James McDermott’s foreword the 2019 UEA Scriptwriting MA anthology, published by Egg Box
I always wanted to write plays but I never thought I could as the plays I had to study at school were never about or by queer people like me and they were all set in London or America as opposed to Lincolnshire and Norfolk where I was brought up.
In sixth form, I expressed this to my media teacher who then gave me Jonathan Harvey’s collected plays. Jonathan’s queer plays set in Liverpool showed me that plays can be about anything, by anyone and be set anywhere. They inspired me to start writing the plays I wanted to see in the world.
So I could learn how best to write my plays, my media teacher encouraged me to study scriptwriting at university. I dismissed this suggestion, assuming that playwriting couldn’t be taught. Rewriting is the process of trying to find the play you want to write behind the play you’ve written.My media teacher told me that if you want to be a pianist, you can’t compose a symphony without first learning musical chords. If I wanted to be a playwright, I couldn’t write a good play without first learning about dramatic structure and studying the work of great playwrights. I applied to study for a BA in Scriptwriting at UEA.
During my BA, I was taught tools to help me generate stories, create characters, write dialogue and structure scripts. I read many different plays broadening my empathy as a human. My reading as a student and my awareness as a writer taught me that as a playwright I could indeed write about anything.
At the end of my BA, tutors guided me through the writing of Rubber Ring, my one man comedy play about a confused Norfolk teenager struggling with sexual and regional identity. Rubber Ring went on to tour the country, be published by Samuel French, and I am currently adapting it for TV. I don’t believe the play would have been written without tutors at UEA teaching me the tools I needed to write it and supporting me through the process of penning it.
I then received a bursary to study for an MA in Scriptwriting at UEA. On that course, I learnt about form and how the content of your play can be reflected in the shape of your play. I learnt that the spelling of ‘playwright’ reveals what the job of the playwright is: to wrought the verbal, physical, and psychological games human beings play with each other as they try and win something. I learnt that rewriting is the process of trying to find the play you want to write behind the play you’ve written.
Having explored my own identity in my BA dissertation play Rubber Ring, tutors encouraged me to write a bigger, bolder play about sexuality and regional identity for my MA dissertation play. I wrote Time and Tide, a five-act four-hander about the intergenerational staff of a Cromer caff learning to live with and love each other. Time and Tide is having a London production in 2020 and I am currently adapting it for TV. Again, this play wouldn’t have been written without tutors encouraging me as much as they did on the MA.
Everything I learnt during my time at UEA has affected everything I’ve written and everyone I’ve taught since graduating. Tutors’ advice always to strive to write bigger, bolder plays inspired me to write Street Life, a verbatim play commissioned by Norwich Theatre Royal which explored homelessness in Norfolk, and CAMP!, a cabaret show co-commissioned by Norwich Theatre Royal and Norwich Arts Centre which makes a song and dance about mainstream media’s silence on the anti-gay purges in Chechnya. What I learnt on the course underpins my creative writing teaching in schools and theatres across the county.
I now agree with what my media teacher told me about writing when I was eighteen. If you want to be a good scriptwriter, it’s wise to learn your craft by studying the plays of others alongside workshopping your own plays with other developing writers. The MA in Scriptwriting course at UEA gave me the space, time and support to do this and every year gives the space, time and support to a new generation of scriptwriters to do this, too.