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How to be a playwright: lessons from past master Stephen Jeffreys

Stephen Jeffreys and his book on playwriting Stephen Jeffreys and his book on playwriting
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Before he died in 2018, The Libertine playwright Stephen Jeffreys was working on a guide to writing for theatre. Now published, Nick Smurthwaite explores Jeffreys’ teachings through those he inspired

As well as being a successful playwright and screenwriter in his own right, Stephen Jeffreys was also one of the UK’s most respected teachers of writing for stage and screen, whose many protégés included Simon Stephens, April de Angelis, Lucy Prebble, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Joe Penhall.

When he died aged 68 last September, Jeffreys had been working on a book about writing plays with his friend, the theatre scholar and editor Maeve McKeown, for some years.

That book, Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write, was finished by McKeown in November and published last month by Nick Hern Books. It will undoubtedly benefit playwriting hopefuls for generations, with its plain speaking, common sense and accessibility.

As De Angelis puts it in her introduction to the book, it is as if Jeffreys has “downloaded his brain” into the work.

As a playwright, Jeffreys was best known for his 1994 play The Libertine, based on the life of a Restoration poet, rake and rebel. It was filmed in 2006, with Johnny Depp in the title role, and revived in the West End in 2016, with Dominic Cooper.

Obituary: Stephen Jeffreys – ‘playwright who found success with The Libertine’

Teaching always ran parallel to Jeffreys’ own writing. He established a new writers group called the Wild Bunch when he was writer-in-residence with the touring company Paines Plough back in the late 1980s. It was more of a support group, with each writer taking a turn as teacher.

A notable dramaturg for London’s Royal Court in the 1990s, he claimed to have learned everything he knew about the craft of playwriting from reading five plays a week for more than a decade, as well as running masterclasses for the new-writing venue in Sloane Square.

In his introduction to the book, Jeffreys states: “Writing plays is difficult. It’s rather different from writing poetry or novels or songs. It’s a very particular type of writing with its own set of skills. Nothing I can say or teach will turn you into a playwright: you must have something that you want to say.”

His aim in writing the book was to transmit “certain techniques, tools and tricks that can help you to translate your experiences or ideas into a play”.

De Angelis says in her introduction that Jeffreys was obsessive about the craft of writing. “Stephen always stressed the word ‘playwright’ was spelled that way because plays were crafted for three-dimensional space, not merely written. We were crafts people – that was Stephen’s great insight and passion.”

He emphasised to his students that every second on stage had to be interesting and the only way to do that was to understand the medium of theatre. “Listening to him,” De Angelis writes, “one realised an intimate knowledge of existing plays was an invaluable resource for a writer”.

Jeffreys encouraged his students to think about the audience and its needs. The uniqueness of theatre, among the written forms, is that it happens in real time and the playwright needs to acquire the skill of holding an audience’s attention.

The Libertine review at Theatre Royal Haymarket – ‘exuberant’

He writes: “A novelist can get away with writing a self-indulgent description of the countryside, say, because the reader can always skip that bit. But you can’t do that when writing a play. If you lose the audience, even for a minute, it’s very hard to get them back, because they are holding on to a continuous piece of wire, they are following the story second by second.”

For Jeffreys, the problem for most would-be playwrights was not so much finding an idea, as building the structure. He quotes the great American writing coach Robert McKee, who said: “Having an idea is like whistling a tune on the steps of Carnegie Hall. The hard part is getting the orchestra to play it inside.”

Jeffreys divided writers into foxes and hedgehogs: “While the fox knows many things and forages across a range of experiences, the hedgehog concentrates its attention on knowing one big thing.”

He cites Peter Shaffer as a good example of a hedgehog. Most of Shaffer’s great plays (Amadeus, Equus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun) involve a pair of male protagonists, one representing a rational world view, the other standing for something darker but more profound.

He concludes: “Both types of writer – the burrowing hedgehog and the ranging fox – are searching for the same thing but in different ways: to find themselves in the material in a way that is interesting to the audience – or, to put it another way, to find the perfect coalescence of form, subject and personal input.”

What everyone agreed about Jeffreys after he died was how unfailingly generous he’d been with his time and enthusiasm for others in a field that isn’t known for its altruism.

In an afterword in the book, written before Jeffreys died, playwright Simon Stephens writes: “Without [Stephen] I wouldn’t have been able to write the plays I have written. His energy and faith in the potential of the writers he mentored was infectious. The clarity with which Stephen communicated to me the dramatic force of structure, in particular, demythologised an element of theatrical form in a way that empowers me still to this day.”

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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