Writers Retreat Blog Jan 2017

What is the etiquette with pyjamas on a writers’ retreat? As I packed for the inaugural Devon playwrights’ cost-price retreat, my mind was suddenly beset with questions. For instance: slippers. I love my slippers more than certain family members, but did I want to waft around in them in front of my esteemed peers? And then there was the biggie: What Was I Going to Write?

Last autumn myself and Cally Hayes (we started Documental Theatre together) began plotting a weekend retreat which would bring together a band of Devon people writing plays seriously, though not necessarily whilst frowning. The idea was to grow solidarity between far-flung Devon playwrights (“Let’s storm the barricades of disappearing funding drama!”) and provide a supportive environment to work. We also hoped to learn a thing or two from a seasoned mentor and David Prescott, Literary Manager at Theatre Royal Plymouth, gallantly stepped into that role.

With David Lockwood’s help, a group of writers came together including Shiona Morton, Lori Hilson, Jon Nash, Luke Emery and Charlie Caulfield. The only commitment was a seven-way split of the Air BnB cost and cooking a meal.
On Friday we congregated in a beautiful house in Christow full of comfy sofas, life drawings in muted shades and watery January sunlight. There’s something very loaded about a group of people thrown together in a remote house, after all it’s what inspired Agatha Christie to write “And Then There Were None”. But I can report there were no carving knives found in backs, in spite of much political chat. And I was relieved, to find everyone, including David P, in slippers.

He had read our minds in other ways: the first set of exercises were about letting go of “What To Write” and just writing as much as possible. By Saturday brunch we had all produced four or five sides of random scribble, from which locations, images, characters and dramatic tensions were starting to emerge. We all had writing projects on the backburner and David talked these through with us separately. It was liberating to listen to Shiona talking about how playwriting, as opposed to writing, should be treated like a craft, no different to knitting, for instance. The thing is to start making and you can shape and unpick later. If no one wants to wear your merino snowflake legwarmers at the end of it all. Sod ‘em.

When you are regularly writing for deadlines, you can fall into shortcuts or rote-thinking that takes the joy out of being creative. This tendency was made painfully obvious every time I raided the retreat fridge. I kept yanking on the hinge expecting the door to open from the right, the same way my fridge does at home. I realised David’s clever exercises were reminding us to stop and take in said fridge, before plunging ahead to what we wanted to get out of it. Not literally. I mean we weren’t all stood around in the larder gormlessly staring at the Indesit, waiting for the Royal Court to ring. You get the idea. And that is the value of a retreat.

Company is the value of a retreat too. All writers crave company. Preferably over wine and good grub and there was plenty of that too. God bless Charlie Caulfield, who punctuated the writerly chat by enthusiastically revealing that Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart has been cast as the poo emoji in the eagerly awaited Emoji Movie. And the solitude didn’t end at bedtime. A mix up about the rooms meant Cally and I were top-and-tailing in a double bed. I talk in my sleep apparently, though not in iambic pentameter (David Prescott’s not that good).

On Sunday I said my farewells, sad to be going back to writing perched on an unmade bed that would make Tracy Emin feel house-proud, procrastinating via multiple visits to righthand-opening fridge. But it’s gratifying that everyone present felt they were moved on in some way. Bring on the next Devon playwrights retreat, I say. It won’t be inaugural but if it’s anything like this one, it will be lush.

Written by Lucy Bell of Documental Theatre.