Writing for Performance – interview with Don Duyns

Interview with playwright Don Duyns and artistic director of the course ‘Writing for performance at Utrecht.

Passionate about playwrighting and passionate about his students Don Duyns, is an an artist  using his professional experience to teach the next generation of theatre writers. The exact role of the playwright has become something of a question mark in current theatre making practices. I want to find out from Don, what kind of skills are valuable now for the survival of writers in this new experimental context. I hope to find out how he intends to generate playwrights who will be successful in an industry ready to collaborate and experiment with all creative roles in the theatre?

First of all Don can you describe how you came to be the artistic director of the ‘Writing for Performance course at Utrecht?

‘I started teaching as guest speaker at the school and then I realised that I not only felt a desire but a responsibility to the students. This is the school I wish I could gone to. It is not just about rigid structure but about learning many diverse and variable skills.’

Broadly can you describe how the overall curriculum works at Utrecht?

‘First of all it is important teach traditional structures for writing. This gives them the basic tools for writing which they can choose to develop or throw away. This is a year to find out what your weaknesses are and use those tools to become stronger. After they have learnt the  the craft of sentence structure and rhythm, they can also begin to experiment with their own style. We have a ‘free writing’ module where they can let go of their boundaries and write with instinct. With this they create a text or a performance. They learn to craft their interesting work into something useable for the stage. And eventually in the final year they  write their own play using all of the different techniques and styles they have experienced, and with their own writing voice that they have developed over the last three years.

So in essence you are trying to enable your students to experience a full range of styles which they can choose to adapt or use as an influence in their own writing?

‘Yes it is important for them to establish their own writing style. They need have their own voice so that they can be distinctive something which will make them much more valuable to a director.’

What kind of skills do you teach the student’s to arm them in the working world?

‘At Utrecht I refer to my experiences but also look into the field to see what is needed now. Rather than learning to give the audience what they want we create diverse skills, so that each playwright can be unique. I noticed that before audiences were interested in language and now they are interested in story telling. Changes in writing seem come in waves and in the next one or two years demands will be different. That is why we develop a full range of writing abilities. But it is not only about writing skill, for me it is also important for the students to learn how to work practically.’

What does working practically mean on a writing course?

‘It means that the writers must also learn to be at ease in the theatre space as much as they are in the office. They need to have a sensitivity to how their words will relate to an audience when complemented with action. In this way the writer and the director can have a dialogue about the work. This means that the writers at my academy have to learn not only how to write but also to develop an awareness of how their writing might appear on the stage.’

Why is this practicality suddenly important in your institution?

‘A lot of directors and actors are writing their own material now. It is very hard for playwrights to work professionally because of this. I even have to direct my own shows to get my writing seen. Directors are less interested in new playwrights. But when a good director works with a good writer the work is just so beautiful. People forget that the role of the playwright is not just to write but to be a philosopher. David Mammet for example is entertaining but he also has something to tell you. It is interesting but not necessarily understood. A good writer needs to offer insight and opinions, so if they can show the theatre not only what they want but the exact ideas that they offer, then they can be more successful.’

If you had to choose, what would you say is the most essential thing for student playwrights to learn?

‘The playwrights on ‘Writing for Performance’, need to leave the institution with a knowledge of themselves as a person and as writer with an agenda. They need to know what ideas they want their writing to engage with. If they do this then they will be able to tell theatre that they want to work, with exactly what it is that they can give, instead of always asking what they can take. It’s strange because I thought I would have said a technical skill but it’s actually more of a personality that is needed. We live in a world where people are constantly knocked down. I need my students to gain the power to keep getting up, again and again. They need to realise their power as a writer and the power of their philosophies.’

The course run by Don, seems to be as much about pragmatism and training on how to work in the industry as much as it is about learning how to write. This must be invaluable to the students where as Don says, there is a lack of interest from directors. Perhaps what is taking place at Utrecht, is a regeneration of the playwrights role, creating writers who are dynamic, versatile and collaborative. Playwrights who can be present in the entire creative process, from putting pen to paper, to moving the actors in to the right position when speaking their words. This is a new type of artist. They must become practical, not only a literary visionary but a physical one as well. The written work by the playwright though deeply insightful and linguistically challenging, has been revealed as an intriguing-yet infrequently used material. The potential new role of the playwright as a collaborator and active creator in the rehearsal space, can begin to assert itself as a much more influential role in the theatre.

Can we blur the boundaries between what is a writer and a director? How do we define what it is that needs to be taught now, if the role of the playwright is to be more diverse? It seems that these are the questions that are being asked and explored at Utrecht. I am very interested to understand what actually constitutes a playwright as a playwright if they are also learning how to move their words, across a stage, to tell the actor how the words are to be accompanied with the stage action.  We will not have to wait long. Don’s passion and commitment to the success of his students will ensure, that with the next generation of writers, we will soon find out!

Jodean Sumner

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