sits around waiting, talking about doing ‘it’ when the time is right, once inspiration strikes and an idea comes.

My belief that we need to be proactive in our creativity – inspiration is often worked for, not given – has been affirmed in a new book by Jonah Lehrer: Imagine: How Creativity Works. I’ve given some links to reviews and interviews with Lehrer at the end of this post.

So where, exactly, do we begin and where do ideas come from?

From the ether, from life, from over-heards on the bus, from anecdotes we’re told, from newspaper headlines glimpsed on the train, from memories, from idle thought, from documentaries or articles, from received stories and pre-existing sources, from visual art, from going for a walk, from dreams, from anything and everywhere. The trick is in recognising the tug of interest and gathering up the stimulus or noting the idea before it goes, for it will. We will never remember those fleeting thoughts – they need to be notated before they evaporate.

We have to be like magpies – open eyed and curious, ready to dive down and snap up any bright, shiny thing that catches our attention. We often let the seed of an idea or inspiration pass, as it is simply a stirring, not a fully-formed plot, or an immediate understanding of what to write. In my experience that is inevitably a later phase, requiring considerable thought and effort, like heating and beating metal into pliancy and shape. The important task is to recognise the initial call and to understand it will take effort to make the oak from the acorn.

I don’t give too much thought to my selection of cuttings, images, essays, art gallery postcards and other miscellany which could be labelled roughly under ‘research’. It’s often completely instinctive – a tug in the gut and I’m buying that postcard, photographing that abandoned house or strange gully, surreptitiously tearing that article out of the decade old magazine in the dentist’s waiting room. I usually will not understand why I’m attracted to an image or a cutting or a phrase – I just know that it has spoken to my imagination in some way and so must be gathered, acknowledged. What this initial stirring turns into, if anything, is a different story….



(c) Kaite O’Reilly 10/4/12.

Working towards clarity – excerpts from a mentoring process for dramaturg geeks








Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus.

Excerpts from a mentoring email exchange between Kelina Gotman and Kaite O’Reilly.

I was recently asked to interact and support librettist and director Kelina Gotman on an innovative interdisciplinary project she is making with composer Steve Potter for London Sinfonietta’s Blue Touch Paper: 100 Combat Troupes.

On 19th Februry 2012, Kelina first sent me her draft libretto and some questions in an email she wanted engagement with – queries about structure and narrative. This began what I felt was a fascinating exchange, a process of mentoring where, through our interactions, Kelina clarified the concepts, dramaturgy, and intentions of the piece. By seeking my involvement – a stranger she had not yet met – Kelina had in effect decided to externalise her thoughts and creative process, responding to my queries and opening up in a remarkably fearless, and imaginative way. Her emerging thought processes became transparent; her rough initial explanatory notes consolidated into clear intentions and key concepts, culminating in the Preliminary Notes on her script, which I have included towards the end of this post.

Looking back over the development of her ideas and the forming of her thoughts in our emails, I felt I had participated in a wonderfully rich and rewarding exchange – and one which I thought might be of interest to those engaged with process and dramaturgy, too – so this is a one-off post, documenting a process, especially for the dramaturg geeks.

Kelina and I met twice, and I met her collaborator, composer Steve Potter, once over the past two months.  The following are excerpts from Kelina and my private email exchanges on dramaturgy and meaning – they were never intended for public scrutiny, but I have received Kelina’s permission in reproducing them here.

The emails are slightly edited (identified by a series of dots), but otherwise I have not rewritten anything with a view for publication, nor have I changed the layout, spelling, nor corrected any typos. The occasional word has been inserted [like this, in square brackets] to assist comprehension and there is a ‘dialogue’ where I inserted my responses to Kelina’s questions into her original emails, using capital letters or a different font.

None of Kelina’s script (apart from her preliminary notes) is reproduced here, just our email exchange. 100 Combat Troupes, as part of Blue Touch Paper, will be previewed on Wednesday 16 May from 7.30 at Village Underground, Shoreditch, London.

100 Combat Troupes   

Music by Steve Potter

Libretto by Kélina Gotman

 First full exchange by email – initial thoughts and queries from Kelina (KG) to Kaite O’Reilly (KOR) on her draft of 100 Combat Troupes:  9th February 2012.

 KG:   Here is some of what I’m thinking about / what I would love to talk about and look at when we meet:

1.  Structurally, flow / narrative (or conscious lack thereof, in the case of narrative): we have developed an episodic structure, with virtually no narrative through line, though there is some sense of characters, and they do evolve…. But is the piece legible? Accessible? An episodic structure, with juxtaposition of scene-worlds, can create a wonderful sense of chaos and ‘sense’ emerging out of non-sense. If it is pulled off well- it approaches dream logic; but if not, it just loses people. I hope we can achieve the former, not the latter. So perhaps we can think about this in terms of the script and mise en scene.

2. Structurally/framing:…. you may have read in the press release that we were working with a Borges story (‘The Circular Ruins’), but transforming the Dreamer into a cast of revolutionaries, working together to dream up other possible worlds. This has sort of receded- or shifted- yet I think it remains formally significant, in terms of a framing device. We currently have the musicians standing in as these dreamer/revolutionaries, though nothing indicates it formally in a very explicit way…. I realised as if a thunderbolt had hit me that actually we were staging not so much an episodic structure as a denkbild (thought-image), specifically the Angelus Novus that [Walter] Benjamin describes, after the painting of the same name by Paul Klee. You’re probably familiar with it, but basically it’s the angel of history being blown inexorably into the future, with its back to it, looking at all the rubble of history, helplessly (and in despair). In a way, what we have is – in fact – not so much an episodic structure as a series of flashes- these scenes all go by very, very quickly- of history, and dreams. The angel actually emerges in the last scenes. I’m not interested in saying this explicitly- perhaps it’s just a figure we’re working with- but this notion of the explosive constellation at the end of time…. operates slightly differently from the episodic form… So, is the overall frame clear enough, or are the foundations clear enough at least on our end for the whirl of text and image to be anchored (and thus for the audience to enjoy this, even if they don’t understand what they’re enjoying exactly, and puzzle over it after- which I think is a great response to any work) (I’d much rather the audience feel stimulated, excited, and puzzled, as if they couldn’t put their finger on what they had seen, than to offer something simple and digestible on first watch…).

3) Moral/political ambivalence: Another thing we’ve gone for is an ambivalent sense as to the value of this ‘dreaming’. To a large extent, of course the take-home message is: dream! We need to dream. This is the year of Occupy, and the decade of the Arab Spring. Crony capitalism won’t go on forever. What do we want next? But rather than look just at political alternatives, we’re going the whole way and juxtaposing this with wackier worlds, nonsense worlds- also politically to say, these are important too. We need to remain playful. Joyce and Lewis Carroll are part of this world too (art needs to be funded, etc.) (this is also a political stance)…. Revolutions also produce dictatorships; technicolor dreaming in fantasyland also produces Disney, which in its sickliest version wrecks lives through too much disconnection with ‘reality’. We’re interested in these contradictions.…. it’s the ambivalence we want to inhabit… How do we make this moral complexity productive, rather than just confusing? The idea is that there are no simple answers… and we should be able to be okay with this…

KOR’s email to Kelina. 5th March 2012, after a face to face meeting.

 KOR: ….I think some of the confusions I experienced were based on the draft nature of the text – ie, as director and writer, perhaps you were writing in shorthand as you had a strong sense of how each moment might be realised in your mind – ensuring this information is on the page may ensure misunderstandings don’t occur again and may help clarify themes, actions, motifs, and aesthetics both for you and your collaborators.

I love the truth in the old EM Forster quote – ‘how do I know what I think until I hear what I say?’ I think it was very revealing, the distance between what you described [when we met] in response to my query of themes and intentions of the work, and what’s actually on the page. Sometimes when in the process, it takes a while for everything to co-exist in the same time – and for the lingering ghosts of ideas to quit or be excised from the stage.

I think looking at each structure as an entity in itself, then scrutinising what the content is, how that might be read, plus the meaning it takes on when in juxtaposition with the other structures and the order in which they appear and therefore the whole – is essential.

I am also curious about the music, its tempo-rhythm, quality, energy, content and ‘sound’ and the impact this will have on the scenes. In many ways I was commenting on a fragment –

 Email interaction – KOR’s inserted responses into Kelina’s email. 12th March 2012

KG:   …..Narrative/not-narrative. I was really struck by the extent to which you were finding narrative in there, and this has gotten me to rethink how to create radical polyvocality/push at the limits of incoherence to arrive at something that still is cogent, precisely as multi-perspectival. What I mean is that I want to push further in the direction of mood/different worlds, so that we’re not seeing narrative through lines, but rather a juxtaposition of worlds, as we had intended. (Having just seen the Cage Songbooks at Café Oto last night, I’m even more thinking about how to create these slightly anarchic multiple perspectives/non-hierarchical, but still with some coherence- that’s the challenge). What I’ve also realised is that this is not to discount the presence of ‘characters’ in these worlds, only that we need to reinforce the fact that they’re same actors, different people across these worlds. Like I said verbally, I think this will be greatly aided by the fact that they’ll radically be changing their voice and body masks, but I’ll need to really emphasise that, and have it be clear in the script.

KOR:   GREAT! I agree, it’s clarifying the DIFFERENCE between the figures/characters per ‘world’ – I’m doing similar with a show I’m doing for Sheffield Crucible – doubling and tripling – showing it is the same 4 PERFORMERS, but different ‘characters’. i think the change of body mask/voice will be essential – that was not clear in the draft I saw and so it invited the notion of narrative/journey of ONE figure/character throughout  – that’s what I mentioned re-[getting an undesired sense of] progression/continuous action.

I worked with a neuroscientist on my play about the brain – The Almond and the Seahorse – and he couldn’t emphasise enough that we are hot-wired for narrative and our brains will always try to find links, patterns and logic in even the most fragmented situations…. There are experiments where people are given a few tiny fragments and yet the brain/imagination will draw in something that is coherent and has a unity. Grotowski always said the montage exists in the eye of the audience – and of course that’s true. It’s, ironically, the balance between showing enough illogic to prevent a linear narrative (as the brain will look for narrative and connections), but also ensure it’s not so abstract as to irritate the audience and make them feel it’s ‘non-sense’ they’re witnessing…. There needs to be that pleasure and satisfaction, too….

KG: Frame: we’ve decided that really this piece is staging the Benjamin Angelus Novus, and so to just forget all this stuff about Borges, and stop trying to tell that story as background-to-where-we-got-now. I need to relearn to tell the story as a denkbild, and as the angel of history looking back over the rubble of history, being blown inexorably into the future. And that rubble is contemporary market capitalism, so the rubbish is definitely junk from the marketplace. And the musicians are the 1%, in grey suits, with ashen faces. …Will also cut the Beckett reference, which is unnecessary. But yes, in a way we’re streamlining the story/structure: this is just Benjamin/angelus novus, and we’re going to try to tighten up the mise en scene.

KOR: … Fantastic…

 Exchange by email – 14th March 2012.  Capitals are by KOR, inserted as responses into Kelina’s original email:


KG: …I’m not sure this is helpful as an email. I should really rewrite the script – or just revise, making all these things more clear.

1. The play is enacting Benjamin’s figure of the angelus novus.

2. It is a constellation of image fragments, depicting scenes from the last couple hundred years; they should be jarring, discontinuous, but also funny, critical, and evocative of tropes from popular and political culture (feminist critique in Disney sequence, eco-critique in cereal box sequence, etc.).

3. The audience experience (if there is such- of course they’ll all experienced this differently) is a massive shock to the system/don’t know what hit them/bordering on overwhelming/baffling/hilarious, but that’s also what we’re interested in… through that mess, shafts of light, that reconfigure how they see themselves in a world… yes… gone mad (because our world has gone mad/is mad, and it’s healthy to see it that way sometimes, even if in Technicolor/exaggerated and sped-up form).


KG:…Um.. signing out for now… I really hope this is not more confusing than before. It feels clearer in my head! Will send updated script as soon as I can… have been really swamped…


Kelina’s preliminary note for collaborators, extracted from the new, revised draft after our second face to face meeting, with Steve Potter.  1st April 2012.

 KG: From script: Preliminary note about the text and mise en scène: This piece stages a denkbild, or “thought-image”: that of the Angelus Novus, or Angel of History, painted by Paul Klee and described by Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” The Angel of History is being blown inexorably into the future, facing the past with horror. He can do nothing of the detritus spread out before him at his feet, which he witnesses in flashes. This is a constellation, a time fragmented, exploded, outside time: it is messianic, perhaps – time in which (here) all of modernity and capitalism is exploded, in shards. We stand in and outside of it simultaneously, from a vantage point that is estranged, but caught; trapped, but lucid.

The scenes, thus, operate as shards in this explosive constellation: they may partake of a single world, but they are discontinuous. These are not characters whose trajectories we follow, but personages woven in and out of disparate scenes, coexisting, bleeding or blending in and out of one another, without constancy, and without a singular narrative through line. This is a radically polyphonic universe: voice and body masks indicate shifts in the quality or mode of delivery from scene to scene, which change pitch, tone and hue. Some scenes are humorous, even hysterical; others are more sombre, or tranquil. All pass by so quickly that the audience hardly has the occasion to process what has happened before we move onto the next. Yet through this constellation, and these flashes, a sense of powerful alienation emerges, estranging these fragments of modern capitalist life: we see desperate dreams of Disney princesses; eco dreams of houses built romantically from scratch. Anarchism flashes by as a possibly viable alternative, before being tossed into a psychedelic dreamscape of hallucinogenic proportions: speed leads to exhaustion, which leads to insomnia and manic desires – a conquering Adam’s redrawing the rivers and oceans of the world – before all this folds into the messianic hum of quiet laughter, old jokes, and a ghostly forgetting: not quite redemption, but a sense of community or commonality that is oddly, uncannily familiar…. 

KOR’s email response to the revised draft. 1st April 2012:

KOR:  I think there is much more clarity here – I do think some of the very good introduction you have written [above] would be useful as a programme note – you don’t need much, just that clarification of thought-image, shards of discontinuous exploded world(s) and not ‘characters’ with linear consequential action, but figures woven in throughout…

I think there reaches a point where we go ‘enough on paper – we need to see it, now’ – and I feel we’re virtually there. I think it’s very ambitious, what you set out to do (especially with our hot-wired for narrative brains!) and I think that multi-vocal, fragmented thought-image you wanted to create is certainly in existence in these few pages – the concept is clear, the work of the actors and musicians defined – time to flesh it!

…I think the concept is much clearer, as is the aesthetic and ‘rules’ of the worlds you are creating and getting your figures to inhabit, be it briefly. I think the clarity of images and what you are communicating will be obvious once you start rehearsals.

My only thoughts when we met were

1) about linking the Angelus Novus to the singer on her stage truck…. You may want to decide how pronounced or subtle that is once you start getting the work ‘up’

2) drawing out that link between the central concept/image (Angelus Novus) and the quote from Marx  [“The social revolution […] cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past.”] – you’ve started to pull that out more, and it’s pleasing to me – question is, whether you need to tweak or echo or develop that connection more in the end…

I also wonder if you want to be more explicit (as opposed to putting it in brackets!) when you refer obliquely to the 99% and Occupy Wall Street/St Pauls, etc movement. If it’s important that reference is understood and received by the audience, you may need to make the reference precise. Your scenes are dystopias and not necessarily this world we inhabit now – if a figure refers to political activity/peaceful social disobedience and you want the audience to know this is referring to the occupy movement, you need to make it explicit, as the audience may assume you are referring to an imaginary world. If this isn’t important, no matter – but if you really want the audience to get that reference, you have to say so.

One other thought is probably unnecessary to state, as you are also director – but as a writer, I would never leave responsibility of an important moment to an actor to have to improvise…. You need to script that – even if roughly, otherwise you’re putting a lot on the actor (even if you are also directing the performer)… To a strict dramaturg (which I can often be), this looks like the writer copping out of an important moment! I often pull people up on this – when the stage directions tell us how scary or amazing this improvised or rehearsed moment will be…. As strict dramaturg, I would say if this involves language and text, a script should be provided for the actor to improvise or jump off from – so I think you have a little bit of extra work to do here!

That aside, I wish you all the best with this. I’ve really enjoyed our short but stimulating interaction – I will also write something at some point on my blog, but will run it by you first, to get your blessing before putting it in public domain.

Kelina’s response to KOR’s edited email exchange as possible blog post. 4th April 2012:

KG: Hi, this is GREAT! It is so great to see the conversation traced… as narrative (of course, now am conscious of a different ‘voice’- the voice that becomes the blog post… but no matter)… You have my blessing.

Thanks again for such a stimulating set of meetings and exchanges. I’ve learned hugely, and hope dearly that we’ll continue to be in touch!

The significance of character names: Things I wish I’d known when starting out (6)








Names of characters are important. Shakespeare may have claimed a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but think of the added information that seeps through from knowing the character is called StJohn or Jerzey; Jonah or Jezebel; Shiraz or Shona, Sankaran or Steve. A sense of cultural heritage, class, social aspiration and period can be assumed through personal monikers.

Names are signifiers and they carry significance; more often than not they are a tip to the audience. It is not by chance that Ben Johnson’s protagonist in his Jacobean satire of lust and greed is called Volpone – Italian for ‘sly fox’.

Names can allude to character and disposition in an efficient, almost effortless way. Traditionally protagonists or heroes have big, heroic-sounding names – Lysander and Titania, Hermione and Ulysses. There is an underlying assumption of what a tragic or inspirational protagonist should be called – an assumption subverted to comedy effect by Monty Python in  The Life of Brian.

I feel that giving a character a name is a significant moment for the writer in the process. I run various mentoring schemes where I accompany writers along their process of writing, from initial idea to polished draft. I try to be descriptive not prescriptive in approach, as there are many different approaches and processes and this is an area where one style most certainly does not fit all.

Some writers arrive with a name of a character as a starting point, and work outwards from there, guided by a sense of the individual’s personal traits, politics, guiding principles, almost as if they exist in reality and the writer personally knows them. Others, like me, may not have a name until well into the process. I sometimes have letters or numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4 – chosen simply by the order in which these emerging figures arrived on the page. When I find these numeric names limiting and annoying, snagging on my eye each time I read over the page, I know I have moved onto the next phase of development.

Naming characters always come swiftly. If I stumble between options, or dither, going eeny-meeny-miney-mo, I realise I don’t know enough yet about the character, or s/he is not yet sufficiently drawn to merit a title.

I can truthfully say I have never regretted a name I’ve given to a character, but that act of choosing has a galvanising effect on the way I engage with the character on the page, impacting on the words I put in her mouth, or the actions I give him.

I’m not sentimental about my work, so I never see them as my creatures or (god forbid) some kind of golem offspring – they are vehicles for my thoughts, or ideas I want to explore – but calling something brings it forth into being.

Name it, and it is.

copyright Kaite O’Reilly 6/3/12

Playwriting: Kaite O’Reilly’s Mentoring Course at Ty Newydd, 2012.






Playwriting: Mentoring Project with Kaite O’Reilly

April 20 – 22 and October 12 – 1 4  (2 weekends)

This unusual course offers emerging playwrights the rare opportunity of developing a new short play (30 minutes maximum) with guidance, tuition, and dramaturgical feedback over a six month period by award winning writer Kaite O’Reilly. It is designed for those who have already completed at least one short script and who are committed to developing a new play for live performance in a supportive but professional environment, working to deadlines.

The project will begin at a residential weekend course in Spring (April 20 – 22) where successful applicants will develop their idea for a new play with Kaite over a series of workshops, masterclasses and one-to-one ‘tutorials’. Participants will be expected to arrive with a strong embryonic idea for their short play, which will be developed over the first weekend, with practical classes in storylining, creating consequential action, conflict, and complex, motivational characters, amongst other dramaturgical concerns.

The participants will then commit to delivering a first draft of their script to Kaite three months after this initial weekend. They will receive an in-depth reader’s report on the script by Kaite, with feedback on plot, structure, pace, character, style and theme, etc, with guidance on further development in the next draft.

Participants will revise the scripts over a further three months and resubmit them prior to the final short residency in Autumn (October 12 – 14). The content of this intense workshop weekend will be structured around the submitted second drafts, responding directly to the emerging writers’ needs, offering tailor-made workshops and exercises to strengthen the scripts further. There will also be the opportunity for the completed scripts to be given a script-inhand reading in the theatre in the village.  

Owing to the unique form of this course and the individual attention that will be given, there will only be 8 participants. If you wish to apply please send your booking form with a short writing history.

Contact Tŷ Newydd
Postal address:
Tŷ Newydd
LL52 0LWTelephone: 01766 522 811Fax: 01766 523095 E-mail: tynewydd@literaturewales.org


Revision notes (4): Hemingway’s shoes







I’m still in the US, mentoring young writers long distance, by email. I recently responded to a fragment sent for possible inclusion in Fflam Pwy? Whose Flame is it, anyway? the anthology I’m editing for Disability Arts Cymru as part of the Cultural Olympiad, celebrating the 2012 London Paralympic and Olympic Games. As I anticipated in the previous post, editing and mentoring provokes reflection on form and process. I include parts of my email here, as it seemed pertinent to ‘revision notes’:


First: We need a story. Even with the most brilliant description and writing in the world, we need more than the observations to make our reading really satisfying and our writing successful.

This story doesn’t have to be a huge world-changing event – it can be a very small and simple discovery. Basically, by the end of the piece, SOMETHING MUST HAVE CHANGED – even if that’s our (the readers’) perception.

Second: A writer must have something to SAY – something to communicate to the world, otherwise we’re just examining our navels….

Apart from capturing the characters and this moment in time, what would you say you wanted to communicate in the fragment you sent? I had a sense something might be about to happen. I was expecting some revelation that would allow me to ‘see’ the characters in a new light – or even challenge my preconceptions as reader. I was waiting for an extra detail to turn the situation upside down – to subvert, surprise, reveal…

To really engage me as a reader, I need a plot, or something happening, or some action, or something promising to be revealed. There is a theory that we write and read in order to understand what it is to be human. When I think of the great short story writers I admire and the insight into humanity their work allows , this certainly seems to be the case: Grace Paley, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Elizabeth Bowen, Yiyun Li, Flann O’Brien, Angela Carter, Edgar Allen Poe, Italo Calvino… More recent writers include Jackie Kay, Helen Simpson, Claire Keegan, AM Holmes – the list could go and on…  What they bring to me is a distilled moment from a life, which hints at the complexities in existence, in human interaction, in being.

On a prosaic level, we also need a beginning, a middle and an end…

As an exercise, see how short a story you can tell. Ernest Hemingway famously created a whole short story in six words:


In that, we have the whole world of the story and its tragedy – our minds are making up what might have happened: the baby died – or was adopted – or was a phantom pregnancy – or was stolen – or was….? My mind is alive with possibilities… and Hemingway suggests enough to get our imaginations and emotions activated (the pathos of those baby shoes), and then wisely leaves it to us to complete the story…

It has a beginning a middle and an end – but the end is ‘open’ and lets us make up what happened – but it still ends – and although we’re not told exactly what, we know something happened along the way – something fundamental, made of the stuff of life…


I hope that those thoughts are useful for thinking about the basics of story writing.

For writers reading their favourite stories, go to The Guardian’s short stories podcast:


Revision notes – writing is all about rewriting (1) Some differences between theatre and prose



Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction.” The Paris Review. Interview, 1956)
Perhaps I’m perverse, but I love rewriting. It can be desperate and infuriating and impossible, plunging me into teeth-grinding, ulcer-inducing frustration, but when it comes out  ‘right’, which it does, eventually, nothing else gives me that sense of completion, of  satisfaction from getting the words right.
And getting the words right involves so many factors – not just dialogue, or syntax and grammar, or what’s known mysteriously as ‘good writing’ – but a plethora of other elements including pace, rising tension, tempo-rhythm, fully-realised characters, a coherent narrative (if, indeed, a coherent narrative is the aim)… So much is involved in getting the words right, the phrase is appropriately Hemingway-esque: a masterly example of the understatement.
Writing is all about rewriting. Writers serious about their work know there is no avoiding this fact.
I am discovering, as I work increasingly across various media, that rewriting takes different forms, depending on the medium. My approach to rewriting prose is similar but different to my concerns when revising a play. There are criteria in common – dramaturgy/structure, hooking an audience/reader, compelling stories to tell, coherence and internal logic – but there are also discrepancies and clear partings of the way. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this, but I doubt few would say the following in a critique of a short story or novel, the feedback to a playwright I wrote today:
‘There is a value in being messy – sometimes you have to lose control a little more – you have to be more emotionally messy and less controlled, which can also be thrilling for an audience.’
Radio and novels are writing for an audience of one. It is the most intimate, sly, seductive of relationships – insinuating your ideas and your voice right inside the reader’s head, in the heart of their imaginations. Theatre is different. Traditionally it is a medium for an audience of many – all those strangers sitting there, shoulders rubbing together in the dark. It is a communal event, and one which expects and demands some form of participation. Unlike film and television, which can be inherently passive, with live performance you can’t get away from the live. You have someone there, now, right in front you, now, this very minute, doing something. That person can sometimes see you. You can sometimes smell them, if it’s a physical performance and you’re lucky to be close enough.
What makes live performance so devastatingly exciting and present and corporeal is the fact we’re all in it together, breathing in the same air, sharing the same space, collectively becoming older by each minute we remain in each others’ company. There are some theatres and styles which try to create distance – that barricade of air, the fourth wall – and there are many productions, I’m sure, which, although well-meaning, are deadening and dull. But in its absolute essence the fundamental parts of the equation, as outlined above, are the same. A group of humans in a space watching another group of humans pretending to be other humans, telling stories about humans. It is barking, totally, wonderfully, mad. Which is why I love it and keep going back for more, despite that occasional deadening and dull production. It’s also why I think in its most essential aspects, writing for live performance has very different criteria than writing, say, a novel.
So here are a few other pointers, relevant to the stage but perhaps not other forms:
  • It is happening NOW. Characters must be active and full of action (and please note, we are not talking car chases here: a thought can be an action).
  • When writing for live performance, you’re creating dynamic – an energy that is shared and moving through the cast and hopefully out into the audience.
  • Beautiful reveries, exposition, flashbacks and backstory can block the artery of live performance, stopping the flow and resulting in something dull and deadening.
  • Performance is ephemeral.  This particular show will never happen again. The composite experience of any particular performance will be created as equally by the audiences’ engagement, commitment and focus, as by what the people on stage are doing. Be aware of this communal act. Be aware of this extraordinary event.                          Now write words worthy of it.


(c)kaiteoreilly 6/9/11

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working (2): Ty Newydd

I’m reading a collection of short one act plays by a group of writers I’m mentoring as part of an initiative for Ty Newydd, the Writers’ Centre for Wales. The house, dating from the sixteenth century, is near the Snowdonia National park, set between the hills of Eifionydd and the sea, on a green baise lawn with what estate agents call commanding views over Cardigan Bay. It is astonishing and lovely, a perfect place for inspiration, the last home of Lloyd George.

The former prime minister and one of the architects of the Welfare State died in what is now the centre’s upstairs library. It is easy to imagine him perched high in a bed, bolstered by pillows, looking out onto the devastating view.

I’ve been teaching residential courses at Ty Newydd for around fifteen years and the Centre’s director, Sally Baker, is both resilient and visionary, eager to create new experiences for writers. She has indulged my experiments – playwrights working with visiting directors (Jenny Sealey, John McGrath, Phillip Zarrilli, Mike Pearson) – site-specific work, with a dozen writers taking over the house and grounds, making performances in every unlikely location, and the likely ones, too. She has even indulged our late night carousing and my ghost stories, particularly my insistence that Lloyd George’s spirit can be sensed in the upstairs bathroom, what had been his personal privvy. I mean no disrespect, I’m merely repeating what I’ve been told,  with a few tiny embellishments, which is to be expected at Ty Newydd, where stories take flight.

The great man is not buried in the Llanystumdwy churchyard, but down the lane from the house in the wooded valley of the Afon Dwyfor, under a huge stone. It feels Celtic and pagan and immensely appropriate. There is a hush around his memorial, as though the birds themselves have taken a moment to reflect. Whenever I walk down, there is always a writer, pen poised, breathing in the dappled air.

The mentoring course is taking place over a six month period with developmental workshops either end, March and September. The writers then develop and revise their plays between these two points of contact, with dramaturgical feedback from me on their drafts.
When we first met in March, the weekend coincided with Theatre Uncut, an initiative set up by Reclaim Productions, with theatres and groups across the UK responding to the coalition government’s spending cuts through a series of play readings, ‘bringing protest to the stage’. One of the writers on the mentoring course, Sandra Bendelow, brought our attention to the event and shared with us the seven short scripts by Lucy Kirkwood, Dennis Kelly, Laura Lomas, Anders Lustgarten, Mark Ravenhill, Jack Thorne and Clara Brennan. ‘Why don’t some of us participate in the weekend, and do a reading?’ Sandra suggested. She chose Mark Ravenhill’s script, which explored the dreams of a past generation through the 2010 student protests. Marge and Fred, figures from the past, celebrate the birth of the Welfare State whilst a contemporary character observes the plans for its dismantling.
And so we found ourselves standing around Lloyd George’s grave at dusk, reading him Ravenhill, telling him what was happening to his extraordinary achievement, the audacious dream which had been the envy of the world for so long.

Afterwards, we trailed back in the gloaming, reflective and silent.