‘Write with your heart as well as your head’: Jemma Kennedy on getting started as a playwright

JemmaKennedy_blogFor playwright and screenwriter Jemma Kennedy, plays are something of a paradox: carefully structured works of studied, practised craft, but also filled with unstudied, creative instinct. For a script to truly come to life, it must encapsulate both these qualities.

In this extract from Jemma’s book The Playwright’s Journey, she reflects on her own path as a writer, and how you, too, can embark on the voyage towards getting your play onto the page, and then to the stage.

Craft alone cannot make a good play.

Anyone can pick up Aristotle’s Poetics (the book every playwright is told to read) and teach themselves how three-act structure works, or take a course on the mechanics of theatrical dialogue, narrative and stagecraft. But the double bind of being a playwright is that once you’ve perfected your play on paper, its work is only just begun. A dramatist’s real apprenticeship only truly begins the moment their texts start to be performed, if not to a paying audience, then at least to a roomful of students or peers or theatre folk. Like a bungee-jumper, you leap off a platform into thin air and hope your cord holds.

For while plays are constructs, they are also made of organic matter. Thoughts and feelings, experiences, intuition, emotional intelligence. These are the things that make a play come alive, first on the page and then on the stage. You might call it spark, or voice, originality, energy – the unique DNA that is found in any individual playwright’s work, and which starts with their creative instincts. These instincts are, in a way, the direct opposite of craft, and they cannot be learned by rote. If you’re currently writing a play yourself, I’ll bet that you’re not staying up all night hunched over your keyboard or working through your lunch-break simply because you want to practise crafting a dramatic form. It’s because you have a burning desire to tell a story and communicate something about human behaviour.

I never studied theatre formally myself. I learned to write, as most of us do, by trial and error. Watching plays. Reading plays. Studying their structure. Discussing productions with friends and colleagues. And slowly, tentatively, starting to write myself. It was hard. I had readings, I got commissions, I was invited to theatre-writing groups. More often than not, the plays didn’t make it on to the stage, beyond a rehearsed reading. It took ten years from writing that first play to having my first main stage production, and along the way I have learned some pretty good lessons. Incidentally, I never made it through the first chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics. But I have sat in the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, and looked at the stage where Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, among others, debuted their plays. Thousands of bottoms have worn the marble seats smooth.

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‘I learnt to write by trial and error’ – Jemma Kennedy in rehearsals for her play Genesis Inc., which premiered at Hampstead Theatre, London, in 2018 (Photograph by Manuel Harlan)

Over the last decade I’ve also taught many hours of playwriting. To BA and MA students; to adult learners; to young writers; for new-writing theatres, on residential courses, universities, up mountains and by the ocean. I’ve also run a long-running class for developing writers, which I went on to teach at the National Theatre in London – and it’s these classes which have formed the basis for my book on playwriting, The Playwright’s Journey.

The book guides you through the entire life-cycle of your play. Part 1 begins with the very first spark of a new idea, through getting that out of your head and onto the page (with guidance on technical aspects of the craft such as character, structure, constructing scenes, writing dialogue, and so on). Then, once you’ve written your play, Part 2 focuses on the practicalities of (hopefully) having your script turned into a show – including some practical advice about how to navigate this exciting but sometimes baffling process. I hope the book will encourage you to interrogate your creativity and explore your connection to your material, while finding ways to harness them to writing craft. In other words, to explore the process of playwriting via the heart as well as the head.

As a teacher, and now in The Playwright’s Journey, I offer no hard and fast rules for what a good play is, or should be, or how it should be written. Creativity is a fluid, mysterious thing, bubbling up from our unconscious minds. It can’t and shouldn’t be forced into formulaic shapes. You must allow yourself time to daydream, to feel your way through your writing process, as well as applying craft to those base materials. Then you can find and harness the patterns, rhythms and devices of theatrical narrative – and of language – in order to tell your story. Your play may be a ‘well-made play’ in the traditional sense; it may be a one-woman show or a devised piece of performance or an adaptation of a literary work or anything in between. Whatever it is, I hope to share some knowledge and experience that will help you to keep going and finish the draft that might one day make it on to the stage.

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This is an edited extract from The Playwright’s Journey by Jemma Kennedy – out now, published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

Jemma Kennedy is a playwright and screenwriter. Her work has been seen internationally, including at Hampstead Theatre and the National Theatre, London, where she has been both playwright-in-residence and teacher of playwriting.

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