Behind the Scenes: Day One of “Say it, Shout it, Move it” A masterclass with Judith Thompson

Today was the first day of the two day masterclass “Say it, Shout it, Move it” taught by Judith Thompson offered as part of the New Groundswell Festival Industry Series.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this playwrighting class (even though Judith is a former prof of mine from university days). I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be easy, and I was pretty sure I’d like it. But beyond that, I wasn’t sure.

There was a range of ages and experience in room. And, yes, it was intimidating, especially when the people with loads of writing experience started introducing themselves.

I’ll admit it, I felt totally out of my league. But I was determined to try and not let it get to me, and Judith made it very clear that we were all in a safe place. This was just about us, our experience, and finding our voice. So, I let go of that fear and intimidation (as much as I could) and went for it.

We started by sharing stories around the circle. Stories about transformative moments in our lives. It was amazing. These people are amazing. Their stories are amazing. The two hours we spent going around the circle listening to people’s stories of significant moments in their lives were two of the most amazing hours of theatre I’ve ever experienced.

These people were storytellers, more passionate than any actor I have ever seen, because they each had a stake in the story they told. Even if there was nothing else over the whole masterclass that I connected with, those two hours were worth the $150 cost of the course. But of course, that isn’t all I connected with.

I keep thinking about the stories. It was an amazing privilege to be able to hear the amazing stories from these amazing people. But it was also amazing that there was so much universality in these stories. While we may not have all been able to relate to the specific events, we could relate to the sentiments.

At first I was terrified because I couldn’t for the life of me think of what story I might have that I could present. What would be interesting enough? What could people build on? Should it be serious? Should it be irreverent? Does it need to resonate? Do I have to bare my soul?

Ultimately though, I had the opposite problem. As I heard people’s stories I thought of my own. Their stories triggered memories for me. Or, maybe it was that they just provided validation that, yes, that story about that time with the thing is interesting enough and important enough. I have a tendency to assume that everything in my life is mundane, but the truth is, my mundane can be someone else’s interesting. By the time I finally told my story I had eight that I was trying to choose between.

In case the idea of sharing intimate stories in a circle of strangers has just turned your guts into knots, let me assure you, it was terrifying. Wait. No. That’s not what I meant to say… It was safe. Okay, it was both terrifying and safe. It was possible. It wasn’t easy. I cried when listening to other stories. I cried when telling mine. It sounds maudlin, but it was amazing.

And, of course, you control what story you tell. If all you were comfortable with telling was the story of your first paper route (hey! Wait! That reminds me of a story I could tell) then that’s the story you’d tell.

I’m only done day one of two, and I’ve connected with the introductions, the storytelling, and the monologues we all wrote and presented in class. Yes, we wrote and presented monologues in class.

We each decided on a story that had been told earlier in the day that we connected with. From that we wrote a monologue from the point of view of one of the characters in the story. It was intimidating, because the person whose story you’re pulling from is in the room, they’re going to hear what you’ve written. Even though we all know that nothing written is personal, and is based on a tiny bit of information, these are significant personal stories. Everyone had the option to ask that their story not be used, but even with the tacit approval to use the story, it still felt a little dicey writing about someone else’s story.

This is by no means a complaint. I think that was good. It made me consider even more what I was saying. It had to be important for me to say it, because it was important to the person whose story I was co-opting.

And, it was hard to hear my own story retold, revised, reworked by someone else. I won’t lie to you, I cried at both new versions of my story. But I wasn’t upset by them. I was stirred. I was reminded of the event as it happened to me. I was intrigued. And, let’s face it, with a newborn kickin’ around, I don’t get a lot of sleep these days, so I cry pretty easily.

I’m going to leave you with a list of things that I wrote down during the class, things that caught my fancy, things I don’t want to forget.

  • Judith told us “As playwrights we’re bearing witness, we’re creative journalists”
  • I sat, listening to the people telling their stories, and just from listening I was getting excited about writing.
  • A direct quote from my notes: “holy fuck, people have amazing stories!”
  • People are amazing at storytelling when the subject is something they’re passionate about
  • A play is all about details. We don’t tell people what it’s about, we just tell a story and they figure it out.
  • Ultimately this is a difficult and scary thing to do, but it’s also exciting, satisfying, and frankly, inspiring. It’s making me want to write more.

For day two we need to write a monologue about a story in the newspaper. We need to choose a character that will be difficult for us. I suspect the idea is, easy stuff isn’t what you learn from. I think from that monologue we move to dialogue. Needless to say I am looking forward to seeing what day two will bring.

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Nightwood Theatre‘s New Groundswell Festival (twitter hashtag #NGfestival) runs from November 30 – December 11, 2011. It features workshop productions of theatrical works, as well as an industry series which includes five masterclasses and several panel discussions.