22 January 2010

Script Tank - learning from peers

Since I've been learning the craft of writing screenplays, I've lost track of the number of courses I've been on. Some have been useful (Euroscript's genre workshops), some excellent (the evening classes provided by Raindance), but I've learnt more about screenwriting from attending Script Tank.

I written about Script Tank before, but in a nutshell it's a fortnightly reading of scripts, carried out be professional actors, to an audience of actors, screenwriters and playwrights. After the script is read out, the audience then critique it (actually, it's torn apart - in a purely professional and constructive fashion - by the writers attending).

Unlike every other writers' group I've attended, Script Tank's members are all experienced professionals in their fields. So they know what makes a successful piece of writing - whether it's a commercial TV production, or a short piece for the UK's fringe theatre scene. And the organisers of Script Tank ensure this. Even attending Script Tank requires you submit work, before your allowed to appear.

Script Tank doesn't just help you develop abilities with helping you recognise dialogue, plotting and the general writing of scripts. It helps in other ways too:

1. You get a thicker skin

The performing arts require collaboration, so writers don't work in isolation. They continually receive feedback from script editors, actors, producers and directors on their work. (Or at least they should. I suspect no-one dares do this to the celebrity hyphenates, for fear of loosing their job.)

Often these notes are unwanted, occasionally desired; at times positive, most likely negative. For a writer to move from amateur (writing for free) to professional status (getting regular paid work) they need to learn how to accept criticism.

This does not mean lying back and being walked over by everyone with an opinion. It means developing the ability select the best, constructive advice from the general noise, without taking negative comments as personal attacks.

The best way to do that is to get your work seen by other people. Then listen to what they say.

This is what happens at Script Tank: once a work is performed, the writer has to sit down, shut up and listen to the feedback. They can't answer back, argue, interrupt, or even reply to questions. You have to sit there and take the hits as they come.

Just as in a development meeting you have to listen to what's being said, without storming out.

That's unless you're in love with the romantic idea of being a screenwriter, rather than learning how the industry works.

2. Networking

There are two ways to look at how the performing arts industries operate: it's either the most social of all the industries, requiring an immense amount of networking; or it's so nepotistic, it's incestuous.

You have to build contacts and friends in the industry to break in, and
Script Tank is one of the many places this can be done.

You also meet many wonderful actors - always handy for anyone with ambitions to produce their own works.

3. Learn from others

The level of experience of people at Script Tank varies from baby writers to old hands. But no matter who is there, if you pay attention you'll be guaranteed to learn from the mistakes and successes of others in the group.

You can also pick up tricks and techniques from other writers and actors, and learn about parts of the industry you may never have heard about before.

My next reading at Script Tank is in late February. This time it's a feature film script.

Whatever happens at the reading, I'm sure it'll make my script stronger.

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